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

May 2, 2014
49 24 20

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.

In your opinion, how serious is the cloning and piracy problem on Android?

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Comments

  • nxtiak

    Cloning issue isn’t an Android issue. iOS suffers the same.
    Though it’s easier to pirate Android apps, piracy is an issue with iOS too, that’s why most people jailbreak their iPhones. Hell the piracy scene for iOS i believe is much easier.

    • bob

      around 10% of ios installed base jailbreak their idevices. with ios7, that number is falling.

      i would characterise that as ‘most people’

      but you can use the term ‘most people’ in a different sentence: most people using ios devices PAY for apps

    • Paco Inurreta

      You are wrong if you think “most people” jailbreak just to install pirated apps. People jailbreak to have more control of iOS and tweak stuff. The real problem is that Android apps are actually more expensive than the iOS versions or similar apps and every Android developer wants money and if they cant get it by their expensive apps they fuck you up with ads..

      I had an iPhone 4S and in 2 years I paid less than $10 of apps (Draw something, WhatsApp, Nitro(Cydia tweak) and that was all I needed cause I found everything else for free. But when I moved to a Galaxy S4, whatever app I came across that I liked and needed I had to pay, some apps are over $3 dollars. While for a single app is not that much, I have spent over $30 since I got it back in August and thats a lot compared to iOS.

    • mobilemann

      “Hell the piracy scene for iOS i believe is much easier.”

      why do people who have no idea what they are talking about keep explaining things to people on this forum? piracy on android is about 14:1 (or 14x worse) than on iOS.

  • LoomingDissent

    Taking only titles into account, anyone else find it ironic that an article about app cloning itself had cloning in its section headings (e.g. Game of Clones vs. Game of Thrones). Intentional?

  • Mochammad Santaka

    Even though operating system that is more open like Android is more susceptible to piracy, we can not fault for its openness. Even very closed system will have piracy though the accessibility to pirated items may be harder; people will still find a way. Like it or not, piracy is a fact of life.

    • abazigal

      That doesn’t mean the relevant parties shouldn’t fight it as hard as they can.

      Unless you jailbreak, it is very hard to find pirated apps in the iOS app store precisely because of its closed business model. It allows developers to sell apps at a reasonable price and know that enough people will buy them because you can’t sideload pirated apps from 3rd party sources unless you jailbreak (effectively nipping the piracy issue in the bud). Consumers benefit from a wider selection of quality apps at very reasonable prices. And because Apple curates the app store, it is also generally quite safe, and free of malware and viruses. It’s a win-win situation.

      Maybe it’s too harsh to blame an open operating system for piracy, but it certainly isn’t helping the situation any.

      • Mochammad Santaka

        Of course the third party and Google is doing everything possible to fight piracy. But I do not think by making it more close will solve most of the problem it’ll jeopardize what makes Android an awesome OS like it is now. Even with an open platform and rampant piracy, you can still have a great environment for games commercially and development wise. It has been done before.

  • Albin

    LItigation (normally settlement negotiation) actually works if there’s any real money being made. I’d be more concerned about apps being “passed off” as other apps with deceptive naming and imagery, rather than mimicking their functionality. People should not be tricked into buying under a false impression it’s something else. Otherwise, let a thousand flowers bloom.

  • Wilson D

    What about mod apk

    • Travis McEndree

      if your using a rooted device (like me) thats just removing permissions. Lets take for example, apkmania.com (premium apps for free) on some of the major apps that cost money (like taskbar 8) will be license by apkmania. A modded apk i guess could be piracy. But defiantly not a clone (unless licensed).

      • Wilson D

        Hmm I use mod apk to get unlimited live and money stuff like that

  • Travis McEndree

    Honestly, ive only pirated 6 times.than bought the apps !

  • Android Developer

    They are not clones. None of them are exactly the same.
    In fact, it’s a good thing to have many options to choose from. It’s like a kind of evolution.
    And for Flappy bird and candy crash , I don’t get why should anyone care about it. They are such generic ideas. None of them are original, and many similar games existed before.

    The real bad people are those who take an APK and modify them so that the earnings will go to them. It’s possible and it’s not that hard to do it.

    • Tuấn Ankh

      Totally agree with the last part.

  • Salman Thaw

    I really wonder how many apps the Play Store has without the clones. I wish the Play Store had a section called Cream where only good apps are listed.

  • mavDKM

    Piracy is a problem for most of the ecosystems. Windows probably the biggest piracy den. Apple too has its fair share of jail breakers. But Android piracy problem is blown out of proportion. Not that its good but don’t take it as yet another shot towards the Android ecosystem.