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Whose Expression Is It Anyway?

Why is Angry Birds highly regarded by most creators despite being a clone of Crush the Castle and yet Dream Heights / YetiTown are universally despised by creators? More importantly, as an indie studio how do we realistically defend ourselves?

Tommy Wu, Blogger

February 16, 2012

12 Min Read

As an indie developer, FableLabs has borrowed more from those who came before us than we have been able to contribute back (thus far).  We'd like to think that we remix old ideas, add our own and produce wholly different products, but then again... isn't that what we all think? Mimicry in our industry is nothing new and while many had foretold this activity would decline due to the rising complexity of games, there has been a spate of recent accusations:

Spry Fox
Buffalo Studios

I began wondering about the inconsistencies of what creators consider inspiration vs. imitation and how we rationalize what is arguably a grey area.  Why is Angry Birds highly regarded by most creators despite being a clone of Crush the Castle (which has it's own inspirations) and yet Dream Heights / YetiTown are universally despised by creators?  More importantly, how do we realistically defend ourselves?  Down the slippery slope we go!

Consumers Don't Care About Inventors

...they care about expressions 

I'm sure many of you have seen this picture circulating:

Steve and Dennis

Two amazing contributors to society but one is a few orders of magnitude more recognizable. Most consumers don't care about C++, they care about what C++ canEXPRESS to them. They don't care that Palm invented the smart phone category.  They do care that Steve Jobs and Apple assembled the most beautiful EXPRESSION of a smart phone and made it ubiquitous.

Rarely are standalone inventions able to affect consumers directly.  It is usually combinations of these inventions that improve lives.  What this means for games is that our fans will rarely care or know who came up with a new game mechanic (outlier: Minecraft), they only care about what that game mechanic is able to express and who was able to get it into their hands.

Users Don't Care Where They Get Their Drugs

So you've created an addiction to an amazing drug that you alone control.  You've proven product/market fit and that's generally the most challenging part.  Now what?  Your users now want the best version of your drug, they want it now, and they want it as cheaply as possible.

Time is ticking my friend.  Your fans might be cheering you now but as soon as someone else comes along that can satisfy their addiction, you and your hard work will be but a faint memory. In fact, not only do they not know how many ideas you had to test to come up with this one, how many paper prototypes you had to create to validate what you had, and how much of your life savings you had to spend on content / contractors to get to a viable product, more importantly they do not care.

Users didn't care that:

Users *might* seem conflicted in their desire to have the absolute best experience for themselves with a desire to reward creative work, but make no mistake, they will put their own interests ahead of creators every time.  For every customer in our forums that tells everyone to go easy on the developers and give us more time to code features, fix bugs, and balance gameplay, there are 10 who complain our games should be 1) cheaper, 2) more stable, and 3) have cool feature X, Y, Z.  I used to spend a fair amount of time in the forums trying to reason with users by letting them know we're resource constrained but I soon realized it's a losing proposition. This isn't a charity. As an industry we've moved beyond the "Donate via Paypal" business model.

Inventions Have No Value With No Distribution

Many seem to believe that those that invent should be given a period of time to distribute their own inventions. Patents were originally designed for this very purpose but most entrepreneurs would agree that patents are laborious to obtain and have the side effect of limiting progress (e.g. Amazon's one-click checkout or Apple's pinch to zoom).  Creators aren't expecting their ideas to be sacred, rather it's the speed in which they are cloned that is upsetting. But why should competitors be blamed for doing their jobs quickly? 

Imagine you stumbled across a deserted island (your game) filled with treasures (addressable market) and you know there's a 747 cargo of tourists (Zynga) coming soon. You can either be greedy and try to slowly carry all the treasure back by yourself ("it's mine, ALL MINE!"), or you can hire individuals (employees) or firms (VCs/publishers) and give them a cut (rev share/equity/salary) of the spoils.  If you want to take your time, just don't complain you had to share your booty when you run out of time and are overrun by hordes of tourists.

It's all mine!

You can cry all day long about someone else taking advantage of your unique snowflake ideas but you have only yourself to blame if you leave value on the table for someone else to pick up.  Validate the concept, generate or raise the capital, and use the capital to effectively distribute your product to users where it actually has value.  Instead of merely developing skills to create great games, also develop skills to distribute your products or form partnerships with others that can.

Or run your company as a lifestyle business and generate ideas for others to borrow from heavily. If you can't figure out how to get your invention in front of the users who want it, someone else will and the users will be thankful to them, not you. 

Creating innovative games without having the skills, partnerships, or capital to distribute them is like bringing your virtual spoon to a knife fight.

Service vs. Expression Based Models

Games are made up of varying components of content, game mechanics and technology. Expression is created as we move up the diagram below

Copyrights protect the expression of a game but not the game mechanics and technology. Why are only content creators protected?  Did it take less effort for a user experience designer to come up with a viral flow?  They spend blood, sweat and tears coming up with use cases, split tests, analytics, and solutions.  Was architecting the game codebase any less creative in nature?  Anyone who disagrees that coding is a creative endeavor isn't working on hard enough problems. Those who are able to come up with non-obvious solutions are engaging in creative activity, yet we only seem to react when expression is copied.  This inconsistency lies in whether the application is primarily "Service Based" or Expression Based".

