Pong, a Rip-off of Magnavox Odyssey's Table Tennis
Games are art. As such, ours is an industry full of bright, creative people. Well, mostly. There is, however, a Dark Side to the proceedings. Call it copycatting. Call it plagiarism. Call it blatant theft. Top hats and long, curly mustaches may or may not have been involved, but one thing's for sure: these games weren't born of hilarious cosmic coincidence.
It goes all the way back to the beginning of time. Well, the early 1970s. Take Pong
, a shameless steal from Magnavox Odyssey's table tennis game. Given that it's, you know, Pong, there really wasn't much to take. But Atari snatched it all – thick lines to represent paddles, monochromatic color scheme, dial-based control system. Atari's largely superior student quickly became teacher to a small army of other clones, but Magnavox was definitely the blueprint.
Magnavox sued, showed evidence of Nolan Bushnell's signature in an Odyssey trade show demo guest book, and Atari ponied up a one-time $700,000 licensing fee. Not exactly chump change, but a pretty good deal for one of the most successful games of all time.
But this was nothing compared to an outrageous game called The Great Giana Sisters
. The name should give a clue to its 'inspiration', Super Mario Bros
. But that was just the beginning of its larceny. Boot up the Amiga/Commodore 64 hop 'n' bop and you'll find nearly identical level design and gameplay mechanics. Oh, and those small brown enemies? Definitely not Goombas. Clearly, they're owls. You know, the kind that hang out in broad daylight and almost always confine themselves to the ground.
Nintendo's legal team swooped in – much like the majestic ground owl – to head this one off at the pass. The game was removed from shelves, and a mostly completed ZX Spectrum version didn't even get to see the light of day.
The Great Giana Sisters, a rip-off of Super Mario Bros.
has often found itself the victim of intellectual burglary. Take Golden Axe Warrior
. Sega's Golden Axe spin-off was a bold, new direction for the franchise... that took a detour through Zelda's greatest hits and never looked back. Spear-hurling pig monsters in box-shaped forests? Check. Dungeon designs that may as well be coated in Link's fingerprints? You betcha. An eerily similar soundtrack, but without any of the personality? Yep. Also, the hero from Dragon Quest for some reason.
In fact, the 1990s were the golden era of rip-offery. Fighter's History
was a poor quality copy of Street Fighter II
. It had precisely one unique super move: swiping every last attack animation from Street Fighter II. Levels and characters were also nearly identical to those in Capcom's face-punching opus. Oh, and let's not forget the final boss, Obvious Dhalsim Wannabe, and his Totally Not Yoga Fire attack that produced Capcom's signature flame effect. And come on, a female Ryu-alike named Ryoko? Really?
Fighter's History, a rip-off of Street Fighter II
Given the sloppiness of the chop job. Capcom
sued, but Data East
claimed that its Street Fighter Frankenstein monster was merely sown together via common threads running through Japanese culture. So clearly, the two just drew on the same inspirations. Which, of course, even someone whose entire law education consists of playing half a Phoenix Wright game can see is flatly false, but there it is. Capcom lost.
But today we are seeing a renaissance, if such a word is appropriate, of underhanded shenanigans. Limbo of the Lost
is a 2008 point-and-click adventure legendary for carving out still-quivering chunks of other games and gluing them to itself. Entire levels were lifted directly – texture-for-texture – from Oblivion, WoW
, and, all-too-fittingly, Thief.
Publisher Tri Synergy
recalled the hideous affront to original thought as soon as plagiarism allegations started flying.
Disturbingly, however, new platforms have spawned the most dogged attempts to plunder the work of others. Mobile games companies have helped themselves to Halo
, StarCraft, Uncharted
, Grand Theft Auto, Modern Warfare, World of Warcraft, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, God of War, and probably your thoughts.
N.O.V.A., a rip-off of HaloGameloft
has created a handheld empire by hacking up ultra-popular triple-A games, slapping mustaches on their main characters, and then handing the soulless remains over to mobile platforms. N.O.V.A
. is essentially Halo
, right down to nearly identical weapon models and holographic female sidekick. Shadow Guardian
is Uncharted minus the personality. And Modern Combat is... well, isn't it obvious?
