The less morals and ethics you have, the easier it is to earn money. That’s a sad truth of the world we live in, it seems. Nowhere is this more evident than in the high-level powerplays of multinational corporations, and the indie game development scene.

Big Dog Bites Little Dog

In the news today, Capcom came under fire for plagiarism. The company had recently released a game on the Apple Store for iOS devices, called MaXplosion. A quick glance at its trailer makes it clear, this is a clone (and a blatant one at that) of the XBLA indie hit, ‘Splosion Man. You can see a direct comparison over at Game Hunters.

We all know Gameloft, a publisher that earns its keep by making clones of popular games, for mobile devices. The CEO of Gameloft, Michel Guillemot, even defended his company’s practices of ripping off other games. “The videogame industry has always played around a limited number of themes. There is maybe one new idea a year,” said the CEO. “If a type of game is not available, then you should make it. The damaging thing is if you do a bad expression of a good idea.”

A pleasant excuse if there ever was one.

Local Impact

Nobody is safe from someone simply stealing your idea and making a quick buck off it by selling it somewhere you haven’t reached yet. Local darling developer QCF Design’s exemplary puzzle-roguelike Desktop Dungeons also got burned by an unscrupulous clone. You can read more about QCF Designs’ thoughts on the matter over on their blog. The cloner, Eric Farraro, trying to play the victim card, went on to say: “Do I think I’ll be made a scapegoat? Yes, I do believe I will. Do I care? Yes and no. Obviously it’s not what you want to be known for. Do I think it’s fair? I would say it’s hard to say. I would say it’s somewhat not really fair. It’s inevitable. Obviously I want to do the right thing.”

The right thing? Don’t blatantly steal someone else’s idea for a quick buck, and then try and act like you’re the one being discriminated against when called on it.

EDGE actually has a nice writeup of the event, and sums it up succinctly: “In designing and releasing League Of Epic Heroes in the way he did, Farraro stole something from Desktop Dungeon’s creators and profited thereby – you know it when you see it. Legally, it’s a grey area. Ethically, it’s black and white.”

Parables

The worst part about the Capcom clone, what Gameloft does, and the Desktop Dungeons clone: is that aside from being imitations, they’re also poor imitations. Imitators and cloners rarely understand why something is great, a successor or loved in the first place. All these unscrupulous developers see is the perceived success of something – and they want that – so they copy the surface details, neglecting the deeper understanding required for comprehending why the thing was a success in the first place. So these clones, they’re actually bad games, compared to the originals. Of course, the cloners don’t care about quality – they only care about cashing in on the success of something else. They’re not building something to last, they’re trying to quickly bamboozle people into paying for something that’s “like that thing that they like”. Generic imitations, like generic brands at the supermarket, prey on this exact idea.

There’s a story I was once told, I don’t remember the exactitude of it, but it went something like this: two authors were brought before the king. Both were accusing the other of having copied their works, a recently released book. The king thought on this, then told both authors, “Go and write a follow-up book, finishing the story. I shall read both, and then I shall know who was the true creator of the original book.”

And the king did know who copied who, because it’s always easy to see who was simply imitating, and who actually created something new. There is a comprehension, a clarity of vision, and a depth of understanding that comes from having created something yourself, versus simply taking what you saw somewhere else. A cheap knockoff will always be that – a cheap knockoff.

Silver Lining

At the end of the day, people will steal, cheat and murder to make some quick cash. Money is the root of all (current) evils, at least the ones not dictated by philosophy or beliefs. Though, one could argue that money is in itself, a religion. One that people will gladly die for, or kill for. But that’s rather maudlin, isn’t it.

There is some good in all this however. For all its faults, society does recognize the difference between originator, and imitator (even if that is sometimes only post-humorously). And that means that cloners, people like Eric Farraro and the people at Gameloft, will never get true recognition for their works. They will never be nominated for an IGF award. Unlike Desktop Dungeons, that has been nominated. The people that simply copy others and then act indignant when caught, will never gain a reputation other than that of someone too lazy or too incompetent to create something themselves. You can stand on the shoulders of giants, or ride their coat-tails, but nobody will ever mistake you for a giant or tux-wearing success.

And that’s a fact.

P.S. I’m not saying all clones are bad – heaven knows that the gaming industry today wouldn’t be where it is, if people didn’t take inspiration from each other’s ideas and build upon them. That’s where “genre” comes from after all – many people copying the same idea and adding their own flair. In this particular case though, with regards to the topic of this article, it’s not so much about the actions of individuals, but their intent.

P.P.S. Often, there is a kind of “false assault” that comes from a knee-jerk comparison of two things, and then the tirade begins. “Omg, it’s such a rip-off!” the commentators scream, when the reality is no, it’s not a rip-off at all. There may have been “inspired by” elements, where a team clearly was enamored with something and thus put in small tributes or homage, or took good ideas and made them their own. Case in point, the brouha over H.A.V.E. Online, which Kotaku hissed and spat was a Team Fortress 2 “rip-off”, which was clearly not the case if you bothered to watch the actual trailer. To quote a local gamer, “One person sees a game that somehow resembles a game that he likes. This riles him up, defence mechanisms kick in, and he then sets out to “prove” how it’s a rip-off, by making an artificial comparison. While the person believes they are revealing the truth, they are in fact trying to make people think it’s a rip off, rather than trying to show them that it is.”

It’s always important to learn how to differentiate between content, and container.

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