McClone

My more mature colleagues warn me not to be too “precious” about my work. i get my back up at that, because to me it’s akin to saying “don’t be too passionate” about it. But i’ve seen preciousness in the capital-I Indie scene lately, and i now feel i have a better sense of what my colleagues are warning about.

This week, yet another capital-I Indie game developer – one of the Elite – has had their game “cloned”, and the community has become butthurt on their behalf (as i write this, the developers themselves haven’t officially commented).

The game was Johann Sebastian Joust. In it, each player holds a Playstation Move motion controller and must move through the physical space in time to a Bach piece. If a player moves out of time with the music, his controller blinks off and he’s “out”. So the game is a challenge to swat at each others’ controllers to send those players out of the game, while still moving in time to the music yourself.

Johann Sebastian Joust at Indiecade 2011

Joust co-creator Doug plays his game at Indiecade 2011 while i sit nearby with Ponycorns, butthurt and criminally un-awarded (not pictured)

i Hate All the Things

Here’s a bit of disclosure: i didn’t particularly like Joust when i saw it at IndieCade (after it beat out my own game for the Community Impact award), but it was clear that lots of other people did. When i played JS Joust at GDC this year, i waited a long time for a turn, and then was swatted “out” almost immediately by someone who had been in for a few rounds. i don’t like a game where i instantly fail my first time and then have to wait a long time before i can try again. As a day camp counsellor in my youth, i tried to avoid playing eliminate-and-wait games with my group, where kids would get killed early and would wait around starting small fires while everyone else played and had fun. Remember that our own games press absolutely destroyed Silicon Knights because of Too Human‘s overlong resurrection sequence. “Just let me play again already!”

Johann Sebastian Joust at Indiecade 2011

Sitting out: the very definition of unfun. (Photo by Amanda Summerlin)

While i’m at it, i didn’t enjoy World of Goo, i was bored by Fez, and i thought the writing in Braid was utter tripe (although i did enjoy the rest of the game … except for the special stars, because they were so much bullshit). i didn’t play past the first chapter of Sword and Sworcery because it didn’t grab me, and i felt The Graveyard and Passage were supremely pretentious. But that’s okay. The fact that i didn’t go nuts for these games doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy them, and it shouldn’t taint your own view of them. Feel free to dump on my upcoming game Spellirium if it’s not your cup of tea. Different people like different things, and that’s fine: media is never objectively good. i hope we can agree to that, at least.

Rushmore

The exception, of course, is Rushmore, which is OBJECTIVELY the greatest movie ever made.

The Slimiest Form of Flattery

What we may not be able to agree to is my opinion on the fact that there’s a new game on the iTunes store that is similar to JS Joust, and that that, too, is perfectly alright. What’s happened is that a game that i’ve only ever seen at festivals and conferences, being closely overseen (or downright babysat) by one of its creators, with a setup requiring special equipment that not a lot of people own, AND a laptop, AND an external sound system … a game that don’t think i can even purchase ? (i checked the developers’ site, and their store is closed. Let’s say i buy 16 Move controllers and get all my friends together and hook my laptop up to an external speaker that i’m inexplicably lugging around … can i buy Johann Sebastian Joust? i don’t think i can. Please let me know if i’m mistaken here.) Anyway, what’s happened is that a game similar to THAT game has now been made available on the iPhone, a device that magnitudes more people own than they do Move controllers. These players can now access the similar game and play it wherever they want, and it’s far more likely their friends can join in with them … and when they’re finished, there’s no special tear-down. Just put the game back in your pocket.

iPhone in pocket

i got the festival game! i put it in my pants.

As an aside, i see shades of piracy justification in this story. One of the most common excuses people provide for justifying stealing movies and music is that the content has not been made available by the rights holder in the time and place and for the price that the consumer so chooses. How many of us have watched “Game of Thrones”, vs the number of us who are legit HBO subscribers or (one-year-later) iTunes purchasers? People have heard about JS Joust, and likely want to play it … but for lack of a vast pile of Move controllers, or airfare to California or Cologne to attend a conference or festival where the game is being played, they can’t experience it. Thanks to Papa Quash, now they can, and with stuff they already own. People want to experience media they’ve heard about and that critics are lauding; Die Gute Fabrik has garnered a lot of press and many accolades for their game. Now, people want to play it. But Joust is not convenient (or possible) for them to play.

