Developer Matt Akins published a scathing piece yesterday that accused a company of stealing his video game. I've spent the last day looking into his claims, and the truth is... well, what's your definition of truth? Let's go down the rabbit hole together.
Akins looked at how much money was being made on the mobile market by simple games like Flappy Bird, and decided he wanted in on the action, too.
"I knew I could easily churn out the kind of crap that ends up on the top charts," he wrote. "Creating games on par with the land of Hyrule would have to wait. I set my sights decidedly lower."
He spent a year experimenting with "simple, fun, crappy" games before settling on one that took the basics of Pong -- hitting a ball between two paddles -- and moved the playing field to a circle. He called it Rotable.
Hundreds of games are published on the App Store every day, so standing out is difficult. Some games become popular through sheer virality, while others rely on old school advertising and marketing. Akins decided to look for a publisher and increase the chances of Rotable being a hit.
Akins set his eyes on Ketchapp, a company focused on simple games usually involving one tap.
Ketchapp was at the center of the Threes cloning controversy last year. Threes, a simple but devilishly addictive puzzler in which you stack numbers on top of one another, was quickly cloned. That's not new -- the mobile world is full of clones. Threes cost money, the clones did not. The most popular clone, 2048, made Threes playable in a browser. The developer, a fan of Threes, didn't charge money, and made the code open source, meaning anyone could use it. Ketchapp took it and published 2048 with ads. It was huge, one of the biggest games in 2014.
Many of Ketchapp's games are, unsurprisingly, variations on other mobile phenomenons. Hoverboard Rider, for example, is a reskinned version of Flappy Bird.
Boring? Yes. Fair game? Definitely.
On Ketchapp's website, developers can submit their games for publishing consideration.
"We love talented developers from all around the world, and want to select the best games for Ketchapp fans. [...] We will get back to you shortly (7 days) if your game could be published by Ketchapp.We do not disclose any information on the deal we sign with developers unless your game is selected. Thank you for your trust."
Akins submitted Rotable to Ketchapp and crossed his fingers. The seven days promised on the website went by, and he didn't hear back. He sent follow-up emails, asked around on Twitter, and tracked the studio's founders on Facebook, looking for feedback. Eventually, they got back, but the news wasn't good. Ketchapp was not interested in picking up Rotable and publishing it.
He moved on with his life, but while sitting in his car and browsing the top charts, Akins noticed a game called Circle Pong! that looked eerily familiar to Rotable.
"It was very surreal," he told me. "I don't know. It's silly. At the end of the day, it's a game on the App Store, but your heart starts beating and you start thinking about everything I've been working for."
Akins became convinced Ketchapp had looked at his game, told him they didn't want it, built their own game around the concept, and published it through a shell company named App Cow.
This is where the story gets weird.
App Cow, like Ketchapp, publishes simple, one touch games on various mobile storefronts. Akins draws a connection between App Cow and Ketchapp with a few pieces of evidence.
One, the game over sound effect in App Cow's Circle Drop! and a Ketchapp game called Don't Touch The Spikes are the same. I've downloaded both games, and can verify this is true.
Two, the interface in both Circle Drop! and Don't Touch The Spikes are nearly identical:
Three, App Cow is publishing several Ketchapp games on Amazon's own app storefront.
There are some other details to consider, however.
First of all, Akins' concept is not original. There have been examples of developers transforming Pong into a circular game for years. Heck, there was even a game called Circle Pong from 2008:
And here's another one, called Circular Pong, from 2012.
when i sold #circlepong i didn't know it will go viral like that and make people crazy :D . Circle Pong My new game coming up soon ;)
— Ilyas Hassani (@ilyashassani) December 9, 2014
Hassani told me Circle Pong itself was a clone of another game called Pongo Pongo.
Pongo Pongo was launched on the App Store in June 2014, long before Rotable and Ketchapp crossed paths.
