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[Gamesbriefers] What’s the difference between inspiration and plagiarism?

By on September 21, 2012

This is part of a series of posts called ‘the Gamesbriefers’ in which industry luminaries debate a topical question


Electronic Arts and Zynga are locked in a court battle in the USA, with EA accusing Zynga of “persistent plagiarism” while Zynga counters that EA’s actions are “anticompetitive”. In the broader picture, we can probably all agree that there’s a high degree of copying – fair or otherwise – in the games market, and it may be especially prevalent in new areas like social and mobile games, which have yet to be fully explored. Is this a positive or a negative? Where should we draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism, if a line can indeed be drawn?


Andrew Smith Director at Spilt Milk Studios

I genuinely have no problem with copying, being inspired by or even riffing and homage. This is all healthy, fun and helps prevent the problem whereby we games developers tend to reinvent the wheel far too often.

Where I’d draw the line is where a company has made a clone of something else, with the explicit intent to make consumers of the inspirational product think that theirs is the same or related in some way. It’s a tough line to draw accurately, but I think most sensible and level headed people can tell when the reason for the ‘cloning’ is purely to dupe fans of an existing IP commercially, or to riff on a basic idea out of passion for it and a desire to push the genre in a new direction or with a new twist.

Tadhg Kelly Consultant at What Games Are

It can be tricky to judge exactly. There are many indie developers who are convinced that Angry Birds is a rip-off of Crush the Castle, for example, but I’ve always maintained that it’s a better execution on the same general idea. Plus it has a vastly better look. You could say the same about many first person shooters, or real time strategy games.
While I’d always encourage anyone who makes games to experiment, the available space for experimentation is often smaller than we think. The invention of a brand new dynamic is very rare (increasingly so) and so the vast majority of games tend to be customisations of pre-existing ones. Games are also often built on ludemes (a term coined by David Parlett meaning rules commonly adopted from one game to another, such as experience points and levels), but do something new with one or more of them.
So all in all I think the line for me is if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If it’s a re-visualised version of the same basic game it might be poor, but it’s not plagiarism. If it looks like another game (within reason) but plays differently, it’s not plagiarism either. But if you really can’t be bothered to innovate either mechanically or aesthetically, why are you in the games business in the first place?

Ella Romanos Founder at Remode Studios

I don’t think it’s more prevalent in mobile/social than in other areas – in my mind, triple-A games are more guilty of copying and being less innovative than most other areas, particularly with FPS’s.

I guess the difference in triple A is that the mechanic is not really what’s selling it, it’s the visuals and marketing story around it, and thats where (sometimes, arguably) you get more variation between the products.

Whereas in mobile/social space the games are sold on the mechanics themselves, so people are more sensitive about copying because it’s more noticeable or is considered more important.

There is always going to be a lot of replication in mechanics between games, it’s impossible to have it any other way. The moral argument is about the intent of the creator, whether they meant to copy rather than be inspired, and whether they set out to steal a user base. Legally though I can’t see how that can be proved, so whilst most developers probably have a sense of a)morals and b) pride, it won’t stop the Zynga’s of this world. Unless it is identical to another game, I think we’re treading down a more dangerous path by trying to legislate against copying like this, because it is such an unclear line, and that could be used against companies who are innocent too easily, stifling innovation and creativity by people being too scared to release things.

Mark Sorrell Developer at Hide & Seek

I’d largely echo Ella’s views. I think the threat to creativity that legislating away genuinely inventive and interesting twists on old mechanics represents is far greater than the commercial threat of cloning. In some cases it’s obvious and should be stopped – Yeti Town for example – in others lazy and uninspiring but acceptable – see the flooding of the app store with Temple Run type games – and in some cynical and unethical but dangerous to try and legislate against – see Zynga et al.

I’d rather be free to make the game I want to make than safe from having a game I’d made cloned.

And a quick look at the reaction to UsTwo’s J.S. Joust clone is enough to show that, in some cases, the community can police itself.