Fight for Your Right to Parlay

To be clear, this is not an issue of legal rights. Game mechanics or styles of play cannot be copyrighted (though frighteningly, like the ghost racer from Hard Drivin’ or the compass arrow pointing to your destination in Crazy Taxi, they can sometimes be patented). A trademark infringement would have the iPod clone being called Johann Sebastian Fight, or Ludwig Von Joust, and that’s not the case here. Some of the folks i bickered with on Twitter today said that while the “clone” was not legally infringing, it was morally infringing. Again, i disagree, and that’s where being too precious comes into it.

Someone asked me how i would feel if another developer cloned Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure on some platform other than the web, the iPad or the BlackBerry Playbook. My answer? “Litigious”, because that would be an infringement of both my trademark and copyright. But i didn’t invent the point n’ click graphic adventure game genre … (in fact, i “cloned” it for Ponycorns) … so if someone wanted to team up with one or more 5-year-old little girls and make a game using scanned crayon drawings and adorable voiceovers, how angry could i possibly get? As has been proven time and again, it’s the execution, not the idea, that matters.

Ponycorns

Alright: who wants to be the first jackhole to release Suzie’s Mystical Horseyhorn Escapade?

McExecution

It’s possible that Henry Ford would have been precious and felt butthurt if he’d lived to see Ray Kroc apply Ford’s concept of assembly line efficiency to assembling hamburgers at McDonald’s. It’s more likely that Kroc himself was butthurt when the likes of Colonel Sanders, Dave Thomas, and John Fitzsimmons Burgerking had success with their operationally identical fast food chains (Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, and Fitzsimmons’s Meaty-time Corral, respectively). Burger King is a “clone” of McDonalds, from the concept of franchised food, down to the signature sandwich. Rather than decry Burger King as a rip-off, sometimes i’m happy to have the option, and i can really go for a Whopper.

Whopper

Clones are bad! (nom nom nom) i’m (glorm!) so offended right now! BRAAPPP!

Pepsi is a cola drink. Coca-cola is another cola drink. So is Cott’s cola, for times when i’m feeling frugal. These are similar expressions of the same concept. And i’m awfully glad that they all exist.

Imagine that only three McDonald’s restaurants existed before Burger King franchises swept the nation and became available everywhere. And those three restaurants were in Illinois, far from where you live. (Illinois people, you’re going to have to use your imaginations here.) You could hold out for that McDonald’s experience, because you believed the hype and the press, and you think that Burger King is a moral abasement and that they really screwed over McDonald’s when BK went nation-wide with the franchised fast food burger concept. OR, you could STFU and go get a Whopper. Perhaps you could enjoy something from McDonald’s if you ever happened to swing the airfare to Chicago?

OR, if you’re McDonald’s, you could finally get around to building restaurants where everyone can access them, and spin your marketing to position yourself against your clone as the original, best experience. (Count the number of times Coke used the word “original” in its ads during the cola wars of the 1980’s.)

OR you can keep McDonald’s to those three restaurants in Illinois, and continue perpetuating the elite mystique about your product with your nose in the air. Looking at a print of the Mona Lisa is fine, but true art fans have travelled to the Louvre to see it in person. Die Gute Fabrik has lots of options here, and they’re all marketing related.

The Choice of a New Generation

The tack i hope they don’t take is to rally the captial-I Indie scene troops to their cause, and blacklist the developers of Quash Papa as if the indie community is the goddamned Illuminati. Yeti Town is a clone of Triple Town, but being a reluctant Canadian, i don’t like winter – and i DO like teddy bears, so i can make my choice as a consumer to play Triple Town. Dream Heights is a clone of Tiny Tower, but i don’t want to play either of those games, because the clone Lil’ Kingdom has adorable baby dragons and i’d rather spend my money on them. i don’t care that Nimblebit, the concept’s progenitor (arguably), isn’t getting my money, because Nimblebit didn’t give me the baby dragons that i so richly deserve as a consumer.

