Copyrights and Copycats


There are two stories of videogame “plagarism” going on lately. One is the story of Zynga copying Tiny Tower and making Dream Heights. Now, a few wise asses have laughed this off by saying that Tiny Tower is a ripoff of the 1994 Maxis classic Sim Tower. But let’s be clear here: There’s a difference between “This game is based on the same thematic concept as a game from eighteen years ago” and “This game is a click-for-click recreation of something on the market now”.

We can’t expect every game to be based on some radically unique idea, but we should expect new games to bring something new to the table. I would hope that most games begin with the designer saying, “I like this idea, but I think I can do it better.” If a game is simply a duplication of what is already available (and even on the same platform!) then from the player’s perspective there’s no reason for it to exist.

The other story is about Spryfox, the two-man team that made the Facebook / Google+ game Triple Town. (Disclosure: I love me some Triple Town. It’s a relaxing puzzle game that’s low on the micro-transaction annoyance factor that social networking games are notorious for.) According to this post from CEO Dave Edery, they approached the company 6wave to publish Triple Town. Instead of publishing the game, 6wave made a competing clone called Yeti Town.

Now, when these stories came out I saw a lot of posts from fans who wanted to see Zynga get sued, or wanted to see a law passed to prevent this from happening. I can sympathize with this point of view. I am 100% on the side of the people making original creations, and I hope the copycat developers die penniless by the dumpster behind Quizno’s. At the same time, I’m glad we’re not seeing a lot of laws and lawsuits being thrown around, because that cure could end up being worse than the disease.

(Spyfox is taking 6wave to court, but since the two companies had an existing agreement this lawsuit is more than just “I’m suing you because your game is too similar to mine”. I think they showed a lot of restraint, even though they decided to go to court in the end. Read the details if you want to know the whole story.)

Let’s imagine two different games, both of which use the Minecraft-style world of 1-meter cubes:


The player cares for a small village. They dig for resources and fight off werewolves, vampires, flying gargoyles, and Frankenstein monsters. They work their way up a tech tree to build steam-powered clank robots and primitive firearms. As they progress, the village grows into a town, and eventually into a bustling gothic city.

The endgame has the player build a zeppelin where they fly away with a few citizens to found a new village in a new stretch of frontier.

Compare this to:


The player digs for resources like rubblestone, iron, and diamonds. They build structures from their own imagination. Along the way they have to fight off stalkers (green armless suicide bombers) watchers (shadowy figures that only attack when you look at them) skeletons with crossbows, undead, and giant arachnids.

The endgame has the player journey to a dimension called “The Finale” where they fight a flying drake.

Let’s also imagine that, due to low-res textures and muted colors, Steamtown looks superficially like Minecraft. At the same time, Digcraft uses bump-mapping, bloom effects, and particle effects to make a world of vibrant colors.

Now, those of us who have played Minecraft can see that Digcraft is an exact mechanical copy of Minecraft with a different visual style, and Steamtown is a different game entirely with a similar visual style. Steamtown is a new game, and Digcraft is an obnoxious knock-off.

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But to be able to make that distinction, you have to be enough of a gamer to understand that a game is defined more by its mechanics than its screenshots. Moreover, you have to be a gamer who has played Minecraft. To anyone else, Digcraft looks new and Steamtown could be mistaken for the rip-off.

Consider how this would work in a world where companies could sue other companies for making “similar” games. Remember that juries are ostensibly drawn from the populace in general. When thinking about filling out a jury, consider the following:

  • Most people – although not everyone – have seen a videogame in person and gets the idea of what a game is and why people play them.
  • Of those people, only a portion of them actually play games.
  • Out of those players, only a portion of them play anything more advanced than Angry Birds and Poppit.
  • Out of people who play advanced games, very few understand and care about the business of games enough to be able to tell you what company publishes Mass Effect or who made BioShock. They don’t have brand loyalty and they don’t care. They buy what their friends have and what they see on TV, and that’s enough for them. They don’t care what company made their console gaming system any more than you care what company made your television.
  • Of the remaining small group, only a minority of them will be “into” games the way we are. As someone who reads The Escapist and follows this column, you are part of a tiny sliver of the general population who follows gaming news and industry trends.
  • In a randomly selected group of twelve people, odds are strongly against even one person like you or I landing on a jury. An overwhelming majority of your peers are going to be people that have no frame of reference for judging between Steamtown and Digcraft. A good lawyer can convince those people that Steamtown is a ripoff of Minecraft. A good lawyer could convince a similar jury that Digcraft is not a ripoff of Minecraft.

    Any law that requires a jury of informed, engaged gamers to reliably arrive at a sensible decision is doomed to fail, because there aren’t enough of us to make that happen. I’m not saying the courts would always get it wrong, but there would be a lot of room for legal shenanigans. In the end, the winner would not be decided by who is right, but who can fight. And we know how that usually turns out.

    If there was a law to fight against people like Zynga, it could easily be abused by big publishers to stomp out the competition. Can you imagine how hard it would be to make the average Angry Birds player understand the difference between Mass Effect and Halo? The difference between Quake 4 and Prey? Fallout 3 and STALKER? Why Torchlight is a “Diablo clone” and Neverwinter Nights 2 isn’t?

    Can you imagine how much EA would love to have the power to drag the developers of Anno 2070 or Tropico in front of a jury and claim that since these games feature overhead city-building, they’re clearly Sim City ripoffs? Can you imagine how litigation-hungry Activision would behave with that kind of power?

    My point is: Don’t sweat this kind of stuff. Yes, Zynga is really, really annoying. They get rich selling obvious copies of things made by smarter, more creative people. It sucks, but other industries have to deal with this same problem. There are knock-off movies, knock-off sodas, knock-off cereal, knock-off clothes, and knock-offs of just about anything else we might consume. We’ve got laws to keep the bad guys from using the brand names of the good guys, and anything more might just be asking for a worse kind of trouble.

    Shamus Young, once wrote a Tetris clone to teach himself C++. It was a lot of work, but he had the good sense not to ask money for it.

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