Experienced Points:Copyrights and Copycats

By Shamus Posted Friday Feb 3, 2012

Filed under: Column 96 comments

My article this week is tangentially about a couple of high-profile copycat games. Actually, it’s more about how this isn’t as dire as it seems.

I didn’t get into it in the article, but this will always be a problem for mobile games. For AAA games, the expense in making the game is in producing the content. Even if you have the perfect game design that you know will delight players, you still need dozens of people hammering away for months to produce those models, animations, and game environments. Even if you want to make a complete mechanical copy of Call of Duty, you still need millions of dollars to do it. This is not the case for Facebook games. In those games, the most valuable thing is the R&D that went into finding the optimal balance of social sharing, micro-transactions, and gameplay feedback to make the game fun, viral, and profitable. With that data in hand, you can re-create a successful game in a couple of months. Maybe even a few weeks or days in the case of the really simple games.

So a certain degree of design-poaching is inevitable. Still, I can’t help but shake my head at a company like Zynga. Over 2,000 people in that place, and not one of them has the will or authority to add a twist to their blatant knock-off? As a consumer, I dig the idea of a bunch of companies making constant gameplay re-mixes, taking the most popular mechanics and combining them to make new creations. After all, it doesn’t take much to make something new.

It’s just depressing how lazy they are in their plagiarism.


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96 thoughts on “Experienced Points:Copyrights and Copycats

  1. Zagzag says:

    Yes indeed, if only more people would copy things that are actually good to begin with… (not meant to criticise minecraft… just a statement)
    I have to say I am incredibly glad that the powers you mention in the article do not exist. The world would be a less wonderfull place if Activision and EA could have anything not associated with them razed to the metaphorical ground. The worrying thing is that videogames are the only medium in which the knockoffs are often more successfull than the original was.

    1. ehlijen says:

      Not entirely true. The movie industry has quite a lot of examples where the hollywood remake of a succesful foreign film makes more money due to having a powerful marketing force behind it.

      1. TSi says:

        Hollywood lacks inspiration to go that often buy foreign licencess. I can’t help but feel sad for all that crap they make out of popular eastern/asian movies, animes and games. Tintin was a good surprise for me as i’m a big fan of the animated serie, dragon ball’s stupidity made me cry. I heard Akira was canceled, good, it was starting to look like a pile of crap too. I just hope James Cameron won’t do something stupid with gunnm…

  2. Mari says:

    Why all the outrage this time with Zynga? Every game they’ve done is a rip-off of another game. Half the time they’re MORE buggy rip-offs of somewhat stable games. So why is THIS one getting the attention when the rest haven’t?

    On the topic of “there should be a law” it’s long been my opinion that there should almost *NEVER* be a law about whatever it is everyone wants a law about. In general, I’ve found that the more laws there are, the worse things become. A few good, general laws are better than a million specific laws. There’s also the fact that nine times out of ten whatever it is people want a law about already HAS a law about it. But people get morally outraged and want something *DONE* so we write yet another law that says the same thing. And name it after whatever happened/whoever died that people wanted the law to commemorate. Billy’s Law. The 9/11 Law. The Overpasses Collapsing on Innocent Drivers in an Earthquake Law (henceforth no overpasses shall be built which are not able to withstand a 7.9 earthquake because the current law that no aboveground structures shall be built which can not withstand a 7.8 earthquake obviously didn’t protect the 9 people who died in the latest earthquake). Shall we name this new atrocity of a law “The Triple Town Law” to commemorate the innocent game that will undoubtedly perish in the wake of Zynga’s corporate might? Maybe we can tack on “The Farm Town Clause” to add an extra $5 billion dollar fine to game developers who make copy cats of well-established games. I miss the days when average people and lawmakers feared technology and thus kept laws out of it. But I’m old. And grumpy.

    1. CTrees says:

      I don’t think it would actually be good policy, but I’ve looking thought an interesting thought experiment would be to cap the number of federal laws in existence. Once the cap was reached, Congress would have to repeal a law before enacting a new one. What the set would end up looking like after a few decades would be fascinating.

      1. Ambitious Sloth says:

        You may want to append to that statement the amount of different topics one law can cover. Otherwise you would eventually get vague sweeping laws that try cover multiple subjects. Such as a single law that is against animal cruelty and requires food services to provide their products nutrition information.

        It would just get weird eventually otherwise.

        1. Simon Buchan says:

          How about something like “The law (as in, all of it) must be stated x0,000,000 characters”? Though you would need “, and must define less than X,000 words” to prevent the law basically being zipped.

          The goal would be that it must be possible for a single person to learn the law in it’s entirety without being a professional at it. I don’t actually think this is possible, at least with the current way people think about laws – being a programmer, focusing on length is a great way to make code (which is similar in intent and structure to legalese) completely incomprehensible. On the other hand, it’s just about the only real metric I know of that can force down complexity at all – just about everything else is horribly and trivially abusable.

