iPhone Game Cloning: A New Epidemic?

iPhone Game Cloning: A New Epidemic?

The rise of digital downloads is the most significant change to happen to the console industry over the previous decade. Digitally-distributed games allow smaller, independent studios create and dole out products without having to deal with the expenses coupled with physical distribution. Players have reason to be happy with digital distribution, too: We have access to thousands of wonderful games for low prices. Trying out some creative developer’s bold new idea is as easy as downloading it onto your iPhone, your Xbox 360, your PlayStation 3, or your Wii.

Unfortunately, a combination of runaway popularity, cheap development costs, and easy distribution have breathed new life into another problem: Game plagiarism. A cool new idea that enjoys a burst of popularity on the App Store can be closely imitated and released by another game company in a matter of weeks. It’s a quick way to cash in in a hot idea, if not a dirty way. And with tens of thousands of apps and games available on the App Store, it’s easy enough for a game to lose itself in the crowd and avoid accusations. A small studio doesn’t care if their clone of Angry Birds isn’t as well-publicized or popular as the real McCoy: Even reaping 1% of what Rovio generally sees on its royalty checks is a huge number for a little developer. Is the App Store doomed to drown in knock-offs and clones?

Maybe not. Developers have been vigilant, as have fans of their work. One of the more recent controversies occurred over an iOS RPG called League of Epic Heroes, which was accused of taking a few too many ideas from a PC RPG called Desktop Dungeons (also coming to iOS). The man behind League of Heroes, Eric Fararro, denied the similarities, but pulled his game from the App Store and apologized when Desktop Dungeons’ developer, QCF, got a copyright lawyer involved.

So one imitator was shut down. However, accusations of plagiarism aren’t limited to small developers. In January. Capcom Mobile was embroiled in a controversy involving Twisted Pixel’s Xbox Live Arcade hit, Splosion Man, and one of its own iPhone offerings, MaXplosion. Both games feature zany protagonists who must escape mad scientists by propelling themselves via self-induced explosions. Capcom Mobile was damned further by Twisted Pixel’s claim that Splosion Man had been pitched–and subsequently rejected–by Capcom.

Capcom Mobile responded by saying it was “saddened” by the accusations, and noted that Splosion Man had been pitched to Capcom’s head office, not Capcom Mobile. However, the company stopped short of pulling MaXplosion from the App Store, much to the displeasure of the gaming community.

“I’m upset with Capcom about this,” wrote a commenter named “ShinMew” on the comment thread following the GameSpot story on Capcom Mobile’s stance on the accusations. “I would expect better of them.”

“What’s sad is that in this case a big company is ripping off a smaller one,” wrote another commenter called Slash_out. “I mean come on… Do Capcom really need revenue from a small game that bad? Do they have no pride at all?”

Ultimately, this is where game developers accused of plagiarism will have to make their stand–on the Internet. A situation like Splosion Man versus MaXplosion instantly creates a “David versus Goliath” scenario, which might not hurt Capcom’s bottom line, but will slowly erode the faith of its fans–potentially a big problem for a company that prides itself in working so closely with its fanbase.

Game plagiarism has existed for a long, long time. The Atari 2600, which lacked any kind of restrictions for developers, was a particularly fertile breeding ground for imitators that swapped sprite artwork and marketed a whole new game. In a way, the App Store imitates the tangle of growth that was the 2600’s library: Thousands of games and no possible way to keep track of all of them. The biggest difference between now and then, though, is the power of word of mouth. If the gaming community hears that something is amiss, the word goes on on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs and on message boards. We can ask for answers, hold people accountable. In the ’80s, gamers could only take the word of that one playground know-it-all who heard from a friend of a friend that the Mr. T game for the Atari was just Fast Eddie featuring Mr. T’s eerily disembodied head.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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