December 06, 2005

What Goes Around

by peterb

A number of Astute Readers pointed out that Atlantis, which I reviewed on Friday, is actually a reimplementation of an earlier game, Popcap's Zuma, and Mumbo Jumbo's modified Zuma clone Luxor.

I tried Luxor tonight, and I liked it. In the abstract, I liked it more than Atlantis, with the exception that the Mac version suffers from some slowdown when things get hairy. The experience of playing the two identical games got me to thinking about some of the structural stupidities of the so-called "casual game" market.

To use one good example, Phil Steinmeyer talks a bit about the saturation of the market with Zuma clones:

The past year in particular has demonstrated that a close clone of a hit game, albeit with a new theme, can sell quite well indeed (see the string of successful Zuma clones - Luxor, Tumblebugs, Atlantis, Beetle Bomp). None of these game were much better than Zuma, though Luxor introduced a new gameplay style (move along the bottom rather than in the middle), and Tumblebugs used 3D graphics to nice effect. There were only a couple of Zuma clones that failed, and those were markedly inferior in execution to the original Zuma and itís clones. So basically, if you released a Zuma clone in 2005 of roughly equal quality to the original Zuma, your chances of at least moderate success were right around 100%.

All of which raises some interesting questions.

First, at what point does one game infringe on another game's copyright? Copyright does not protect ideas, but it does protect the expression of an idea fixed in a tangible medium of expression, which includes videogames. One could argue that slapping a new theme or outer story on a game changes it enough to not be infringing. And most of the players in the market are content to observe a sort of detente where they all borrow from each other without suing, at least so far. But really: brightly colored balls, each about the size of a child's marble. Narrow channel. Similar sound effects. Similar powerups. Shooty things. A new background and a name doesn't cut it: sooner or later, someone is getting sued. Especially when larger companies decide to capture a piece of the casual gaming market for themselves.

Secondly, what's a game reviewer to do in this environment? Do we discuss each game in a vacuum, merely considering how well it is implemented? Or do we discount a game somewhat, to the extent that it is copied from somewhere else?

I think I will settle on a middle course. Realistically, truly innovative games are few and far between. And when a really innovative game hits, its publisher is rewarded by it utterly failing in the marketplace. So it's not really fair, I think, to think less of a game just because it has lifted its gameplay, in nearly every way possible, from an earlier title. Copy away, boys! More games for me! Go for it!


If, in the marketing and promotional materials for your carbon-copy game, you dare to describe it as "innovative," then I think you've gone out of your way to qualify for a little eye-rolling scorn.

So, to whoever at Funpause described Atlantis as having "innovative" gameplay: here's looking at you, kid. You should feel ashamed of yourself.

The reason this irritates me, on some level, is that so many of the casual games market themselves as being "intellectual" challenges, because of course moving blocks to align colors is a very sophisticated, intellectually rigorous activity. Yet I don't see any consciousness on the part of the makers of the games that the customers have a wider view of the gaming ecosystem. So the marketing talks to the customers as if they're smart, but acts as if the customers are dumb.

What I'd really like to see is one — just one — of these casual game makers who steps up and, on a regular basis, admits that they copy the ideas, and embraces it. "Yes, our new game, Rly'eh takes many game elements from Zuma, Luxor and Atlantis. We think you'll like it even better than those games, because it's shinier, and has Cthulhu in it. In fact, here's a link to Popcap, to Funpause, and to Mumbo Jumbo. Try all of our games. Buy the one you like."

I'd really like to see that. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

Posted by peterb at December 6, 2005 12:01 AM | Bookmark This

Nobody is suing there because copyright (rightfully!) doesn't cover game ideas, only implementations. What's next? We get romance authors suing each others because the works are so similar? FPS companies each other? (Because, let's face it - FPS games *own* the market for derivative games)

Thankfully, the copyright law hasn't been diluted *that* much.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at December 6, 2005 12:38 AM

I knew someone would bring this up.

You are correct that copyright does not cover ideas. Copyright covers the expression of an idea. What the "expression" of the idea is in a game context is not entirely clear.

For instance, that "shoot balls at a other objects, which disappear when three or more of the same color match" is an idea, and is not copyrightable. But looking at (for example) Luxor and Atlantis side by side, there are a ton of decisions that the earlier game made that are NOT simply ideas:

-the colors of the balls are the same.
-the textures on the balls are similar.
-the balls are the same size (imagine how different the game would look if the balls were, say, pea sized)
-the look of the channel is similar.
-the speed at which the balls move is similar (including the way they slow down when they reach the goal)
-the physics of the balls are similar (and it is not at all obvious that they "must" be.)

