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Video game designers fight clone wars

More game developers like Spry Fox are crying foul over what they view as idea theft. Yet others have no problems with cloning, and there's little legal protection.

April 17, 2011|By Jamin Brophy-Warren, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • On Spry Foxs Steambirds, players pilot World War II craft and fire at enemy pilots.
On Spry Foxs Steambirds, players pilot World War II craft and fire at enemy… (Courtesy Andy Moore )

It was March and British Columbia-based game designer Andy Moore was sitting at his computer checking his email. Moore's studio, Spry Fox, had recently launched a browser-based title called Steambirds, a turn-based game that allowed players to pilot World War II aircraft and engage in dogfights with enemy pilots. Thus far the game had been well-received, with more than 2 million plays of the game weeks after launch, and now that the initial spike in traffic had died down, Moore and his colleagues were planning for future releases of the game on mobile devices such as the iPhone.

Then the bad news came in.

A friend had passed along a link to a game called Fly or Die that appeared two months later and bore an uncanny similarity to Steambirds. Even worse, the game had multiplayer elements that Moore had planned to implement later. "This was my first big game and I'm very possessive about it," he says. Steambirds "came from my heart. Now, someone's taken that spirit and passion and tore it from me. I felt a little bit empty."

Moore isn't the first to cry foul over similar work. The lower development cost of mobile and social games has opened the door for small, independent developers to more successfully market their wares. But another type of game developer has also made an entrance: the cloner.

Lately, game developers have been complaining more and more about idea theft from other game designers. Earlier this year, Austin, Texas-based studio Twisted Pixel, maker of Splosion Man, cried foul over a game called MaXplosion; studio head Michael Wilford claimed that Capcom, a much larger Japanese game publisher, had pilfered his company's idea. Capcom responded that it had no intention to produce a clone and that the division that produced the title, Capcom Mobile, worked independently. "Nonetheless, we are saddened by this situation and hope to rebuild the trust of our fans and friends in the gaming community," a representative of the company stated last week.

Earlier this year, Lima Sky, developer of the popular iOS game Doodle Jump, sought to force other game creators to remove the word "Doodle" from titles to avoid confusion after seeing clones appear on Apple's App Store.

Unfortunately for game designers, they have few protections under the law from those who borrow elements of their games. Anthony Falzone, a lecturer in law at Stanford and the executive director of Fair Use Project, says that though the expression of an idea, such as the art style or color scheme, is protected, the actual rules or algorithms that govern the game play in video games is not.

So far, no official proposals have surfaced to change copyright laws. A spokesman for the Entertainment Software Assn., the video-game industry trade organization, provided no comment when asked about game clones.

Video games, of course, are not alone in sharing nebulous gray areas. Fashion has had to contend with its own version of knockoffs for years. Retailers such as Forever 21 have been sued for allegedly copying runway styles from more upscale design houses. But Falzone says there's a clear difference: "In fashion, there's prestige, desire and the mystique of brands. Forever 21 can knock off Prada, but people who buy Prada will know the difference."

Although some game designers are upset by alleged theft, others think that having their products cloned is not so bad. Game designer Chris DeLeon, 26, spent seven months working through game prototypes every day before settling on BurnIt. A clone appeared just a few weeks later, but DeLeon wasn't upset. In fact, he sees cloning as part of what makes video games vibrant.

"It's a good thing," crows DeLeon, a graduate student at Georgia Tech. "It's a chance to make minor iterations on someone else's stuff. In the '80s, there weren't game genres, there were clones." He says designers would look at the success of a game like Super Mario Bros., which is known as a platformer, and then attempt to re-create something slightly different.

Not every instance of cloning ends in discord. When Ron Carmel, the San Francisco-based co-founder of indie game studio 2D Boy, discovered that someone had cloned a prototype of its indie hit World of Goo, he reached out to the designer and asked that at least credit be given to him and his studio. The cloner identified himself as a fan and happily complied. "I have to say I'm sorry," Maksym Hryniv, a 28-year-old Ukrainian game designer, wrote in an email to Carmel. "Never wanted my game looks so similar to yours."

Hryniv added last week that the design decisions were accidental. "I aimed to make a game with a lot of blood," he wrote via email. "When I tried to make realistic fluid simulation, the fluid parts became linked and that was pretty similar to World of Goo."

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