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The Cloning Conundrum

Today's post looks at the issue of cloning with major examples from this year. In an attempt to define some base rules as to when one game is a clone of another.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

September 13, 2012

9 Min Read

With the rise of the social and mobile game markets, the issue of cloning has appeared. For those not familiar with the term Cloning: it is when someone allegedly copies the design, look and art of another game and passes it for their own. This past year, the issue of cloning has escalated and has recently come to a head with EA suing Zynga for allegedly coping The Sims Social with Zynga's game: The Ville.

At the time of this post, EA has put up a video* showing just how similar the two games are, right down to the UI design and art assets. This could become the biggest case of cloning in the industry and set the precedent of this issue for future games. There are several arguments about the issue of cloning: some people say that the industry was built on cloning, while others aren't sure what the ground rules over what is and what isn't considered cloning.

Why Cloning is Happening Today:

In my opinion the industry was not built on cloning, but on drawing inspiration from other games. And the evidence is with how it has become so easy to clone games today.

First is due to how the storage medium and technology has changed. In the early days, all games were on a storage device, either a cartridge or a CD. The rise of the internet and the move away from traditional mediums puts a lot of power in the hands of the community.

Before, CDs and cartridges had built in security measures to prevent someone from accessing the data, but in today's world, once you download a game, you have access to all the code and assets. Most social games are built for a browser and that makes it very easy for someone who knows what they're doing to analyze the elements that go into a specific game. The technical aptitude of people has also increased. Back in the late 80s and early 90s when computing was still young, most people did not know how to program much less use a computer.

I didn't get my first computer until the mid 90s and before that; I took basic computer training in elementary school. Today, with game design a major option for college, more and more people are learning how to program and manipulate code. Each year, development software becomes more powerful allowing someone with the right know- how, to use assets and code for their own projects.

The reason why the industry was not built on cloning was simply because no one had the same level of access to game assets as they do today. Security measures on cartridges prevented someone from easily obtaining someone else's game assets. Because of that, another company couldn't just copy another game, but had to design original concepts drawing inspiration from popular titles. This is also why a lot of early licensed games were so difficult, as they were inspired by challenging games such as Star Wars on the Nes.


                                              The Ville
Setting Some Ground Rules:

We need to lay some ground rules. Because the issue of cloning is so new to the industry, we don't have a formal set of rules to define cloning, which becomes a major bullet point whenever we talk about if a game is cloning another game.

Here are in my opinion - The definitions of a Clone:

1. If someone uses the code and/or assets from another game on a project they intend to sell.

This to me isn't just cloning, but flat out stealing and should be adopted as a zero tolerance policy in the industry. Earlier this year, Runic Games: The developers behind Torchlight 1 and 2 accused the developers of the game Armed Heroes Online of stealing Assets from the first Torchlight**. Upon looking at the code, the developer reported that the Armed Heroes developer took sound files and even art assets from Torchlight without their consent.

They even found out that the developer stole the actual code of Torchlight right down to spelling mistakes the Torchlight developers made in the code. 

2. If someone designs a game using the same game elements from another title without adding any meaningful changes

The Game Industry's growth was all about taking inspiration from other titles. Many of the best games that came out were built on the concept from earlier titles. Ninja Gaiden, Metroid and Castlevania all took influence from the platforming in Super Mario Brothers. However, each game took that basic concept and expanded on it by going in a completely different direction.

Today, not only do we have games that feature the exact same gameplay as a similar title, but in some areas they use the same elements. With the Ea v. Zynga comparison video, you can see how The Ville is using the same systems for character design, and playing the game.

If I want to make a game about using portals to go to and from specific areas I don't have to worry about Valve's legal team. But if I want to make a game about using portals in a giant laboratory to solve puzzles while a crazy AI is watching and during which I befriend an inanimate object, that’s different.

You can see in the mobile and social market, that a game that sells well is copied using the same exact mechanics. Some may change the theme, while others may just change the name and leave it alone. Copying and pasting game mechanics from one game to another in my opinion should be frown upon as the offending party isn't creating a new game, but using someone else's hard work to profit from.


                                            The Sims Social

3. If someone takes specific gameplay and/or brands from one platform, and moves it to another without getting consent from the owner.

Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz*** surrounding the Playstation move title: Johann Sebastian Joust. iOS developer Ustwo released: Papa Quash that uses iOS devices instead of the playstation move controller which the original developers released it for. According to Ustwo, they were contacted by a fan that wanted the game for the I-Phone and told them that he got permission from Die Gute Fabrik (JS Joust's developers) to make the port.

However, Die Gute Fabrik said that they never gave permission and the app was taken off the store. Some people argued that because there was a market for the game on another platform, that it was fair for someone to copy the exact game play. In my mind that is a big NO: Just because you want something you can't have, doesn't make it ok to steal it from someone. That same mentality is one of the excuses pirates have for stealing games: Because they want to play a game without copy protection, it's ok for them to pirate it.

That kind of thinking is juvenile in my opinion. There are several iOS games that I saw that looked interesting to play, like the Infinity Blade series. I would like to try one, but I don't have an iOS device. Because I can't play it, does that give me the right to make or commission a game in the same exact style and design to be made on the PC? No it does not.

There are cases where interested modders port a game from one platform to another, or simply update a game for modern audiences. As was the case with the Star Control 2 freeware project: The Ur Quan Masters. That was a situation where the original designers released the source code as open source, allowing anyone to work with it.

With the EA v. Zynga lawsuit, we need to nip this problem in the bud by establishing some basic rules for the industry to follow. As the bigger the social and mobile markets get, the more this issue will rear its head before all is said and done. Before I end this post I have a quick challenge for everyone. I'm going to post the description of three imaginary game ideas, two of which fall under the realm of cloning by my definition. Can you figure out which one doesn't?

A: This is an isometric view action RPG. The game takes place in the future where the Devil has been made real by creating a sophisticated cyber organism in a giant research lab. The creature has taken over and infected the residents and machines with a virus turning them into its slaves. The player has to descend into the complex (with randomly generated floors on play) and fight their way down to the bottom where the creature is and destroy them.

The player must keep track of their life energy and nano reserves to keep themselves alive and able to use skills respectively. The player can warp out of the complex to a nearby military complex where they can use collected scrap to create new equipment they can use and get quests to complete.

B: This is a 2d Platformer. To help cut costs, a friend gave the designers the assets from the original Super Mario Brothers that they found online. To help differentiate the game, the designers changed the color for each of the assets and mix up the level designs.

Level one will have segments of world 1-1 and 2-1 spliced together for instance. As the player gets further they'll run into new enemies, including zombies and robotic spiders that they'll have to dodge. At the end of the game, Mario will jump into a robot to fight a giant bowser to save the princess.

C: Journey for the PSN was such a good game, but there are no other games close to it on the PC. This sparked a development team to create a version of Journey for the PC market. For this project, players wander around a vast jungle as a figure completely covered in a cloak without legs, going through temples to reach a massive mountainous temple in the background. The level design and platforming sections mirror Journey except for the difference in the setting.

 Instead of a scarf, the player has a circular belt that grows bigger with each piece they find while exploring. Players can team up in the world to explore, but there is no voice chat available.

Josh Bycer

* Gamasutra link where the video is 

** PC Gamer article looking at the comparisons

*** Gamasutra article with more information about the issue

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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