On the curiously clone-resistant nature of indie RPGs

Every once in a while, I get an obsessive compulsion to create a more-or-less comprehensive list of something. Most recently, it was clones; specifically, games (typically iOS apps) that have been publicly accused of cloning existing indie games. Look at just how many of these we’ve seen over the past few years:

Airy Jump (clones Hops):

Angry Birds (clones Crush the Castle):

The Blocks Cometh (clones…well…The Blocks Cometh):

Blopo (clones Tumbledrop):

Castle Miner (clones Minecraft):

Craftworld (clones Minecraft):

Draw Something (clones Charadium):

Dream Heights (clones Tiny Tower):

Energy Harvest (clones Auditorium):

FarmVille (clones Farm Town):

Fly or Die (clones Steambirds):

Fortresscraft (clones Minecraft):

Grid Wars (clones Geometry Wars):

Huje Tower (clones World of Goo):

Insane Zombie Carnage (clones Super Crate Box):

MaXplosion (clones ‘Splosion Man)

Moonlights (clones World of Goo):

Ninja Fishing (clones Radical Fishing):

League of Epic Heroes (clones Desktop Dungeons):

Mafia Wars (clones Mob Wars):

Magnificent Gizmos & Gadgets (clones Fantastic Contraption):

One and One Story (clones, er, One and One Story):

Papa Quash (clones Johann Sebastian Joust):

Small Street (clones Tiny Tower):

Tiki Towers (clones World of Goo):

Tiny Wings (clones Wavespark):

Total Miner (clones Minecraft):

Trundle (clones Night Sky):

Voxel Runner (clones Bit Trip Runner):

Yeti Town (clones Triple Town):

Zuma (clones Puzzloop):

And those are just some of the ones that developers have publicly complained about! I’m undoubtedly leaving a few out. (Frankly, I’m not sure it’s even possible to keep track of all the Minecraft clones at this point.)

This list is surprisingly diverse. People will defend some of the clones because they legitimately improved on the original (e.g. Angry Birds or Zuma), or because the original wasn’t so original itself (e.g. Tiny Tower). Some of the clones, by contrast, are especially shameless (e.g. the rip of The Blocks Cometh).

Some of the clones were removed from the app store after the original game’s creator discovered them; one unusually genteel cloner removed the clone from the app store himself; and yet others have remained, sometimes profiting handsomely while replacing the original game in the marketplace.

These games differ widely in genre as well, from puzzle games to strategy games, platformers to shooters. Glance down this list, however, and you’ll notice something interesting: there aren’t any RPGs. What follows are some possible explanations why.

1. Copyright law protects RPGs more thoroughly than it does other games

Copyright is better-suited to protecting RPGs than it is games of other genres. To understand why, we need to understand a bit about the history of copyright law.

Copyright law as we know it began in Britain just over 300 years ago with the enactment of the Statute of Anne. Eighty years later, the United States would enact its own copyright law modeled closely on that statute. These laws, in turn, served as a template for copyright laws in other countries all over the world.

The details have changed a bit in the intervening centuries, but the basic structure and justification for copyright has remained much the same. American copyright law protects original, creative works of authorship (original does not mean “unique”–it essentially just means “not copied from someplace else”). Modern British copyright law is similar, as are most others. By and large, creative works set forth in a tangible medium get protection in any country that is a signatory to the Berne Convention. (And there are quite a few of those.)

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about all this. What does this have to do with the cloning of games? Here’s the thing: games don’t fit neatly into the copyright regime. That’s unfortunate. If you look at the  reasoning behind modern copyright law, they seem like a good fit–they just came along a little too late to make the cut.

We don’t have to guess at the reason why copyright law was created; its authors actually wrote it directly into the Statute of Anne:

Whereas printers, booksellers, and other persons have of late frequently taken the liberty of printing, reprinting, and publishing, or causing to be printed, reprinted, and published, books and other writings, without the consent of the authors or proprietors of such books and writings, to their very great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families: for preventing therefore such practices for the future, and for the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books…

In other words, copyright was first created in order to combat something very much like the 18th century equivalent of game cloning; in those days, however, it was book cloning instead.

