So here is a topic that has recently been on my mind a lot lately. Game plagiarism. Not just the kind that Zynga does. I’m talking about the kind of plagiarism that legally, people can get away with.
Plagiarism is perhaps too strong of a word, after all, I don’t think the people who made or are making the game I’m talking about truly believe that they didn’t get some inspiration from somewhere or that they borrow heavily from one product or another, but knock-off implies of lesser quality and trust me, these games are not of “lesser” quality. I guess nothing is wrong with the word most people use, “clone” but I feel like that has the same connotation as knock-off but screw it, clone, I’m talking about game clones.
Game culture is interesting because gamers, as a collective, simultaneously want something new and something old at the same time. So often we berate games like Call of Duty for being the same thing over and over gain but at the same time, its one of the most bought game franchises. Likewise with game clones, the camp is pretty split over whether clones are just derivative pieces of shit or “a new innovative look at an established genre”. Really the best way to describe it has already been done by Penny Arcade (like most things):
It’s really easy for me to say that one reason why I hate Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is because it is essentially a derivative of a game series I don’t like (God of War). But, change the subtitle to Battlefront II and a younger me might say “no no no, Star Wars Battlefront II improves the formula set up by the Battlefield series. It makes vehicle combat a lot more user friendly, the maps are more condensed to make sure that there is a lot more action and stupid Battlefield doesn’t even have spaceships and lightsabers, okay!” Older me now realizes that Star Wars Battlefront 1 and 2 did pretty much steal the design document for Battlefield, and just essentially crossed out “field” and added “front” and built from there, in an act I would normally called stealing.
Now you might be asking if anything I just described is legal? Afterall, there have been cases where developers have been sued for stealing ideas, like when The Simpsons Road Rage was sued by Sega for stealing the concept of Crazy Taxi, or when an app game called Mino was sued by the owner’s of Tetris for essentially being the same game, even though it didn’t steal any of the code that made up the game. Well the reason why Lucasarts is still around to make Star Wars adaptations of popular game franchises is essentially because under the US copyright law, the rules and mechanics of a game cannot be copyrighted.
This is actually a good thing because think of how many shared mechanics are used in the games we played. Everything from using one analogue stick to aim and one to move to regenerating health would be restricted to only a few games, and then the gaming industry would surely collapse. Of course, this is similar to someone trying to copyright space movies or war movies, so you get the gist of where I’m getting at. But if this was the case, then how would Mino get sued by the Tetris company, or how would EA be able to sue Zynga for copyright infringement?
Well as it turns out, while games cannot have their mechanics and rules copyrighted, the expression of those ideas can be. In the case of Mino, because it had basically made the same game as Tetris. Same with Zynga and copying the Sims Social. The Simpsons Road Rage however, turns out that game violated a patent held by Sega that basically describes the Crazy Taxi games. So with that, game developers are given two, very specific ways to protect their ideas: one involves the straight up stealing from a game and the other involves infringing on a patent. Ever wonder why only Nintendo games have Z-targeting? That’s cause they got a patent.
But laws and copyright, trademark, patent stuff aside, what about ethically? Unless Nintendo has a patent on Super Smash Bros., PlayStation All-Star Battle Royal could have just used the same percentage health system and rely on knocking out of the ring as Smash Bros. but instead the developers decided to try and add some novel concepts, eventually coming up with having to use super moves to get points and to use them you have to raise your super meter by beating up opponents. Okay, fair enough, at this point PSASBR doesn’t seem to infringe on any copyrights or patents that might exist, but if they weren’t in danger anyways, why do it? I have two theories. The first is that general fan dislike of “clones”. If Battle Royal had just been a clone of Smash Bros. they might have feared that too many people would just blow it off. But these are Sony fans we’re talking about… (okay low blow, had the situation been in reverse I would still grab Smash Bros in a heartbeat)
No, I don’t think game clones evoke quite the same emotion as they did back then. Perhaps because nowadays, clones are usually on par (sometimes even better) than the original. So no, I think it might be because the developers over at Superbot have souls. Even if clones are being more accepted in today’s gaming culture, they still carry with them the idea that they are a cheap-cash in. Personally, I see it as “well, why do I need to pay any pesky designers to come up with novel concepts, when those guys over at my rival company basically did all that for me!” To me, that’s pretty evil, like Lex Luthor not washing his hands evil. Or, Tarkin blowing up Alderaan evil (yes, they are comparable).So Superbot decided to make their game different than Smash Bros. which has at least sparked some fighting about whether its a clone or not (so it’s working) but also shows that Superbot has some creative integrity (unless my theory which I say later is correct).
