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Opinion: Calling out the clones

Examining two recent game cloning controversies, UK-based game designer Tadhg Kelly discusses the power in publicly calling out copycats, and how developers can 'win' again those knock-offs.
[In this opinion piece originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer Tadhg Kelly discusses the power in publicly calling out copycats, and how developers can 'win' again those knock-offs.] In the same week, two stories about cloning are making various rounds. One involves Triple Town, a neat puzzle-sim game from Spry Fox, being cloned on the iOS App Store. The other story involves Zynga (predictably) first offering to buy and then copying Tiny Tower. Both have resulted in the original inventors calling out the clone for what it is in public. Should anything be done? Is it a clone? Since the case of Dungeons and Dragons versus Palladium in the early '80s (if not well before), copyright has tended not to cover gameplay but instead its expression. So branding, appearance, trademark, level layout, music, and so on are all copyright, but inventions like a new game action are covered by patents. And patents are expensive. Larger companies therefore have an incentive to copy from smaller companies, but change what they copy to avoid infringement. And they do so all the time. Even the companies that we regard as nice guys crib from the competition regularly in all fields in an ideas-versus-execution vein. Often the question of just how cloned a clone is is just a matter of degrees and a willingness to go to court. Sometimes the copies become so pervasive and multiply that they coalesce into a whole genre, whereas at other times the copies rise and fall, leaving the original largely intact. Sometimes a clone wins if its owners are able to overwhelm the original's distribution. Sometimes the clone manages to get purchase on a new platform early. At a gut level, cloning just feels wrong to many, yet at the same time it is often from aping the competition that new games are born. In the online age especially this becomes a complicated issue, as a game may well start out as a copy but then evolve into its own entity. Many behaviorist games (such as social games and gambling games) follow this path almost as a matter of course. They consider it good practice and lean development. Yelling about it When Spry Fox expressed their dissatisfaction over Yeti Town, it hit Twitter and other social networks. When NimbleBit felt aggrieved by Zynga's game, it took to the social airwaves to express that dissatisfaction and the story was picked up by TechCrunch. There is no effective defense against cloning, but while another company may copy your product, they can't copy your voice. Your tribe can become very motivated by the injustice and take to the airwaves to say so. This has an effect in the market that may not become immediately apparent, but persists. You seem more awesome and they seem more shallow. Increasingly so as social media becomes involved. These sorts of moves may seem ineffective, but they just take time to work. While the average muggle doesn't particularly care and will play the first version of a game to cross their path, fringe gamers do care. Authenticity matters, and it does no good to be silent. If you invented it, say so. If the clone copied copyright-able elements (like level structure or art), sue. Don't be meek, don't be invisible. What winning looks like It's important to understand what winning looks like. It is not always about being biggest, and to get swept up in a revenge-kick is dangerous. To be biggest is to be a different kind of company with different priorities and a different marketing story, and is that what you really want? While Farm Town might claim that it had a legitimate claim to all of the players that FarmVille subsequently found, I suspect this is not true. Zynga may not be the most creative of organizations, but they do know how to spend money on customer acquisition ($120 million spent last year apparently), and in all likelihood those were customers that were otherwise out of reach. Winning is also often about patience. PopCap had to watch as the entire world cloned Bejeweled, but they just kept at it, making the best version of the game and putting it into every platform. Slowly it reacquired a dominance and loyalty that the clones just couldn't match. On an even more epic scale, Apple (once inspired by Xerox to make a great product, only to find it rather more closely inspired Microsoft and lost a dozen years in lawsuits in the process) is now the biggest technology company in the world. It just kept leading, telling its story, and proving it was better. Ditto for James Dyson, Nintendo, and many more. Don't let the clone corrupt your intent. The worst effect that a clone can have is to compromise a creator, make her cynical and resentful. Clones happen just as sure as night follows day, and sometimes they are from big boys or untouchable companies in China. Equally, sometimes they are homages. Whatever the reason, don't let it faze you. As with piracy, getting lost in the realm of what you think you're owed is both a fool's errand and a sad enterprise. Keep seeding, keep making awesome things and keep telling your story. Stay true. P.S. If you have 2700 people on staff, you really should be able to muster up an idea between you. Seriously guys. [An Irish lead designer and producer living in London, Tadhg Kelly is the author of a challenging book about, as he describes it, "Reclaiming games as an art, craft and industry on its own terms", entitled What Games Are. The blog for the book is whatgamesare.com. You can also follow his tweets on Twitter (@tiedtiger).]

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