When confronted about its incredibly obvious antics, Gameloft alleged that the gaming industry's palette of themes is "limited," resulting in "maybe one new idea a year" – which basically assumes that the industry's creatively bankrupt.
But there's a thin line between taking an idea and developing it, and merely taking an idea. Take the case of Ninja Fishing
and Radical Fishing. "A fishing game?" You may be thinking. "Might want to also start pointing fingers at Paleolithic Man as well." More-than-a-little iconic, however, is the bit in indie Flash hit Radical Fishing where you fling your catches into the air and shoot them. <em>With a gun</em>. Gamenauts
' Ninja Fishing, meanwhile, is a sloppy iOS copy-and-paste, except with a sword instead of a fish-gutting firepower. Sadly, Ninja Fishing beat Radical Fishing's iOS port to market and reaped the resulting rewards.
One of many Minecraft rip-offs
But this is the world we live in. Take a look at Xbox Live Indie Games' Best-Sellers List and the remarkable similarity of its top hitters to Minecraft
. FortressCraft, Total Miner: Forge
, Castle Miner, Castle Miner Z. Yep, Minecraft's started its own gold rush, and everybody's jumping at the chance to score some quick cash. XBLIG's basically a mine full of brilliant diamonds-in-the-rough, but half-baked knock-offs are hogging all the top slots.
The victims can also turn into the transgressors. Capcom may have been robbed back in the day, but in 2011, its halo morphed into an ugly set of horns. The Japanese giant shrunk just about everything – explosion mechanic, look, levels, main character – from Twisted Pixel's 2009 XBLA hit 'Splosion Man
and stuck it on iPhone as MaXplosion
Gamers and developers alike told Capcom it had some 'Splosion-based 'splainin' to do, and all it could manage was a halfhearted note about how "saddened" it was by the situation. And then...? Nothing. MaXplosion is still on the App Store, and Twisted Pixel's not suing because that'd require leading its whole herd of piggy banks off to slaughter.
MaXplosion, a rip-off of 'Splosion Man
And so we get to the daddy of them all. Today's super-villain of idea-borrowing – the mighty Zynga
. Tiny Tower
, Bingo Blitz, Mob Wars, Farm Town, Pet Society, and Social City all went up to bat shortly before a monster hit from Zynga, only to return with a black eye and nothing to show for their troubles.
Zynga's success story has been written in the blood, sweat, and tears of other companies. Most recently, Dream Heights and Zynga Bingo
have taken flack for being almost identical to their indie "inspirations" (Tiny Tower and Bingo Blitz, respectively), but this is hardly new. Farmville went on to massive success while Farm Town all but bought the farm. Mafia Wars
made the world an offer it couldn't refuse, and Mob Wars slept with the fishes. The list goes on.
Many have tried to sue Zynga, but most have failed. Mob Wars managed a $7 million settlement in 2009, but that's the exception. Many developers – like those of Tiny Tower and Bingo Blitz – merely opt to speak out and leave it at that, as a legal battle with the social giant would probably result in their bank accounts getting "Fee-fi-fo-fummed" right out of existence. And all the while, Zynga continues to sue other people for alleged theft of its ideas.
Dream Heights, a rip-off of Tiny Tower
It's a heart-rending problem that's never had a clear solution. After all, where do you draw the line between, say, the standardized mechanics of pretty much every first-person shooter in existence and the herd of hissing, spitting copycats that follow in the wake of major social games? Even if it were simple or practical to legally lock down ideas, that'd effectively stop iteration and innovation dead in their tracks. Halo and Half-Life would be doing the Back to the Future turn-invisible-and-cease-to-exist thing right now if Wolfenstein's blueprint hadn't been open for the world to see.
Short of stealing code or art assets, the issue's a giant gray area. Yes, games are art, but they're also products. And where there's money to be made, there's money to be taken. By whatever means necessary.