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Opinion: Plagiarism as a moral choice
Opinion: Plagiarism as a moral choice
January 26, 2012 | By Dan Cook

[Spry Fox chief creative officer Dan Cook considers the definition of plagiarism as it applies to game design, and warns game developers of the consequences of borrowing ideas from other games. Reprinted with permission.]

"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 offense..."

- 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 percent is plagiarized and 10 percent 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.

Useful link: Inspiration vs. Imitation

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Matthew Downey
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"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."

Reminds me of farmers failing to cycle crops leading to poor, nitrogen-deficient soil.

Regardless, this is a great call for originality at tomorrow's Global Game Jam.

Pres N
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Man, I was totally with you until you compared Farmville clones to segregation in the South or disenfranchisement of women- that bit of hyperbole really weakened your core message.

Rodolfo Rosini
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DAN MAKE LOVE TO ME! (well also because my gf plays Triple Town all the time)

Daniel Cook
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I'm there for you, baby. :-)

Michael Wenk
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Really? This is a quality opinion article? First of all, your examples of plagiarism are not really plagiarism. Taking your examples, pretty much every author in history has plagiarized. The fact is, there's only X stories out there for humans, and ALL have been told. Anything now is going to be a variation on a theme, and that those variations are all recycled.

When you get down to game mechanics, they're process, not really works in the above process. I guess if you truly had invented them, then you could patent em, but that's about it. Good luck defending that.

If what you really want is original content, well you're out of luck. You may get stuff that feels fresh, but if you look at older works, I'm sure you can find a pretty strong correlation.

Also, even people that say that they want new stuff really don't. They're the ones jumping out getting sequels or spiritual successors, etc. And when they do get something semi original? They're usually the ones that say it sucks.

Adriana Kei
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"I guess if you truly had invented them, then you could patent em, but that's about it. Good luck defending that. "

Maybe you should study a little bit about IP and patent laws so you would find out that you can't "patent" game mechanics.

And if you don't consider any example a plagiarism, you could give us some knowledge and explain why they are not, on the other hand, why they would be "original".

Please, give us some light and thoughts!

Michael Wenk
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@Adriana Kei

I am definitely not a lawyer, which is why I put it the way I did. However, I do know that software can be patented, at least on a conceptual level. An example that I'm well aware of is Amazon's One Click patent. I don't say I like this patent, or agree with it, but it is an example out there. And what little I do know, I have never seen anything that said that games couldn't be patented. So if One Click can be patented, why couldn't any lasting game mechanism be patented? Can you show me something that says this?

Secondly, I never said a work was original. I just said it wasn't plagiarism. I definitely don't think this is a binary situation, where something has to be original, if not then its automatically plagiarized. If that were the case, then that would make things impossible.

Consider the book Great Expectations by Dickens. I as many as millions of people had to do a report on it in school. If it were binary then every single person since some point X in the past has committed plagiarism as there's likely many identical reports written.

If you want a game example, lets go with "Sonic the Hedgehog" vs "Super Mario World". Both came out around the same time. Both are platform games with a like feel. Mario is the older IP, but does Sonic plagiarize Mario? I know that some would say yes, but having played both, I would say no. Both games are different enough that once you get into each game, it feels different enough to be a truly different game. Both games are fun, and both are worth playing. Of course that doesn't mean its not plagiarized, but I think that it feels different is enough to say that it is not.

I still stand by what I said about original content. There isn't any. Every story out there that interests humans has been told. Everything made now is a rehash.

Adriana Kei
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@ Michael Wenk

Digital games can only have their IP protected, that's why game mechanicals can't have a patent. You can protect the source with another kind of process based on softwares laws. But as a software, not as a game mechanics. They are protected by different laws.

But let's take your game example: Mario X Sonic. You're right. Both games are platform games and, at the end, both have the same basic goal: finishing the level by taking the character from point A to point B. But, at the same time they have these similar features, they have different resources and procedures. They have different rules, too.

So, that's not exactly a plagiarism. I think, what Daniel Cook wanted to show us is what is happening in regard to those many games (and game designers) which just make small changes on a published game and releases another one very quit similar. Like Zynga usually does.

For me, there is a very large difference between plagiarism and reference. One thing is plagiarizing the other thing is to use something as a reference and insert new ideas from that reference. Your examples are more like references for others than plagiarism.


Moses Wolfenstein
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This argument gets a bit fuzzy at times. I think that's probably because the term plagiarism not only carries a strong primary connotation to written media, but also to literal copying. In games there are direct clones which really are literal copying and then there's that very gray area of just generally derivative work (the so called 90/10 rule). While I think most will agree that clones are really problematic, there are likely mixed feelings among both developers and players on the topic of derivative work more generally. Of course, this is just one way in which games are in fact quite a lot like other forms of media.

