Why is cloning games so easy?

Zynga caught a lot of flack recent for their less-than-subtle appropration of NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower when they announced their remarkably similar game Dream Heights, leading many videogame commentators to question the relevance of traditional copyrighting techniques to an evolving industry and medium. The difficulty, a recent New York Times article suggests, is the complete lack of precedence (both legally and culturally speaking) for the new form:

One reason that cloning is so frequent in the game industry is that there is no easy way to protect a game. A piece of published writing or a photograph can be copyrighted, but not the mechanics of a game. Small game makers could seek patents protecting software design, but they generally shy away from this because acquiring a patent can be both time-consuming and relatively expensive, said Ellisen Shelton Turner, an intellectual property lawyer at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles.

In addition, because games so often draw inspirations from previous works, many game creators believe that patent protections could stifle creativity in future games, Mr. Turner said. “A lot of them are anti-patents,” he said. “And only in hindsight do they think patents are the proper thing to do when someone has stolen their idea.”

Zynga in turn mounted another defense appealing to the basic rights and expectations of the consumer in a chaotic marketplace:

When asked about how it creates games, John Schappert, Zynga’s chief operating officer, said he did not think of Zynga as a clone maker, but as an innovator. He said that Tiny Tower was not the first tower game, as many titles in this genre, like Sim Tower, had preceded it. He said Zynga’s mission was to win over consumers with the best quality games of each genre.

The issue of copying, Mr. Schappert said, is not unique to games, but for the entertainment industry as a whole. He compared the game industry to the movie industry, where new films always borrow ideas from older ones.

“The winner is the one with the best ideas, the best script writing, the best actors, the best cinematography,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. We have to earn the engagement of the consumer. This is entertainment.”

“Who’s going to win?” Mr. Schappert asked. “The winners are going to be the consumers, because they’re going to get the best game possible.”

For now, it seems everybody is just agreeing to disagree. But despite how easy it is to turn any Zynga related story into a David-and-Goliath narrative, imagine the other side of the coin. As Jamin Warren recently argued on Kill Screen: “Can you imagine a world in which one could take legal recourse for game mechanics being stolen? That would mean no more platformers after Super Mario Bros., no more first-person shooters after Doom, no more real-time strategy games after Command & Conquer.”

Yannick LeJacq

[via The New York Times]