To give you an example by analogy: If I took the text of Harry Potter and ran a search and replace to change the names and make the locale a school for priests and priestesses in Egypt rather than wizards and wizards in Scotland, J.K. Rowling would still be able to argue that I infringed her copyright, because there would still be thousands of little choices that she made in how to express her idea that subsisted in the resulting product. I think the same sorts of things happen when casual game makers copy from each other and just change the "theme".

I'm not saying I think Mumbo-Jumbo (or Popcap) should sue. That would be irritating. I'm just saying that at some point, sooner or later, someone IS going to sue over something like this.

All of that being said, I think the legal question is not actually that interesting, and it will work itself out by itself without any help from me. What I find really interesting is the question of how we, as consumers (and critics) should be reacting to the glut of games that are not merely inspired by others, but are, more or less, direct copies of each other.

That this happens in the small game space and is therefore sucking up the resources of developers who, in my fantasy world where they don't need to get paid, would be making new and different games is one of my concerns.

Posted by peterb at December 6, 2005 07:27 AM

I think we (as consumers) have already responded. We keep buying the same game. If nobody bought the clones, it wouldn't be a problem. But we do, across all genres.

We as critics have also responded - we complain about derivativeness. And we are rightfully ignored, because we too can't offer an idea how to make a non-derivative game that sells.

Ultimately, the consumers decide. And they vote overwhelmingly to play regurgitated material. As a developer, all I can do here is shrug and go back to making Hydro Carnage Rumble Thunder 15. At least if I'm interested in a paycheck.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at December 6, 2005 08:51 AM

ahahaha!! I loved the link to the review of 'a tale in the desert', about how the game is failing in the marketplace because nobody wants to buy innovative games. or more to the point, I love the lone comment where the commentator is looking for a clone of the game because he doesn't want to pay for the original. that's priceless :)

Posted by mike d at December 6, 2005 07:05 PM

Game dork time:

There was a Japanese arcade game called "Puzz Loop" from 1998 that's basically the exact same game, and predates Zuma and all the other clones. And I wouldn't be surprised if it's a copy of something else earlier.

And frankly, I've got no problem with all the various clones in the casual game market. Is the hardcore market any different? Grab any 30 first person shooters or real time strategy titles and I'll bet that 29 of them are the same damn game. But every now and then somebody will come along and really bring something new to the field...that everybody else will then mimic.

Also, I'm not sure that we'd see any difference in that fantasy world you mentioned. I'd bet a lot of developers are perfectly happy making duplicate games. Maybe it's a learning exercise. Maybe they don't have any ideas but still want to say that they "make games." Maybe it's just a hobby, the way some people knit perfectly functional sweaters. SOMETHING's got to explain all those damnable free Tetris, Breakout, and Bejewelled clones.

Posted by Adam Rixey at December 6, 2005 07:30 PM

"I'm not saying I think Mumbo-Jumbo (or Popcap) should sue. That would be irritating. I'm just saying that at some point, sooner or later, someone IS going to sue over something like this."

Yeah, first, the above post applies. Zuma is, itself, a rip. Please don't think of Popcap as an original company.

Secondly, there HAVE been lawsuits like this -- they got thrown out of court. Gameplay mechanics and ideas are not copyrightable. Art and music and writing is, but not the underpining.

Capcom vs Data East

Posted by nowak at December 16, 2005 08:40 PM

If A Tale in the Desert is failing, it is because while it does offer innovative gameplay, it is not terribly INTERESTING gameplay. I played that game when it was in beta and it just wasn't compelling. There's nothing terribly exciting about making virtual bricks. Growing virtual crops. Etc.

But anyway on the subject, personally I do not think this is a problem. If gamers have no experience with the "original" does that mean they should be concerned that the game they are enjoying is an almost exact duplicate? No. And if they do have experience with the original, and the "new" game offers nothing new, then I'm sure they will find something else to do with their time.

It's a bit of a different issue for reviewers which are theoretically experienced gamers and HAVE played the originals most of the time. But even then, they should be judging the game on what it is, not on what it imitates. Mentioning the earlier game, of course, is always a good idea. When I review a derivative game, like say Dungeon Siege, I explain what games have come before it, and what the new game offers. I don't take off marks just because it's not a unique concept. If I did that there would be VERY FEW games that got high marks.

Posted by knight37 at December 20, 2005 02:53 PM

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