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So Your Mobile Game’s Being Pirated in China: A Self-Defense Post-Mortem

Copycatting & IP piracy, often from Asia or Russia, is an all-too-common nightmare for mobile game developers. In this security post-mortem, a game publisher shares horror stories with IP infringement from China - and best practices to prevent & stop it.

Mary Min, Blogger

September 15, 2015

12 Min Read

On the left, Oniix/Game Hive’s official game Tap Titans;

on the right, its Chinese pirate Tap Tap Heroes


Early this year, Oniix, a Boston-based mobile game publisher with offices in Asia, was enjoying the end of a successful 2014 holiday season and busily preparing for a great 2015. They had just partnered to launch Tap Titans in China, a game developed by Toronto-based Game Hive, which they fully expected to become a huge hit during the Chinese New Year holiday in mid-February.


Just 10 days just before that launch, however, they were greeted by some unexpected news from their team in Shanghai:


Tap Titans had already been copycatted in China. The first knockoff, Tap-Tap Heroes, not only had the exact same UI and gameplay structure as their game (see above), the ripoff version was immediately doing well on the Chinese market, ranking among the top 15 downloaded iOS games and the top 500 grossing games. And three more copycats would be released within the next two weeks.


Oniix and Game Hive, in other words, were now competing with their own pirates. Adding insult to injury, says Oniix’s Everett Wallace, “we were even getting app store reviews claiming that our authentic version was the pirate!”


It’s an all-too-common, ongoing nightmare for mobile game developers: Copycatting and reverse engineering of their IP, often from Asia or Russia. As I explained in my first Gamasutra post, it’s a phenomenon that’s quickly become an international problem.


Fortunately, Oniix has a rigorous set of procedures and implementation teams in the US and China to deal with problems like these. And fortunately for you, Gamasutra reader, my friends at Oniix shared some of their procedures with me, so other publishers and developers can learn from their experiences.


Ripoff Vs. Imitation: How to Recognize the Difference


But how did Oniix identify Tap-Tap Heroes as a blatant knockoff of Tap Titans, as opposed to simply imitating aspects of their game? That requires some background. After all, games in a specific genre often lean towards similar user interface designs. For comparison, Clash of Clans and Game of War have a UI layout that’s similar in functionality, but look completely different:

On the left, Clash of Clans; on the right, Game of War


In games with an RPG aspect, the player’s level is typically on the top left, with gold/cash/level/stats arranged across the top, and notices/quests/shops/items on the bottom. Game UIs generally follow similar patterns from game to game. Games in the same genre usually share similar features, and to help decrease friction in the first-time user experience, conform to what players are already used to in a particular genre. For that reason, some design overlap is to be expected.


Tap Titans and Tap-Tap Heroes, however, had identical UI layouts throughout the entire game, not just in the placement of stats, game menu, action buttons, guide arrows, but even where the player character and the enemy were placed. As you can see in the image below, Tap-Tap Heroes even used the same shadow outline imagery in its skill icons:


The mirror-image similarity was carried over to the games’ skill unlock requirements as well:



… and to the mechanics of summoning a Hero Friend:



When one or two elements are similar, it’s probably a coincidence. Tap-Tap Heroes however, too closely resembled Tap Titans in too many areas.


To confirm their suspicions, Oniix and Game Hive did the next logical thing: They downloaded and played Tap-Tap Heroes. Not only was the surface design identical, they discovered, so were the leveling curves, scoring logic, damage calculations, and every other gaming element. If you got to level 50 of the pirate game, the monster had exactly the same hitpoints; if you got your hero to level 142, his damage-causing capability was the same -- to the decimal point. This was no mere ripoff of images and UI design -- it was almost certainly an outright copycat that had reskinned graphics on top of Tap Titans’ source code.


According to Oniix, this is hardly an isolated case: “Developers are floored when we reveal tens of millions of downloads attributed to copycat versions of their game, or their direct APK ported onto a top Android site without permission,” Oniix’ Everett Wallace tells me. The problem is so extreme, Oniix now gets requests -- often from huge, venture-backed studios -- for piracy reports on their games, so they can understand just how rampant the piracy in China is, and the steps they can take to fight it.


But how did Oniix tackle its own piracy problem? Through a lengthy, multi-faceted approach which illustrates the complexity of the China market:


Seven Steps to Stopping a Chinese Pirate at the Source


Where Western mobile developers need deal only with Apple, Google, and Amazon, the China market boasts literally hundreds of Android app stores, making it easier for bad actors to operate with impunity, especially when they’re exploiting Western apps. So for Oniix, going after their copycat was an arduous, aggravating process:


  • First, Oniix had to perform an extensive search of China’s iOS app store and the hundreds of Chinese Android app stores simply to identify on which platforms the pirated game was being published, and then submit formal takedown requests to Apple and each of these many Android stores.

  • Oniix then sent notice via email to Tap-Tap Heroes’ “developer”, warning of possible legal consequences if the company did not comply with these takedown requests.

