Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Plagiarism as a moral choice

Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the "wrongful appropriation," "close imitation," or "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work, but the notion remains problematic with nebulous boundaries.

The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to "copy the masters as closely as possible" and avoid "unnecessary invention.

The 18th century new morals have been institutionalized and enforced prominently in the sectors of academia and journalism, where plagiarism is now considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics, subject to sanctions like expulsion and other severe career damage...

Plagiarism is not a crime per se but is disapproved more on the grounds of moral offence...
-Wikipedia's entry on Plagiarism

Thought: Most professional game developers are also professional plagiarists

Here's a quiz for all the game developers who are reading:
  • Do you follow the rule of thumb "90% familiar, 10% fresh"?
  • When you look at the game you are working on is there a direct comparable?
  • Do your designers say "For that feature let's model how X did it" and consistently refer to the same pre-existing game?
  • Is your primary reference a game considered original or innovative in the last 3-5 years?
  • Is your primary philosophy of design "I could totally make a better version of game X"
  • Do you copy mechanics and assume that adding different content such as levels or graphics makes your game unique?
If you follow these patterns, you are likely a plagiarist. To rewrite the industry's golden rule in the language of other arts, "90% is plagiarized and 10% is remixed to give the illusion that the player is engaged in an original work."

This lazy and morally offensive practice has become a social norm within our incestuous industry. We don't even consider that there might be alternative method of developing games. We are the equivalent of the western world before the suffrage movement. Or the South before the civil rights movement. We look at our current derivative behavior, acknowledge that it is harmful and then proceed to dogmatically justify its continued pursuit based off economic, legal, historical and short-term selfish reasons. Yet the fact that 'everyone does it' fails to provide a strong moral foundation for an act that diminishes our industry and damages the minority that strive to create original works.

Where plagiarism differs from evolving key innovations of the past

It is a common practice to include individual mechanics inspired by previous games. This is a natural part of the creative process. Plagiarists, however borrows systems en mass. They takes not just the movement mechanic from Zelda, but the flow of the dungeons, the majority of the power ups, and the millisecond by millisecond feel of the game.

Game designs are very close to a mechanical invention.  The rules, interface and feedback systems all create a reproducible set of player dynamics.  Think of a game as an invented 'fun engine' that when placed in front of a player yields delight and mastery.

Developers go through a few stages of invention when building games.

  1. Copying a design. Most programmers make a simple copy of an existing functional game as part of their learning process.  You copy everything including interface, levels, scoring and more. You don't understand why the game works so you replicate it in the hopes of blindly capturing the magic. You may change out the art, but otherwise it is the same game. 
  2. Modifying an existing design. Usually this involves just playing with existing parameters or content.  You might add a a triple shotgun and new levels to your Doom-clone.  You still don't understand the game, but you can play with safe variables like narrative, level design or theme that are unlikely to ruin the value of the core mechanic. Warcraft is a classic example of a modification of the original Dune 2 RTS design. 
  3. Adding to a design. Taking the core fun engine and add something to it. Think of this as adding a turbo charger on an existing car.  Sonic took Mario and made the main character much faster.  In the best games this results in a cascade effect throughout the entire design that requires you to rethink content, pacing, scoring and more. 
  4. Synthesizing a new design. Take multiple disparate parts and put together a new game that has unique dynamics. A game like PuzzleJuice is a great example of a synthesized design that takes elements from Tetris and Boggle.  To many players, it feels like a brand new games built out of familiar pieces. 
  5. Inventing a design. Using a variety of sources of inspiration, create a new fun engine that is unique and new to the world. 

The early stages of copying are an essential process that all students of game design should undertake.  As a learning activity, there isn't a lot of money in creating master studies, but it is a respectable pursuit along the path to self improvement.  As long as students cite their inspiration and refrain from competing directly with the original creator there is little conflict.

The later stages of invention are risky, difficult work.  There's an immense amount of experimentation and failure.  Even the simplest game inventions (such as Tetris or Lemmings) were the result of years of diligent labor by master designers.  There aren't a lot of these people, yet they bring immense amounts of joy to the world.  They deserve to profit from their inventions and in general players are excited to spend their money on new, delightful games.

The plagiarist is someone who wants to shortcut the process of invention. They decide that it is cheaper to copy as much a possible so that the dynamics of a previous game are preserved. Then cosmetic tweaks are applied and the copy is sold as a new thing by an original creator. Changing out the graphics or giving the game a new plot are the most common tweaks because they are easily decoupled without damaging the delicate dynamics of play.  When you look at the games released on the market, you can easily see that there is a spectrum of theft.  The most blatant plagiarists are those that steal the most and innovate new mechanics and dynamics the least.

The economic and human cost of plagiarism

By cheaply creating games without needing to pay the cost of research and invention, plagiarists are able to quickly release games into markets that the original innovator has not fully addressed. Clones therefore capture value that would have otherwise eventually accrued to the original innovator. For example, clones of Minecraft that reach XBLA earlier tap unmet demand and reduce the audience for Minecraft when it eventually releases there.

On first blush, consumer advocates might imagine that this is a fine situation. They get a product they like faster and as the population of plagiarists merrily plagiarize one another, you end up with an explosion of quality choices.

Consider how this effects the original source of the innovation. While the overall market may be larger, the original innovator is left naked with no protection that lets them recoup the cost of the initial invention. There are few legal protections for game inventors. There is only the stark reality that many smaller independent developers, the life blood of innovation in our current markets, are blindsided by a blast of competition that they lack the development resources, distribution agreements or business expertise to successfully compete against. The plagiarists capture the majority of the market, establish well known evergreen brands and the original innovators are at best a footnote.

As a result of this tragically common feedback loop, those inclined to innovate are discouraged from innovating in the first place. Why innovate when it costs you money and doesn't yield the competitive advantage you might hope due to the nearly instantaneous influx of copy-cat competitors? It may look like a better business option to simply join the plagiarists and avoid the whole expensive innovation thing in the first place. It is no surprise that the game industry tends to have a large number of evolutionary works, but fewer genre-busting founder works.

The plagiarist's 'make a buck at any cost' attitude directly results in a creatively stagnant industry long term.  You don't need to look far to see concrete examples of these dynamics in action. Note how quickly the cartoonishly mercenary plagiarism-focused culture of social games turned a bright spot of burgeoning innovation into an endless red ocean of clone after clone within a mere handful of years. Such a wasteland fails to grow the market and ultimately leads to less consumer choice.

Plagiarist pride

There is of course skill in plagiarizing well, just as there is skill in forging a famous painting. To be a professional plagiarist is laborious work. I acknowledge this. We've developed a whole subculture of designers that specialize in the subtle arts of copying the work of others. A 'good designer' is one that excels at 'researching comparable games'. They steal with great care from only the best. They also excel at 'polish' which has been warped to mean the skill at reverse engineering a comparable game so that the copy feels identical down to the smallest detail.