Because copyright law began in an era where books and visual art were the predominant forms of expression, it was molded to protect those forms of expression. Games were not what early legislators had in mind when these statutes were fashioned. As such, we have ended up with an odd sort of patchwork protection where the elements (or “original components,” per Feist) of games that overlap with other art forms receive protection: visual art, sound recordings, music, writing, and to some extent, the code.

Beyond that, copyright offers little protection. Unfortunately, the limits of copyright protections happen to intersect with much of what makes games a unique art form. Copyright law acknowledges a dichotomy between expression (protected by copyright) and ideas (not protected), first touched upon by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1879 case of Baker v. Selden. That distinction is now codified in section 102(b) of the U.S. Copyright Act, which states that copyright protection does not extend to “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” German copyright law has a similar exception for ideas and principles in computer programs, enshrined in Section VIII Article 69(a)(2). British copyright law, too, excludes ideas and systems from copyright protection.

What this means, in essence, is that nearly every part of a video is subject to copyright protection except for the one thing that makes games games: their systems of interaction.

The distinction between protected expression and unprotected systems might not matter much to creatively bankrupt predators like EdisonGame, who can hide behind anonymity and China’s devil-may-care approach to copyright infringement. But to a legitimate company operating in a country that actually enforces copyright law, the threat of a lawsuit is a significant deterrent to copying the protected parts of games. Hence, why ostensibly law-abiding companies–even huge ones like Zynga and Capcom–go out of their way to develop their own art and music for games that they’re otherwise copying wholesale.

This gap in protection separates RPGs from the sort of games that appear on that list above. The draw of RPGs is in details protected by copyright law; RPGs tend to bank heavily on copyright-protected content (characters, setting, dialog, plot, original score and visual art, just to name a few). You can copy the mechanics of an RPG, but without copying copyright-protected content, you won’t have recreated the game.

By the same token, RPGs are almost universally long form games that could not rely solely on a novel system of mechanics to drive them even if they wanted to. Even RPGs with really unique mechanics (e.g. Yggdra Union) tend to lean heavily on content; and that puts them out of reach of companies that want to clone them without risking a lawsuit.

By contrast, the games on the above list depend upon unprotected ideas and systems for most of their draw. Hops, Auditorium, Johann Sebastien Joust: these are games without sprawling worlds, narrative, characters, or even much in the way of sound and graphics. They’re deliberately sparse, relying instead on novel, elegant, relatively straightforward systems to achieve their magic. Auditorium is pretty, sure, and it features really nice music, but the experience doesn’t suddenly fall apart if you use different music or a different graphical style. You can say the same for World of Goo. The systems of interaction are what make these games interesting–systems that, for better or worse, receive no copyright protection whatsoever.

2. Content-heavy games are difficult to recreate

Fully apart from the legal ramifications, it’s just plain easy to steal a game’s design. This isn’t to devalue design: design is both crucial and extremely difficult. Designing an original, compelling, balanced, elegant game system is tough and time-consuming. The problem is, swooping in afterwards and copying that hard-won design is almost farcically easy. This is doubly true if a cloner has the means to decompile a game and look at the constants and equations under the hood.

Programming isn’t much of an obstacle, either. Most cloners know how to program, and those that don’t can always decompile and work off of existing code. (Copyright protections on code are fairly weak because of the limited number of ways in which one can achieve certain ends in a resource-efficient way in any given programming language.)

Creating original content, however, is another matter. Visual art is expensive and time-consuming to create, particularly so for a sprawling game with loads of different animated characters and environments. Copying isn’t an option with visual art the way it is for design: visuals are protected, which means that everything has to be done from scratch.

