When someone copies your game idea, what should you do? Rage against the unfair system? Swear vengeance? Lead a boycott? Or perhaps, enjoy all the attention you’re getting for being a real game designer whose work inspired others so much, they wanted to duplicate you.
As many of you will know, the geeks of the internet are up in arms about Gamenaut’s iOS game Ninja Fishing, which combines the basic core mechanics of Vlambeer’s extremely obscure Flash title Radical Fishin’ with the nearly ubiquitous touchscreen mechanics of a title such as Fruit Ninja. There’s no doubt that Ninja Fishing is a case of game duplication, as I talked about the other week, and as such is business as usual for the videogames industry. Part of the intensity of the reaction in this case is because Ninja Fishing has made it to the app store before Vlambeer’s own Ridiculous Fishing, which builds on their own design. I want to explore the dimensions of this issue a little more carefully.
Chris Donlan over at Edge savages Gamenauts for their duplication, concluding his rant with the following conclusion:
When you have no originality in your games, you can have no history, and you can have no personal quirks. You’ll end up with customers, perhaps, but not genuine fans – and games built around the concept of customers alone are often pretty miserable.
Aeiowu, who are working on Ridiculous Fishing (pictured above) with Vlambeer, were seriously irate:
…my point is about common decency and the little guy getting ****ed over by a studio that is both creatively and morally bankrupt.… this is all about capitalizing (monetarily) on Vlambeer’s creativity and prowess as top-shelf game designers. Nothing more. It’s complete bullshit and nobody with this knowledge should stand for it. … Complacency and etc. contributes to the fact that this means it’s a HELL of a lot harder to make it as an indie game designer on this path of freeware->iOS that could work so well for so many talented, aspiring game developers.
Rami Ismail of Vlambeer tongue-lashed me on Twitter when I expressed my general nonplussed response to this incident, concluding a series of tweets to me with the statement:
Clones do not iterate. They do not bring progress or new insights. They're not made to do so; a cynical way to earn money.
Firstly, let me say that I’m not unsympathetic to Vlambeer et al – it is never fun to be beaten to market in any context. It can make you feel betrayed, or it can literally sink a project you’ve spent a lot of time working on. I’ve had to pull the plug on a couple of titles over the years because a competitor beat my client to market with a similar product. In all of these cases, however, it was boxed product which was being developed for a console – and this marketplace is very different for the market for mobile or social games.
In this case I think it’s a mistake for Vlambeer et al to believe that they are having money stolen from them by Gamenauts. There’s a tendency to think of the diversions market as a series of pigeonholes with money in them, and if you get into the pigeonhole first you get all the money. A lot of business is like this, so it’s not a total fantasy. But when you’re dealing with the mass market for games, this hasn’t been the pattern. When an original game concept has legs, the first mover does have a significant advantage, but usually for diversion-type games the new markets have supported large audiences whereby the volume of titles has driven growth in that marketplace for all participants. The hidden object genre has been a great example of this – everyone who got in quickly did very well from the space, at least until it was saturated.
I suspect the same is true for this style of game. I’m not going to pretend that Radical Fishin’ was entirely original – seriously, no videogame appears from thin air – but at the same time the coupling of the two game mechanics (hook sinking and shooting) in this way has a chance to found a new genre, and that’s a great achievement for anyone! It’s something no-one can take away from you. What’s more, even though Gamenauts are the first to market on iOS, Vlambeer et al are still first movers in this market space, since Radical Fishin’ established them in this role. Don’t underestimate the long-term payoff for being the innovator, here. This probably isn’t a case like poor Ernő Rubik, who reputedly made very little money out of his hit invention.
Ultimately, I think Vlambeer et al are being short-sighted about Gamenaut’s duplication of their design. While it’s not quite true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, all the publicity this furore has generated has rocketed Ridiculous Fishing into the spotlight to a degree that indie developers this small are supremely lucky to get. If my original indie projects like Play with Fire had benefited from this kind of attention, I might not have lost so much money on them! Certainly, I’m convinced that the cost in terms of lost revenue is not commensurate to the gains in terms of publicity in this instance. Vlambeer may feel like they’ve been kicked in the balls, but my suspicion is that they’re going to benefit from this once the aching wears off.
Some middle-ground perspectives may help here. Eli Hodapp of Toucharcade suggests:
I'm looking forward to both Ridiculous Fishing as well as Ninja Fishing, and sincerely hope that there's enough to differentiate the two to make two crazy fishing games worth keeping around on my iPhone.
A.T. Faust III of App Advice offers support for the original designers:
If my past assertions about App Store clones hold true, Vlambeer has nothing to worry about. Either way, I know which title I’m buying!
Russ Frushtick of MTV Multiplayer is even stronger:
Moral of the story: If you want to support creative, independent developers, avoid "Ninja Fishing" and wait for "Ridiculous Fishing." The only way to discourage this sort of action is to hurt copycats in the wallet, so make your voice heard.
The bottom line here is that Vlambeer are being game designers and Gamenauts are being game duplicators – you may hate the duplicators, but they’re just trying to make a living like everyone else, and they probably haven’t significantly hurt Vlambeer et al in this case, no matter how it may feel at this point. Aeiowu say that “it’s extremely insulting” to be credited for inspiration but trust me, it’s much worse to not be credited for inspiration! The Japanese game designers responsible for paving the way for just about everything on Facebook have no consolation.
I’m going to let Tuaw have the next-to-final word here:
…the developers of Ridiculous Fishing seem to be taking it in stride anyway – they're still working hard on their iOS title, and they say it'll have lots of cool new ideas and "an amazing visual style" as well.
The bottom line here is that anyone that looks into this will see that Ridiculous Fishing is a classy piece of design work, and that many more people will support this title thanks to Gamenauts. I for one would never have heard of it without Ninja Fishing, yet now the developers might even make a sale out of me – and I buy very, very few iPhone titles. I suspect there’s a lot of angry indie fanboys out there who are going to promote the hell out of the new extreme fishing title when it arrives, and that’s great news for the original game designers whichever way you look at it.
Sure, Vlambeer can be angry at Gamenauts for ripping them off instead of being flattered that they thought their little obscure Flash title was fantastic enough that it was worth taking as the foundation for a duplicate game, but they are now almost certainly headed for a hit iOS game on the back of all this free publicity. Hundreds of indie developers die because they never get noticed, but this isn’t going to be them. Perhaps they should try to enjoy their coming success instead of pouring hatred on a competitor who may, perversely, have done them a favour by liking their work so much they wanted to copy it.
Ridiculous Fishing is due for release later this year in iTunes.