The current industry put such skills on a pedestal. We hire for them and we pay top dollar for reliable execution. Yet at best, these are the skills of a journeyman, mechanically copying the master works of past giants.

If you stick to doing only this, there's a pretty clear career path. You end up as a wage slave. Typically such laborers are hired by businesses that couldn't give a damn about pushing the craft of game design forward. Instead, the goal is another product for another slot on either the retail shelf or the downloadable dashboard. Grind it out, worker bee. If you can copy a past hit by the flickering candle of midnight crunch, your family gets its ball of rice for the day. This is the entirety of your creative worth. If you go to sleep each night thinking "I'm a hack, but at least I pay the bills", you deserve pity. And you need to contemplate the quiet whisper that maybe you don't need to spend your entire career diligently copying others.  Remember when you were a sparklingly original creative person?  Remember when you wanted to change the world? Remember that time before you compromised?

Plagiarism is a moral choice

We live in an economic world.  Yes, you need to eat. We also live in a legal world.  There is a rather low minimum bar for our behavior. But as creators and artists, we can each choose where we put our creative energy. What we create has a moral and emotional component that is perhaps more important for both our mental health than any paycheck. To be a plagiarist and to stay a plagiarist is to waste your very limited time on this planet. What amazing things could you be making if you didn't spend so much time slavishly copying others?

What's the alternative? Why not start up a small prototyping project? Knock a genre down to its most basic element. Give yourself constraints so you intentionally do not replicate games of the past. Rebuild your game from that simple foundation, borrowing elements from the entire breadth of game history. Finish a game that has a half dozen influences from widely disparate games that in the end create a player experience that is uniquely yours. This is how you stop being a plagiarist and start becoming a master game designer.  There is still time to create something amazing and new.

take care,

Useful links


  1. [[Posted for Ian Schreiber since he is having difficulties with authentication. -Danc]]

    Wow, where to begin here?

    First, I think your definition and application of the term "plagiarism" is overly broad here. Applying this logic to an academic setting, if you pick a random article from a random peer-reviewed academic journal, you will similarly find that 90% of what's in there is building on past work, with 10% new stuff (and even the "new" stuff is sometimes just remixed old stuff, particularly for papers whose entire purpose is to collect and summarize the state of the literature). Just as with games. The only dividing line between "research" and "plagiarism" is whether you give proper credit to the people whose ideas you're copying. Include an endnote citation and it's research. Leave it out and it's plagiarism. It's not the act of copying that constitutes plagiarism, so much as the lack of acknowledgment. Truly groundbreaking scientific/academic Nobel-winning research is incredibly rare, but it does happen... again, a direct parallel to games.

    You could argue on these grounds that a video game "clone" is plagiarism, if and only if the game doesn't include some kind of note of thanks in the credits to the games it's ripping off. I would counter that doing so is far less necessary in video games as it is in academic literature: generally the games that are cloned, are cloned because they are wildly successful, and therefore the prospective audience of players (and especially of game designers) will instantly see the connection without the need for a citation. Press releases and game reviews sometimes reference earlier works as well, further reducing the need for an in-game citation system.

    So, challenging the copying of ideas, remixing of ideas, and building on past work on ETHICAL grounds is pushing the bounds of reason. The same logic could be used to attack the current state of R&D everywhere. The real lesson here is that incremental building is easy and common and safe, wholesale innovation is hard and rare and risky. But that's a tradeoff of business, not ethics.

    You then raise the very real business concern that people who can clone-and-tweak faster or better than the innovators will reduce innovation, since the business case can no longer be made to innovate. But you've provided your own counterargument on this very blog when you talked about Nintendo's business strategy. The fact is that innovation just doesn't work at the AAA level anyway because there are too many risks involved; so take many smaller, cheaper risks first, keep the dev cost cheap enough that you make money regardless, and if someone else later wants to take what you've done and throw 9 figures at it to make 10 figures, more power to them. Fact is that the clones still need something to clone. And honestly, innovation is probably more alive and well now than it has been at any time in the past, due to the near-universal accessibility of rapid-prototyping tools (just look at how many brilliant indie successes we're seeing today, and how the quality of IGF winners and quantity of entries has been exponentially increasing over the last 10 years, if nothing else). To me, the only mystery is why large-scale studios like EA and Ubisoft aren't funding their own internal Miramax-style indie branches. (Or maybe they are, and they just like to keep it quiet. What do I know?)


  2. [[Ian, part 2]]

    Ultimately, it seems to me like your aim here is to write a call-to-arms to ask designers to choose greater levels of innovation (and managed design risk) because that is what you prefer. I actually prefer it too, and I have to admit I've been impressed by the quality of Spry Fox's games. But then, I'm also impressed by the quality of Blizzard, which seems to take wholesale copying + "polish" to an extreme. And I'm in awe of Zynga's money-making potential, despite (at least in the early days) actively squashing creative thought in the organization. Given the choice, maybe I'd rather work for Spry Fox than Zynga. I suspect more of my students would rather work for Blizzard. So in the end, I think this comes down to a choice of preferred work styles (didn't you write a "what kind of designer are you" article here, too, that said as much?) rather than an ethical decision.

  3. Re: "..generally the games that are cloned, are cloned because they are wildly successful"

    This actually isn't true. Very few of the people that played Steam Pirates were familiar with Steambirds. Very few of the people who play Zuma are familiar with Puzzle Loop. The mass audience really has a limited knowledge of games and game history.

    And having someone get to a customer first is not good. When you impress upon their little chick-like minds one positive and addictive game, the next similar game that comes along will almost always judged in the shadow of the first experience. Game designs do have a strong novelty factor that contributes to their value as products.

    take care,

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. >Knock a genre down to its most basic element.

    That's exactly what I'm doing. Honestly, I think that anyone who actually *designs* a game will not be plagiarizing. Real game designers ask difficult questions about the way things are, and just simply end up not plagiarizing.

    In short: Plagiarizing is not something that anyone who really gives a shit about games has to worry about. If you care, and make games thoughtfully, you will end up with something original. So, the real enemy is people who don't care about games and would just as soon switch to selling soup if they thought they could make more money.

  6. I'd much prefer if you stop using a loaded word like plagiarism, and start calling it copying.

    I'm all for copying myself. As a consumer, it means I get more of what I like. As a game developer, it means I can learn more easily, because I don't have to invite something from whole cloth.

    If you're losing money because of plagiarism, it may hurt, but there's not much difference between people who buy the plagiarized copy and piracy: you clearly haven't provided the service or product that the people buying the copied version need, otherwise they would be buying your product.

