Game of clones: a look at Android’s cloning and piracy problems

May 2, 2014
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Jeremy Keith

A cursory glance at the games in the Play Store reveals a world of cloning. It’s also no secret that Android suffers from a piracy problem. Where is the line between the two? Are pirating and cloning serious issues that need to be tackled and, if so, what can be done?

My God, it’s full of clones

The cloning problem was recently highlighted by the Flappy Bird debacle, when, within a month of creator Dong Nguyen removing his game, there were over 800 clones of it. This was a special case because it’s very rare for a developer to remove a successful game themselves. Depending on how cynical you are, the copies could be interpreted as a tribute filling the gap Flappy Bird left behind or an attempt to cash in on its success.

flappy apps clones

In this case Google decided to act, apparently trying to stop the avalanche of games with “Flappy” in the title, but it showed up a deeper problem that our favorite search giant has been trying to tackle – the deliberate leveraging of a successful app name.

How many times have you clicked on a game in search results only to find it’s not the title you were looking for? Instead it’s something with a very similar name that was obviously designed to trick you and cash in on the original.

How does the law work?

Names and non-functional elements fall under copyright law, whereas game mechanics have to be patented. Patents are very expensive and can take years to secure, so they’re effectively out of reach for indie developers. Even pursuing a case with copyright infringement is going to be expensive, and, because games generally have a relatively short shelf-life, it might not make economic sense.

In practice the vast majority of cases are settled out of court. We’ve seen Zynga sue over the use of the “ville” name, but then it was sued itself by EA, claiming that The Ville copied The Sims Social. A lot of big companies are very litigious and some of them actually do have surprising patents granted. Can you believe that EA has a patent for “Electronic game system with wireless controller”?

CandySwipe Candy Crush

The law is supposed to protect innovation and original IP, but the little guys often get screwed. One of the most heinous recent cases was Candy Crush developer King suing CandySwipe to try and get its trademark cancelled, even though CandySwipe was created first. Candy Crush bought the rights to an older game called Candy Crusher in an attempt to claim ownership of the word “candy” (it was also trying to claim “saga”). The open letter from Albert Ransom, the developer of CandySwipe is just sad, but an agreement was eventually reached and it looks like King backed down. Funnily enough this suit had nothing to do with match-three gameplay which was invented a long time ago and is blatantly ripped off by both.

There are degrees of dodgy with cloning. It’s always been widespread in the videogame industry and few people would argue against taking good game mechanics and then building on them. At the other end of the scale there’s the blatant attempt to piggyback on another’s success, but it is a scale, and it’s tough to see exactly where the line is sometimes.

The piracy issue

There’s no sliding scale with piracy however, when you are blatantly stealing someone’s work. You might argue about how many people pirating the game would have bought it, and it’s common to find the attitude that big publishers can take it on the chin, but for indie devs it can make life very difficult, and if they created something you enjoy playing then they deserve a reward for that.

Dead Trigger top 3d games for android

It’s a couple of years since the Android game piracy storm blew up. Remember when Sports Interactive director Miles Jacobsen revealed that Football Manager had a 9:1 piracy rate? For every ten people playing the game, only one of them had paid for it. Madfinger decided to make Dead Trigger free because of an “unbelievably high” piracy rate.

There are two reasons that the piracy problem has receded in the last couple of years:

  • Piracy is surely one of the factors driving the freemium model. Just like Madfinger, many developers have decided to make their games free and build in advertising or in-app purchases, or sometimes both. If the official game is free why pirate?
  • If you want another reason why you shouldn’t pirate apps then consider malware. Hacked APKs are easily infected and if you sideload then you’re exposing yourself to serious risk.

Google does have policies in place and it recently filed a patent describing a way to flag pirated Play Store apps, but is it doing enough?

No easy solution

If we’re honest about this there is no easy solution. The expense of pursuing and combating piracy and cloning is too high for indie developers. A flood of patented game mechanics would be horrible. Many of the patents that have been granted already shouldn’t have been and probably wouldn’t be defensible in court, but they do allow the holders to threaten legal action and would require victims to spend a lot of money to fight them.

Written seven years ago now, David Sirlin’s article on The Trouble with Patents still sums it up pretty nicely. Patenting game mechanics is like Apple patenting slide to unlock or pinch to zoom.

Clones are different. The whole mobile app explosion is heavily based on cloning as developers raided their back catalogues, produced tributes of their arcade favorites, and blatantly copied all manner of older games from browser-based Flash titles to console mini-games. It’s tough to point fingers in this situation.

Does something like the explosion of Minecraft related games and clones threaten the success of the original? If your game is good enough then it will stand up to the competition, but it’s not always a level playing field. What if an indie dev has a great idea, but a large publisher with deeper pockets and a bigger development team comes along and copies it? If the clone is a more polished game, it has a marketing machine thrown behind it, and the publisher knows exactly how to stay on the right side of the law, is that fair?

The truth is that all games draw on mechanics and ideas from older games, but there should be some attempt to build on that, improve it, throw in a new element, advance it.

What can you do?

In practical terms, you can report apps in the Play Store by sliding down to the bottom and tapping “Flag as inappropriate”. Beyond that, you have to vote with your choices and your cash. You should try to support indie developers because they are responsible for the lion’s share of innovation in gaming. Risk-averse publishers will just come along and do a polished version once a concept is proven. So, try to dig a little deeper.

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