  • The developer responded with an infuriating counterclaim: Tap-Tap Heroes, the company asserted, was the original game, and denied any wrongdoing.

  • Stymied, Oniix started doing background research on the infringing company.

  • During this investigation, Oniix found a third party company that had likely affiliations or investment ties with the pirating developer, and issued that company a notice of IP theft. The affiliate company also refused to reply.

  • Undaunted, Oniix kept searching for any other companies which could be associated with the developer. Finally, they did: A potential tangential relationship with a North American VC fund.

  • Onix then contacted this investment firm, sending yet another cease and desist order for the developer -- only this time, through an investor channel, also emphasizing Oniix’s connections to prominent Western media hubs, making it clear that they were able to widely expose the pirate for blatant and irrefutable infringement.


This final step did the trick. The investment firm mobilized to clear its name. With that, the pirating developer finally acquiesced, and removed the game from all China app stores.


Unfortunately,Tap-Tap Heroes was not the only copycat of Tap Titans in China. After working closely with Apple and various Android stores, Oniix and Game Hive eventually succeeded in having all copycat games removed. In some cases, they were even able to transition users’ from the copycat games to the original Tap Titans. (Players would get an update of the infringing game, but when they downloaded it, would instead get the original, official game.) Since then, Tap Titans continues to grow and generate revenue in the Chinese market.


Four Strategies to Preempt Piracy Before It Happens


Oniix was lucky it could apply pressure against a pirate through a non-Chinese VC firm and the potential parent company. Most other pirated publishers, however, will probably not be as fortunate. That in mind, here’s four strategies Oniix and myself recommend to prevent piracy from the start:


1. Be proactive, not reactive about security. By the time you discover a copycat app, it may have already done damage to your brand and revenue. And as we see in Oniix’s case, it takes a lot of effort to get an infringing app removed from app stores. Instead, it’s worth implementing security measures early, ideally before publication, to prevent others from being able to reverse engineer and copy your precious game in the first place. (I wrote about best practice protection techniques in my second Gamasutra post.)


2. Be creative when addressing the piracy problem. Beyond the detective work Oniix and Game Hive did, other game developers are starting to employ some clever solutions to frustrate pirates: The creators of Game Dev Story created and distributed their own pirated version, which had some interesting modifications that bankrupted players’ characters. Noodlecake went a step further and devilishly released a pirated version before the official game launched that was impossible to beat. PC and console game developers have also come up with some hilariously devious traps for pirates that are worth learning from too..


3. Launch worldwide from the beginning. As I explained in my first post, many developers are hesitant to do a global launch from the beginning, typically due to lack of resources to support a multi-country service and uncertainty around whether a game will do well or not. Whenever possible, do plan a global rollout from initial launch. When it’s not feasible, at least expand globally as soon as possible, either through self-publishing or through a trusted publisher partner, especially for Android. Mario Alvarez, Oniix’s head of business development, puts it this way: “Delaying the China release gives pirates the time to release copycats, gain first-to-market advantage, build a substantial user base, and permanently tarnish the game brand.” In other words, make sure you’re prioritizing the China market when preparing a title for release. For related reasons, Mario advises launching with “the most sophisticated level of security, as well as the best localized product possible.”


Look at it this way: King has said that delaying Candy Crush’s launch in certain markets gave pirates the chance to act. And despite a partnership with Chinese Internet giant Tencent, Candy Crush remains highly pirated in China to this day. If a publisher as massive as King can’t preempt piracy, why take the chance that you can?


4. Check the market often -- and connect with the leading apps stores. Understand and foster a good relationship with every major Chinese app store, and perform periodic sweeps of all the country’s leading stores -- whether your game is on a particular store or not. Smaller stores can fly under the radar, and you may discover copycats too late. And when you are pirated, having already established good relationships with these stores will be important, for reasons I explain below:


… But If You Are Pirated, Work With the App Stores -- and Hold Your Ground


Despite the preemptive steps above, a pirated copy may still get through. If so, be persistent with China’s top app stores, and fight through official channels. From the app stores’ perspective, with so much content available on the app store, it’s difficult for them to ensure each submitted app is an original work. Perhaps for that reason, Apple initially takes a hands-off approach: When you submit a complaint against an approved app, Apple will then notify the allegedly infringing developer and start an email thread between the accuser, the defendant, and Apple.


Working directly with China’s many app stores has an added benefit: With some Android stores, it’ll often be possible to actually take over the pirates’ userbase, as Oniix was able to do, through an official update which goes to players of the copycat game. However, for this to be feasible, you have to not only monitor the top Android stores, you need to have a good prior relationship with them, to make sure proper attention is quickly paid to potential pirates.  


Above all, stay firm on your position, present your evidence, stay on target, and you’ll succeed. Eventually:


“We’ve found that pirates will often fight back once a claim is initiated, and even appear to have lawyers advising them,” as Everett Wallace of Oniix puts it. “They will deny piracy, and claim that the game is simply in the same category. But a strict adherence to the facts and the indisputable proof of piracy ultimately wins out against the unsubstantiated claims from the pirate.”

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