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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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2012 @ 4:29pm

    Copying weeds out the weak.

     

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    TtfnJohn (profile), Mar 21st, 2012 @ 4:56pm

    I suspect that even if the developers wanted to heed the call their employers don't want to. Even if that ultimately improves the product.

    Like the RIAA and MPAA the gaming biz has gotten into a way of doing things and, for the life of them, can't imagine any other way.

    The answer ought to be easy but there's brick wall to bash down first.

     

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    Enigmatic, Mar 21st, 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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      Leigh Beadon (profile), Mar 21st, 2012 @ 5:29pm

      Re: Strongly Disagree

      I'm not sure you read the post properly...

      I never said that copying can never be a problem. In fact this whole post is about how, yeah, it can be a problem. I don't think all copying is bad, but the situation you describe is not ideal.

      The question is how to deal with it. Patents and lawsuits? Or a cultural push in the industry to be more open, shame transgressors, and promote originality naturally and organically? I vote the latter. I'm not saying I have all the answers, or that the solution will come quickly and easily, but I also think (actually, know, from observing silicon valley) that patent warfare creates more problems than it solves.

       

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      DMNTD, Mar 21st, 2012 @ 5:34pm

      Re: Strongly Disagree

      And I disagree with your narrow view in contrast to the written view. Thing's have change and you purposely forget that to make your point. I think minecraft is a perfect example on how hard that would be to accomplish in this state of things as they are.

      You say big picture, but you mean your paradigm.

       

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      Greevar (profile), Mar 21st, 2012 @ 7:40pm

      Re: Strongly Disagree

      Then you should have secured the funding before starting development, like Double Fine and inXile. If you offer to make a game people are sure they want, they clearly will throw money at you.

      Shame on your for thinking in such one-dimensional terms.

       

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        Jay (profile), Mar 21st, 2012 @ 10:02pm

        Re: Re: Strongly Disagree

        I think people are being rather harsh on Enigmatic and I certainly understand his position.

        You have two games that are identical save for the fact that one game is made by a large company and one is not. Usually the larger company can reap the rewards. The smaller company doesn't have much they can do except social shaming.

        I believe that's the point Enigmatic might be trying to point out here. The fact is smaller companies or modders are at a huge disadvantage.

        BUT...

        I don't necessarily agree that small developers will be crushed. Remember the beating that Epic got for pissing on the little guy.

        Or how people are frustrated at Square for beating up on modders. And lack of innovation... And stale gameplay...

        Anyway, the point is that I doubt that all game companies, large or small, will lose everything based on having competition in their field. If you can't find a way to compete, why are you in the field? Smaller developers usually make unique ideas and the larger competitors might be busy with copying an idea or having to find newer innovations. Meanwhile, your idea is first in the market... Run with it! Just because someone copies you doesn't mean you can't compete.

        The money will come when you eventually have a fanbase that respects your ability to make games. I doubt that's changed in any market.

         

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      John Fenderson (profile), Mar 22nd, 2012 @ 9:37am

      Re: Strongly Disagree

      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.


      When I began my own software development company, I thought hard about this sort of thing. Consumer piracy wasn't a threat, but this sort of thing certainly was. If you go toe-to-toe with the majors, you're going to lose 99% of the time.

      So I altered my business plan to turn this liability into a road to profit. What I did was set up my products with an eye toward just selling them whole-hog to one of the majors. I did the development, brought products to market, and once they started selling, would shop the product around to other companies. I sold every one of them this way. It's a classic win-win: I get to avoid the risk of being spent out of the market while still making a very handsome profit, and the purchasing companies got the initial development at a price they couldn't match in-house.

      True, in theory, I'd make more money per-product by keeping it. But by selling it off, I get more money in the short term, I get to avoid a lot of the real hassles of shepherding a product through its entire life cycle, and I get to move on to something new and different much faster.