          1. krellen says:

            No single lawyer or judge knows the entire law in its entirety, I can guarantee you that.

            1. Bubble181 says:

              Of course not; the OP says so.
              I think it’s an interesting thought experiment though. If you had to start *from scratch*, could you make a set of laws that decently controls our current society in its entirity, that is compact and easy enough to be taken in by one person?
              Do we really *need* a code of law that fills 3 walls? I’m not saying we can go back to the Ten Commandments (though, you know, they’re a pretty good start :-P), our society’s way more complex now…But how complex does the law have to be?

              1. krellen says:

                No, he said “without being a professional”. I was pointing out that our legal code is such that not even a professional knows it in its entirety.

        2. Dragomok says:

          Well, there is a slim chance it might be happening right now. The rumour says that the first excerpts regarding ACTA ratification in Poland were hidden in some agricultural statute.

      2. Mari says:

        It could indeed be interesting, though you’re right that it would probably be an overall bad policy. The older I get the more I’ve decided that hard and fast, black and white rules generally aren’t the best way to run anything. Not even a hard and fast rule about how many rules there should be. I just wish more common sense were injected into the process somehow.

        1. Thomas says:

          Something similar has actually been implemented in the UK (i think, it’s on the manifesto which means more than it normally does now we have two parties fighting to ensure their bits actually happen), it something like UK councils are only allowed to introduce a new bit of legislation if they get rid of an old one.

          I guess the problem with too many specific laws is even people who want to abide them don’t have the time or resources to learn what they actually are

        2. Atarlost says:

          How about something like this:

          The speaker of the house of representatives and majority leader in the senate must recite the entirety of the federal legal code at the beginning of the first congressional session of each year. Any congressperson who fails to attend may not be seated and must be replaced in accordance with the laws of the state he or she represents. If either the speaker or majority leader is unable to finish reciting the legal code any laws either fail to recite are automatically repealed.

          Think that will adequately guarantee a concise legal code without including hard caps on the amount of law needed?

          1. Adeon says:

            While it is a funny solution I’ll point out that it would essentially allow the speaker/majority leader to automatically repeal any law they don’t like simply by “forgetting” to recite it. IMHO that’s way to much power in the hands of a single person.

          2. Dasick says:

            That would be a bad idea, since the importance of the laws would be relevant to other laws, not what the law is trying to do.

            I think one of the extinct societies had something similar.

            At the end of the year, there would be a hearing of all the laws in front of the public (localised village system), and for each law there would be a discussion of whether it should be kept or scrapped.

            Or you know, just re-write the whole constitution every 18 years. Nothing beats the squeaky-clean feeling of a new freshly-reinstalled OS.

          3. Kayle says:

            One of the Scandinavian countries had something like this a long time ago. BTW, the US Code is reportedly 200,000 pages and the Code of Federal Regulations over 160,000 pages…

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      “Why all the outrage this time with Zynga? Every game they've done is a rip-off of another game. Half the time they're MORE buggy rip-offs of somewhat stable games. So why is THIS one getting the attention when the rest haven't?”

      A better question would be why arent the rest of their games getting more attention?Theres so much publicity about pirate bay(for example),a site that makes no money with illegal use of other peoples ideas,yet a company that makes tons of money with other peoples ideas gets a free pass.

      1. Mari says:

        Because there’s a fundamental different between what Pirate Bay is doing and what Zynga is doing. Pirate Bay isn’t making money off of other people’s IDEAS, they’re making money off of other people’s IPs. They didn’t take the script for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, refilm it with different actors, and then make it available to the public. They took Monty Python and the Holy Grail and gave anyone who cares to visit a free copy that they didn’t pay for. (No, that’s not exactly what’s happening, I do understand how torrents work and why what I said isn’t technically accurate but I’m trying to fit your analogy to Zynga).

        What Zynga is doing is taking a game, copying the exact mechanics (with a few numerical tweaks to fit their own microtransaction system), altering the graphics to make it “match” their other games, and coding all of that themselves. They’re not stealing code. They’re not giving away (or even selling) another developer’s game with their name slapped on the top. Basically they’re pumping out Tetris clones. Which isn’t at all the same thing as giving people a link to download what should be a purchased copy of Tetris but the link bypasses the process of paying for it. See the difference?

        1. Daemian Lucifer says:

          “they're making money off of other people's IPs”

          No,they arent.Everything is free.In fact,piratebay isnt doing anything wrong.They are merely offering a place for people who are doing the illegal stuff to trade it,again,for free.Meanwhile,zynga is not only stealing ideas to make tons of money with,but are also abusing their customers privacy,to make even more money.Yes,I can see the difference:Zynga is making money.

