Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On My Mind: The Gentlemen's Agreement of Game Development

The recent spat between Zynga and NimbleBit has been interesting to watch, but for those who aren't familiar, NimbleBit's Ian Marsh has a quick visual summary (click to enlarge):

Now depending on whichever side you feel like taking, you could say that Zynga did wrong by copying identically, or you can say that since it looks different, it is different, or even the idea that both games are just rip-offs of SimTower. In fact, the last option was Zynga's official stance on the topic, attributing all "Tower Games" to SimTower, and that "Google didn't create the first search engine. Apple didn't create the first mp3 player or tablet. And, Facebook didn't create the first social network."

I'm going to let that last statement sink in for a bit.

...did Zynga just lump all "Tower Games" as the same one? Was their argument "Either you consider all tower games to be clones of the first one, or everything is it's unique product?"

Hey guys: Don't make a game with guns in it: you're just copying real life.



I find this series of events interesting because we've never seen anything like this before with console/pc development, at least nowhere to the scale of this without the side doing the copying conceding. I like to think of this as "The Gentlemen's Agreement of Game Development", which has the following rules:
  • Don't do direct copies (1 to 1 mapping of features and visuals).
  • Lifting some ideas is fine, but offer your own spin or additions to differentiate.
  • Even if core mechanics are identical (genre trappings), the content has to be different
Not every game and developer have to be 100% original, and games often pay homage to their inspirations, but when players see games with similarities, they're still going to see the difference, and the gap is big enough that we players never feel like we need to call it out.

But enough of me talking, let's see some visual examples:

Mario Kart and Diddy Kong Racing (Pictured: Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing)

Mechanically, the game maintains the same feel (8 player "kart racing", use of randomized weapons, rubberbanding arcade AI racing experience). There is no direct clone of content (original racetracks, different types of weapon mechanics) and Diddy Kong features different fundamental ideas (story based racing, weapon stacking, different vehicle types).

Legend of Zelda and Darksiders (Pictured: Ocarina of Time and Darksiders)

Darksiders is a game clearly paying homage to Zelda: Dungeon traversal, the handling of item and experience as character growth, a lock on camera, etc. In fact, both Link and War have a horse at somepoint in the game, and there's an entire combat section on a horse. But no one would go saying Darksiders ripped off Zelda: Darksiders features a much deeper combat system, and is dramatically different in both tone and style.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band (Pictured: GH: Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3)

Sure, at one point, it was the same developer, and in fact, you can attribute notes coming down a lane as an idea from Konami's Beatmania games too, but at every step along the way, something was changed, with various results: Beatmania games have had "hidden notes", Guitar Hero introduced HammerOns, Rock Band added other instruments, and an alternate scoring system, etc. If you put the games side by side today, you can see that in their core mechanics, they are the same (players matching colors with buttons, essentially, Simon says), but they wildly differ in character design, user experience (dealing with interface, etc), and content.

Metroid and Shadow Complex (Pictured: Super Metroid and Shadow Complex)

Shadow Complex is another game that makes no apologies in paying homage to a classic "genre". Similar to Mario Kart and the kart racing genre, the former is such a powerful game that it's features is the template for that genre. Shadow Complex features similar ideas of exploration (areas that are locked away with certain weapons/methods of traversal), but it differs by offering it's own take on combat and weapons. At best, we can call the game "inspired by".

Puyo Pop and Puzzle Fighter (Pictured: Puyo Pop and Super Puzzle Fighter II)

At first glance, these two games look identical, but mechanically, the games are completely different: Puyo Pop's clearing is entirely based on chain size, whereas Puzzle Fighter is based on a unique "breaker" block. The strategies and moves you make for one game does not translate into the other, which is a clear sign that it's a different game. Puzzle Fighter is clearly influenced by Puyo Pop, but it's offering a unique take on the ideas of block clearing puzzle.

Resident Evil and Dead Space (Pictured: Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space)

Again, Dead Space clearly knows it's influenced by Resident Evil 4, which has become the cornerstone of the third person shooter. The over the shoulder camera, the item management, it's "attempts at horror". Yet there are huge differences: Dead Space's aim at "dismemberment"; real time item management in creating tension; it's sci-fi space setting allowing for variations in gameplay.


I don't know whether this gentlemen's agreement that console/pc devs have played by was done subconsciously, but it's obvious that facebook/mobile games don't quite play by the same rules. I don't think I can blame anyone for why we're here, but I hope more devs agree upon not directly copying someone's work and own up to it if they did.


  1. I feel this post is missing a reference to Munchkin (

    The game that spawned the first lawsuit on the matter. Of course, while it was ultimately found to be infringing, it really didn't affect the practice of wholesale copying of games. Games just took this, and determined it was a prescedent of "change it just enough so that it's not obvious to a judge that it's a total copy"

  2. I like your comparisons. Am wondering if the lawsuit of Spry Fox and Triple Town also plays into it. It seems like developers are getting lazier and lazier, saying "Hey, they got away with plagarism there, we can probably get away with this."

  3. The post on Penny Arcade today is somewhat related:

  4. Yeah. It's a very grey definition and something we're going to struggle to define. My personal litmus test (and one that basically prevents most console/pc games falling into this definition):

    Given two games, ignoring issues with shitty input (like compensating button response/sensors), can a person who knows game a, play game b immediately with what they know of game a?

    You do such a test on Tiny Towers vs Sim Tower, you can a clear No. Dream Tower & Tiny Tower? Yes.