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Radical Plagiarism: The Ethical Lessons of the Gamenauts Controversy

What would the world look like if everyone stole game ideas from everyone else?

Evan Jones, Blogger

August 15, 2011

9 Min Read


In 2010, Dutch independent game duo Vlambeer (of Super Crate Box fame) released Radical Fishing, a short action/arcade Flash game. The game centered around an original, innovative mechanic: instead of trying to catch a fish, the player tries to avoid catching fish until the line gets as deep as possible, at which point the player must try to catch as many fish on the same line as possible. Oh, and then fling them into the air out of the water, at which point the player kills as many as possible with a point-and-click gun.
Radical Fishing is small and simple. It doesn’t have a lot of polish, but the gameplay is tight and it has a certain lo-fi charm that won the hearts of many independent game fans. Though the original was a free Flash game, soon after release Vlambeer (secretly) started work on an iOS remake of the game, entitled Ridiculous Fishing. Despite intending not to break the news of the game’s creation until its launch, Vlambeer was forced to announce their version significantly ahead of schedule. Why?
Earlier this month, San Francisco Bay Area studio Gamenauts announced an almost identical clone of this game, entitled Ninja Fishing, for iOS. The game is a carbon copy of Radical Fishing, mechanic for mechanic, with the minor exception of weapon choice: it swaps out a gun for a sword, and a tap for a swipe to kill the airborne fish. Other than that, it appears to be the exact same game. And they hastily released it, beating Vlambeer’s original to market on iOS.

Gamenauts chief Stanley Adrianus claimed that the game was “inspired by” Radical Fishing, though they clearly didn’t ask Vlambeer if making their own version was okay, or even reach out to them at all - Vlambeer mentioned in a blog post that Ninja Fishing “completely took us by surprise.” Vlambeer reached out to Gamenauts, and Gamenauts said they would mention Vlambeer’s original in the credits. Vlambeer refused (and why wouldn’t they? They wouldn’t want to imply tacit endorsement), and instead asked Gamenauts to delay their launch while they had the time to finish their own iOS port of Radical Fishing. Gamenauts declined that, and launched Ninja Fishing in the App Store last week, along with a considerable marketing blitz that rocketed their app up to #5 on the paid app charts. Suddenly, Vlambeer became second to market releasing their own game.

What happened here? What are the problems with it? What can we learn from this situation?

The Ethics

It’s obvious to anyone that Ninja Fishing is a clone of Radical Fishing. “Inspired by” is a euphemism here: the game is a copy, intended to capitalize on the both the quality of Radical Fishing's mechanics and its absence from the iOS market by releasing a nearly identical version as quickly as possible. The first question we must ask is: did Gamenauts act ethically?

Of course, “ethical” is a term that itself invites debate, but one of the most common and widely-cited ethical barometers is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. In other words, an action is only ethical if it’s possible for a system to exist in which everyone takes the same action without violating each other’s rights to do the same. Under this scrutiny, Gamenauts’ actions are clearly unethical for two reasons. Less importantly, if everyone cloned the same game, no one could derive financial success from doing so (as the market would be inundated with clones), but more importantly, if everyone cloned the same game, there would be no new games.

Gamenauts’ actions are indicative of a philosophy that believes that innovation is an unnecessary risk and that directly cloning an already fun game is the surest road to success. There is no game design: there is a template, a formula, a secret sauce, which they are clearly too timid to directly interfere with. (Even the single mechanical change from Radical Fishing - the replacement of gunshots with sword swipes - is lifted directly from Fruit Ninja.) Were every company to adopt this philosophy, innovation in games would stagnate, if not halt entirely. Products such as Ninja Fishing are a firm, undeniable vote in favor of this bleak future: originality is risky and expensive, so long live copycatism.

The Culture

It would be remiss to say that Ninja Fishing is the first successful game directly copied off another existing title. It’s an uncommon example, though, for two major reasons. First, it’s ripped off almost every element of Radical Fishing, right down to the upgrades that are available. (Most other ripoffs at least bother to iterate or expand on the mechanics somewhat of the games they’re imitating.) Second, Gamenauts is a small independent studio ripping off a game by another small independent studio, which released their game to the public not as a way to earn a fortune, but so as to share their idea with others.