Likewise for writing: apart from scènes à faire, narrative elements in games (characters, dialog, plot) are subject to copyright protection, and therefore have to be created from scratch. Similar principles apply to music and sound recordings. All of these things are difficult, time-consuming, and frequently expensive to create, particularly when faced with the expansive, intricate, and well-scored (to say nothing of voice-acted) stories RPGs tend to employ.

If you’re a cloner looking to make a quick buck by ripping off a popular game without taking on legal liability, there are far easier targets you could choose than the typical RPG.

3. RPGs kinda clone each other already–we just don’t call it that

RPGs are a bit of a parodox. The term “RPG” encompasses a huge swathe of dramatically different game systems, and yet the systems within each RPG subgenre are, by and large, kind of same-y.

Consider: the RPG is one of only a few genres to have its own, extremely popular software dedicated solely to helping people easily clone the systems common to other RPGs (software, I might add, which  seems to account for a comfortable majority of the new indie RPGs created in any given year).

The fact is, we chose this. Indie RPG developers, as a community, tend to be rather backward-looking; we think about the experiences we had when we were younger and we try to recreate them. I hear from indie RPG developers over and over again that the games they liked as kids aren’t made anymore, that they want to be the ones to make them.

That’s just an observation, not a judgment. I willingly admit that that same drive to recapture the past has informed my own work as well. We’re not revolutionaries: we’re tweakers. What once worked well still works well. We introduce a modern interface, and perhaps some small innovations to the game’s mechanics, and then we proceed to focus on the content.

The indie RPG community rarely creates games with Big Gimmicks. To the contrary, the systems behind most indie RPGs are familiar. When I fire up a new indie jRPG, I’m stepping behind the wheel of the same model car I’ve been driving my whole life. The 2012 Corolla is very much like the 1994 Corolla; I know how this works already.

So there is no RPG equivalent of World of Goo or Fantastic Contraption. There is no indie RPG answer to Radical Fishing or Johann Sebastian Joust. Maybe that hurts us in the IGF–but looking at the misfortune of developers in other genres, it seems it has turned out to be something of a perverse blessing.

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  • John Evans says:

    The thinking behind this article is completely sloppy and confused. RPGs reuse many of the same mechanics (“systems of interaction”) that other RPGs use, and everyone’s okay with that. RPG developers and players don’t want those mechanics to be protected; the lack of copyright, the openness allows more people to try developing games. It allows each developer to easily gain an audience and make a game that people are comfortable with, while innovating in whatever particular ways they find most interesting (new story, one or two new mechanics, whatever). The players win because they have more choices, and the field of game development wins because more stuff is getting tried. But for some reason you’ve written the article from a completely backwards perspective; you start by assuming copyright is good, then sweeping the openness under the rug as “a perverse blessing”.

    • Craig Stern says:

      This isn’t an argument about whether copyright law is good–it’s a discussion about why certain games get cloned more than others. Context is important.

      The third reason is perverse not because copyright law is good or bad, but rather because RPGs clone each others’ mechanics all the damn time: we just don’t call it cloning, and don’t particularly care about it, since RPGs have more than just innovative mechanics to offer the player.

  • Barry B says:

    I think your point’s well taken, Craig. In many of the games you pointed to, the mechanics literally are the content. In RPGs, the mechanics frequently furnish only a part of the content; much else is left to narrative, character development and interaction, mini-games, etc. Which isn’t to say that RPGs are clone-resistent, in my opinion. There are a ton of RPGs based on simple license-free engines, and other RPGs that have copied so much from their predecessors as to draw remarks about the genre getting stale. But it isn’t; I think it’s the games industry that is stale, inherently so, by a desire to avoid innovation since that means taking a chance on failure. Indies are frankly the best chance for RPGs doing something different, and to date I think they’ve succeeded handsomely.

  • TheFact says:

    Just remember that US also used to not care of copyright stuffs when it steals the technology from the British.

    Do you think US got those technology out of nothing !?

    And when US got enough technology, it suddenly create its own “copyright law” so that other nations do not get its technology.

    Now who is the hypocrite !??


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