          1. Alan says:

            The Pirate Bay sells advertising. There are claims that as of 208 they were making $4 million a year in revenue from advertising. (Of course that number comes from the entertainment industry, which also insists that a movie can make a billion dollars, but somehow have lost money just so they can avoid paying actors residuals.) They know perfectly well that they are primarily used for copyright infringement. In both cases, someone is providing competition for a product that cost a lot of money to develop.

            This is not to say I’m against the Pirate Bay, just that the claim that they’re doing it for free is likely incorrect.

            1. Dragomok says:

              They know perfectly well that they are primarily used for copyright infringement.

              Strange. I have always thought the Pirate Bay was specifically created by/named after people who distribute pirated copies.

            2. Klay F. says:

              There is a rather large difference between making money off of piracy (which The Pirate Bay DOESN’T), and making money from advertising.

              Who is more immoral here? The people making money off advertising, or the people who knowingly advertise on a website that is associated with illegal things?

              1. Daemian Lucifer says:

                I dont think anyone is knowingly advertising on piratebay.Though Im not sure if ad companies like google are allowing you to pick sites you want your ad to appear on.If they do,then you could say that they are knowingly doing it.

              2. Alan says:

                The takedown of Megaupload was done pretty much exactly on the grounds that despite Megaupload not directly making money off of copyright infringement, they were making money indirectly, they knew about about, and it was their intent. Similar logic has been used to shut down flea markets where the owners knew that a large portion of the vendors they rented space to were engaged in copyright and trademark infringement (forgeries). It was also used to fine and functionally destroy Napster.

                I’m not saying that’s how it should work, I’m saying that under US law they could be found culpable. Of course, they’re not yet subject to US law, so we can all continue to enjoy the plunder they share with us. :-)

            3. Peter H. Coffin says:

              beefing about Pirate Bay making money from advertising supports piracy is like saying Holiday Inn making money renting rooms supports prostitution.

              1. PhoenixUltima says:

                The difference is that Holiday Inn has actual legal functions (boarding travelers, hosting seminars, etc.), while the pirate bay is used for nothing but piracy. Hell, it’s right there in the name!

                1. GiantRaven says:

                  Not true. I’ve downloaded music torrents from the site that were uploaded by the artists themselves for distribution.

                2. CTrees says:

                  I for one have ACTUALLY used it to download a Linux distro. admittedly mostly because it amused me.

    3. rofltehcat says:

      I think you’re interpretting too much into the whole “outrage vs. Zynga” thing. It is just a recent example (and thus good) and their repetitive pattern of copying everything mildly successful is also a great example. Furthermore, of course the whole story will get a lot more publicity when the original developers publicly protest in such an amusing manner instead of just going all “okay… :(”

      What I wonder though:
      Is making a game that is a nearly identical copy of an existing game but with new and refreshing level designs a knockoff or not? I think determining line where a knockoff starts is pretty hard. I haven’t played either of those tower building games but as a consumer/customer, if I’d enjoy and love a game, I’d certainly welcome someone coming up with additional levels even when there isn’t much innovation beyond that. Though the original developers could still release additional maps… hm…

      1. Aanok says:

        That’s the point. Even if juries would actually bother to do some research on the matter they’re called to decide upon (like they had to, for heaven’s sake) and got a decent grasp of the situation, it’s likely that they still could not be able to make an easy decision. Sometimes the facts are plain and simple, like in this case, some other times the line is much more blurred. Consider also that it wouldn’t be right to copyright ideas and that code can’t possibly be patented, and you’ve got quite the matter on your hands.

        On the other hand, though, plagiarism still IS a felony, and I hope that Zynga gets its due comeback.

        With regards to the article, I do have to note, though, the fact that good lawyers can get you out of trouble not just in cases like this one, but in a lot of situations. That’s an argument that could potentially work against any kind of law proposal, so I’m taken to ignore it.

        1. krellen says:

          “juries would actually bother to do some research”

          Juries are not allowed – by penalty of law – to research a case they are hearing. Not the specific case, not the general law being decided in the case, nothing. It actually isn’t the jury’s job to be informed on the law and specific details. That’s what the lawyers are for – to tell the law and details to the jury.

          1. Aanok says:

            Huh. Well, I guess there must be a proper reason for that but, right now… I fail to see it. I’m sorry, but I come from a country with a civil law system and no juries altogheter, so I’m actually not very comfortable with all this :/

            1. 4th Dimension says:

              My guess is that, that rule was made in order to even the field between prosecution and defense, and prevent as much as possible public or personal opinion from influencing them. They must be tabula raisa about the issue. Jury must decide ONLY by using evidence showed to it (not by reading about it on the internet), and by evaluating only the arguments presented by the lawyers. This way they are executors of the “blind justice”, that cares only who is in the right.

