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Great Artists Steal (and so do shitty companies)

Last week I became aware of a controversy surrounding King.com Ltd, makers of Candy Crush Saga and other games, and an independent developer, Matthew Cox, aka JunkYardSam, his game Scamperghost, and a blatant ripoff called Pac Avoid, which King has since pulled from the market.

King’s actions with regard to this situation are particularly distressing. According to JunkYardSam’s version of the story, he had been in negotiations with King about licensing his game, and after another company (MaxGames) offered him better terms, he broke off negotiations with King, at which point King approached a third-party developer, Matt Porter (who appears to have been innocently manipulated by King), to commission a blatant ripoff of the game and attempted to bring it to market before JunkYardSam’s game was released.

I’d never heard of Scamperghost until this story broke, and I still have not played it, nor have I played Pac Avoid (and I guess it’s likely I never will). In the wake of JunkYardSam’s revelatory blog post about what went down, the blogosphere and twitterverse exploded, and enough has been said about the specific incident that I can’t hope to add anything of value at this point.

It’s obvious that King know how to market popular, addictive games with polish, as the success of Candy Crush Saga demonstrates. It’s also obvious that King doesn’t concern itself with making original games. Candy Crush Saga is the umpteenth variation in the match-3 genre, a ripoff of PopCap Games’s mega-successful Bejeweled series, which started in 2001, and was itself not an original concept, having been inspired by a 1988 game called Shariki, and directly descends from games like Shariki (1988), Columns (1999) and Dr. Mario (1990).  Zoo Keeper (2003) is another notable title in the genre.. The match-3 genre is a sub-genre of the “falling block” genre, which was created by the 1984 classic Tetris, which itself has a famous history of its creator Alexey Pajitnov’s original creation being stolen and sold by various corporations without compensation.

I’m not going to rag on King too much, because even their business model of ripping off other game designs isn’t original. Everyone knows they were in the wrong, they know it themselves, and their lame open letter on their approach to IP really doesn’t read to me like an apology at all. Although they admit that they were wrong to produce Pac-Avoid, taking it down doesn’t go far enough — rather than take it down, they should have left Pac-Avoid up, provided a link to the real Scamperghost game, and promised to provide JunkYardSam with all the profits the game had ever earned. That would have served them right. I’d like to think that if JunkYardSam could afford a good enough lawyer, that’s exactly what he’d be entitled to. And attempting to trademark common words like “Candy” and “Saga” would stop happening. And King would not infringe on Namco’s Pac Man trademark by creating a ripoff game called Pac-Avoid. If I read their Open Letter right, King hasn’t quite understood their position in the market, doesn’t value originality in terms of crediting and compensating its sources, and is just another money-grubbing corporation. They clearly have the resources to create solid, fun-to-play games; they just choose to do so based on established successes and other people’s ideas that they wish they’d thought up, but didn’t. And that means that they can make enough money to pay rent and salary, perhaps, and not expose themselves to risk by developing truly original products or innovating.

Meanwhile those who do strive to innovate and create original games often struggle in the market, only to watch established “me too” shops like King who know how to polish an idea and bring it to market effectively take home all the bread. It’s an efficient business model. Why pay full time developers, when they can buy ready-to-market games that look promising from starving people who make games, for far less than a full time salary would cost? Or when they can’t, just commission someone else to make a knockoff of the game for you.

Update: Apparently, King also ripped off another game, CandySwipe, which came out a full 2 years before Candy Crush Saga.

Enough said about King.com, Ltd.

I thought it would be a good idea to talk about creativity, freedom, ownership, and standing on the shoulders of giants. Because, like it or not, creativity and success depends on being able to use ideas that someone else came up with.

Here’s some terms we should all be familiar with:

Rip Off

A rip off happens when a creator’s work is appropriated and exploited by another without compensation, usually by imitation, occasionally through unscrupulous contracts or outright theft of IP.

Clone

Clones are games which blatantly copy the play mechanics of another game, while adding no or almost no. What changes there are are often negligible cosmetic differences only. Often the graphics are made nearly identical as well, but not always.

