A Fine Line: Cloning vs Evolution

Every so often, some event will cause a ripple through the internet and will continue to build until it becomes a tidal wave of opinion. Currently, the big wave passing through the indie games community is the “cloning” of games (usually from Flash into iOS games, but this issue can cover all platforms).

It is a fact that games are being cloned all the time, a practice many people disapprove of. Developers put a lot of hard work and time into their games, and seeing someone duplicating it and making money off their backs can be quite aggravating.  Equally aggravating is the amount of dissent and anxiety caused by this issue to the development community at large; accusations of ‘idea theft’ or lifting of game mechanics can be perceived as black-and-white cases when they may not even be founded in reality. This causes a lot of animosity between the many different developers and their followers. The core of the problem is really what constitutes a “clone” and what is and “evolution”.

To explore this, I am going to look at three separate cases where someone has been accused of “stealing” a game. I am going to be up-front with the fact that I am friends with two of the developers, one who has been accused and another who is the accuser. For each one I will talk about the similarities and differences between the two products and hopefully, will be able to add some clarity to this debate.

Case 1: TOBOR vs Super Meat Boy

Back in July, David Nickerson and Dominic Obojkovits released a game on the iOS platform called Tobor. It is a fairly standard platformer, with a character that can run, jump and die. Almost immediately, the game was accused of ripping off the indie favourite Super Meat Boy. Take a look at the reason given for it being a ripoff : “little defenseless square-man runs, jumps, and wall jumps through a treacherous field of giant, instant-death dealing buzzsaws“. Essentially, we have three areas to compare: the look of the character, the game mechanics, and the theme of the hazards.

At first glance, the similarities between the two characters seem fairly obvious. They are both square, with basic legs and arms and black eyes. Some people might point to this as proof of David copying Edmund, but is SMB original, or a copy of  Robert Hargraves’ “Mr Strong”? When you see the three together, it’s hard to come down definitively in defence of either TOBOR or Meat Boy.

 

Looking at the game mechanics is where it becomes trickier. By definition, a platformer game has characters that run and jump to avoid a variety of obstacles. Instant death is also fairly common, especially among games intended for a more hardcore audience. The difference between one game and another is how they implement the mechanics. A player can tell the difference between a Mario jump and a Mega-man jump because the have unique physics that apply to their world. Having played both TOBOR and SMB, the physics are noticeably different. The fact that TOBOR utilizes the iPhone’s tilting abilty helps, but I also found gravity and friction to be quite distinct from SMB.

The real issue with the aforementioned reviewer appears to be the fact that the theme of the Super Meat Boy world was all about saw blades, which are also present in the world of TOBOR. Saw blades themselves are a total cliché- you can find them in many platformers, including Super Mario World and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. At their core they are mainly stationary obstacles that cause death, and could have easily been substituted by lava, spikes, landmines, laser beams, or any of the many other standard treatments for this mechanic.

There is no disputing that there are similarities between the two games, and the developers have admitted to being “inspired” by Super Meat Boy. There is also no dispute that none of these elements are original and are in fact, commonly used in many games. What made Super Meat Boy unique was not the standard platforming elements, but rather the death replay feature and the humour. TOBOR has neither of these.

So what is my verdict? Not a clone.

I Hate Puzzle vs Super Puzzle Platformer

Not every game that has been accused of being a clone is knocking off a very well-known product, such as this next case. In June 2011, Andrew Morrish released his first flash game called Super Puzzle Platformer. Less than two months later, I Hate Puzzle from Yan Zhenhua was released on the iPhone. We can do a similar comparison here by looking at the graphics, mechanics and theme.

Immediately you are able to see that, at least graphically, these two titles are almost identical. A purple checker-pattern background, blue blocks with circles, skull blocks with spikes, and similar power bars. While each asset is technically unique, it is a very obvious skinning change. Nothing about the graphics or the theme has really been altered from the earlier title.

That leaves gameplay. Unlike the previous example, I Hate Puzzle did not modify the control schematics for the platform. It uses button presses and a dpad configuration for the movement-to me, this doesn’t seem like a tailored decision which best suits the touch screen format. From the images I can find, it does appear to have some different level types not seen in the original, but the levels in the image above are definitely stolen, in my opinion. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to download this game as it had been pulled from the App Store, which indicates that Apple felt this was a pretty clear-cut case of cloning.

My verdict? Clone.

Ninja Fishing vs Radical Fishing

We have now seen two games accused of “cloning” that show the two ends of the spectrum. Now we come to a third game that, from my perspective, resides somewhere between slightly similar and outright duplication. The accused this time is a company called Gamenauts; their iPhone title Ninja Fishing came out in July. The game they allegedly copied was a Flash title called Radical Fishing by the well known indie developer Vlambeer in 2010. Vlambeer is planning on releasing his own iPhone game Ridiculous Fishing, seen in the image below.
Let’s compare.

The first thing you will notice is that the concept of having fish launched into the air, and the player killing them for points is the same. Both games also require the player to employ a similar mechanic for the fishing component- drop your line into the water, avoiding fish as it descends, and then on ascent reel in as many fish as possible.
Ninja Fishing adds a few other mechanics, such as air-borne dynamite which can destroy your potential fish catch. You can also collect treasure and other items not seen in Vlambeer’s game.

The “fishing” controls have been tailored for the platform in Ninja Fishing. I expect that Vlambeer’s coming iPhone version will likely adapt to the distinct platform requirements as well. The main difference in the controls will be the slash mechanic employed in Ninja Fishing versus the tap style used in Radical Fishing during the “fish-in-air” gameplay segments.

Finally, the physics of Ninja Fishing differ compared to Radical Fishing (the original), in terms of the speed that things move at and the size of objects on screen. Without a doubt, these games are similar in terms of gameplay- but they are not identical.

When you compare the art styles side by side you can see they are nothing alike beyond the theme of a person fishing. Ninja Fishing uses a very cartoony, humorous art style while Ridiculous Fishing aims for more of a minimalist, pixelated look. The user interface for Ridiulous Fishing is robust compared to the simple basics of Ninja Fishing. One applies personality to the fish, while the other has a more iconic appearance. This tells me that the audience they are aiming at is different.

Well, is Ninja Fishing a clone? The developers have admitted to being inspired by the original game, and believed they could improve upon it. The question then revolves around whether they took their game far enough away from the source of inspiration to justify it as its own entity: is the game different enough to make it distinct from the original? From my point of view, while they are similar, Ninja Fishing has definitely added a variety of elements that makes it stand on its own merits.

Conclusion

Cloning of games is an issue that has and will continue to plague our industry. While we as developers must remain vigilant in protecting our intellectual property and livelihoods, we also need to refrain from stifling the growth of a potential genre. It is easy to get caught up in a mob-mentality and make knee-jerk accusations, attacking developers for perceived infractions. It is much harder to defend your work if people don’t attempt to make an informed decision, especially when emotions are involved.

It is important to remember that every game is an evolution, in some form, of the games that preceded it. We are all influenced by the games we play, the art we see, and the life we live. As an industry, we need to give credit where it is due while preserving a healthy environment for developers to continue to push our craft forward without fear of reprisals.

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