              1. Aanok says:

                But wouldn’t a more informed jury be able to see through the eventual lies and manipulations of the lawyers? I mean, the more you know, the happier you are. The more points of view you take on the matter, the more your opinion will get refined and accurate.
                In Italy we don’t have juries (with a few unimportant exceptions), all crimes are evaluated by judges who actually know the law and can decree if the defendant has committed a felony or not. And they can say so because they have studied years in college, and toiled even more to get to their position in court, competing with other people who aspired to the same job (either that or strings got pulled and the Senator’s janitor’s uncle’s granddaughter got the place, but that’s another story).

                I guess this is one of the many amusing eccentricities of common law.

                1. krellen says:

                  The “informed” jury will also be swayed by editorial and journalistic biases. Innocents will be more likely to be found guilty because of the sensationalistic nature of media.

                  1. 4th Dimension says:

                    Exactly, that’s why they need to be a blank slate. But then the system can be imbalanced by one side having a lot better lawyer.

                    That’s why I think non jury system is better, except maybe for cases where common morality is decided, like murder or such. But for ‘technical’ trials like this having an impartial informed panel of judges is better.

                    1. Shamus says:

                      The “impartial” bit is the tricky part. Juries are hard to buy. There’s TWELVE of them, and so you’ve gotta buy off a lot of people. If ANY of those people you approach blow the whistle, things will go very, very badly for you. And even if you did miraculously buy a jury, it would only help you ONCE. The next time you’re in court, you’ll have a new jury. This makes buying juries so risky it’s not worth it. I’ve never heard of a company buying a jury, and I’ve never heard of a company (or party) getting caught in the attempt. I’m not saying it’s never happened, but I’ll bet it’s incredibly rare.

                      And you can make a really good case that “impartial” is better than “informed”. If we’re haggling over property borders, I’d much prefer a jury of twelve random people than (say) a panel of wealthy, well-connected realtors.

                      If you have a panel of static experts, it’s much harder to keep everyone clean. It’s hard to buy a constantly rotating group of common people, but it’s a lot easier (and more beneficial) to buy a static group of people.

                      And when I say “buy”, I’m not even talking about flagrantly obvious “here is some money to vote my way” issues. I’m talking about the sort of sleaze that goes on all the time in politics. You take someone out to dinner. Help their son get a cushy job. Give to their favorite charity in their name. Lend them use of your boat / beach house / box seats. You make friends with them, and nudge them towards your way of thinking. No explicit agreement is struck, but your “friend” is going to tilt your way when it comes time to make decisions.

                      I’m sure this is how we got SOPA / PIPA.

                      It’s not a simple thing. A jury is very hard to corrupt, but can be a liability because of their ignorance. A panel isn’t going to be fooled by slick lawyers, but is more susceptible to corruption. It might even be true that there is no single right answer.

                    2. StranaMente says:

                      There’s no need to buy a jury, when all you have to do is to pay for a better lawyer.
                      If the jurors can decide only on what’s been presented to them, then you can pay loads experts to argument your case and say how much the other part is wrong.
                      When you do this, you don’t have to pay the jurors.
                      They can’t ignore all the evidence the rich guy brought.

                      In the end, what a jury does is to evaluate which lawyer is better at presenting his case.

                      Instead a judge (at least in Italy) has powers to investigate, and research the suits that has been presented, and he is compelled to use every means necessary to get to the truth.

                      And while this is his job (and probably his vocation) and he studied for years to get there, for the jurors it’s only a duty.

                      And one other argument against juries is, why do you expect a surgeon to have studied to make his work, but you take people from the street to judge about the life of other persons?

                      Anyway there really isn’t a way to get to the truth, but some ways look better than other to get get close to it.

                    3. ehlijen says:

                      I don’t like this automatic assumption that just because a jury is picked at random, they’re automatically prone to dazzling by snazzy lawyers or not able to make logical decisions.

                      I have no idea what courts are like in countries other than germany, but I want to think the legal marketing approach to lawyer work is a fiction of hollywood…

                    4. krellen says:

                      The judge still plays a major role in a jury-decided case. The judge informs the jury of the law, rules what evidence is and is not relevant to the case, and in general serves as a balance in the case.

                      Also, the amount of money someone is paid is not an indication of the quality of their work.

                    5. StranaMente says:

                      @ehlijen: yes, that’s true, but what if all you can see is what the lawyers show you, then it’s likely that a good lawyer with a great number of expert witnesses (which is something money can buy) can make you believe he’s right.

                      @Krellen: But still the judge is just an arbitrator. While he’s the one who studied law.
                      I’m a lawyer and until now I studied law 6 years in college and and another 7 outside, while working, and I can tell you that it’s really unlikely that someone from the street could really figure out the intricacies of the laws just serving on a jury.
                      Juries are a left over from a past in which judging anything was more simple and could be done by anyone.
                      Why do we expect high qualifications from any professional in his field apart from the law?