Here's how the three games -- Pongo Pongo, Rotable, Circle Pong! -- look next to one another.
Hassani wasn't making any money off Circle Pong!, so he sold the game to a company last November. He wouldn't disclose who he sold it to, but did provide evidence of the transfer:
Knowing all this, here's the timeline, as we know it so far.
Circle-based Pong concepts have existed for a long time. None of the games featured in this story are doing anything particularly original. Pongo Pongo was published in June. Then, Circle Pong! quickly cloned it. Rotable, the game supposedly stolen, was submitted to Ketchapp in October, while Circle Pong! was transferred to a new owner in November. The same month, Ketchapp turned down Rotable. In December, Circle Pong! became popular on the App Store.
Is your head dizzy yet?
Hassani wouldn't reveal his buyer, which might lead one to suspect that App Cow and Ketchapp are somehow connected. Ketchapp has made a living off cloning games like Threes and Angry Birds, so it's not exactly out of the question that they might operate under more than one shell name. But Ketchapp denies any connection to App Cow: in fact, Ketchapp says App Cow is cloning their games.
"Ketchapp is not related in any sort with App Cow," said co-founder Antoine Morcos. "All these games are clones of our original titles. There are tons of that on Amazon Store, we cannot do anything. Amazon even contact us to help us remove all these clones."
(He's a native French speaker, so excuse the choppy English.)
That's right. The company best known for cloning is having trouble with their own clones.
He might have a point. Here's Ketchapp's 2 Cars (left) and App Cow's 2 Cars (right):
While the design and execution is basically the same, the colour scheme and car models are subtly different. Brown instead of blue, yellow instead of red, hard corners instead of rounded.
Would Ketchapp, a company known for spitting out games at such a rapid pace, really go through that much trouble to create a shell company cloning its games with subtle differences?
Ketchapp claims they're victims.
"We are working on that [clones], it is not an easy task since you can see on the different stores that there are a lot of them," he said. "We would need a dedicated team just for that."
Who is App Cow, then? I don't know. The company doesn't have a website, and while some listings have them headquartered in Texas, I haven't been able to personally verify that. I found the company profiled on a few databases, and one of them described App Cow this way:
"App Cow is located in Dallas, Texas. This organisation primarily operates in the Computer Software Development and Applications business / industry within the Business Services sector. This organisation has been operating for approximately a year. App Cow is estimated to generate $US72,000 in annual revenues, and employs approximately 1 people at this single location."
The only phone number I was able to find for App Cow was answered by someone who sounded very confused. Here's how our conversation went:
"Hi, is this App Cow?"
"A mobile developer named App Cow."
"Haha, no, sorry."
Akins, the Rotable developer who maintains he's a victim of theft, stands by his story.
"There is no way two people could independently arrive at the exact same layout and design even if [the] concept is unoriginal," he said.
Ketchapp confirmed their conversations with Akins to me, but denied any wrongdoing.
"This is not our game, and all the information of this article are wrong," said Morcos. "I don't know how a writer at Medium could seriously publish that without even verifying the sources. We indeed have been contacted by this guy for his game Rotable, but we refused to publish it for several reasons, one is we did not like the gameplay."
When I asked if Morcos could understand people's scepticism, given the way his company lifted 2048 from open source code and handsomely profited from it, he stopped answering my emails.
We know the concept for Rotable was not new. We know it was submitted to Ketchapp. Everything else? Merely a trail of clones, clones of clones, and clones of clones of clones.
Notably, Akins did not ask Ketchapp to sign a non disclosure agreement when he submitted his game. Without one, there was nothing legally stopping Ketchapp from lifting the concept if they wanted to. Even that, however, is not a silver bullet. The larger problem is Akins is one person with limited resources. Akins has explored his options with a lawyer, but has decided to not move forward. Apple does offer a process to work on taking down games that infringe in various ways.
The long and short of it: the world of mobile gaming is a total mess.