  7. This is an interesting concept and a difficult one. It really comes down to creativity and how good you are at expressing it. A beginner is encouraged to copy and plagiarize as it is a mean of learning quickly the trade. I was once told by an old talented woodworker here in Italy "You must first steal a craft from an expert a master". As an artist becomes more confident he/she is able to start taking more risks outside of the norm and explored. So I think for an artist it's really a matter of creative skills and being confident in your creative process.

    As an artist the satisfaction of creating something new and original is the main reason why I create something. I hope it's the same for other artists.

  8. Outstanding post, Daniel.

    Leo: I think this is very much the case myself - as a journeyman you learn from the masters, but IMO the earlier you start innovating (first in minor ways and progressively more significantly) the faster you grow as a craftsman & the sooner you'd become a master.

    Andrew: you present the perspective of the consumer and the copycat, but you fail to address Daniel's main point - a lenient attitude towards wholesale copying (not mere inspiration!) reduces the potential gain of innovation (see Radical Fishing vs. Ninja Fishing, et al.) and therefor reduces the incentive to innovate.

    As an art form and craftsmanship this has negative long-term implications (also for players!).

  9. Why is the image that illustrates this page copyright Ranjini Sharma?

  10. Frank: I assume it's because it's a copy of a more famous picture by someone else?

  11. What would you do with plagiarism that is a source of innovation? Commander Keen brought smooth scrolling to the PC platform and opening the PC to many developers... but, by John Carmack's own admission, Commander Keen is Super Mario Brothers 3 clone with the serial numbers filed off.

  12. what's considered "plagiarism" varies a lot from field to field, even in gaming. Indie gamers balk that there are "too many side scrollers", while casuals think "tower defense strategy games" and "room escape point-and-click adventure games" are their own -genres-.

  13. When reading this I thought

    "If I have been able to see further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

  14. >>Re: "..generally the games that are cloned, are cloned because they are wildly successful"

    >This actually isn't true. Very few of the people that played Steam Pirates were familiar with Steambirds...

    Well, you are both right. Games that are cloned are cloned because they are good games that the would-be cloners believe they show promise.

    At the same time, popular games get seen by more people, and are proven to resonate with people. So it would follow that MORE of the games that are cloned are popular ones.

  15. This whole article is a copy of all of the articles that voice the same concern. Or maybe it just followed the same thought process to arrive at the same result. Either way, I think you should deconstruct the basic types of game dev articles and create one that goes in a wholly new direction, or combines them into a more novel result.

  16. I just leave it here. :)

  17. Hmm, looks like some others have already stated what I was thinking, but I agree with them about games not being plagiarism just because they borrow heavily from past titles. You have to remember what plagiarism really is: it's blatant *theft*. Plagiarism in the games industry is someone taking a game they didn't create and uploading it to the app store and claiming it to be their own (such as has happened with titles such as Cannabalt and Rebuild and other miscellaneous flash games). A big-name developer simply taking concepts from another game certainly doesn't qualify as plagiarism in my opinion. I'd hate to get into the "there hasn't been an original concept since blah blah" recursive argument, but really, if you hold to the thought that broad design decisions can be regarded as plagiarism, that's basically the road we're headed down as far as discussion goes.

    Even clones (i.e. "farmtown" vs "farmville" or whatever the names are) I'm not sure if they're really plagiarism. If the code and art is all unique, even if it is very similar and recognizable, is that still plagiarism? Obviously it's not much better, morally. But again we just have to remember how terrible of an offense to the creative world "plagiarism" is as a concept is. It's the lowest of the low, really. The Northway Games blog has a couple of great articles on clones, also.

  18. I have two brief thoughts. First, what's the dividing line between plagiarism, parody, and homage? And second, much of this thought-provoking column dwelt on low-level mechanics. But it seems to me that such mechanics may be like musical scales or any given discipline's peculiar jargon---something that, if we applied the rules of "professional ethics" against plagiarism to them, would render every piece of Western music from the earliest notations on, and nearly every textbook and journal or encyclopedia article in an established field, a plagiarist. It seems to me that in terms of the history of music, software---and particularly game---design may be at about the level of the early Renaissance, where innovation is flowering all over and hardly anyone has given a thought to the systematization that characterized the Baroque period.

  19. Plagiarism is a much debated issue in videogames.

    I'm dreaming about a serious research that would define this concept, exam it objectively, exam the cost/benefits, and would provide "tricks" to innovators for not being cloned, if such need actually exist.
    The most basic advice is to release a game so brilliant that it can't hardly cloned or made better (eg.Mario). If the game is too easy to clone (ex: Rubiks cube, sudoku) you have to occupy the markets or sell licences to developers.
    To be continued...

  20. So here's the other option. We live in a Universe where everyone innovates constantly. No one cares long enough to take the fundamental idea of a book, movie, or game and refine it further with their own unique twists. Instead they just move along for the next new thing to make people happy. The wheel constantly has to be reinvented because we cannot use the same assumptions for fear of being "copy cats."

    While a bit extreme, the point I'm trying to get across is that your post treats plagiarism as a concretely defined theory. It's not. Plagiarism is vague at best and a tool to gain money and prestige at worst.

    What you seem to be arguing is for a world in which everyone tries to make the next awesome hit that redefines genres. And while I do agree that copying games can go way too far, I'd say the majority of games are simply rehashes of basic concepts, not plagiarism.

    Invoking the word plagiarism involves copyright and we don't want to live in a world where game mechanics can be copyrighted. New innovations often come on the back of older ideas, and we don't want to prevent people from tweaking an old concept because of moral or legal fear of being "bad".

    The reality is, is just that true innovation is rare, difficult, and risky. And to some degree, I don't think this a bad thing. If innovation was that common I wonder if we'd be yearning for something different instead...

    Also, what I've so admired about your blog is the way that it (this excluded) try to vilify certain actions. You generally make a good case for why innovation is better long term for both the individual and the society, and I think your positive case for innovation is far more compelling than your rather shaky argument as to why plagiarism (which is somehow the opposite of innovation) is bad.


  21. Most (though not all) of these comments make me sad. Just because there is a fuzzy line between wholesale copying of the majority of innovative systems in a game and being inspired by a key concept does not mean that the line doesn't exist. That's just looking for loopholes and ignoring the argument being made.

    Perhaps I should have given more examples so folks stop filling the blanks with fantastical imaginings of how the world works:

    Here's one blatant example.

    This goes on every day in game studios across the world. We've institutionalized it. It is perfectly legal. It is quite profitable. It is only a hairsbreadth removed from the process that went into creating this game right here:

    The biggest and the smallest companies making games merrily scour the marketplace for ideas that they can rip off wholesale. Trust me. This dampens any inclination to innovate.