                    6. krellen says:

                      The lack of qualifications is the point of the jury. My jury duty experience is less than a month old, so I’m speaking from a pretty solid place here. The lawyers did their job of presenting their cases, the judge did her job of informing us of the law and discussing the court proceedings with the lawyer (during which we, the jury, were asked to step out as she told them what could and could not be brought up in the case – just as a specific example, “illicit substances” were brought up by a witness and the judge ruled such information was not relevant, and thus we, the jury (and the lawyers arguing the case) could not consider such things in the case).

                      The judge made very clear to define to us what was the law we were deciding, including documentation of the specific charge. We were explicitly told that technicalities of law were to be considered.

                      Ultimately, the case came down to whether or not we believed the testimony of two witnesses who were key to the case. Many cases come down to this. Is it really better to leave that decision up to one person, instead of six or twelve?

                    7. decius says:

                      I prefer a system where, after the lawyers are done questioning a witness, the jury can ask any questions they want, or at least any question that it would be legal for one of the lawyers to ask.

                      I wouldn’t trust a jury to be able to tell if two games are the same- but if Zynga releases internal emails and other documents as part of disclosure, I think that it will be obvious when and why they decided on those features.

              2. Squash says:

                The point of not allowing juries to do their own researches is that out of fairness to the parties, they should know what the jury knows. If the jurors do their own research out of court, the parties do not know all the facts on which the jury is making its decision. They may read something totally misleading on the internet (unlikely, I know!) and nobody knows to correct it. I imagine that in civil law countries (like Italy) the judges still tell the parties the info they have and give the parties the opportunity for input. The difference is that jury deliberations are secret, so everything has to be done in open court.

                I am sure that if the way the games play is relevant, the parties would work out a way to put the gameplay before the jury. The mind boggles as to what this would look like in any sort of court, whatever the legal system, though.

    4. Sumanai says:

      The problem, as I see it, with few general laws is that it means everything specific needs a precedent. Which then are used as a sort of “temporary” micro laws that have to be dug up by lawyers when a relevant new case happens even decades later.

      I’d rather have laws that cover only very specific things and therefore you’d have a lot of them, but they could be categorised and therefore for a certain case you don’t need to get a lawyer who can afford to go through centuries of paperwork but just someone who has specialised in the particular field.

      But maybe I’m just favouring the latter since it’s closer to what the Finnish system is supposed to be.

  3. aunshi says:

    Damn it Shamus now I want Steamtown to exist.

    1. MikeSSJ says:

      That cheap knock-off? Pah – you just need to look at it to see they just copied that Minecraft-game everyone is talking about.

      You should totally try out this new Digcraft, though!

      1. rofltehcat says:

        Digcraft is just another low-quality rippoff of Blingcraft. In Blingcraft you can also craft Jewelry that gives you boni (after you bought the recipes/patterns via micro-transactions). Furthermore, it supports ultra-blingmapping which makes the game look awesome!!!

    2. I said exactly the same thing when I first read the article.

      1. rofltehcat says:

        I’ll … third? … that, too!

        I want that game to exist. Make the town into a mini-version of a “medieval Transylvanian town” and with progressed tech-tree turn the whole thing into a steampunk orgasm (Victorian-era London). Then we can fly away in our zeppelin and shoot the zombie-hordes with giant steam cannons!

        1. krellen says:

          Steamtown is just a genre-bend of Rebuild 2.

          But I still want it.

          1. rofltehcat says:

            In secret, Shamus is using his idea of Steamtown as a survey for his next game/engine project!
            I think I’d soooo buy that game.

            Btw, when is the release for Shamus’ book? Or did I miss something?

            1. uberfail says:

              Project frontier = Steam Town

              I mean he specifically used the word frontier…

              1. rofltehcat says:

                Hm… But with that name, I’d expect the character to be the chieftain of a gypsy caravan instead. Would be a shame to let all that procedurally generated landscape go to waste by giving the player a immovable base of operations. At least at a place the player didn’t choose without traveling along and fleeing from the monster hordes for a few days while desparately trying to rescue as many people as possible while collecting enough material for a basic fence/wall.

                1. MintSkittle says:

                  The way Shamus described the Steamtown endgame, you and some migrants depart on a zeppelin for parts unknown. I think this could also be used to justify the beginning. You are provided a birds eye view of your newly generated world, find a spot that looks appealing, and that would be your starting area, where you and some migrants just landed and now must cannibalize your zeppelin to found your new town.

                  Ok, this needs to get made.

                  1. Eidolon says:

                    So… Dwarf Fortress, then? ^_^

                    1. MintSkittle says:

                      I guess it would be a lot like Dwarf Fortress, but you only control 1 dwarf from a first person perspective. And it would have an in game win condition.

                    2. Dude says:

                      MintSkittle, something like that already exists in Dwarf Fortress. It’s called adventure mode. Not first person, though. And the win condition would be: don’t die for infinite number of hours. As compared to standard FPS don’t die for seven.