Dan MacDonald
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I think the heart of Dan's article is really, if you are banging your head and not able to make progress creating your own game, so you give up and just apply a content swap to someone elses game your probably plagiarizing. I see the editorial as encouraging game developers to put in the time an resources required to develop game design skills and create new games. Even if they are unwittingly creating something that already existed on the c64 in some form or another, developing the skills to re-invent it without knowing of the prior work is something to be valued.

In the end if a developer truly did re-invent (as oppose to plagiarize) a game will still be imbued with a quality of authenticity that cannot be denied. This is the very attribute that I find to be lacking with clones. True fans can tell when something is a product of a passionate creator or a conversely a production oriented developer doing a "pivot" or a "fast follow".

Robert Boyd
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Obviously money-grubbing exact clones are no good, but other than that we need more plagiarism! There are so many great ideas that were only used briefly in some old obscure game that with modern technology and a tweak or two could make for some awesome games if revisited.

And seriously, don't compare unimaginative game design to suffrage and civil rights.

As for the problem of clones, why not make games that are harder to clone? Don't stop with an innovative idea - tie it to well balanced gameplay, quality presentation values, and a unique story and setting. Super Mario Bros. probably got cloned more than any other game ever but that didn't stop Nintendo from making a fortune off of it due to the original game's high quality all around.

Gil Salvado
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There is a quote, "Good artists copy, great artists steal", and you can choose from whom it is, because I can't remember and Google gives me either Picasso or Jobs.

In my opinion, everyone wants to make original game design or even invent new genres, but we're not the ones who have the long breath to finance those projects. And Publishers tend to sell the known and proved, which returns the investments most likely. There's probably only one single chance in your whole career to innovate and prove your a great game designer. And in most cases in passes by silently.

Game mechanics are universal, only their combination is unique. And that's what should be protected.

I just recently received this image:

William Dettrey
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It's Picasso, Jobs must have stolen it.

Erik R
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Like I said before, it's more intention then outcome. You are plagiarising when you are copying it "because they did it", and you are building your own game when you are copying it "because it works".

The easiest way to spot a clone is that it not only has all the things you liked about another game, but also all the things you hated as well. On the other hand, a game clearly inspired by another game will have all the things you love, without the things you hated, and with new features you love as well. And that's good, because it's progress.

Samer Abbas
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If only your pieces were briefer, I would read them more often, Daniel.

Andrew Traviss
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Some small percentage of people invent, and most of them can only invent some fraction of the time. Most people copy and remix. This is true of every other artistic and industrial pursuit, there's no reason to expect this one to be an exception.

Also, while I am on the "yes" side of "Can games be art?" I don't believe that every game designer need be an artist, or view life through the artist's lens. Game design is a combination of art and engineering, and if you approach it primarily as an engineer it's hard to argue against heavy reuse of proven mechanisms.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Plagiarism lies inherently in motivation.

An FPS (in the original meaning of First Person Shooter) where you are not in first person and don't shoot things is not a good FPS. In the same way the combustion engine is not going to be significantly redesigned anymore, its just the best we can do.

Some mechanics (designs?) are just things that are seen as standards. They mostly sit in the area of technology and controls in games. They are hard principles that should not be touched without a good reason.

Additionally there are just so many solutions to design-problems that you can have.

E McNeill
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I'm kind of stunned at the tone of the comments so far. Let me posit some facts that I would hope everyone can agree with:

1) Game mechanics can be copied

2) Some games stand out almost entirely due to their mechanics

3) Some games are, mechanically, exact or near-exact replicas of previous games

4) If a replica is released around the same time as the original, it will encroach on the original's market share to some extent

5) Ideally, an inventor should profit from their act of invention in accordance with its value

Put these facts together, and you can envision a situation where a small, creative developer (Spry Fox) develops a new game based on a novel set of mechanics (Triple Town) which then gets reskinned by a larger company (Yeti Town), which then encroaches on the success of the original. The small developer does not receive their due, and that is unjust.

Yes, almost all games derive parts of their mechanics from older games, Triple Town included. But there's a difference between sharing a genre or inspiration and outright cloning, and in most situations we have no trouble seeing that difference. League of Legends is not a DotA clone because LoL invented new heros, which substantially changes the game. Half Life didn't clone Quake because it had new content and did new things with story and AI and technology. Minecraft didn't clone Infiniminer because of a whole host of mechanical differences. But we have no trouble spotting a Pac-Man clone or a Scrabble clone. Games with simpler mechanics, like Triple Town, are more easy to plagiarize in entirety. Now that there is money to be found innovating with simple mechanics in the social and mobile realms, that plagiarism is a major concern.

There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries and nuances here. I'm not even sure that FortressCraft or Angry Birds are clones. But there clearly *is* such thing as plagiarism, and it clearly *should* be decried when we see it.

