Plagiarism in Games


Written by Jack Sharp
06 Monday 06th February 2012

Tiny Tower has won huge acclaim, and was handpicked by Apple as iOS Game Of The Year, an accolade that has seen the game installed on millions of iPhones and iPads worldwide. The game’s success clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Zynga however, the 2,789-employee developer behind the hugely popular Facebook game FarmVille. This month in an open letter to Zynga, NimbleBit seemed to acknowledge the undeniable similarities between Tiny Tower and Zynga’s upcoming release, Dream Heights.

Zynga boss Mark Pincus responded to NimbleBit with: “You should be careful not to throw stones when you live in glass towers." A statement, which, I’m hesitant to point out for legal reasons, sounds suspiciously similar to the classic NES game Smashy Smashy, in which players are required to throw stones at glass towers. Zynga, it would seem, just can’t seem to help themselves!

Tiny Tower left, and Dream Heights right - or was it the other way around?

Pincus went on to say that Tiny Tower is similar to five other games dating as far back as 1990, and the release of OPeNBooK’s Sim Tower. "Google didn't create the first search engine,” Pincus pointed out, “And, Facebook didn't create the first social network."

It seems a bit like comedian Carlos Mencia replying to accusations of plagiarism, not by denying that he’s stolen jokes from Bill Cosby, but by suggesting that Bill Cosby is unoriginal for peforming stand-up comedy (somebody else's idea). In this situation, it would appear that Zynga have quite clearly set out to reproduce Tiny Tower and capitalise on its success to much financial gain. NimbleBit, on the other hand, obviously haven’t set out to capitalise on the success of Sim Tower, a game created over 20 years ago. And while Sim Tower and Tiny Tower both happen to be set in towers, they are clearly very different games in a huge resource management genre.

Perhaps Pincus’ honourable, Buddhist-like belief that creative ideas are all practically public domain wouldn’t be so laughable if his enormous powerhouse of a company hadn’t previously sued the crap out of Brazilian developer Vostu for creating games that were, undoubtedly, very similar to games in Zynga’s own catalogue.

In my recent article on browser games, I mentioned that Spry Fox is suing fellow games developer 6Waves over the similarities between their game Triple Town and 6Waves’ Yeti Town. The case is perhaps even more remarkable and credible than NimbleBit’s accusation. However, Yeti Town isn’t a direct rip-off, because Triple Town has bears in it, whereas Yeti Town has yetis in it - yetis that look a lot like bears, admittedly, but yetis all the same. Does this constitute Yeti Town as an original game in its own right?

Triple Town (Bears)

Yeti Town (Not Bears)

Unlike films like Transmorphers or Ratatuing, which are obvious rip-offs of very popular movies (try and guess which ones!), plagiarism in games is somewhat more difficult to call out. A lot of games are strikingly similar to one another, and it’s always been this way, even when the industry was in its infancy.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the video game market was saturated with games from unlicensed 3rd-party developers, many of which were poorly made clones of the most popular games of that era. After the video game crash of 1983, however, things changed somewhat, and many of the studios guilty of reproducing other games were forced to shut down in financial ruin.

With the release of the NES, Nintendo introduced measures to prevent unlicensed games being played on their console, including newly implemented lockout technology. Despite this advancement, copycats soon found work arounds. Developer Color Dreams was one of the first companies to hack Nintendo's licensing technology and started churning out cheap replicas of their games. Nintendo soon began to crack down however, threatening to pull their stock from retailers who sold unlicensed games. Faced with retailers unwilling to stock their products, Color Dreams needed to start selling their games to a new crowd - so they started a new company (Wisdom Tree) who would develop Christian games to sell in Christian book stores.

For a company that were seemingly so intent on preaching the good message of God, today their ethical values seem surprisingly suspect and unchristian. With the release of their game Super 3D Noah's Ark, Wisdom Tree made an almost exact replica of Wolfenstein 3D, which they attempted to pass off as their own unique product by partially altering the sounds and graphics.

Wolfenstein 3D

Super 3D Noah's Ark

Today, of course, things are radically different—at least in terms of console gaming. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft regulate what games are released for their consoles; they have the power to prevent clone games like Super 3D Noah’s Ark from seeing the light of day. But casual games on mobile and Facebook platforms are still susceptible to being copied by other developers. Small game studios like Spry Fox might not be big enough operations to develop for both flash and iOS, proving rivals with the opportunity to poach their idea and release their own version before the makers of the original game have to time to develop their own.

Whether this was the case with Spry Fox and 6Waves, it’s hard to say. Although, reportedly, 6Waves were in discussion with Spry Fox about porting Triple Town to iOS, up until the day Yeti Town was released in the app store. As I just said, it’s hard to say…

As for Zynga, this be a coincidence, right guys? And if not, so what? Without Sgt. Bilco there’d be no Top Cat. Without The Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have The Flinstones, right? After all, there are plenty of great games that are based on previously existing ideas. Somebody takes something and makes it their own. Inspiration!! Perhaps that’s what Zynga did, like they did here, when they used a watermarked image to advertise Zynga poker.

Forget for a moment the basic concept of Dream Heights and its layout, which mimics Tiny Tower almost exactly. Forget that for a moment, and perhaps, just maybe, Dream Heights isn’t an embarrassing cash-in on a hugely popular video game. Perhaps it’s just a case of a 2000+ strong developer, who are notorious for making crap “ville”- based games, building on the ideas of a three person indie game studio for their own financial gain.

Recently, serial copycat developer Anton Sinelnikov had his range of copycat games removed the App Store by Apple. His list of titles included the shockingly familiar-sounding Plants vs. Zombie, Numbers with Friends, Angry Ninja Birds and Temple Jump. Although Apple are yet to apply their anti-plagiarism policy further afield, it could be a step forward in preventing other copycats.

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  • Guest: freeboprich
    Wed 08 - Feb - 2012, 14:22
    "His list of titles included the shockingly familiar-sounding Plants vs. Zombie, Numbers with Friends, Angry Ninja Birds and Temple Jump." Completely failing to mention (as most people do, conveniently) that "Angry Birds" directly ripped off the free game "Crush the Castle" by Armor Games (itself a refined version of the company's previous "Castle Clout") to make a commercial product on someone else's idea. That's not ok.