      That last point is the real advantage for me. Once I've got a product to the point where it's ready for release, I'm usually pretty well tired of it anyway.

      Anyway, you do make a valid point, but the effect you describe can be dealt with in a way that even more strongly encourages future innovation.

       

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    Jay (profile), Mar 21st, 2012 @ 5:34pm

    Disappointed...

    Seriously, why didn't anyone call out Nijam's BS? And make no mistake, it's BS that "low quality clones are hurting the industry."

    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."

    What is absolutely stunning about this is how he states this almost matter-of-factly. We have had over 40 years of various games coming out. Some were clones, others went on to make new series in their own right. Still others became bona fide franchises with their own audience. But his argument here does two things:

    1) It automatically assumes that every game developer has the same entry point to games.

    This dismisses game sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds, where 13 year olds can work on small games, make some money on the side and learn their craft while learning to make games. It's almost insulting to the amateur gamers/developers who come into the market with little or no knowledge and might make a game that is fairly similar to one they've played.

    2) Nijam considers lowly of the consumers to not differentiate products. A game is part of a developer's brand. It's a sign that the game is made by a certain developer with their sense of style. Sure, there can be a Team Fortress 2 clone. In fact, it DOES have a clone. Do you think the audience of Valve games doesn't recognize it? Does Valve give two craps? No, they're like a honey badger.

    Another example from this site:

    Capcom gets caught copying. Do you think copying is so bad when the big boys do it? No, it's not. And it's quite disappointing that Nijam chooses to believe that people can't tell the difference between games instead of letting the market choose which one is superior.

     

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    awbMaven (profile), Mar 21st, 2012 @ 6:43pm

    I love you, xx

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so, Zynga loves Nimblebit, maybe Zynga wants to nibble them a bit ...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2012 @ 9:27pm

    @Leigh

    "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"

    Yes I did read it properly, and I think the perception you have that being "beaten" has anything to do with abilitity or connecting with the audience. The vast majority of being "beaten" is the result of major corporations bulldozing over with cheaper products that have a bit more flash in them due to higher budgets.

    You will never be able to "culture" these companies as they couldn't care less about culture or whats right... all they want is a bottom line for themselves and their shareholders.

    So the problem isn't copying... its big companies

    @Greevar

    Geez... I dont know about you, but I dont think fledgling developers who are starting out and feeing their way and have a great idea but no perception of whether it would be well received would go to the lengths of securing hundreds of thousands of dollars for their FIRST projects.

    Do you?

    That isn't one-dimensional thinking... its called "scaling".

    Everybody has to start somewhere, and we don't always start with a wad of cash and a staff of dozens. We start small and work up.

    That was my point... those starting out who are innovative and have good ideas would become disallusioned with large companies doing this. Until they themselves are big enough to compete on the same level, allowing this to happen is bad for everybody.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 21st, 2012 @ 11:51pm

    The Right Way To Deal With Copying: bend over and take it like a man.

    That may be something you enjoy Marcus, but it's just not a sound way to do business.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 22nd, 2012 @ 1:47am

    Too bad browser games in the USA are not like they are in China. The 3D wave of games there is insane and sure we are starting to adapt with games like conquer online turned into a playable browser vers. Plus Yeepgame has started hosting a few along with R2.

    While we might be stuck with crystal saga and a few others. I've been exploring many of the Chinese 3d games that are just plain awesome lol. Sadly I can't read Chinese but I'm getting there. Till I can understand it all the way I'll just have to stick with mass OCR software (Optical character recognition) reliance and friends. Just remember most people in China can read and type English very good! Well not just China most of the world but you know. lol

     

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    Christopher, Mar 22nd, 2012 @ 2:01am

    Originality is a misnomer.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 22nd, 2012 @ 7:14am

    I really don't agree with the guy.

    First, let's get his hamburger analogy out of the way:
    The problem with bad games is not that they make you forget what good games are.
    The problem is, when most games sold to you are bad, you start to accept this as the standard in video games and you stop demanding good games. You lower your expectations.