Dragon in Lil Kingdom

Dragons up! Skyscrapers down!

Pepsi tastes better than Coke, in my subjective opinion, and i prefer a Whopper to a Big Mac. Two Snow White films are being marketed simultaneously right now. i’m more interested in watching “Snow White and the Huntsman” than “Mirror Mirror” because i don’t care for Julia Roberts in the latter, and the dramatic treatment – the execution – of Huntsman is more appealing to me than the comedic treatment of Mirror Mirror. Marvel Comics has better heroes, while DC Comics has better villains.

Kangaroo

Spider-man fights a guy named Kangaroo? Srsly?

Dear capital-I Indies: welcome to the world of creating media for worldwide audiences. You’re not fourteen any more, and while some of you may still live with your parents, you need to stop listening to them when they tell you you’re a rare and precious snowflake. You’re going to get ripped off – that’s bidness, baby – and sometimes audiences will prefer the clone to the original. Your excellent and once-unique ideas can and should and will be spread far and wide – tinkered with, reconstituted, explored, and backwards-engineered. Just as Braid is Super Mario Bros. with time reversal and Machinarium is Gobliiins with different artwork, you have hacked and cloned and explored game mechanics and ideas throughout your careers. If your game gets ripped off, don’t bitch. Be flattered, be angry, and execute better.

27 thoughts on “McClone

  1. Marcus

    There’s something about you, Ryan. Sometimes I think you’re hopelessly wrong when everybody else is right. But other times, when everybody else seems hopefully wrong, I think you’re the only one who’s right. I’m glad you wrote this article and I’m glad you put it as eloquently as you did.

    Reply
  2. Colin Northway

    I’m fine with you not liking Joust and I think the Joust/Papa Quash thing needs more information at the moment to know what’s going on.

    But the idea that clones aren’t harmfull is… well it’s Bullshit. Horay for you, you make games where the creative element is protected by copyright. Some of us don’t.

    To some of us the rules of the game are the creative endevour and it takes _a lot_ of time to come up with them, refine them, make them fun. The rules, unlike your art and prose, have no protection so they can be stolen. And if you keep stealing the lunch out of the hands of the creative game designers you’re going to have less creative games.

    Again, not specifically talking about Joustice here, it’s too early to tell wtf happened there.

    Reply
    1. Marcus

      So how do we decide which mechanics are OK to “borrow” and which aren’t? The fact that you may be adversely affected by somebody using a mechanic (or several) that you first came up with/discovered doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong. (non-cloned) competition can be “harmful” too.

      Reply
    2. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      When our children were babies, my wife would sew baby wraps – long strips of fabric you could use to tie a baby to your body. They’re used the world over. They became very popular within our circle of friends, and my wife made numerous wraps for her pregnant pals. She came up with an innovation to make them smarter-than-your-average-wrap, by adding a pocket to the front and a ring to attach toys, washcloths, etc.

      With their popularity, the question was whether my wife should try to make a go of it, selling these wraps to a wider audience. What our research turned up was interesting: people who were more in-the-know about this stuff said that without significant funding, it wasn’t worth it to do something like that, because if you make anything that’s even remotely popular, a large manufacturer with more resources than you will horn in and start making your THING, thereby eating your lunch.

      It looks much the same in the video game market: if you have an original, fun game mechanic and you don’t have the money to patent it or make a proper go of it, you are prey for larger more resourceful companies. Call it unfair or wrong or whatever … i think it’s just bidness. It’s just the way things work, and you have to lay your chips down on certain risks in bidness.

      Reply
  3. -

    Please follow your own advice:

    “You’re not fourteen any more”

    And stop using ‘butthurt’. Terms like that, and calling other indies “Capital I” indies or “precious” are great ways to hammer in the idea that you’re coming at this from the angle of personal bitterness, rather than actual opinions about cloning.

