If you were a developer of an indie hit on Xbox Live Arcade that was critically acclaimed, you’d be pretty pleased with yourself. Now imagine you’re that same developer working furiously on a sequel, when all of a sudden a major publisher releases an iPhone game that seems to copy your formula point for point. That’s exactly what the developers at Twisted Pixel Games woke up to discover earlier this week when Capcom released MaXplosion, a game with a more than passing resemblance to their own Splosion Man.
Whether anyone likes to admit it or not, copycat games are a pretty common occurrence – especially on the App Store. What’s not common, though, is for a developer to speak out about it. But that’s exactly what Twisted Pixel did.
It all seems to have started with a simple tweet. Mike Henry, a programmer at Twisted Pixel, posted the following to his Twitter on January 11th;
“MaXplosion gameplay video makes me sad. If you’re going to outright steal a game, you should at least understand what makes it fun.”
His boss, Twisted Pixel CEO Michael Wilford, wasn’t far behind. His Twitter too was updated to reflect his frustration. But he also one-upped his underling by stating quite clearly that they could do better;
“Not sure what to say about MaXplosion. Pisses me off. Guess we’re just gonna have to make a better iPhone game than them. Shouldn’t be hard.”
These two tweets stirred up a flurry of discussion on the internet. Was it ok for one company to so blatantly steal the ideas of another? Was this stealing, or just inspiration? Should Twisted Pixel pursue legal action? Why would Capcom, a major player in the gaming world, so brazenly dare to sully their reputation with such a repugnant move?
It wasn’t long before both companies were speaking out.
“We’re definitely not going to pursue legal action,” Twisted Pixel’s Wilford told Joystiq in a January 12th interview. “While I think the similarities are pretty nauseating, we’re too small to take on a company like Capcom. That, and we owe them one for inventing Mega Man, so we’ll let them slide.”
Wilford also went on to say that companies like Capcom might be “counting on the fact that indies can’t fight back,” and that Twisted Pixel would “just have to make our own mobile game” to teach Capcom a lesson about stealing their ideas.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, however, Capcom hasn’t quite learned it. Their PR machine quickly swept into action and released the following statement on the 13th;
“While Twisted Pixel did have discussions with our console game team about publishing Splosion Man on game consoles, Capcom Mobile is a different division of Capcom with separate offices and as such, had no prior knowledge of any meetings between the console game team and Twisted Pixel. MaXplosion was developed independently by Capcom Mobile. Nonetheless, we are saddened by this situation and hope to rebuild the trust of our fans and friends in the gaming community.”
It’s great that Capcom felt the need to respond, but in the end their response was little more than typical Orwellian double speak. They aren’t saying that Capcom Mobile didn’t steal the idea for the game – they’re merely saying that Capcom isn’t the same thing as Capcom Mobile, so they couldn’t possibly have known that Capcom and Twisted Pixel had talks about publishing Splosion Man. It’s a non-point. It’s not germane to the conversation. The accusation is that Capcom (or Capcom Mobile, however you want to slice it) stole the idea for MaXplosion from Splosion Man – and Capcom has done nothing to deny this.
“Rebuilding trust” is the most important phrase in their statement. Could the bad press from MaXplosion really turn Capcom from a publishing powerhouse into a dwindling has-been overnight? Of course not. But it can jeopardize their reputation on the iPhone – a platform Capcom excelled on in 2010 with critically acclaimed titles like Smurfs’ Village and Street Fighter IV cementing them a spot in this growing market. If this incident leaves a bad taste in the mouths of iPhone gamers and other iOS developers, the tides may quickly turn against them.
At the end of the day, though, this isn’t a story about Capcom. It’s not even a story about Twisted Pixel Games. It’s a story about developers standing up for themselves – something we’re seeing more and more of lately. With Apple’s approval process seemingly having little regard for copyright, the App Store has become a cesspool of stolen ideas. Developers need to speak out to protect their properties, and it’s looking like this might just be the year where smaller devs refuse to be pushed around anymore.