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