If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, mobile game makers should be blushing.
Spend a few minutes swiping through the game section of Apple’s App Store or Google Play and you’ll no doubt notice hundreds of knockoffs for every one original game.
It isn’t a new phenomenon in gaming — heck, Atari’s Pong is essentially Magnavox Odyssey’s Table Tennis — but now that anyone can create and publish a mobile game on a global digital store, it’s become an epidemic.
You can’t exactly blame developers, as it’s much easier to clone a popular game than come up with a new idea — and the payoff could be huge. Candy Crush Saga, one of the most lucrative mobile games of all time, is basically just a variant of Popcap’s Match-3 puzzle game Bejeweled.
So how are game makers able to get away with blatantly copying an existing concept?
“There are two main reasons why you might not want to sue a potential infringer,” explains S. Gregory Boyd, chairman of the Interactive Entertainment department at the Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz law firm in New York City.
“For one, copyright law does not protect ideas, only expressions of ideas, meaning you can’t copyright a basic concept, like a Match-3 mechanic, for example.” Only if you can prove “substantial similarity” would you have an infringement case, adds Boyd, “such as a clone of the gameplay, art, music, title, and narrative — but not necessarily all of them.”
“Secondly, the decision not to pursue legal action might be an economical one,” he adds. “Not only could it be expensive to retain council, but the perpetrators might live in a remote country with different laws, language barriers, and so on.” Boyd says if someone is blatantly copying your game, the first step is to approach Apple and Google to take it down, and you might have some success there.
But often the rip-offs just sit there, raking in the dough. Here’s a look at five of the biggies.
Threes (left), 2048 (right)
Threes | 2048
Easy to pick up but difficult to put down, a delicious little puzzle game called Threes! debuted at the App Store in early February of last year.
Created by Asher Vollmer, Greg Wohlwend, and Jimmy Hinson, this stylish head-scratcher challenges you to merge numbers on a 4x4 grid, which causes them to double, but each move adds another number tile to the board. When you run out of spots, it’s game over.
It was an instant hit, skyrocketing to the top of Apple’s Paid chart. But less than a month later, a strikingly similar game called 1024 appeared, featuring a similar doubling of numbers and a familiar art style but with the addition of nonremovable stones on the grid. Like the games on which it’s based, that was quickly doubled, and we wound up with 2048, by Ketchapp, in March. The proverbial floodgates opened, likely because 2048 source code was given to anyone who wanted it.
Type “2048” into your favorite app store and you’ll see no shortage of “me, too” clones available for download.
Incidentally, Threes! took a long 14 months to create, says Vollmer, which makes it even tougher to see the popularity of freely available clones, not to mention painful, misguided comments about Threes! ripping off 2048, ironically. Read Vollmer’s take in his blog post, entitled The Rip-offs & Making Our Original Game.
Ridiculous Fishing (left), Ninja Fishing (right)
Ridiculous Fishing | Ninja Fishing
Well documented by Polygon and Gamasutra, the Dutch-based Vlambeer sold a Flash game called Radical Fishing to a website in 2010 but retained the rights to create its own version for the App Store at a later time (to be called Ridiculous Fishing). Except the game that debuted for iOS devices a year later wasn’t Ridiculous Fishing but Ninja Fishing, a clone of Radical Fishing by Gamenauts.
After a legal consultation, Vlambeer found out they couldn’t do anything about it. Understandably, one of its founders said the experience was “soul-crushing.” Even still, Vlambeer released Ridiculous Fishing in 2013, and it thankfully enjoyed tremendous success.
In both games, you’re a fisherman who sinks his line into the ocean as deep as possible without touching any fish, then hooks as many as possible on the way back up. Once the line reaches the surface, you flip your haul into the air and blast them into chummy bits. I’m pretty certain Vlambeer wanted to do this to Gamenauts.
Monument Valley (left), Skyward (right)
Monument Valley | Skyward
An Apple Design Award 2014 winner, ustwo Studio’s Monument Valley is a clever, gorgeous, and refreshingly different puzzle game. With surreal artwork inspired by M.C. Escher and Indian architecture, it tasks you with manipulating the environment (and perspectives) to help a silent princess navigate through increasingly challenging castles, cages, and other locations. It’s a unique and atmospheric game worthy of all its accolades (though too short, in my opinion).
But along came Ketchapp again — yep, the 2048 publisher — with a familiar-looking game called Skyward. Just like Monument Valley, Skyward has pastel-colored, Escher-esque visuals, and similarly ambient music.
Some in the video game industry, including tech blog Engadget, took notice. You might notice the first comment at the end of that article was penned by “Yaroslav,” one half of AYA, the two-person studio behind Skyward. “We both are this big evil studio who have cloned poor small Monument Valley. Guilty,” he writes. “Just do not blame Ketchapp. … We take all the shame on ourselves. … They just published our game.”
In AYA’s defense, the actual gameplay is different in Skyward — a more “twitchy” task of placing dots one after another in quick succession — compared to the slower-paced character movement in Monument Valley.
“Take a look at mentioned games, [as] they are completely different,” adds Yaroslav. “MV is a relaxed puzzle [game], while Skyward is nonstop arcade.” On the look of Skyward, he concedes, “Well, of course we were inspired by art from MV, it is brilliant! But we didn’t clone the game.”
Donkey Kong Country (left), Banana Kong (right)
Donkey Kong Country | Banana Kong
Nintendo is no stranger to copycats, having watched the likes of Super Mario Bros., Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, and even Wii Sports generate scads of knockoffs.
But Mario might’ve choked on a mushroom after seeing FDG Entertainment’s Banana Kong appear on the App Store in 2013 (followed by Google Play in 2014), as it closely resembles Donkey Kong Country in both look and name.
In Banana Kong, you control a gorilla trying to outrun a banana avalanche. Consider it an “endless runner,” as you’ll move from left to right, jumping on ledges, swinging on vines, hopping on huge flower petals, and dodging objects that can slow you down, such as bushes, cobwebs, and barrels.
Like the Nintendo game it’s clearly influenced by, it involves unlocking hidden areas, too, including an underwater area, a cave with falling stalactites, and jungle treetops. You’ll also have animal friends helping you along the way.
Despite the obvious similarity, Nintendo didn’t go bananas with a lawsuit, and Banana Kong had a great run, though it hasn’t been updated since 2013.
Flappy Bird (left), Splashy Fish (right)
Flappy Bird | Splashy Fish (and about 10,000 others)
I’m pretty sure if Guinness decided to give out an award for the most cloned game app ever, Flappy Bird would win in a landslide.
While a couple of clones existed before Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen decided to yank his ultra-tough arcade game from app stores last February — allegedly because he felt bad about people professing their addiction for the game — many hundreds of copycats filled the void shortly thereafter. Apple and Google did remove games deemed too similar to the original, but countless still exist today.
It’s easy to see why game developers wanted in: Nguyen’s .GEARS Studios was said to be raking in more than $50,000 a day in ad revenue before he voluntarily took it down.
One of the more successful Flappy Bird clones is Splashy Fish, created by Italy’s Massimo Guareschi and played an estimated 250 million times per day. But unlike with many rip-off stories, no one’s batting an eye at it — even Nguyen, who eventually released another impossibly hard tapping game in Swing Copters. Looks like some clones get along just fine.