While I agree that innovation grows from the innovations before it, what happens when a product doesn’t innovate upon the idea that it is borrowing. To innovate, means to introducing something that is new. Small innovations in a game can make a world of difference but only when they have a large impact on the game itself. If the only difference between your game and Halo, is that your character can hold three weapons instead of two, sorry you didn’t innovate. You basically did the equivalent of adding a clock to an existing product and calling it a day. So what happens when your game, that was inspired by another game, fails to innovate? Nothing. Nothing happens. You might as well have not made your game at all and while that might not matter to the consumer who is just happy to get another version of their favorite game it doesn’t really help the game industry move forward and to steal other people’s ideas and cash in on them, does seem kind of wrong.
Anyways, I wanted to write this article because not only has Playstation All-Star Battle Royal been bothering me if I would call it a rip-off or not, I needed to research and think about whether I was right about my claim about indie game Freedom Planet and whether it is plagiarism, unethical, or totally okay and I was completely wrong.
Well, to give straight answers. As of right now, I don’t know if PSASBR is a rip-off or not. It definitely smells of “let’s be successful by doing what Nintendo does”, but it’s trying to not be. Maybe its the fact that if you combine Smash Bros. and PSASBR you have the Cartoon Network Smash Bros. game Punch Time Explosion, which has supers that charge up based on collecting orbs that drop when your hurt an opponent and knocking people off the stage. So, I can imagine that the reason why the PlayStation game only has supers scores points, is because at first they were like “Hey, what if you build up supers as well as knocking people off? It’d be like Smash Bros. and Street Fighter combined!” only to find that somebody already did that. I think people are going to have fun with the game regardless, but as for being a rip-off, yeah, it kind of is but if also kind of isn’t. I need to play it to find out.
As for Freedom Planet. I don’t know how visually similar their game would be to the Sonic series in a court of a law, but it definitely feels more than just a clone. There are novel ideas in the game, but the similarities to old Sonic games just outweigh the innovations. I enjoyed the fact that there is a mechanic in the game that builds up based on momentum, but at least in the demo, I feel like it is underused. The level designs borrow a lot of gimmicks from Sonic games, including a quite famous S shaped hole. Then there are the character designs, which just makes the game look like a Sonic game and while all of that never puts the game into any real legal trouble (the art might), Freedom Planet just seems like a case of Dante’s Inferno to God of War. Yeah, it’s technically different, but its trying to be the same which I think has some ethical issues when being a game creator.
Also as a thing that popped into my head, what about Minecraft? Did it rip-off Infiniminer or was it just inspired? While similar in appearance and share some key elements, what set is apart is that Minecraft adds several elements to Infiniminer improving on what was meant to be a team based competitive mining game and turned into an endless exploration build stuff sandbox game. I don’t think it was a rip-off because it took an idea, and found its true potential through some clever innovation. It also helps that Notch mentions it as his source of inspiration on his website.
I guess my final point is, if you’re making a game, or even just analyzing one, look for one thing, the novel idea. Not so much what sets that game different from other games, but rather what makes that game unique. They aren’t the same thing, you can have your short Italian plumber wear a suit instead of overalls but that doesn’t make the idea novel. To be novel, is to be new, and it is one of the most important qualities of making a game.