          2. JPH says:

            Rebuild 2! Glad I’m not the only one who played that game.

        2. DirigibleHate says:

          It’s probably possible to make it with a Mineccraft mod.

          Actually, now that I think about it, there is actually a Zeppelin mod out there already.

        3. Maldeus says:

          I’ve been thinking about how you could make that work. You couldn’t really go with the pixelated look of MineCraft in a steampunk setting, you’d want something more artsy. At the same time, the MineCraft-y scale of the game demands a very low graphics budget. My first thought for the right look would be a vaguely anime-esque cartoony 16-bit 2D sort of thing, but that runs into the problem of being not easily translatable into 3D gameplay, which is what you need to make the actual mechanics work (a 2D version would probably be radically different).

          1. GM says:

            there is a texturepacks called Steamcraft ,Glimmar’s Steampunk and Faithful 32×32.

    3. Aanok says:

      Imagine if, somehow, it also managed to get the looks of Batman’s Wonder City.

    4. Nevermind says:

      If I could ever find an artist that is willing to work on Steamtown for free, I’d totally make it. I tried already, but I suck at anything visual )-8

  4. Strangeite says:

    I am in the minority within the TwentySided community in that I don’t really play video games anymore. I loved me some TSR Gold Box D&D games on my Commodore, I will always check out the newest installment in the Civ series and I run a Minecraft server for my family, but I recognize that I am not a “video gamer” (sorry, in my mind a Gamer is still a pen and paper tabletop player).

    However, over the last year and a half, a not insignificant portion of my waking hours are spent playing video games. What has reawakened my interest in video games? The iPad. I have been slowly moving up the international rankings in Ticket to Ride. I discovered the classic PC game series Settlers because of a sale on the iPad version. I don’t use Facebook but looking over the shoulder of my wife and son, it appears most of the micro-transaction Facebook games are nothing but a more annoying take on crap flash games.

    But the explosive growth of iOS and Android combined with the very low cost of entry for their respective SDKs, has created an explosive growth of garage developers producing very interesting games. In fact it reminds me a lot of the industry in the late 80smand early 90s where a single individual can become a juggernaught overnight.

    I would never tell others to stop playing their AAA titles on the consoles and PCs but it seems to me that if someone is looking for true innovation within video games, they need to turn their eyes to the mobile ecosystems.

    1. Mari says:

      Not every game on Facebook is crap. There are actually a few quite entertaining ones. But yeah, the majority is dross. I couldn’t comment on iPad games. I do play a few on my android tablet but not anything innovative (in fact, most of my tablet games are PC games that were ported like Bejeweled 2 – but I haven’t really been looking for a “gaming experience” on my tablet, just a couple of games to kill time when waiting at the doctor’s office or whatever and don’t feel like flipping through a book). Then again, I rarely play anything “innovative” on my PC either. In point of fact, I’ve spent the last six months primarily playing Master of Orion II on my PC.

      1. Pickly says:

        (Getting a bit off topic, the the combination of MoO2 and innovation brought this to my mind)

        I find it strange that the space colonization type of game hasn’t improved all that much from MoO2. I’ve played a bunch of games (including MoO2), and have noticed flaws with all of them, yet it seems strange that in 15 years or so that type of game hasn’t improved significantly, despite lots of 4x’s, various fighting games, city building games, and such coming out that presumably could act as a source of ideas for creating more tightly balanced and tested space colonization games.

        The same seems to apply to 4x as a whole to a lesser extent. The entire genre does seem to have had some improvements as time goes on (At least the ones I’ve played.), but a lot of games still don’t feel “complete” in either missing some elements, or doing some elements poorly even while others are done well.

        1. Simon Buchan says:

          EDIT: Wow, re-reading this, I sound pretty jaded! To make myself clear, this is simply that you can argue this, I just don’t think the truth is as simple as “old games were better” or “new games are better”.

          Arguably you could say pretty much every genre hasn’t improved significantly in the last 15 years. Fighters, platformers, side- and topdown-shooters, RTS, strategy, dungeon-crawlers, etc… all pretty much exist as they did 15 years ago, with some minor visual and control enhancements. The RPG (in the story-driven, character sheet senses) has pretty much disappeared in pure form, “surviving” only by merging with other genres (this should result in better games, but I don’t think it’s a solved problem. Mass Effect is no Baldur’s Gate). And this is pretty subjective, but I’m not having more fun in TF2 than I was in Quake 3 or UT, and that should not imply any offence to TF2.

          1. Strangeite says:

            I am not qualified to argue whether older or newer games are better as I stopped being “in the the know” about a wide swath of games for over a decade. The last first person shooter that I devoured and knew the maps better than the route from my bedroom to the bathroom, was GoldenEye.