    This essay is a very polite way of saying: I feel the people who make such things, knowing full well that they are hurting the original inventors, are slime. The term 'Plagiarist' absolutely contains a value judgement and it is one I'm happy to make.

    We build on the backs of giants. Absolutely. But the height of our foundations are no excuse to live the creative life of a parasitic gnat. Be a giant yourself or fail trying. I have neither patience nor goodwill toward those with tiny selfish dreams. Neither should you.

    take care,

  22. "Do your designers say "Oh for that feature, let's model how X did it" and consistently refer to the same pre-existing game?"

    This gets tricky, though, when trying to distinguish between 'game' and 'genre'. If you're developing something within an existing genre, not copying familiar patterns, especially with player input, actually work against you.

    Not every point of a game needs to innovate.

    "Be a giant yourself or fail trying."

    With your overall point, though, I agree wholeheartedly. I've never understood why ideas-as-text gain a whole set of protections that ideas-as-code don't.

  23. I'll totally admit to my ignorance there. It is absurd that the example you showed can actually exist, but it seems to be challenging to find a sweet spot between current copyright law which stifles innovation through its ridiculous adherence to ownership, and game mechanics which have no legal protection.

    What you would have to say about self-plagiarism. Forbidden Island and Pandemic were created by the same designer for different age ranges but have almost wholly the same mechanical structure and feel. Do you feel that this type of thing is okay or does it promote the same sort of bottom-line oriented culture that ultimately causes fields to stagnate?

    I'm curious what you think *is* a good starting point for game design. It seems like arguing from that perspective might clarify some of these grey areas that emerge from finding the loopholes that emerge from your definition.

    As always, great food for thought.

  24. >Thought: Most professional game developers are also professional plagiarists

    I'll agree with that if we also accept that most novelists, filmmakers, and songwriters are also plagiarists.

    What you're talking about with triple-town, steambirds, crush the castle, puzzloop, shariki, and desktop dungeons... most game developers don't do that.

    I personally think crush-the-castle->angry birds, puzzloop->zuma, shariki->bejeweled are somewhat defensible. The original titles were not huge hits but Roxxio / PopCap saw something there that was worth continued investigation - and they brought some je'ne'sais'quois to the original mechanics that turned them into hits.

    As for the triple-town, steam-birds thing - those other games look like straight up copyright violation. I haven't played steam pirates so I don't know for sure...but it does not look legal. You can sue them and win. It happens in other media all the time. Hey, I just realized I need to introduce you to someone.

  25. I was inspired by this piece to write this on #AltDevBlogADay:

    Oh, and "on the shoulders of giants" is actually one of Newton's many infamously stolen bits of plagiarism. It was also a nasty jibe at a scientific competitor, who was stunted due to a birth defect.

  26. I think it's interesting that you chose "Zelda" as your example. I know of almost no games that plagiarize Zelda. Did you choose that example because you knew you wouldn't upset anyone or do you not know what makes Zelda so good that you can't recognize that superficially similar games are not really plagiarisms of Zelda?

    As to your overall point, as a cry to be more creative, great! As a cry to stop doing anything similar to another game, come on! Most people would superficially describe SteamBirds as "Turn based Flight Control with added weapons". My point isn't to pick on SteamBirds, my point is that of course many games are going to be similar at some level and easily describable by referencing other games. That doesn't make them plagiarism.

    In Flash land I see lots of plagiarism. In phone app land I see a little. But in general most games are either simulations, in which case it's kind of hard to argue they are plagiarism. Or, they are they are 90% common elements (not plagiarism) with their own 10% unique twist.

    Take Care

  27. Danc’s unforgiving essay against plagiarism in game design cuts close, a bit too close to my warm bones.

    So I wrote up a quasi-defense against Plagiarism and a challenge for Dan to follow up on.

  28. I don't know where the line lies, exactly, but for whatever reason I feel like a lot more of the games in the social/mobile category seem to be crossing it.

    Maybe it's just because of the smaller budgets and smaller time frames, so the pressure makes it more likely that people will cave and outright copy a successful title instead of experimenting or taking risks.

    On the other hand, when I'm designing/developing, plagiarism is the last thing I think about. I don't really care whether something I build ends up being really similar to someone else's work, because originality isn't my primary concern. On the other hand, I don't start with a single game by somebody else as a source of design input, either. I suppose it's still plagiarism even if it's mixed with other sources?

  29. I'm very curious about where the line lies for you, Dan.
    I agree that the link to 'game like triple town' is super slimy, and I think you might simply know of more blatant rip-offs than I do.

    But I'm also somewhat fresh out of a business that is deeply clone driven: Casual games.
    What I learned from making casual games is, that you can innovate on quite subtle things and end up with a quite different feeling product, even if the core mechanic (in my case, match-3) might fundamentally be a copy of Bejeweled.

    I'd be very interested in hearing whether you find that Deep Blue Sea 2 (my game) is simply a plagiarism of Bejeweled or Kahuna Reef.
    I spent over two years making this game, and everyone involved in making graphics, story, music were really committed to making something good.
    We used core mechanics we knew worked and resonated with the target audience, but poured ourselves into making the game flow great, feel emotionally appealing and innovating a bit on core mechanisms.

    I think that people who brush off this effort as a simple plagiarism, might simply not be seeing beyond the broad strokes.

    I think that a case where a company simply commits a lot of resources to beat an innovator (say, mojang) into a new market (say, xbla) is really sleazy and is unquestionably a shitty thing to do.
    But something like puzzle loop / zuma is a more interesting case - puzzle loop was 5 years old when PopCap made it for the casual market. I find that absolutely fair game - why should the puzzle loop core mechanic (which is good) become permanently off limits once a game was made with it, regardless of how successful, popular, well made, polished, well-flowing, well-balanced the original game was?

    I'm curious - do you think Plants vs Zombies was not innovative, because tower defense games already existed?

  30. Considering that the industry is willing to applaud cases of actual, literal plagiarism if it's done by a bankable company, I think trying to extend the term to any game that isn't 100% free of obvious precedents is unhelpful. Especially with such a hysterical tone. You're comparing someone being faster to market than you (with or without premeditated dickishness) to slavery?

    The idea of innovation being held up as the only legitimate measure of a game's worth is unworkable. No other medium does this. The highbrow end of the games press tried to push that line about ten years ago, and it resulted in a tiny minority of games that weren't the deepest, most entertaining or polished being elevated as sacred cows purely because they didn't have obvious influences.

