Defending (Some of) the Cloners

Danc’s unforgiving essay against plagiarism in game design cuts close, a bit too close to my warm bones. My first instinct is to lash back with arguments such as “The Incremental trumps the Innovative” or “Repurposing lost greatness to reach the masses is saintly in of itself” or to urge him to just, like, lay off since there are Bills to Pay and Mouths to Feed.

My second instinct is to admit that Dan is 100% right. Like the too-rich landlord falling to his knees before a wild-eyed dustbowl preacher, I feel the urge to testify. To rend my suit and wail as I recount the Satanic thought process that has led me, more often than not, to bake my bread with the wheat of other people’s ideas.

But the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

I believe there are three distinct categories of game plagiarism. And since we’re making an ethical judgement here, it’s important to clarify:

  1. Reverse Engineering: If you have an edge on the means of distribution for a new ecosystem but need a “hit product” ASAP to distribute, then looking at another popular Game X and all-out cloning the sensibility, economy, theme, and user interface, has proven to be great business. Often this work can be done by a clever programmer with no background at all in psychology, storytelling, or economics.
  2. Synthesizing: If you understand the brilliantly-wired sources and sinks of Hit Game A, savvy viral design of Hit Game B, and beloved theme of Hit Game C and blend them together, then this is way to create something low-risk but still fresh. The world all-out canonizes people that successfully “steal but not borrow” this way, such as Picasso or Steve Jobs. This type of work takes the most discerning of design minds, a mind of pure and perfect taste that keenly understands exactly how to surgically combine the essential parts of each animal.
  3. Expanding: This happens when you love Game X so much you just want to build it yourself. As you build, you find yourself seeing flaws, prodding, tweaking, adding, excising, retrenching, and eventually stumbling out with something you genuinely like better than Game X. The outcome is familiar but has never quite been played before.

So the purist’s argument — Danc’s argument — is that the intention behind all three of these categories are fully guilty of Plagiarism. Yes, riches may flow to Savvy Reverse Engineers such as the makers of Farmville or Kingdoms of Camelot, epic audiences may flock to Master Synthesizers such as Millionaire City, and lasting cultural relevance may bless Expanders such as Bejewelled… but all of these companies and the people that toil within are Guilty, Guileless, and Unoriginal.

Speaking for myself, my career is actually more a dialectic between innovation and willful borrowing.

  • Feeling boundless and young, I tried to innovate. I found that it was hella difficult to finish something that was any good. So I picked a game and Expanded.
  • Feeling unfulfilled, I tried to innovate. I walked over coals. I fought armies of nay-sayers. Bloodied and weary, I delivered. The market crapped on me. I needed a quick, guaranteed recovery. I Reverse Engineered.
  • Feeling dirty, I tried to innovate. But being responsible for the livelihood of many others beside myself, I playtested and coldly, analytically began to understand what audiences who actually pay actually want. I Synthesized.

I’m hopeful, indeed — I am counting on the fact that some of the very out-there prototypes and half-formed ideas in my skull will one day be both purely innovative and widely enjoyed. But until then, I’m okay with delivering fun experiences based primarily on the hard work of those who have come before me as long as I’m changing things up enough to advance the genre and learn something from the process.

And so: I proudly defend Synthesizers and Expanders. It’s harder to argue for the ethics behind Reverse Engineers… but even there I have faith that, long term, those with a Reverse Engineering culture will find themselves unable to even slightly innovate. Those companies and individuals will stall out once they’ve ripped off all there is to obviously steal.

To flip things a little bit, Danc, I leave you with this challenge:

You have Truly Innovated (I friggin’ love Triple Town). Amazing, wonderful, unique, delicious work.

But is that enough? Whose fault is it if Triple Town doesn’t become a mega-hit and turn Spry Fox into a Billion Dollar company? What will it take for you to not only craft the New, but out-distribute the Reverse Engineers, pre-figure the Synthesizers, and beat the Expanders at their own game?

Go get ’em, Danc!


One thought on “Defending (Some of) the Cloners

  1. Working on turning Triple Town into a mega hit. 🙂 The clones are certainly ‘a coming full force. An innovation focused business structure is not always the same as an execution structure. That’s our challenge. (BTW, favorite doublespeak for clone? “MCP: Minimum Competitive Product” or even better “MCP+: Minimum Competitive Product plus one differentiator”)

    I don’t actually mind the Synthesizers. People who borrow from multiple sources are fine. I do it and I mention a couple times in that essay this is a valid path.

    Reverse Engineers are more than a little slimy. Of all the groups, this is the one for which we need to build a culture of social censure. Such teams are actively harmful and those that partake in such an activity should bear a black mark. I’d love to see careers ruined. 🙂

    Expanders are often borderline. First it is a fuzzy term and Expanders are often very willing to put themselves in the category of Synthesizer or Innovator for relatively minor additions. “Oh, we added Pirates and a compelling narrative” doesn’t really differentiate the product much. There’s often a timing factor here. Expanding a 10 year old dead genre doesn’t hurt many people. Expanding on a design that was created three months ago and is new to the world is more than a little shark-like.

    One way to look at the morality is in terms of competition and incentives for innovation. Expanders and Reverse Engineers often take away customers from the Innovators. They create poorly differentiated products that in turn creates market confusion. It is a predatory act and it is one we can choose to reward or penalize as a community.

    There are edge cases as well. The mastery study by a student. The homage. These can be made palatable by clearly citing their inspiration and by avoiding direction competition with their sources.

    take care,

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