The Right Way To Deal With Copying: Be More Open

from the progressive-solutions dept

We recently covered the indy developer Nimblebit and their friendly-but-snarky response to Zynga copying the mechanics of one of their games. As I argued in the comments to that post, I think people sometimes fail to recognize that copiers do add something of their own—at least, the successful copiers do. Nevertheless, there is a lot of copying in the game industry, and it can lead to a great deal of ire in the community. As Nimblebit demonstrated, there are ways to approach the problem that don't involve immediately going legal.

It's nice to see more developers acknowledging this. At the Game Developers Conference, Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijam of Vlambeer said they are getting tired of the same old debates about copying, and want to move the discussion forward. Their suggestion is to worry less about patents and ownership rights, and more about the actual impact of copying—and then address it by being more open, not less:

The pair acknowledged that protecting game designs with patents might actually damage innovation, but argued that this sort of legal protection is separate from the issue of whether game cloning is helpful or harmful to the industry. And make no mistake, clones are hurting the industry, Nijam said, both by diverting skilled developers towards work on soulless copies and demotivating skilled developers who put a lot of effort into truly original games.

What's worse, a preponderance of low-quality clones is training consumers to expect a lack of originality in the industry, Nijam said, a loss of "gaming literacy" that drags the whole industry down. "Players will get all those bad games and stop recognizing actual good games," he said. "If you only eat bad hamburgers, you're not going to recognize a good hamburger."

The natural reaction to this kind of rampant cloning among many developers might be to hold their cards close to the vest, keeping a new idea totally secret until dropping it on an unsuspecting public. But Ismail said the solution to the cloning problem is actually the opposite—educating gamers by developing games out in the open and showing them the real work that goes into an original design. Detailed development blogs, documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie, and websites that dig deep into game design process all help improve gaming literacy among the public and build a foundation for an audience that values original games.

I can only hope other developers at the conference heed his call. The simple fact in any creative industry is that if someone can beat you by copying your work wholesale, then either they are doing something you're not, or you are failing to connect with your audience. Perhaps, as Ismail argues, this can even become a broader cultural problem that needs to be addressed by the industry as a whole—and that's a good challenge to take on. After all, what's more productive? A bunch of developers suing each other without always distinguishing between genuine bad-actors and actual innovative copying? Or a bunch of developers working together to enhance the industry as a whole, better connecting with fans and letting originality emerge organically? The answer, I hope, is easy.

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Filed Under: competition, copying, open
Companies: nimblebit, zynga


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  1. identicon
    Enigmatic, 21 Mar 2012 @ 5:17pm

    Strongly Disagree

    I really do have to disagree with you Leigh.

    While there may be some truth in limited areas, the main area (especially when talking Indie) this is certainly not true.

    Imagine the starting developer, who is just getting into writing indie games. They come up with a unique and novel idea and they implement as best they can in their "off-time", while still trying to hold down a full time job. It isn't for lack of ability or how well they do it, but their limits on time and capacity that may leave some of the polish out. It could even be their inexperience in the field (while being good programmers in their day job), and not knowing if the public would like their idea... so either way, they release their game.

    It gains some success, they start getting a trickle of remuneration for their effort and then some big company sees their success and throws $100k at it. They turn out a better product NOT because they were innovative and smart, but because they have bucks to burn and can hire artists and musicians and whatever is required to make the game more polished.

    This in turn makes the original programmers sales drop dramatically and they are effectively bullied out of the market by the bigger company.

    This programmer, who has shown to be creative and innovative is going to become very disenchanted with the industry, knowing that anything they do which is successful could get swamped by those with more money just trying to build on his idea. Surely if these big companies were any good they would be out making their own original IP instead of copying others?

    The end result? Good people with good ideas get bulldozed by greedy companies who are only interested in making a buck. Innovation goes out the window, and the sheer size and strength of these companies FORCES everybody to be like them or suffer. This is then a vicious cycle with other big companies seeing the success of companies drowning out the little guy, so they start doing it too.. why waste money on an idea that *might* work, when you can steal someone elses and put some extra polish on it and turn a quick buck!

    It self perpetuates. Shame on you for not being able to think of the big picture!

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