The only thing said so far I’d actually disagree with is Tadhg’s assertion that we’ve invented most game types already. Probably in part a definitional issue, but to me we’re at the other end of the road. I’d say we have more game types to discover than have been discovered. The burst of new game types that every new control mechanism or new context for play brings about is surely proof of that. I wouldn’t have joined a company whose tag line is ‘Inventing New Kinds of Play’ if I didn’t believe it was possible!

Martin Darby Founder at Remode Studios

Quite simply I don’t think we can have one over riding rule/law to divide replication from inspiration because it is driven by intent which can vary. This is why we must be careful not to impose law that could be abused. Take for example the on-going HD fan remake of the 16-bit version of Sonic 2: technically this is about as cloned as one can get, however is the motivation really to undermine Sega?

This leads me to the conclusion that money has to be a key factor. If you are trying to profit from it then that is immediately dubious.

All this does make me think if we need to change our thinking in regards to the legals. For example in the music industry it is completely normal for one artist to cover another artists song. Not the most creative thing to do but certainly no elephant in the room. Its often seen as homage and fine to profit from it: no one goes to war because it acknowledges that something can be ‘cloned’ by someone else and there is a process to deal with it. Currently IP law in games seems to be that you either stay well clear of others IP or you buy an expensive license that heavily controls how you must use the brand.

Is there a middle ground or are we too far gone?

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Papaya

I thought the argument of what was copying or not was over when Arkanoid was cleared of plagiarism of BrickBreaker because it used rounded corners for the bricks. Don’t get me wrong; I think lazy, simple copies of other people’s games are awful and stupid… but mostly because it shows no creativity. Thankfully most of these are ignored by users as the waste of pixels they are.

For my mind you don’t want to copy… you want to steal! Stealing means making what you have taken your own.  Adding something of your own vision of what a game could be to the basic design concept you started with. I don’t know enough about the specifics of this case but to illustrate my point, if you consider FarmVille to be a clone of Harvest Moon you would be missing the whole genre potential created by adding asynchronous play through Facebook.

These court cases strike me as the last recourse of large companies who don’t know how to compete anymore and who simply want to restrict the creativity of others and scare the innovation out of the market.

But perhaps I’m just a cynic.

Charles Chapman Director at First Touch Games

My view is that beyond basic infringement, execution is everything.

Martin makes a good point about music, but execution to a decent level in covering a music track is obviously a damn sight easier than copying a game, and the original writer benefits accordingly. We’re all probably only too aware how much tuning, tweaking, balancing and polishing games development takes. There are of course genres that require less tuning than others but generally if someone wants to clone, and improve on, a good game, then generally they’re going to need a good deal of talent to do so. As Oscar points out, most ‘clones’ are very poor – it takes more than ticking the features off a list to make a good game.

We’ve always had genres and always will, and pretty much every genre is driven forward by multiple developers & publishers each trying to improve on the current standard. We’re in an era now where there are more visible games which don’t fit nicely into existing genres (e.g. Tiny Tower), but either they’re big enough that they’ll become their own genre or if not they may spawn a handful of imitators good and bad.

In my view, taking away the ability for developers to take each other’s basic concepts and improve on them would actually stifle creativity and advancement more than it helps it. There obviously does need to be a line though, but as for where we draw it, it has to be blatant plagiarism. Ultimately no developer worth their salt will want to be associated with copying someone else ideas, but at the same time, let’s not block the natural evolution and improvement of genres, however small those genres may be today.

Andy Payne MD at Mastertronic

There always seems to be much derision surrounding derivation. It has got so confusing, indeed where is that line between plagiarism and inspiration anyway? Ultimately I wonder if we are now no longer governed by the rule of law, but the rule of lawyers? As Charlie says, Patent Wars attract controversy and feel so wrong on some levels (trolls for example) and cloning can attract plenty of debate and legal fees. For me game design has moved on massively in the mobile space to encompass more than just a game. Now we all need a monetisation mechanics and surely that will be open to copying/stealing/modifying/pimping and so on? 