Service Based Model

Service based web applications tend to gravitate towards similar solutions while expression based ones tend to find an array of solutions (not better just different).  The topic of cloning rarely comes up in service based models as we recognize the lack of parallel outcomes in these business models.  For example, there are only a few right answers on how an online purchase should flow. This is why most online stores look increasingly like Amazon and some have even outsourced the checkout process itself to Amazon.  Military themed first person shooters such as Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 are multiplayer service platforms for gamers to challenge other gamers. Their expressions are nearly identical with similar controls, real world guns, real world physics, and war torn battlegrounds.

Expression Based Models Have Infinite Possibilities

While there is a limited set of technology and game mechanics to choose from, together they help enable a near infinite set of expression possibilities.

There is no right answer in expression which is why entities (individuals, companies, projects) are expected to find their own identity.

If we take human social interaction as an example: We expect people to communicate with us in the language we communicate with them (one solution).  We expect people to introduce themselves with a handshake, verbal greeting, kiss on the cheek, or a hug (few solutions). But we expect people's Facebook profile page to be unique (infinite solutions).

Given the amount of combinations possible in expression based models, developers often need to try different combinations of content with the same game mechanic to find their hit game (assuming their game mechanic is fun). Crush the Castle was a great game by Armor Games but unfortunately not a mass market expression.  By not reskinning their engine, Armor Games left a huge opportunity on the table for Rovio to fill.  By changing the expression of the same mechanic, Rovio was able to bring a fun concept to a user base greater than 2 orders of magnitude (Angry Birds).

All expression might be considered derivative at this point but I think we can agree there is some distance from the original expression which can allow multiple expressions to flourish. This debate on cloning is really a reflection of how close competing studios choose to place their bets on games that are expression based models.

Let's take our friend Link on the left here. 

  • There's a Legal Distance, where the rule of thumb is that you cannot mislead players into thinking they are playing a competitors' game

  • There is a Classy Distance, which is a bit further, and more palatable to creators

  • Lastly, there is a Revenue Optimal Distance that allows 2 valuable pieces of IP to co-exist without cannibalizing each other. Nintendo could have chosen to play it safe and create 2 similar characters but instead ended up with 2 of the most recognizable pieces of IP

When a rival picks an expression too close to comfort, I imagine it is similar to being in a empty airport bathroom (social/mobile gaming industry) with an entire wall of urinals (possibilities) you can choose from and some guy chooses the one right next to you. 

We can all agree it's creepy, however there's not much you can do about it.

Defense Against the Dark Arts

If you're successful, your product will be cloned and there is no pragmatic recourse. My suggestion is that you accept this reality and focus on these 3 actionables:

1) Go Big or Go Home

Inventions without users are useless.  It's your responsibility to find a way to distribute your beautiful creations.  If you are able to bring your invention to the largest possible audience, it will not make business sense for competitors to clone as you should have saturated the market. Raise capital or find a publisher you TRUST to support your business. If the lifetime value for each user in your game is $3.00, run your marketing spend until you are paying up to $2.90.  Leave a dime for your competitors.

This Scorched Earth policy of serving valuable users before your competitors can market to them will discourage clones by making it an unprofitable venture.  Groupon used this tactic to great effect and consequently took out the majority of the clones. 

2) Build the Best Version of the Mechanic

If your game resembles a Service Based Model, build the best version of that model. Popcap's Bejeweled fought off numerous clones and remains the gold standard for match 3 games. Popcap takes an extraordinary amount of time to polish their games.  Feel how delightful it is to shoot a Peggle ball. They've dedicated years to perfecting what they have. Hackers often forget it's not just enough to have the mechanic itself, the content and user experience are just as important.

Blizzard and its competitors have fairly similar ideas in the RTS and MMO space.  However, the amount of polish in a Blizzard game is palpable. Perhaps there is something to their anti-MVP development process, "done when it's done".

3) Create Unique Content

If your game resembles an Expression Based Model, remember that content is protection. Build a skin of the game that is uniquely yours and try many variations. There is no shortage of generic fantasy tales, vampire stories, zombie epidemics, and -Villes, but it is difficult to successfully clone the following content without infringing (doesn't stop them from trying):

  1. A mouse who dreams of becoming a chef one day: Ratatouille

  2. An old man who yearns of moving his house via balloons to a new retirement location: Up

  3. A robot who fears of being irrelevant and replaced by a newer version of himself:Wall-E

  4. An epic battle between flora and the undead: Plants vs. Zombies

  5. Kamikaze birds that attack elitist pigs in their homes: Angry Birds


The only people who care about this debate on imitation vs. innovation are the creators.  If you're onto a good idea, you will be cloned and the majority of your addressable market will not know nor care about your situation. At FableLabs, we believe cloners will be a signal that we're onto something interesting and we've preemptively chosen to use differentiated content to protect our games and IP.

If you'd like to hear more drawn out thoughts, you can follow my blog here: tommygwu.com or add me on twitter: @TommyGWu

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