    ” i didn’t particularly like Joust when i saw it at IndieCade (after it beat out my own game for the Community Impact award)”

    Wow, I couldn’t have guessed that from the tone of your post.

    I place bets that if Joust had not beaten you, this post would not exist.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      “Butthurt” (which, you may notice, i applied to myself at one point) is a really great term to describe a certain wounded petulance. It applies here, and i stand by it.

      Also, games that defeat me at awards shows are clearly designed by wicked people, and their very existence is an affront to all that is good and holy.

      http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/2012/04/22/drunken-tropical-meandering-defeats-childs-imaginative-dreamscape/

      Reply
  4. Colin Northway

    “Call it unfair or wrong or whatever … i think it’s just bidness”

    But we as a community of gamers and game authors can decide we want to reward the creative minds at the expense of the clones. Boycotts have been around a long time. That’s “just bidness” too.

    Thinking that people shouldn’t be morally outraged when someone tries to hurt something they love seems silly. Cloners are hurting games. People don’t like clones. They are sensible to get angry, you can bet this Joustice thing will change the way Ustwo and other contractors behave (even if Quash turns out to not be a clone).

    I don’t like it when people say something is shitty but it’s been shitty for a long time so don’t try to change it. Even if you’ve given up let other people try to change it. Mabey they’ll get lucky and make the world a better palce.

    Reply
  5. Damian

    Hey Ryan, just wanted to chime in:
    Joust was actually possible to obtain. I have a copy, but have never been able to play it (I don’t have any move controllers). You had to contribute at least 25 dollars to the Venus Patrol kickstarter (http://kck.st/L79vXe) in order to get it, and 3 other exclusive games. That’s pretty much the only reason I kickstarted the site.

    Take from that what you will.

    Reply
  6. Andy Smithingtonenson

    What is the goal of the creation of Joust (money? fun? the sale of move controllers? art?)? Does Papa Quash hurt that goal?

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      That’s a great question, Andy. i don’t know. At the risk of speaking out of turn, it *appears* to be a party game built specifically for festivals and gatherings … almost an installation piece. i’m not sure if Die Gute Fabrik is paid to fly around bringing the game to different conferences and fests, but they’re from Germany and i’ve met them twice in California. Airfare money’s gotta come from somewhere, but i’m not sure it’s from the game?

      i’m pretty convinced they’re not funded by Sony. And in fact, the use of Move Controllers on a non-Sony system surprised me, like all these homebrew Kinect projects that are tolerated by Microsoft. i thought that anyone selling a game using 1st party hardware like that had to pay a 1st party license fee? To even use the image of the Move controller in their marketing, i *think* they’d technically have to pay a royalty to Sony.

      Folks in the indie scene get weird whenever you try to turn a buck (or whenever you’re not subtle about it). i think Die Gute Fabrik would face an expensive future if they tried to properly market and sell Joust to the masses; i think Papa Quash solved that problem cleverly. To the victor, the spoils. (But it’s not too late for Die Gute Fabrik to turn the tide in their favour with proper marketing … and i think they know this, which is why they’re carefully weighing their response.)

      Reply
  7. Colin Northway

    Man, I’m sorry to keep harping on this thread.

    But wtf, who “gets weird” if you try to turn a buck? Who has ever done that? Many people will “get weird” if you pull some complete gacha shit, but beyond that I think we do a pretty good job supporting eachother’s efforts to make a living producing our art.

    “i think Papa Quash solved that problem cleverly”

    So you really think no one ever considered putting Joust on the iPhone? The problem is not a lack of imagination. The problem is that your iPhone will get smashed into the ground and break. Two people have already tweeted that they cracked their screens playing Quash. Joust is not an easy game to sell.

    Are you trolling at this point or what?

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      i had a bunch of indies “get weird” at me for hawking Ponycorns merch. And i sense an attitude where people who earn money without Christ-ing it up and enduring pain and suffering through the creative process don’t really *deserve* the money they earned. (Not speaking of myself here … that Ponycorns game put me $7k in the hole.)

      i don’t think Die Gute Fabrik didn’t consider releasing Joust on the iPhone. Maybe they also had the idea to play Joust on the moon, or to make tiny versions of Joust that insects could play. i don’t know. It doesn’t matter how many ideas they had – what matters is execution. Joust did it IRL first. Papa Quash did it on the iPhone first. Fact: the first guy to make a Scorched Earth clone for the iPhone pocketed $300k in the first sixth months.