    Personally I love advanced, complex video games that have plenty of content. I strongly dislike casual games - games that are easy to get into, where there's little learning to do and little need for thinking and for good strategies.
    Take Skyrim and all the hype around it: it's a good game, I agree, but many of the good things about the two previous episodes in the series (Oblivion and Morrowind) were not in Skyrim. But hey, dragons. And dual-wielding. For every new good thing added to Skyrim that the previous games did not have, Bethesda removed something good that the previous games had.
    And the players of the game should have called out Bethesda on this - they should have demanded that Skyrim be an improved Oblivion/Morrowind. Instead, they were just happy with their dragons, because that's what they have come to expect - that video game sequels are not improvements on the previous games, but just new episodes in the story.

    It also gets to the point where people are so used to poor quality in games that they don't want to bother with good, advanced and complex games. See Call of Duty and it's respawn system, where your health is restored in under 10 seconds and if you die, you respawn where you were 10 seconds ago. Now compare Call of Duty to ArmA II.

    Note however that Skyrim and Call of Duty are not really copies of good games. Copies are not the problem, bad games are.

    As for the part on copying and developers losing motivation:
    Take Minecraft: a small company makes a great, innovative game and sells millions of copies. Dozens of clones game out, some good and some shameful, but Minecraft was still far more successful than any of the clones. Why?
    Because the people behind Minecraft did not just make a good game - they advertised it properly. And the game was truly innovative.
    If you make a good game but you fail at making players aware of its existence, then you are hurting your own sales and you are not doing players a favor. I really don't care how awesome your game is if I'll never hear about. On the other hand, if a company clones it and manages to make me aware of their clone, then they're adding something useful to your game and they are also taking customers you would never have had.
    It's easy to blame clones for stealing sales, but ask yourself why the clones get more customers than you.

    I know Farmville is a clone of another game (I forget the name now), but would the original game ever get the success of Farmville even if it had never been cloned?
    Farmville targeted Facebook and got famous that way. It doesn't seem that the original game targeted that kind of audience, so did Farmville really steal customers or did it just aim for a public that never would have been targeted by the original?
    Imagine you buy a stretch of land with the plan to dig for oil, and your neighbor sees you doing this so he buys some land nearby that you did not buy and digs for oil too. If your neighbor finds oil on his land and you don't find any oil on yours, your neighbor is not stealing your oil. It's your own fault for not choosing the land you bought properly.

    A successful clone is not just a clone, it's an improvement over the original, even if the improvement is only a marketing one. Again, you're not doing players a favor if you fail to tell them your game exists.
    And don't tell me you need a huge budget to advertise, which big publishers who make clones have, and which indies who make originals don't have. You only need a big marketing budget when you try to convince that your product is better than it really is or when you otherwise try to convince people to buy your product when they don't really need or want it. You really don't need much money if you're just trying to inform people that your product exists.

    Now there's a way you can exploit successful clones of your games though: once a clone is successful, come out and say you inspired it. You'll get quite a lot of attention if you inspired a successful game.
    Then, make a sequel to the original game, one which is an improvement over the successful clone. People will certainly be interested when they hear that "Original Farmville 2" is coming out. If your game is indeed better than the clone, you'll have no trouble doing this.
    Beat the clone makers at their game: these guys are not creative, they just copy games. You can always be one step ahead of them and you can use the success of their games to your advantage.
    But crying that somebody made a better product than you is not the thing to do. In the end, what matters is that customers get the best products possible - customers should not be forced to buy sub-quality products just because it makes somebody happy.

    And developing a product is more than just coming up with a great idea. It includes advertising it, among other things. Too many times I hear people thinking that just because you have an idea you deserve money. No, you need to do something with that idea. If you just build a wheel, all you have is a wheel, not a car. If you just invent a game (and don't advertise properly), all you have is a game, but you don't have a product.

     

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