Simply put, the independent games community thrives in the sort of collaborative environment Radical Fishing was released in. Despite never having been a full-time indie developer myself, I’ve heard the same story from dozens of developers: it’s hard to sit in an apartment all day working on ideas by yourself. You need to share them with those around you because that’s where your energy comes from. Several notable indie games have premiered at the Independent Games Festival years before their commercial release (indeed, it was IGF chairman Brandon Boyer who first broke the news on Gamenauts’ plagiarism.) Independent games are completely dependent upon the free and honest exchange of ideas for the benefit of everyone involved.

The problem is this: in a world full of companies like Gamenauts, there can be zero time between the announcement of an idea and the commercial sale of the idea. I can’t pretend to know what’s running through the heads of Vlambeer right now, but I’m sure part of them is wondering “should we never have released Radical Fishing?” (Vlambeer’s hired artist, Greg Wohlwend, has written an absolutely heartbreaking blog post on how he’s been personally hurt by all this.) The existence of companies like Gamenauts forces indie developers to hold their cards close to their chest to avoid getting their ideas stolen from them - which, in turn, stifles innovation even further. The release of Ninja Fishing is a clear statement from Gamenauts: “If you’re going to come up with a fun new game, and you don’t profit off it immediately, it’s up for grabs.” I certainly don’t want to live in a world like that.

The Art

I haven’t yet discussed the most disturbing part of this entire controversy, which sadly seems to be absent from most of the discussion I’ve seen online about this issue. Or maybe it’s there, just hiding in a more insidious form - the undertones of the opinions of those who don’t think Gamenauts did anything wrong here, those people who think that ideas are cheap and execution is everything.

Let me express a hypothetical scenario. Gamenauts lifted the Radical Fishing game mechanics and tacked on new art and music. Let’s presume they did the opposite: they stole Vlambeer’s art and music, and made a completely different game with those assets (say, an RPG of some kind.) Is there anyone out there who wouldn’t consider that theft? Would it be okay for another game studio to take Ninja Fishing’s art and music and put it in a completely different game, throwing a quick credit to Gamenauts and a thanks for the “inspiration”?

The answer is a clear no, and I think that’s indicative of the greater problem: simply put, game design is not regarded as a creative work to which the author is entitled intellectual rights. I’m not talking about rights in a legal sense: I’m talking about rights in a moral sense, in the same way that we regard J.R.R. Tolkien as the author of the Lord of the Rings, and of The Beatles as the authors of Let It Be, and Quentin Tarantino as the author of Pulp Fiction, and that none of us would feel intuitively that we had the right to repackage and repurpose their work and sell it ourselves.

Not so with game design: for some reason there’s a tacit understanding in the greater culture that a) game design is nothing more than coming up with the right idea, b) ideas are cheap, and therefore c) you don’t have any ownership of the design you came up with. There’s no malice in this point of view, simply ignorance. There’s a reason why game design is a full-time profession and not just something that’s done with on the day the project is created: it’s a long, laborious work consisting of trying to instill fun into every part of a game. It’s an art, not a science, and as such every designer brings their own personal touch to a project. Ideas may be cheap, but development of the idea is expensive, and often extremely influential in shaping the final creation: observe the difference between Narbacular Drop and Portal, and bear witness to what developing a good idea does to improve the original idea. Good game design is something with tangible value all its own - and if one has intellectual and moral ownership of one’s art and music, certainly the same holds true for game design as well.

The Result

Sadly, I have no doubt that Gamenauts’ actions will wind up making them lots of money - a spot at the top of the App Store charts can be worth potentially millions. Even worse, I have no doubt that when Vlambeer releases their authorized version of the game, it is they who will be derided as copycats by people completely unfamiliar with the situation. But I don’t think this is an issue that’s going away anytime soon, and it’s important to call it out when it happens, loudly and publicly.

In the meantime, take a moment to appreciate the design of the games you love the most. Examine closely the decisions the designers made. How is the designer guiding my experience as I play this game? What directs my attention to things that are important? How am I taught how to play the game and how to tackle each challenge within the game? Why are the controls the way they are? Is the game too easy, too difficult, or just right? Why is the level constructed the way it is, and why are the objects in the level positioned where they are? How could the player experience be improved?

Take some time to appreciate good game design - because if wholesale theft of ideas becomes the new normal, good game design will be even harder to come by.

Evan Jones is a game programmer at Lolapps, an independent game developer in his free time, and a game design enthusiast. You can email him at his first name @chardish.com. It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.


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