      Completely separate issue: iPhones breaking. Let’s say i come out with a game called “Throw Your iPhone on the GROUND”, where the goal of the game is to throw your iPhone on the ground as hard as you can. The first person to throw his iPhone on the ground wins. The game may even begin with the proviso “WARNING: throwing your iPhone on the ground may result in a broken iPhone. Be careful when playing Throw Your iPhone on the GROUND.”

      Then let’s say the game becomes a smash hit (no pun intended). The guys who invented Throw Your Playstation Move Controller on the GROUND can boast all they like about how they conducted themselves with integrity and a heartfelt concern for the well-being of people’s iPhones. They can take that to their graves and die contentedly, if perceived ethical integrity is what motivates them. And if that IS what motivates them, what care do they have for someone motivated by money earning a buck from their idea? Doug’s a scholar, who presents Joust like an installation piece or game-as-performance-art. His motives seem more intellectual, artistic and cultural than financial.

      But if Die Gute Fabrik ARE motivated by money, they gonna zip it and put that shit on the iPhone.

      Reply
  8. Colin Northway

    Alright, as long as you’re back-pedaling from the idea that people get weird “whenever you try to turn a buck”. And that putting Joust on the iPhone is in some way particularly clever.

    The rest of what you say isn’t totally crazy. It’s opinion which I disagree with.

    Like the idea that selling a game to people that will likely result in breaking their phones is a good idea.

    Reply
  9. Adrian Crook

    I honestly wish I could write blog posts as eloquently as you do, Ryan. Well done. Always entertaining to read, even just for your how you spin the language.

    Reply
  10. Matthew Severin

    I am absolutely, 100%, in agreement with EVERYTHING in your post, Ryan. From the indifference to the indie darlings, to the realities of cloning.

    If you think that you have a unique, brand new, never been thought of before idea, I would bet all of Ryan’s Phat-PonyCorn-Lootz that you are wrong, it has been done, thought of, executed before.

    You may have an interesting new twist (like how Joust is an interesting twist on an old game). Or you might have an interesting combination of old ideas (like Time Reversal + Platforming + Highschool-Poetry like in Braid). But to proclaim that you are the sole inventor is pretty rich.

    Reply
  11. Tobiah

    You know, I am reminded how many of the first First Person Shooter games were all called “Doom clones”

    It’s the birth of the new genre. There has not been a game like Joust before, but oh man, it seems so fun, I’ll be shocked if there isn’t a version on every motion sensing platform in the future.

    Reply
  12. Bwakathaboom

    Ah, to be so young and naive and think that everything you’re experiencing is brand new and vitally important! It’s so cute watching the hipster Indies get all worked up in their own little world.

    It’s almost as if they’re completely ignorant of the last 30 years of video game history.

    I think we’re starting to see what happens when the “no fail” generation you’ve written of actually start making games and collide with the real world. It’s resounding cries of “No Fair!” when things don’t work out and startling arrogance (a la John Blow and Phil Fish) when they do.

    Reply
  13. UnSubject

    Ray Kroc liked what the McDonald’s brothers were doing with their business, but thought they could do better, so he bought their franchise rights. However, the brothers allegedly welched on the deal and wouldn’t give up their main store, so Kroc opened up a McDonalds right across the road and ran them out of business.

    The problem with originality is that too many people think that it occurs whenever they see it for the first time, not when it was actually developed. So people rage against Zynga for creating a Tiny Towers clone, but not at the idea that Tiny Towers is the result of someone converting SimTower into an app game.

    Reply
  14. Raul Wallace

    Who would think that that freaky looking King character could give that red haired, yellow suite wearing clown a run for its money? Well, if the internet is any reflection of how tides are changing, McDonald’s certainly better step up it’s game online.

    Reply

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