Attack of the Clones

'Splosion Man

About three weeks ago, Capcom released a game called MaXplosion for the iPhone. In the game, the protagonist runs about a science lab, blowing himself up as a means of locomotion. Sounds inventive, right? It would, if it weren’t for the fact that there was already a game featuring a protagonist that runs about a science lab, blowing himself up as a means of locomotion on the Xbox. The earlier game, ‘Splosion Man, was created by Twisted Pixel, a small independent game studio in Texas. It didn’t take long for people to notice that Capcom, the huge industry developer, had blatantly ripped off the indie developers.

Of course, cloning games isn’t new. It’s been around since the earliest days of the videogame industry. Atari’s first arcade game, Pong, was a clone of Ralph Baer’s tennis game for the Magnavox Odyssey. Atari’s founder, Nolan Bushnell, had played the game at a Magnavox demonstration (and signed the guest book). Though Bushnell claimed he was not a fan of the Magnavox version, Atari went on to create Pong, which became the company’s first big success. Magnavox later sued Atari, which settled out of court and agreed to “license” the game. Had Baer not had the full weight of Magnavox behind him, it is much less likely that Atari would have backed down.

Ever since then, many games have heavily “borrowed” from, if not outright copied, one another. Sometimes, lawsuits were filed (and as the Austin Chronicle ironically notes, Capcom was known for going after cloners). Other times, the sheer number of clones has created a new genre. Before the term “first-person shooter” became commonplace, most people referred to them simply as “Doom Clones.”

So why should we worry about cloning indie games?

As Chase Martin and Mark Deuze noted in their study of Indie Game production, one of the main things that defines independent game developers is control over their own intellectual property. Alex Seropian, founder of Bungie who left after its acquisition by Microsoft, puts it rather nicely:

The IP is really the thing of value that exists. It’s intellectual property but its property, so you make something…Whomever owns that is the one who retains the equity of the idea. From my perspective it’s extremely important from a creative perspective of having the incentive to invest your life and your energy into an idea. From a business perspective, [it’s] ultimately the most important thing in the world because it’s the one tangible thing of value.

Most Indie Developers won’t be advertising during the Super Bowl or putting up cardboard cutouts of their characters in game stores. In fact, many games won’t have any kind of marketing at all. The one thing they do have is originality, passion, and the freedom to make the kind of games they want. Oh wait…that’s three things. In any case, it’s easy to see why the indie games community is quick to cry fowl when they see a clone of World of Goo or Death Worm. Creating original IP is central to what it means to be independent in the game business.

So what can an Indie Developer do when their most prized possession is taken from them? Maybe nothing. In the case of MaXplosion, Twisted Pixel decided that the best thing they could do was simply let it pass. In their good-natured response to the controversy, CEO Michael Wilford told Joystiq:

“While I think the similarities are pretty nauseating, we’re too small to take on a company like Capcom. That, and we owe them one for inventing Mega Man, so we’ll let them slide.”

Even in the most blatant examples of cloning, protecting your intellectual property through legal action is difficult, at best. ThinkFun, best known for their popular mechanical puzzle game Rush Hour, was a latecomer to the videogame market. By the time they began developing a digital version of Rush Hour, a number of clones were already on the iPhone, most notably the game Unblock Me. Fighting knock offs of their games was not new to ThinkFun, who got the makers of Unblock Me to take the game down.

Unfortunately, within three weeks, the game was back up. Because the developers were located “offshore,” legal action proved difficult. Bill Ritchie, co-founder of ThinkFun recently told Gamasutra that their current strategy is to simply “develop digital versions of our games to be the best that they can be, better than the knockoffs.”

Is there no hope then for the developer who finds his game cloned? Fortunately, the scenario doesn’t always end with the developer moving on. QCF Design, a South Africa based development studio was also surprised to find their game, Desktop Dungeons, had been cloned on the iPhone as League of Epic Heroes. The game was essentially the same, though the clone was of somewhat lower quality. After several months of frustration and legal dealings, League of Epic Heroes was removed from all stores by its developer.

While this could be considered a victory for indie developers in one sense, in another sense, the damage has already been done. Lots of people bought League of Epic Heroes. Lots of people will see Desktop Dungeons and think it’s a clone. For QCF, the victory is bittersweet. Their biggest fear now is that Desktop Dungeons will forever be compared with League of Epic Heroes.

It will be interesting to see how these scenarios pan out in the long run. Twisted Pixel is already planning a sequel to their game, Ms. ‘Splosion Man. It’s hard to measure the impact of the clones on ‘Splosion Man or Desktop Dungeons. Will all the bad press make big studios like Capcom think twice about cloning indie games? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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