Have we got to the point where everything has been invented in our game’s world? I doubt it, only because of that innovation/infinity rule, but should we ultimately care? The law is supposed to protect, yet time and time again, if you cannot fight the battle, by hiring the lawyers, then is justice ever really done? Maybe I would prefer an open source, no copyright, no patent world, where it was a free for all and you got judged by the quality of the game and the service you give? If games are truly becoming a service, then the rewards may well be judged in human terms. Can you copy great attitude and great service? Yes, but few people do it really well. Why? Well maybe because they are lazy, lack humility and only want an easy way to the money or are just plain unimaginative.

Stuart Dredge Journalist at the Guardian

I thought it was interesting (if dispiriting) when the developers of Canabalt open-sourced it, and someone went right ahead and uploaded the code unchanged to the App Store under a different name. The fact that someone was being very open and saying ‘here, use my code, build on my work’ and someone’s first reaction was just ‘I’ll use the code, cheers’

There are thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of shitty clones on the App Store, and the vast majority sink without trace or controversy. The key drivers for public hoo-haas seem to be 1.) when a big company clones a small company (Zynga v NimbleBit etc) and 2.) when someone clones a famous console game in a shitty way and it shoots to the top of the charts.

Oh, and 3.) when people don’t like ustwo because they saw Mills at a conference or on Twitter once and thought he was arrogant. That still stood out as a witch-hunt to me, where people dived in with abuse before either they or the cloned developer had given a response.

It’s an emotive issue, admittedly, but one with lots of grey areas. I remember when some people muttered about Harbor Master being just ‘Flight Control with boats’ yet they pushed on from there to make Temple Run, which itself led to Activision reviving Pitfall as basically ‘Temple Run with, er, pits’

Harry Holmwood Consultant at Heldhand

Sounds like there’s broad agreement here.
I think, despite the fact that copying a game feels wrong to us, the downsides of trying to legislate against it are just too big to justify.  With so much justified criticism of the way the patent system stifles the innovation it was designed to protect, any more control would be counterproductive.

In terms of where the line is, it’s hard to pin down but you know it when you see it.  But even then, as Will said if you’re not copying code or assets it should be fine and the decision on whether it’s acceptable or not should be down to the market/developer conscience.  If the developer improves somehow on the original, at least for the market segment its targeting, then the market will determine whether that improvement justifies the new game’s existence. If customers think it is the same game, then the line is crossed and you’re basically passing your product off as someone else’s.

Sure, Zynga have blatantly copied games – but Dream Heights does improve on Tiny Tower, particularly for their audience – it’s more mainstream to look at, easier to follow what you’re supposed to do and works extremely well.  Do I prefer it?  Probably not, but I’m not Zynga’s customer.  And, for every developer whose design Zynga has ‘reinterpreted’, there are probably hundreds that have tried to copy Zynga’s analytics, IAP pricing/timing and other monetization techniques where they really did innovate themselves.

Ian Marsh Developer at Nimblebit

Dream Heights did very very little if anything to “improve” upon our game Tiny Tower. They copied every game mechanic wholesale and applied their generic and un-inspired varnish to the game. As dishonest and disappointing I think their actions were I don’t think there should be any additional protections put into place to prevent cloning. The fact of the matter is that as a smaller and more imaginative studio we will always be able to out-innovate companies the size of Zynga. If they want to play copycat to ride our tiny coattails so be it, but you’ll notice Dream Heights didn’t enjoy near the success Tiny Tower did, even with their enormous marketing muscle and careful analytics.

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Every week, we all ask our august panel of luminaries a burning question in the world of free-to-play and paymium game design. Or we ask a broader question on the future of the industry. We’re not going to announce who is a GAMESbriefer. You’ll just have to read the posts to see who is saying what to whom. We have CEOs and consultants, men and women, Brits, Germans, Americans, indies, company people and much more besides.