    Of course it's galling to see a cloner rush a cloned game to a new market (e.g. Ninja Fishing). But there's not really anything that can be done about it apart from urging credit to be given to the originators, and anticipating it next time*. Developers aren't always going to have the resources to port their games everywhere, or the marketing expertise to make them appeal widely (a game having first mover advantage on a platform does not necessarily salt the earth for anyone else trying to get into that genre). I think we're skirting a bit too close to the arguments old men in the recording industry make if we call for too much protection for originators of ideas.

    If the various levels of cloning were arranged in a spectrum, where should we draw the line:

    1. Zynga (direct cloning, brute force marketing spend to choke off originators, i.e. evil)
    2. Random Chinese counterfeiters (direct cloning, but usually small scale, and typically easy to shut down on IP grounds in the West)
    3. Gamenauts (opportunistic cloning with a minimal sprinkling of original work)
    4. PopCap (the clone, while still recognisable as such, is objectively better than the original)
    5. Rovio (extensive, thoughtful rework of an existing concept)

    *Hmm, would including elements in the design that can't easily be rethemed be a defence against this kind of cloning?

  31. "For example, clones of Minecraft that reach XBLA earlier tap unmet demand and reduce the audience for Minecraft when it eventually releases there."

    On the other hand, Minecraft, when it arrives, doesn't have to convince an audience that it's fun, and what's more it's the 'authentic' version. There's value in that.

    The comments section seems a little confused over what this 'plagiarism' looks like. May I suggest Darksiders? It plagiarises most of its game flow from Zelda and the combat system is straight out of God of War, as well as stealing quite a few mechanics from other games without doing much with them. Here's the thing: part of the Zelda design is that there's no such thing as experience points; you get discrete rewards and power upgrades, and finding a secret is almost always preferable to grinding. God of War has enemies drop experience, used to unlock new weapons and moves. Darksiders awkwardly meshes both together. The only reason it gets away with it is that there's a massive amount of space left unexplored in RPGs like Zelda, and so anyone who tries gets a pass.

    That's the kind of game I think Danc is railing against.

  32. I think it's way too strong to put this in moral terms. Ethical terms, sure, but moral terms? Not if you define it as broadly as you have. Actual theft of *content*, of execution, sure, that's a moral issue. For example, if someone steals code, data, art, sounds. But stealing an idea (the design) and executing on it? You may not deserve any design awards, and at a certain point it may not even be an ethical act within our profession, but a moral failing? To me, that dilutes the term "moral" too much.

  33. Yes, but even with Darksiders, it's not entirely devoid of creativity. The story and setting are fairly unique - the only series that comes close that I can think of is the Soul Reaver series and that's fairly old (last one came out in 2001, I believe).

  34. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.

    The comments are right to point out that there is nothing here to define the imaginary line alluded to, between which plagiarism is proper and which is improper. What percentage of copying should be considered acceptable?

    The arrival of minecraft clones on XBLA is cited as an example which stops the "original innovator" from being able to "recoup the cost of the initial invention."

    Can you really mean minecraft, a game itself heavily derivative of others like dwarffortress and infiniminer, which had negligible development costs and made its developer millions? As a symbol of the impoverished original developer beset upon by parasites?

    I think the problem you have defining the line is because the line does not exist in the act of copying or not copying.

    There are plagues in this industry, but the willingness to copy is not one of them. Those who position themselves as gatekeepers, like Apple and Facebook, in order to tax and limit the marketplace for games have far more blame for the ease with which games developed in the spirit of Business outperform games developed in the spirit of Play.

    It is only through the construction of such an edifice between developers and players that the copying you object to can become institutionalized.

  35. What's the bottom line? Let's start with that.

    Do we hand a billion dollar venture company's investing decisions to the new hire with crazy ideas (that just might work!) or to the old foggy with no inspiration (but 'tried' and 'true' are kept in his back pocket)?

    You hand them to your proven, in all cases. Why? Because while some crazy ideal-maker might have founded the company, spurred innovation, their legacy is survived by conformists.
    Consider all technological advances. Everywhere in science we gain new understanding through people who first learned to imitate those who came before. Is art no different? Are we not taught appreciation for Picasso, daVinci? Those will a calling to innovate follow the same trends of first imitating, regardless of the industry or walk of life.

    It's a tall order to claim that more innovation needs to be achieved, and that any semblance (90%?) of copying is plagiarism and is to be shunned.

    Remember that as humans, we are first and foremost creatures of imitation. Our first words are formed by studying sounds around us and judging reactions to the imitations we attempt. Perhaps after drawing 100 imitations to perfection, a mistake is made, and that mistake is deemed beautiful, and the birth of innovation can commence. We are first imitators, however.

    Companies don't care about your (third person) passion. And they shouldn't! They care about your ability to be a force multiplier to someone else's passion in the company. Ideas are a dime a dozen, as is a desire to implement ones own. By asking for people to first conform, acting as extensions of another idea, you are able to judge the ability to withstand adverse situations. After proving oneself, then perhaps they deserve our attention, funding, conformists of their own.

    Clearly, any work of art asks for both creativity and drudging routine. I cannot retain sanity through routine without adding a twist of my own to the vision of another. I cannot achieve anything creative without the self-discipline and application to see it through, hell or high water.
    But 90% application 10% creativity sounds about what it should be.

  36. Minecraft and it's clones.... That really is a terrible example to use, given it's origins (Infiniminer).

    There's also the fact that Minecraft has been extremely slow to move to other platforms, even given their near-infinite stockpile of cash, leaving the huge demand for that style of game on consoles and mobile devices.

    Also, the success of Minecraft has spawned a new genre, really, the 'voxgame' or 'build-em-up'. And whilst I'm fed up of seeing almost every indie developer on the planet coding a minecraft-style-engine, it will be interesting to see how the genre develops!

  37. Whether anyone agrees with what you said, this is an excellent post and it really makes me think. I'd also like to believe it's made anyone else who read it think.

    My only criticism is that once again, you're too wordy. Condense!

  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. Hey Dan, I'm very sorry to hear that someone is actively seeking to clone triple town. This happened to me many years ago... the plagiarizer even stole my backgrounds and painted over them.

    I love our industry, but there are lots of thorns. Maybe you can find a strategy to turn the clones into an asset?

  40. I love all the Spry Fox games. However, the fact that I can't play Triple Town on my droid means that, as a customer, I would welcome a copy. If/when the actual Spry Fox game came to that platform, I would purchase that as well, because I KNOW that Spry Fox innovates and would continue to add feature/functionality to a game that I love. I would make due though, happily, with the clone in the interim.

  41. I think this is a really great article. I also agree with the sentiment and was delighted to find that the article ended with not only a positive feeling but some genuinely useful advice on how to break from being a wage slave.