            I don’t think your post sounded that jaded looking at it from the perspective of an outsider. I know of many of the games and issues in the world of video games because of sites like TwentySided and others.

            In fact, your point seems very much in line with most.

          2. Pickly says:

            In the case of MMO’s, which I’ve followed to some degree, some types of strategy games, and a few related areas, I’ve noticed big improvements when it comes to balance, some types of polish, makes sure all, or at least most, if the units, abilities, and such are useful, and various things along those lines, I’ve noticed significant improvements in these types of games from previous ones.

            I did have a lot of fun with some earlier games, but coming back to them after experiencing more organized, polished, etc., ones, I don’t enjoy them as much in comparison as the new ones. (Diablo 2 and Lords of Magic are two games I can think of that I really enjoyed for several years after I first started playing them, but are hard to come back to after having been gone for so long.) Nostalgia, also, makes it hard to compare newer and older games.

            Certainly, when it comes to space colonization, there are a lot of things that could be improved with all games of that type.

    2. Infinitron says:

      Richard Garriott, is that you?

      1. Strangeite says:

        I wish. I would love to have gone to space, but unfortunately I didnt create Ultima. Since I know nothing about the guy since his Ultima days and the fact some of my lawn mowing dollars helped put him on the space station, I will take it as a compliment.

    3. Eric says:

      Mobile gaming is going to be a very interesting place in the next couple of years. I’m not really involved in it at all (I don’t have a phone, but I do have a Facebook account and have started checking out that stuff a bit more), but it’s a hotbed of innovation, it redefines the business model for games, and it will help even the playing field in that, at least right now, you don’t need $20+ million to be successful. Ideas really do reign supreme.

      Moreover, the mobile technology and even the stuff possible with Flash improves year over year. I don’t think it’ll be long before we see near-AAA-quality visuals in mobile games, and when combined with the freemium model, the traditional games industry is going to have a very hard job justifying its continued existence. Moreover, it opens up the possibility for the rebirth of old genres – already there are more turn-based CRPGs coming out on phones and Facebook than anywhere else, for instance. Argue if you wish about whether these games are good or not, but the fact is that there is more opportunity for everyone and for everything than ever before.

      I recently interviewed with a mobile game developer, and while I didn’t get the job, I don’t think it’s a field that deserves the scorn it gets. The taboos about game quality and business models are often misguided and just aren’t applicable to many developers in the industry, and I think the next few years will prove that it’s just as legitimate a marketplace to release games in as any other.

      1. Sumanai says:

        Triple-A games are basically games that have a super high budget. Everything else is just a requirement that is attached to the high price. Which I don’t think is a good idea for a mobile game.

        It’s also not a good idea to focus on graphics, as it’s understood in triple-A games, since those graphics will come with an energy cost. A high-visual game will drain any battery in a couple of hours if not less. It’s far better to focus on what most mobile developers are focusing on already: gameplay. Which is incidentally the reason why I don’t feel that the derision towards mobile games is justified.

      2. Strangeite says:

        To drive home the point at how HUGE the mobile ecosystem (specifically iOS) has become for these garage developers, I just read that Apple’s revenue just from the iPhone is larger than all of Microsoft’s revenue. In addition, Apple’s iPad revue is larger than the revenue from Microsoft’s Windows, Windows Live, Entertainment and Device divisions combined.

        That is staggering. Obviously, a direct line cannot be drawn between Apple’s revenue and a small independent developers potential revenue but I would argue that they are correlated.

        How long ago was it that a 1ghz multi-core desktop would have been considered a “gaming rig”?

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I have to disagree with you.Just because the system of law isnt perfect,doesnt mean it shouldnt be used.Should everyone who was mugged,or hurt,or had their loved ones killed,not sue the perpetrator,just because all the evidence police could find required lots of forensic skills,and the average man knows about forensics mostly from shows like csi?Heck,we already have plenty of laws against piracy,and megaupload was taken to court recently,and how would that be any different than suing zynga for plagirism?

    1. Klay F. says:

      But does copyright infringement law actually do anything to curb copyright infringement? I’d argue no.

      I happen to know a lot a professional musicians through my sister, who is a promoter. I asked every one of them if the money was flowing in for them now that MegaUpload is gone. I think you can guess the answer.

      Its pretty much fundamental in every government thats ever existed, whenever new laws are made, said laws will eventually always be abused by those in power, no matter the original intent behind said law. Its a fundament that has stood the test of history.

      EDIT: This is probably uncomfortably close to the no-no political zone. So, if you think that last paragraph is unneeded, Shamus, feel free to delete it.

  6. Amarsir says:

    Well-written, Shamus. It’s the thing I fear a lot of anti-copyright people don’t get. If it’s ok to just “take” someone’s work, we may envision it as the small consumer striking back at big industry. But the opposite is true: if stealing is allowed big successful companies will be better at it because they’re big and successful.