Counterfeit

A counterfeit is an exact clone, attempting to be passed off as an authentic copy of the original game. The player thinks they are playing the real game, but they aren’t, and any revenue generated by it never reaches the creator. The counterfeiter deliberately deceives the player into thinking that they are the author.

Homage

An homage may be a fan game, using the graphics and game engine to create an unofficial sequel, or it may be an original game which is strongly influenced by an earlier game. Homages almost by definition must happen long after the peak popularity of the original, and are a nostalgic look back at a forgotten style of game, and the best offer a re-examination and deeper exploration of the play mechanics and features that made the original successful, or in some cases explore unofficial/alternative storylines, or mashups with other games.

Extension

Some games are made to be extendable, while others are reverse engineered to be extendable by fans who have the necessary skills. Plenty of FPS games, and others, are open to modding, and invite enthusiasts to extend the game in some way, creating a community, or sometimes a small industry, around the title. Modding is a gift the developers give to the community that is created by the market around a game. And modders return the gift to the original developers by keeping interest in the original game alive. Most modded games require the original game to be purchased in order to make the modifications to it, so they help sales. Some extensions are the result of the game engine being officially licensed by a third party developer, who may make wholesale changes to the rest of the game, and sell it as a new title. Many mods are simple graphics and sound replacements, or new levels, enemies, or weapons. But sometimes mods result in an entirely new game.

Sequel

In game development, a sequel is when a creator re-uses its own IP. The resulting game may or may not be better than the original. Quite often, a game is first rushed to market in a “minimum viable product” state, and the sequel is the version that matches the full original concept, with features that were planned for the original but had to be dropped, or implements technologies that were not yet ripe during the development of the first title. Companies with a successful IP will ride it as long as they can, creating sequels and ports of a popular game to make it available to as many markets as they can.

Genre game

A genre game is considered “original” enough to stand on its own, even though it bears strong similarity to many other games that belong to its genre. Nearly always a genre is inspired by a wholly original game that was a big enough hit to establish the genre. As time goes onward, genres tend to become more refined, then more stale, and new genres become increasingly rare and unlikely. Occasionally a grenre is reinvigorated by an inspired new variation that puts a new spin on what for a while was though to be tired and played out. A genre-founding game is both original and nearly always close to perfect. Later games may exceed the genre founder in some or even many capacities, yet may not attain the aura of the founder, and tend to be judged on how well they are executed and how well they innovate new features. Genre games that simply offer more of the same must be well polished, or risk being derided as derivative, and a lot of genre games are sequels or earlier examples from the genre and may get by as much on expanding the world or plot as by improved graphics or innovative features and game play mechanics. But genre games are generally considered legitimate games (if they tend to bore critics after a while) as long as they are of a high quality and try to offer at least something new, even if it’s an experimental feature that doesn’t end up getting picked up by future examples in the genre, and represents a dead end in the family tree.

As well, there are many examples within a genre of clones, or simply uninspired “me too” games produced by lesser studios that aren’t as well designed or polished as the industry leaders, and do nothing as well as the original or the current leader, being cheaply made imitations put together by people of lesser talent and vision who don’t understand the game design elements that made the original great.

That said, there are certain ripoffs that have been equal or even superior to the original. For example, Grid Wars, a blatant clone of Geometry Wars, is an excellent game, if a slavish imitation of the original. Space Invaders spawned a galaxy of imitators, many of which were clones or unoriginal derivatives, but it also spawned the entire shooter genre, and even games like Galaxian which was a very popular game in its own right, might be considered a knockoff.

Conclusions

In short, there is good and bad copying when it comes to creative endeavors. Good copying takes a good idea and does something new and better. Bad copying is a lame attempt to cash in on someone else’s good idea, and can be detrimental to the original, paradoxically especially if the bad copying results in something that is, in its own right, pretty good.

If you’re going to copy… ha ha, “if.” We all copy. But when you copy, unless you’re merely copying solely for your own edification, to learn how to do something you haven’t done before by imitating something in your world, don’t just do the same thing you’ve seen. If you’re creating something with the intent that it be consumed by others, take things from all around you, transform transform somehow, and make it something worth the effort of copying.

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