Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more desperate, at GDC the creators of Super Crate Box, Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail and Jan Nijman, warned of the consequences of not tackling the very real threat of game cloning.
The two have a right to be annoyed – their 2010 effort Radical Fishing was allegedly (emphasis there for legal reasons) copied by Gamenauts, who released their title under the name Ninja Fishing (which, in nerd speak, is quite a slap in the chops – as “to ninja” is to steal).
They argue that educating gamers is the key, to remind them that smaller studios work hard to make these games and they deserve some recognition. And I’d agree, to a point, as I think game cloning is a horrible business.
The problem is this – I don’t believe that educating gamers will work.
You can reach out, converse with gamers, unveil your goods early and try to foster some loyalty and cultivate a fanbase. You can provide video diaries to show the human aspect, people devoting their time and energy into a project. You can do all of this, but it means nothing if another more recognisable company or studio copies it, for their large userbase. Creativity is important to keep the industry going, but sadly being first and/or coming up with the idea isn’t what wins out – it is cold, hard cash. And the bigger studios have it in abundance.
Zynga are the most notorious, but it isn’t limited to them – what has happened is that for years, the industry looked away from cloning and forgave it. It was an unnecessary, unplanned expense and one they thought wasn’t worth fighting over. There were few precedents, and most of those were based not on the actual design, interface or gameplay, but of the actual code. If the code for a cloned game was sufficiently different, then it wasn’t technically a clone at all in legal terms.
Except you can play many games, and they are so obvious in ripping off another game that even if the code were different, you could hardly call it “unique”.
Because of this, the ground was fertile enough that when people began to abuse this murky bog, they found it bred money. They didn’t have to make anything new – they just had to pretty it up, make it shiny and rebrand it. It has been so successful for many of them that you see some of them worth many hundreds of times more than the studios whose games and concepts are being ripped off.
For you see, you cannot legally protect a concept. This isn’t like a patent, or Intellectual Property, or copywriting. Code is a physical, technical object and it is why these cases have precedent, because that is a tangible thing. How things are displayed on screen overall cannot be protected under these rules, not if the code does it sufficiently differently enough.
Or can it?
You see, the sad thing is, the only way to beat the clones is to do the unthinkable, the not rational, the crazy – people will have to challenge them legally. In a court.
I know how that sounds, when you consider these cases are likely to resemble taking on the US Army with nothing more than a swiss army knife and a water pistol. But unfortunately, legal precedent is the salt on the floor, the only way to retard the spread of the cloning business, and it is likely to be the only real, reasonable way to stop them in their tracks, with a lengthy and expensive court case that damages their brand, creates bad PR for them and costs them a large amount of money to defend themselves.
Which is why this has become so widespread in the indie and small download scene – because what you have here are people on limited budgets, who have indeed crafted their games with love and kindness. These games are their lives, their meal ticket, and they often don’t have the finances to take on bigger companies who clone their games. They cannot reasonably be expected to defend themselves. They shout for a while, but unfortunately, after a while they fade away – out of money, and the market moves on, caring little for the devastation left in its wake.
The only ACTUAL way to stop them is to make it legally, financially AND morally incorrect to do so. When the market has all three of those bases covered, cloning – well, it won’t go away sadly. But it may get less obvious, less publicity, less acceptance. One out of three isn’t good enough – it may not be morally correct, but they make money, and that money gives them the funds to essentially legally hold out against smaller challengers.
This isn’t the sort of topic that generates a lot of goodwill, as many often do think that it is us, the consumers, who have the power. And as much as I’d argue that is a valid point, you’re talking about attempting to convince millions of individuals to care about the plights of a few dozen small studios – small studios who, sadly, aren’t often missed when they are gone, as their titles are cloned, repackaged and sold on as something else. Their lives are destroyed, their financial situation awful – but many simply won’t care. They won’t. As much as I believe in the goodness of humanity, we all know that after an hour or two of feeling bad about it, the majority of consumers will push it to the back of their minds and move on.
Again, the only real way to make this practice unacceptable and stamp it out is to make it legally, financially and morally wrong to do so. And sadly, that means that it is going to be down to someone in the industry to stand up, take pride in their work and say, “You know what? This sucks, and I’m going to stand up for myself and be counted, not bitch about it to some random website and be forgotten in a week!”
And I will applaud and whoop and cheer that individual on, stand outside the courthouse with a massive homemade banner hailing them as true heroes, the best of the best. I will attempt to hire cheerleaders. Perhaps even a big plane with one of those tail-banners circling overhead.
Until then, cloning exists because the industry ALLOWS it. It has always existed – but it was never financially worth the effort to take it head-on and now, sadly, we’re in that awful place where the inaction to tackle it years ago has led to this situation, potentially crippling the indie and smaller development markets and holding them to ransom.
The industry has to throw the money at a legal challenge against cloning. I suspect until Zynga and their ilk rip off Popcap or some other big studio, the likelihood of this happening is slim.
And that makes me very sad.