    Now you can’t copyright an idea or a style, as your column demonstrated. That’s as it should be. But because it’s not protected this kind of cloning happens. And it’s just true that Dream Heights is more a threat to Tiny Tower than offshoot Farmville clones would be to Farmville. That’s why we should all have more appreciation for intellectual property when the enforcement is clear, simple, and non-punitive to legal rights-holders.

    (None of the preceeding should be interpreted as an endorsement of SOPA imposing DRM, or YouTube’s “trust the accuser” policy. It may however be directed at some of the MegaUpload outrage.)

    1. Mari says:

      Tiny point. “Farmville clones” implies Farmville was the original. It wasn’t. Farmville itself IS the clone off a game called Farm Town. Just as Dream Heights is the clone of Tiny Tower.

      1. Simon Buchan says:

        I’m guessing most such games were copying Farmville after it’s huge success, not Farm Town though. It’s the same reason Duke 3D and Dark Forces are Doom clones, not Wolfenstein or Ultima Underworld clones.

        1. Sumanai says:

          There’s a pretty nice gap between Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, don’t know about Ultima Underworld.

          I don’t really know if those should be called clones anyway, since it implies they’re trying to just copy everything over without adding anything. Some indie developer made an intelligent post about it, comparing their games to other’s and made a special note on one being an actual clone while others were merely similar.

  7. Adam P says:

    “Actually, it's more about how this isn't a(as*?) dire as it seems.”

  8. Thomas says:

    The problem with the law is lawyers exist. In itself it would be fine, except we also have the notion of ‘better’ lawyers, which can’t exist in a truly just system. How can you present a more true case? And as capitalists the rich get the lawyers so they have ‘more justice’ than the common folks. But like capitalism it’s a downright terrible system and probably thee best we have. Your essential point seems to be the system is so flawed it’s a danger to make anything illegal. Maybe if it’s coming to that point more thought is required about the larger picture

  9. X2Eliah says:

    So, what’s the point of there being copyrights and copyright laws, is this sort of thing happens anyway?
    I mean.. Isn’t ths exactly the kind of thing that copyright laws and IP laws are all supposedly about?

    1. Even says:

      Copyrights only give you control of a specific product. It’s the related ideas and concepts that are contested here which you can’t really copyright. Usually they get protection through trademarks and patents, but there are some restrictions to it and I’m not sure how that really works with games. It just seems like a nightmarishly gray territory where everything’s open to interpretation. Problem with plagiarism in general is that there’s only so much sellable ideas in the world. What they’re doing here is without a question pure rip off. But the thing is, ideas are not really something that only one person can come up with, no matter how great or detailed it was. With gaming I don’t think we’re there just yet, but you can see it happening. In the music industry it becomes that much more apparent. There’s just not really that much true innovation to speak of when it comes to mainstream market. The Indie scene is where you only really can find it with somewhat ease and even then it just might not fit your tastes because it sounds so weird and outlandish.

    2. Alan says:

      At least in the United States, you can trademark the title and logo of your game. You can use copyright on a specific phrasing of the rules and specific art. It turns out that the gameplay itself cannot be copyrighted, thus the proliferation of knockoffs that just change the graphics.

      You can theoretically get patents on elements of gameplay, but thankfully those are quite rare, because patents by their nature include new but derivative ideas. For example, we’d only have just escaped the patent for “RPG/FPS hybrid” (assuming Ultima Underworld had claimed it in 1992).

  10. Caffiene says:

    “Over 2,000 people in that place, and not one of them has the will or authority to add a twist to their blatant knock-off?”

    I think you answered your own question in the previous paragraph.

    Zynga wont let their people put a twist, because they dont care about the design. They care about the market-researched R&D: They either steal a successful model from soneone else, or theyd need to do their own R&D to make the game successful.

    Putting a twist on the mechanics would mean the R&D mix of elements might be different, and therefore no longer a proven success. When they steal something they want it to stay stolen, not to steal something and then have to do actual R&D work on their twists to make it successful.

  11. Maldeus says:

    “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.”

    I’m now waiting for knock-off knock-offs.

    1. Stranger says:

      They exist already, I’m pretty sure. Generally I assume if I have thought of it someone else already has.

    2. Lovecrafter says:

      “See this shirt I’m wearing? It’s a Polish ironic copy of a Chinese knock-off of the South American equivalent of Hugo Boss’ latest line.

      It’s a pretty obscure brand, you’ve probably never heard of them.”

  12. Dragomok says:

    Great article, as usual.

  13. O.G.N says:

    It’s not as if this is a totally new phenomenon. Great Giana Sisters anyone?

  14. Kevin says:

    “It is really hard to scare the audiance.” I would say it is not really hard to scare an audiance, this travesty of a video did an excellent job of scaring off any hope I might have had for mankind.

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