There are copycats in all walks of life, but with the increased ability to self-publish we're seeing more and more video game developers stealing ideas, concepts and even assets from other studios. We spoke to Halfbrick and Firemint about the ever-increasing number of Fruit Ninja and Flight Control clones doing the rounds. We also speak to the perpetrators — what do they have to say for themselves?
In High School there's always one.
You know the one, peering over your shoulder during exams.
"What did you write for question four?"
"Shhh, we'll both get in trouble."
Copycats. Even the games industry has its fair share, and always has. Pac-Man has its Munch Man, Gravitar its Thrust, Defender its Star Ray. Children — peering over the shoulders of others, handing in their homework assignments with nervous smiles. Hoping no-one will notice.
And today, with new means of distribution (iOS, Android, Steam) comes an increasing amount of self-publishing. With an increased ability to self-publish, one might argue, comes a decrease in quality control.
And clones. So many clones.
The Chicken Or The Fruit Ninja
Fruit Ninja has Veggie Samurai, Fruit Slayer, SushiChop, Monster Warrior. Flight Control has Flight Path, Shipwreck, and Sea Captain.
It's the attack of the clones and, in an environment where iOS games can be made cheaply and effectively it can often be difficult to detect what came first: the chicken or the Fruit Ninja.
"I saw one customer review on Fruit Ninja that said — 'These guys just ripped off Veggie Samurai!' That was pretty funny."
We're talking with Phil Larsen, the Marketing Manager at Halfbrick. As the developer of global iOS phenomenon Fruit Ninja, few developers have had to suffer the consequences of video game clones more.
You get the impression that both Larsen and the Halfbrick team aren't too uncomfortable with the fact their games are copied mercilessly across numerous platforms, but that doesn't mean they're at peace with plagiarism.
"You don't have to make every idea original," says Phil. "Take Jetpack Joyride — it's in the endless runner genre, and there are a lot of games like it, but we added all these new mechanics to it.
"But Veggie Samurai, for example, it's just so lame. They released three modes, just like us. We had Zen mode, they had 'Harmony' mode.
"We were just like, okay, there's ways to do this kind of thing! And there's no theoretical line, but people know imitation when they see it."
A Short Experiment
"Quantum Squid Interactive," reads the mission statement, "is a premier software development company specializing in the design and creation of games & entertainment for mobile devices, consoles, and the web."
Quantum Squid Interactive is also the studio behind Veggie Samurai, the game Phil Larsen referred to as 'lame' above. It's arguably one of the more cynical clones of Fruit Ninja available on iOS and Android. Quantum Squid don't deny that Veggie Samurai borrowed liberally from Halfbrick's groundbreaking game, but they don't exactly show remorse either.
"We don’t deny that Veggie Samurai has a lot in common with Fruit Ninja — how could we. In fact, we drew attention to it ourselves when we released it."
Steven Campbell is the Marketing Manager for Quantum Squid. According to him, Veggie Samurai was just the result of a short experiement.
"Veggie Samurai was initially a three week project with one artist, one programmer, and one designer," he says. "Truth be told, it was largely an exercise to see what could be accomplished in a short time-frame. The team recognised an interesting game mechanic, and thought that there were areas that could be further developed and expanded."
"The majority of games that are out there draw influences from other games; just like any other artistic industry," claims Steven. "On the Android market, there are certainly games that border on plagiarism, but there are others that are just clones of an interesting concept."
We wonder precisely what the difference is.
Everyone Takes It Differently
How does it feel to see something you've worked on replicated and cloned; to see others piggy back on your own hard work?
"It's a crazy mix of feelings," begins Sam Mayo, Community Manager at Firemint. "Surprise, shock, anger, amazement, and frustration. Everyone takes it differently.
Like Halfbrick, Firemint has had to deal with constant clones of its runaway hit, Flight Control. As you'd expect, they try to keep track of the developers cynically imitating its games.
"We try to play all of them — sometimes these games do something interesting or cool, which is great. Sometimes they're straight rips, which is disappointing."
For Phil Larsen, direct rips of mechanics are the most difficult to take — but if a game tries to innovate within a specific space, the team are far more willing to forgive.
"People have talked about Infinity Blade using similar mechanics to Fruit Ninja ," says Phil. "They both have the slicing thing, right? And Fruit Ninja was one of the first games that used the touch screen to slice.
"But for Infinity Blade to take that and make it its own — of course we don't have a problem with that. Cut the Rope had the slicing the rope thing as well — that was awesome. They didn't come into it thinking, we're just going to rip off this game. They came in trying to make something their own."
Sam Mayo agrees.
"Of course there will always be similarities between games that share their genre," he says. "The key here is how those games innovate. By all means, take inspiration from great games - but simply cloning them without any significant changes is unhealthy, and quite frankly gamers have every right to feel cheated or insulted."
Steven Campbell from Quantum Interactive believes that, in a competitive market, the existence of clones is simply inevitable.
"In terms of our own development process, it is in no way a cynical exercise," says Steven. "At times, we do draw inspiration from popular games, but at the core we look to develop our own original concepts. Veggie Samurai is not synonymous with Quantum Squid... it was one project that got attention.
"Whether it is unfair or not isn’t necessarily important, it is simply inevitable," he continues. "The point is that there are bound to be similar games between markets, or even within an individual market itself, especially when an interesting game mechanic becomes popular."
As you might expect, Sam Mayo disagrees.
"I don’t buy that thinking, and I think we should show more respect for the medium," he says. "Ask yourself: as a developer do you really take pride in what you’re doing? As a gamer would you rather play a cloned version or the original?"
Release The Hounds
The copier and copyee stand side by side after class.
"Who copied who?" asks the teacher. You don't envy his task. Chances are he/she can guess precisely who did what, and who copied who — but what can the teacher do without proof? Give both students detention? Throw out the baby with the bathwater?
The legality of copycat games is a grey area to say the least. Technically it is possible for developers to get a patent on a specific way of interacting with a touch screen — but it's very time consuming and expensive to obtain such a patent. Copyright is far easier to obtain, particularly since it's automatically granted when you or your company create something.
Phil Larsen isn't well-versed in the minutiae of the legal detail, but knows imitation when he sees it. Halfbrick will take action when they deem it necessary.
"Copyright law, IP infringements — it's a grey area that not a lot of developers really understand," says Phil. "We just know it when we see it. We have to judge whether to take action on it or not based on whether or not we think it's an issue."
According to Sam Mayo, Firemint usually limits such action situations where actual assets are being stolen. That's when they release the hounds.
"There are copies out there that steal not only the gameplay mechanics and level designs, but go as far as directly ripping the graphics and stealing the name itself and charging money for it!"
"There are intellectual property laws that protect developers against this sort of stuff, and we sometimes have no choice but to get lawyers involved.
"But we'd rather devote all of our time to making new content."
Vegetables Aren't As Cool As Fruit
Making new content. That's ultimately what it's all about, but there appears to be a growing culture of copy — and it's in place at almost every level of development. From small developers chancing their arms with Fruit Ninja clones, to the grand scale Zynga-style rips of games like Tiny Towers, the temptation to chase the quick dollar is strong — particularly if your target audience is content with sub-standard product.
Ultimately, Phil Larsen of Halfbrick isn't too worried about the confusion.
"We don't pay too much attention. Veggie Samurai hasn't had that many downloads so we don't think of it as something worth putting attention on," he says.
"We weren't really worried about the whole situation because Veggie Samurai isn't much fun to play, and vegetables aren't anywhere near as cool as fruit!"
Or as delicious.