    But I do have sympathy for anyyone who has givven up their creativity in order to pay rent/food etc..
    Some of us are fortunate to have support of family, or had early success with our career and that allows us to coast on lower wages while we follow our creative path, but others have struggled and persevered to get to the point of wage slave.

    Without knowing someone's background it is wrong to assume they have not fulfilled their potential because we don't know what problems they have already overcome. I do agree completely that following ones creative potential is the most rewarding life but we must hold back from criticising those that, upon first impressions, seem to have settled for less.

  42. Being one of those who, due to life circumstances, is forced to settle for less creative output, I have never and will never rip off the creative works of others to fill in this gap.

  43. Just found a blatant TripleTown knockoff in the iOS app store. Seems directly copied from the Facebook version (f2p, move limited). I won't link to it so they don't get any additional attention.

    Please put out a real version! I'd love to pay up front and be able to play without limits like with my (much loved) Kindle version.

  44. @Takezo Working really hard to get a mobile version of Triple Town out the door as soon as possible. Games like the clone you found are a kick in the teeth. :-(

    take care,

  45. I haven't played either Steambirds or Steam Pirates, but just looking at the screenshots, it really is appalling what a blatant ripoff it appears to be. Based on the comments here, that does seem to be the case.

    What is fascinating to me, in the comments and in the article, is the degree to which people value different aspects of a game. Danc's article is really about plagiarizing game mechanics: "Changing out the graphics or giving the game a new plot are the most common tweaks because they are easily decoupled without damaging the delicate dynamics of play." As a game designer, it is not surprising that Danc values mechanics/design.

    On the other hand, you have Troy's comment: "Actual theft of *content*, of execution, sure, that's a moral issue. For example, if someone steals code, data, art, sounds. But stealing an idea (the design) and executing on it?"

    I think this is the more common sentiment, that content has priority over design. At least, it does seem to be the case that blatantly ripping off a game's artwork is going to get you into more trouble than blatantly ripping off a game's design.

    What I think Danc might be discounting is that a large number of gamers, especially in the casual/social space, think this way as well. What he describes as "cosmetic tweaks" is what defines the game to many players. You are left with the situation where many people might not give Steambirds a chance (because of the aesthetics/theme), but if you throw some pirates in there, hey that looks like fun! Same thing with adding a story, more polish, etc.

    The insane proliferation of Angry Birds merchandise is what really got me thinking about this. I've played the game a little, and it is decently fun, but the mechanics are very familiar to me from games such as Tank Wars or Scorched Earth (there are probably dozens more). But what people care about are the birds (and the pigs)! Orders of magnitude more people are playing this game because it features cute birds instead of cannonballs. And apparently they are buying huge quantities of merchandise. I have to wonder if the people buying all that stuff have even played the game.

    Unfortunately, from the average gamer's point of view, plagiarizing game design has a positive effect. As was mentioned, it provides clones that fill an unmet need, such as for theme or platform. You do end up with more people experiencing a particular game design than you would otherwise.

    I am not sure what the solution is. The only thing I can really think of is to target an audience that really appreciates great game design, not just the theme/characters/story/etc. I guess that's just another way of saying that if your target market is small enough, nobody will bother to copy you. But I guess that really doesn't help when it comes to profits.

  46. In the academic world, plagiarism by students is a very serious offense that can result in punishments such as a failing grade on the particular assignment (typically at the high school level) or for the course (typically at the college or university level).Desktop computer

  47. To respond to Daniel Cooks original response that plagiarism is found in research... That could not be further from the truth. There are economic barriers set up specifically so that products that are new and inventive cannot be copied. If a new drug is developed by me that cures the common cold, and I release it in the West US, and you take my drug and add cherry flavor to it and release it in the East, I could successfully sue you for a lot of money.

    Academic works that are not consumer products are not comparable because there is no money to be lost if one builds on another as long as credit is given, because credit is the only thing the original writer is looking for, not profit. Games are products.

  48. There is a big difference between plagiarism and take something as reference for another concept or to improve a new game core idea. I do agree when Daniel says: " Most professional game developers are also professional plagiarists".

    What to say about this famous Zynga's way??

    Thanks Daniel for this nice article. =]

  49. This is an important discussion but I can't get past the "I'll know it when I see it" flavor of it all. Dan, your Hierarchy of Stages is maybe in the right order viewed through the specific lens of Design but not for Game Development as a whole. Great games are (always?) a mixture of all these stages and in fact I suspect Stages 2 and 3 (based on existing designs) have been as important to the forwarding of game development and the player experience as has been Stage 5 (new design).

    From my own past, I’m wondering how you would view Rise of Nations. Key design changes over previous RTS games that made it into the final: national borders, formations, all of history (a concept Stainless Steel Studios simultaneously developed for Empire Earth), a procedural strategic game. Yet, outside of the major things we looked to change, some of which never worked out, it was very similar to Age of Empires and the RTS games that proceeded it. On the whole, I feel good about the game. I think it brought improvements to the genre and, in a rising tide lifts all boats kind of way, it’s existence did not detract from the games or people that influenced it.

    I wonder if trademark law doesn’t provide a good method of evaluating this problem. Essentially, are the people who buy a game confused by its pedigree or not? Some percentage of people confused Rise of Nations with the next Age of Empires (and probably purchased it because of that confusion). It probably wasn’t a large percentage but maybe it reflects the degree to which our “hands were dirty” in this regard. It’s worth noting that the names, both of which were approved by publisher Microsoft, didn’t help clarity but MS was presumably fine with that.

    Here at sparkypants, we were wondering if appropriate credit wouldn’t also go a long way. If standard credits contained a section for inspirations, that would be an interesting seachange. Look and feel that cuts too close to home will always be confusing and there is some actual legal protection there. The bigger your design differs from other games, the less confusion there will be. The more known the game you are branching from is, the less confusion there will presumably be. In cases where you are borrowing from lesser known ideas in their infancy, this way of thinking should encourage you to steer clear and, when you do borrow, give the original clear credit.

    Good stuff to ponder.


  50. Wow, this article completely misrepresents the definition of plagiarism. Daniel Cook left a very good reply to clear that up.

    Suffice it to say that copying without attribution is plagiarism.

    Most everything of value in society has been a part of an evolution: an iterative process of improvement. If the original innovator of a concept does not want people to iterate on his/her ideas then they shouldn't publish their ideas -- they should explore them as much as they want before they release them.

    Ideas, in my view, once released into the wild, are untamable by the original author, and are free to be explored, iterated and evolved into new ideas by everyone. Daniel Cook's cites science as a corollary, and I think this is exactly right.

  51. "Most (though not all) of these comments make me sad. Just because there is a fuzzy line between wholesale copying of the majority of innovative systems in a game and being inspired by a key concept does not mean that the line doesn't exist. That's just looking for loopholes and ignoring the argument being made."

