Copycats and clones have long been the bane of developers – pretty much since the dawn of software. But while some releases are blatant rip-offs, others manage to walk a fine line between plagiarism and inspiration. Some even end up being little more than coincidence. So how do these situations occur? We take a look at the App Store in search of answers.
The most important thing to remember is that similarities can happen for very different, often flattering, reasons. While Veggie Samurai might be a clear attempt to cash in on Fruit Ninja, a game like A Ninja Dude: Ninja School takes that slashing mechanic and builds it into a totally fresh product. The difference between inspiration and copycat isn’t always as cut and dry as this, but the Fruit Ninja situation illustrates both ends of the spectrum nicely.
Then again, sometimes copycats like Veggie Samurai are anything but.
Take the case of Fragmental 3D and Tetra 3D. Both games offer a three-dimensional spin on Tetris. Both offer similar graphics. And one was released only 6 months after the other. At a glance, it seems like a clear cut case of copycat design. Scratch the surface and you’ll quickly learn this isn’t the case.
Zach Kinstner, the developer of Fragmental 3D, was understandably shocked when he discovered such a seemingly similar title following only a few months after his own release. “Judging only from the screenshots, it appeared to me that the developer had somehow stolen my actual game code, and made various functional and graphical changes to hide the theft,” says Kinstner. “After my own research however, I simply found it difficult to prove to myself that the game’s functionality was a copy of Fragmental 3D.”
Kinstner was the sole developer on Fragmental 3D, making it impossible for the code to have been leaked without his knowledge. This led Kinstner to look search out information on code theft and app decompilers. In the end, Kinstner seemed willing to chalk much of this up to coincidence.
“I hold no claim to the idea of 3D Tetris. I do feel my control system is unique to Fragmental 3D, however, which makes the game into a very immersive experience.” Kinstner notes that, while some graphical similarities may appear to be more than coincidence, the difference in control schemes is large enough that it would be impossible to call Tetra 3D a clone of his offering. “My solution has a slightly higher learning curve, but it is innovative and intuitive for the player.”
Still, those graphical similarities can’t help but raise a red flag of sorts. Similarities in visual style and generic backgrounds concepts could easily be chalked up to coincidence, but Tetra 3D features on-screen buttons that are clearly borrowed from Fragmental 3D.
After contacting the Apple Legal team, Kinstner was put in touch with Tetra 3D‘s developer Faisal Saeed. Saeed was just as shocked as Kinstner. “I was lied to and cheated by my freelance designer,” says Saeed. “He had the nerve of selling me stolen UI design.” While there may have been some clear cut theft here, it was committed by a third-party rather than the competing developer. “I wasn’t aware of the Fragmental 3D game. It taught me a lesson never to work with a freelance designer again.”
Kinstner and Saeed were able to come to an amiable understanding. Tetra 3D is set to receive an update in the near future that will remove the visual similarities from the game. “From a common sense perspective – and unless he was really trying to make a clone game — it seems like he would have every reason to be as original as possible,” said Kistner.” Since 3D Tetris is not a new idea, a developer benefits most from a game that stands out through both visual and functional innovation.”
While some situations like the 3D Tetris situation above can be chalked up to coincidence, and others to inspiration, some releases are just plain theft. Take Duck Hunt: The Game for example. Developed by SoftGamers, a company know for low-quality simple fare like Doodle Taxi and HeartCatcher, Duck Hunt: The Game is a straight up clone of the Nintendo light gun classic. Or at least it was until Nintendo’s lawyers had the game yanked from the App Store.
The game had been on the App Store for a little over two months before being pulled this past August, during which time the ducks more or less flew under the radar. “One day I changed the price from $0.99 to free and I got nearly 200,000 Downloads in three days,” said Arsen Torosian, SoftGamers’ sole developer. “That made my game the number four most downloaded application on the App Store. I think after that, Nintendo noticed.”
On August 18th, Nintendo sent a letter to Apple, and Apple in turn sent a letter to SoftGamers requesting they remove the game from the App Store within 5 days. Torosian complied.
But why make a clone in the first place? “I choose to make a clone rather than making a new game because of the publicity. My motive was first to make some money out of the App Store so I can continue making games.”
And make money it did. While Torosian refrained from providing us with a figure that summed up his two months of plagiarism, he confirmed that the game was initially profitable and then fell to around $15 a day after the initial release period. After setting the price to free for 3 days, Torosian switched the pricing back to paid and made “a good profit of it.”
SoftGamers has another 62 games in the works – none of which will copy other games – though the profits earned from Duck Hunt: The Game will no doubt aid in their development.
So there you have it. Game similarities can happen for a number of reasons, be they inspirational, accidental, or a deliberate cash grab. Developers take note: similarities aren’t always bad thing. Just make sure they’re there for the right reasons.