    I disagree. A "fuzzy line" is a contradiction in terms. You're talking about a continuum, but using the language of absolutist, black-and-white thinking. It's a pretty common mistake when talking about something you feel strongly about. It's still misleading, so when you get comments that are misguided, you shouldn't be surprised.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with copying as such. If there were, nobody would be able to use Experience Points as such. You distinguish between "copying" and "evolving" a design, but the stages you've outlined are idealized. Most developers will go through them out of order, visit some of them repeatedly, others never. If, in the attempt, they end up with a World of Warcraft to some other game's EverQuest, are they plagiarists or just "evolvers"? There is no particular feature of WoW's design that EQ didn't do first, but the implementation was more competent. Same deal for Saint's Row to Grand Theft Auto. Same deal for Okami to Zelda.

    You'd say that those are evolutions and not copies. Ain't that just because they're good? Saint's Row looks and feels a lot like GTA, but it's got some extra character customization and convenience features that turned out to make the game a lot more fun for some people. Okami is Zelda with a much more interesting art style and, well, different items than usual. These games are derivative, and they don't really try to hide it, although you won't find citations within the game as such--if you want to argue for that, I'm with you. But if you're arguing that excessive derivativeness is unacceptable, then you're casting a wide net that will also include a lot of honest attempts to make an Okami to some old Zelda, but which happened to fail.

    Maybe your anger would be better directed towards business practices like those of Zynga, where the alleged developer doesn't even hire designers as we know them, and "outsources" that work to some guy like yourself.

  52. This is an interesting article and discussion on a subject that I have been researching for the boardgame community for some time, with the hopes of publishing an article by the end of the year.

    It certainly is nothing new in the boardgame market, either, and the majority of designs fall into the varying shades of gray area between "incomparably innovative" and "plagiarism", with only a few examples of the extremes every few years. Charles Darrow borrowed heavily from Elizabeth Maggie's "The Landlords' Game," for example, and other popular board games such as Sorry!, Ludo and Parcheesi are simply variants of the 1500-year-old Indian game Pachisi (interestingly enough, the makers of the German variant of the game, Mensch aergert dich nicht!, were claiming that these other versions were plagiarism of their design).

    The problem with the grey area is that most designers who start pointing the finger there will, very suddenly, find that fingers can justifiably be pointed back at them. As an example, it has been brought to my attention during my research for my article that Steambirds was designed after the developer played the board game Wings of War at a convention, and borrows heavily from that design. I would be interested to hear your comments on that, and also, on the topic of borrowing from different types of media (analog to electronic, or electronic to analog), and how that can also be a form of disguised copying.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  53. Steambirds is very much part of a genre of games involving radial movement stretching back at least 20 years or further. A good question to ask is if there is a single source. Neither WoW nor Steambirds can claim to be the first of this odd little sub-genre. Nor will they be the last.

    If you compare Steambirds & Wings of War (which I still haven't played...I tend to blackbox my design process) you'll see that the movement system, damage resolution system, interface for controlling the planes, the pacing, scoring and various powerups are different. Are there similarities? Certainly...both are turn-based aerial combat games with radial movement. To put that in context, chess is a turn-based ground combat game with grid-based movement. Lots of options are possible there without being a copy of chess. The same goes with radial movement; it is a broad and poorly explored design space.

    I do like to think that Steambirds added a number of things new to the the context of this article, it is somewhere between stages 3 (adding) and 4 (synthesis). I certainly wouldn't call it a grand new invention. Evolution of designs is a natural part of how our industry improves and riffs off games. However, while it is fine to stand on the shoulders of giants, the moral designer will use this progress to reach for new heights.

    It is worth noting that while there is indeed a gray area that many love to wallow in, plagiarism is typically a wholesale lifting of systems. When you can actually match up numbers between two games and they work identically, there is a clear issue.

    take care,

  54. Hello.

    Being the designer of Wings of War, I first heard of Steambird when a gamer for a British boardgame club wrote to tell me about such a similar game. You had told that one day Andy Moore played Wings of War at PAX and then showed you the prototype. This gamer suggested that we could then get in contact so that you could directly license the boardgame for a fully faithful online version. I forwarded the suggestion to my publisher.

    Of course I first checked Steambirds and I found that the turn-based sequence, the absence of a hex- or square-grid (even a concealed one as I used in an old dogfight videogame of mine), the use of arrows for planned paths, the presence of a cone of fire (not so natural for fixed forward-firing machineguns that should just fire straight), the lack of hit point localization (most boardgame simulation localize hits to wings/fuselage/tail/engine instead than keeping them in a common pool as WoW and as SB seems to do), the special damages, the lack of altitude made it feel a steampunk version of WoW mor than of any other boardgame.

    True that examining any game you can probably say: for this mechanic, the designer choosed the same solution of the designer of Game A. For this other mechanic, of the game B. For this other, of the game C. Hard to invent anything really new. This is what I also found in your invitation to finish a game with "a half dozen influences from widely disparate games". In interviews and speeches, I actually quoted many boardgames as sources of inspirations for this or that detail of my game. But with SB, many designer's choices that could had several different solutions reminded me in the end of WoW (a declared source of Andy's inspiration by the way) instead than of other boardgames. Even in points where WoW went against the mainstream solutions chosen by other air simulations. I also had the feeling that if I could see SB's internal mechanics, for example how damages are assigned with each shoot, more similarities could most probably come out.

    Of course I suspected that my opinion could be biased, being personally involved, but I quickly noticed that I was not the only one to feel that way. I saw unknown boardgamers starting to post the new of SB's reelease around with comments as "SteamBirds plays like the basic rules game of Wings of War", "For those that like Wings of War here is a nice flash version of the game", "a flash game which...oh let's be nice and say that it's ''heavily influenced'' by Dawn of War" (being the name of WW2 Wings of War), "A bit too much like Wings of War", or directly calling Steambird "Online Wings of War", just to quote the first comments I have at hand in English.

    To make it short, I find similarities between WoW and SB going quite further than just being two "turn-based aerial combat games with radial movement" as you say. Using your own words, and from what I read around, to many players SB feels more like a "close imitation" than "a brand new games built out of familiar pieces". I am glad that you are now supporting the cause of sparklingly original creative persons, but with the release of SB I must say that its staff built a quite different images of itself. At least to the eyes of several gamers.


    Andrea Angiolino

  55. Hi Andrea,

    Andy has written that Wings of War was an influence for his initial prototype. There was also a radial racing game he has mentioned in the past (also a board game) that was also an influence. Credit where credit is due.

    But we shouldn't stop there. Steambirds was also fundamentally influenced by the digital realm: Snake (the way that the gas trails work), the bombs of Every Extend Extra, and spline movement comes from research into on-object UI. The visuals and feedback systems hearken back to overhead shooters.

    Whatever Andy brought to the table changed quite substantially from the initial prototype. Adding an analog spline-base movement to a game all about movement tends to do that. As far as I understand, despite the thematic similarities, Wings of War does not have this as its base.

    As an aside about how complicated game lineage can get, a little history. Wings of War seems to have come out quite recently in 2004. A digital game called Critical Mass by Sean O’Connor actually bears a far closer resemblance to Steambirds (including all the 'unique' properties that you ascribe to Wings of War) came out in 1995. There are also a half dozen games in the genre including Crimson Skies (1998) and some horse racing and space-based variants from even earlier.

    Sadly, neither I nor Andy played these other games before or during the development of the original Steambirds. As I’ve mentioned, I tend to black box my design efforts and avoid playing anything vaguely similar. That way there is ample opportunity for the design to naturally diverge. I was shocked to see how similar Critical Mass was since it uses the same key UI innovation as Steambirds despite neither of us knowing about the game. I wouldn't have believed it unless it happened to me, but there is such a thing as parallel invention in game design. It is a very strange feeling to remember the exact moment of thinking up the movement system for Steambirds and to have spent multiple iterations getting it right only to find out that someone else had come up with the same solution 15 years earlier. Sometimes, even when you are hoping for divergence, there are common solutions to common problems.

    With all this past history in mind, why do players claim that Steambirds is like Wings of War? If I understand correctly, WoW is the most popular board game in the genre released in recent years. People have a classic tendency to ignore differences and rely on simile for describing games. Triple Town for example is both 'like Bejeweled' or 'like Farmville' depending on who I’m talking to. For people who have only played Wings of War, it is the closest predecessor they can imagine for Steambirds.

    I do try to be open about my development process and my influences. Ideally this note helps shine some more light on the past. Success always has many parents and I think you should be proud of the influence that Wings of War has had upon the genre. I hope however that you do not bear an ongoing grudge due to the belief that Wing of War was the only or even the predominant influence on Steambirds. It was not.

    BTW, JeffinBerlin asked earlier about the transfer of designs between board games and computer games. James Ernest and I have been chatting about this lately. My personal opinion is that it is far, far harder than one might imagine. Computer games are very much toys where pacing, simulation, feedback, progression and interface issues dominate. Even when games are mechanically in the same general universe, a strict boardgame port tends to not do as well as one that is reimagined from the ground up for the computer.

    All the best,

  56. Thanks for your detailed answer.
    WoW has been designed in February 2002, and released in March 2004. I am proud both of the many variants developed by the fans and of the influence it had on several other games (starting from when it was showed to would-be publishers at the Gama fair in March 2002, more than from its actual release date).
    Some side notes that could contribute to the matters you talk about in your article. Please believe that I know about parallel developement, I even experienced it when both Domnique Ehrhard with Jumbo and me & P.G. Paglia (with Winning Moves) released a boardgame about Ulysses in 2001. Both with the basic concept of having only one pawn to move in the game: usually in boardgames each player has his own, but in these cases all players are gods and move the same toward different goals. Same identical concept in his Odysseus and in our Ulysses (but of course pretty different developements). If we were not sure that Mr. Ehrhard did not see our prototype in some publisher's booth when the prototype had been showed in previous fairs, and he being sure about us, it would have been a real problem (and still some heated words came from our agent to Jumbo, that actually saw and tested our game - but that's another story).
    In this case "parallel" is a perfect metaphore, as far as timelines are concerned. Both Ehrhard and us worked at the same time, without crossing each other until the end. With the past I think that it is a less working image, lacking simultaneousness. To avoid "parallel" developement with a previous product, I have quite an opposite aptiutude than your "black box": my strategy is historical research. I understand the desire not to be influenced, but I fear more the risk to go unaware on somebody's else path, especially when - after deciding to go in a general direction, some decisions could become quite natural. As you say, "common solutions to common problems". So before designing my air combat games (Wings of War is the sixth after three boardgames, a web-based game and a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook) I did actually a study and a comparation of previous boardgames. A small part of this even appeared on the Italian Air Force magazine in the '90s. In this way I can see which solutions are similar to those of other games and which diverge, and so I can also honestly say that my design is different enough from previous games while "borrowing elements from the entire breadth of game history" and having "a half dozen influences from widely disparate games" to use your words. While I have always tried to check previous games when working on a new project, this year I have even seen this kind of practice suggested by the SAZ (the Germany-based Game Designers Association) in its "Code on Matters of Intellectual Property Rights": "Before a designer presents his game to a publisher, he/she should have made sure to the best of his/her knowledge and belief, that no other game on the market is alike or similar in its essential elements" then suggesting to contact designers of previous comparative works if discovered. You can see it at if you are curious.

    [To be continued]

  57. One point that could probably be interesting to dig deeper is my impression that boardgamers have a better memory than videogamers. You wonder why why do players claim that Steambirds is like Wings of War. Well, some of the comments I quoted about WoW as a clear derivation of WoW come from (and there are several more I did not quote). Here there are still many fond players not only of Crimson Sky but of such games Blue Max (1983), Dawn Patrol/Fight in the Sky (1982/1966), Ace of Aces (1980) and other similarly themed games, besides other pre-plotted movement ones. I can agree that casual players can comment about similarities just thinking to the last success, but if in such a community all comments quoted Wings of War and no other games when announcing Steambirds, I'd suspect that there is actually some ground for that and it is not just a matter of short memory or last impressions. More details on BGG itself, where I saw that you posted too:
    As for your final note, I agree that usually a strict boardgame port to computer tends to not do as well as one that is rethinked for the new media - Civilization is a good example, having had both and with the second being the one reaching big success. But it is also an example of how a derivative computer game can owe so much to the boardgame that inspired it. Anyway, I see several recent successes of boardgame quite strict portings and I hope that more will follow.
    Back to WoW and SB, and to make it short, I will only add that I appreciate the spirit of the article you posted in this page. But the past tendency of your team not to quote sources and to minimize the consequence of cloning did not win my sympathy. I had no problems to name the games inspiring my work in articles and interviews, whie I see SB's roots usuyally quoted as "obscure boardgames" at best. Besides Andy' reticency to name them, I also noted a post on his blog where he admits that his earliest tech-test prototypes were indeed very much boardgame clones, but that this is not a serious problem since they were several years old and they had a realistic, non fantasy settings:
    Of course I can not disagree more with him - if I will find time and will, I'll probably post an answer to him too. Nobody is responsible for his co-designer's opinions and I can see quite a big distance between yourt arguments and his, but overall I think that you can understand why I can have some cold feelings toward Steambirds.