Ryan Creighton
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You're walking a fine line here, Mr. Match-3.

E McNeill
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That's debatable:

Naomi Clark
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Claiming that all games in which you link 3 similar objects as part of achieving the goals of gameplay are plagiarizing match-3 games that came before is about as much of a stretch as claiming that a kid flicking his sibling's shoulder in the back of a car is "assault and battery." If you want to stretch it that thin, the word "plagiarism" no longer means anything. Plagiarizing is not the same thing as being part of the same genre of games, although some games within a genre are almost always plagiarizing from other games. Bejeweled is not a clone of Snood. Sim Tower is practically a different genre of game (a toylike sim) than Tiny Tower (a social-style grinder).

The article above makes all this pretty clear: "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." And the five different "processes of invention" described above are not all plagiarism and only #1 is what's called "cloning," which is what all the recent controversy is about.

Robert Boyd
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The thing is 99% of the "innovative" games these days are just games that merge elements from very different games in the past. You have to go back to nearly the dawn of videogames before you start finding truly innovative games...and even most of those can be traced back even further to non-videogames.

E McNeill
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And most music these days is just composed of musical notes and instruments that have been around forever. There are a lot of combinations of game mechanics out there, and sometimes picking a good one requires innovation. We should give credit for that.

R Hawley
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Isn't invention taking the tools around us and putting them together in different ways? There's an appetite for similar but different experiences. It's comforting and provides an easy route into a new game.

Chris Crawford
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I offer several odd observations on this question:

First, I think it's almost feckless to consider the problem from the point of view of morals. You're welcome to declare that plagiarism is immoral, and somebody else can declare just as emphatically that it is not immoral, and you end up nowhere. The fact that plagiarism is so difficult to define legally reveals just how subjective the question is.

Second, we should consider the distinction between plagiarism as improvement and plagiarism as replication. We've had first-person shooters for years now -- are all such games mere acts of plagiarism? The incremental improvements that we have seen have advanced that form. Did Jurassic Park III plagiarize King Kong or Godzilla? How do we draw a line between plagiarism and incremental improvement? And if that line cannot be drawn, then isn't the very concept of plagiarism useless?

Third, isn't it more effective to consider the value of the game than the morality of its creation? If Game B is a mere plagiarization of Game A, then which is more useful: to denounce Game B is an immoral plagiarization, or dismiss it as boring?

It is true that injustice can arise when Little Guy Software publishes innovative Game A, and Big Bucks Sofware copies the idea in Game B, markets the bejabbers out of it, and gobbles up all the market share. Yep, big guys abuse little guys all the time. So what else is new? Welcome to capitalism, folks! If the market is functioning properly, some OTHER big guy will realize that Little Guy Software is creative, and will buy them or hire them, and the people at Little Guy Software will ultimately enjoy some benefits of their creativity. If you're truly creative, you're not a one-shot wonder: you've got lots more ideas where that came from.

Here's a really odd thought: perhaps there's not enough plagiarism going on. I suggest that the problem is that people aren't stealing enough ideas. In my career I have seen a huge diversity of ideas, very few of which have been developed properly. I can think of dozens of game ideas that were implemented badly in their first incarnation, and forgotten, which could, with proper implementation, be turned into great games.

Here's an example: for decades I have urged the games industry to explore the possibilities arising from intransitive combat relationships. The concept teems with possibilities, yet the surface has barely been scratched. Look up "Trinary Life" for an interesting example of the possibilities.

Lastly, there is enormous value in the communal process by which we develop the ideas and techniques of the medium. Is it not commendable that people learned from D.W.Griffith's use of the close-up, the moving shot, and so many other techniques? Steven Spielberg's movies teem with ideas taken from previous cinema -- should we condemn Spielberg as a plagiarist?

I have long and loudly declared that computer games are dead, but I am overjoyed to see my prognostications refuted by the Indie Games movement, which has injected creative life back into what was once a rotting corpse. The Indie Games people are coming up with all sorts of ideas, most of which are crap -- as it should be. But there are some good ideas mixed in there, and those ideas need to be developed and improved upon. An overly harsh professional ethic of anti-plagiarism will only serve to inhibit the necessary process of development.

I am not arguing against the concept of intellectual property, nor am I an anarchist. Yes, we need to provide legal protections for creativity. But those protections must be precisely definable if they are to have any social utility. The term "plagiarism" is just too vague to serve our needs here.

Dan MacDonald
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Just FYI Dan Cook is one of those indies creating authentic, heartfelt, good games. Sometimes on his own, sometimes in collaboration with other passionate indie teams.

I can't define for you exactly what makes a clone and what makes an incrementally innovative product. Neither can copyright law. I can tell you when a game looks/feels/sounds like a clone created as a "fast follow" money grab. So can most people, thats why things like the cloning of Triple Town and Tiny Tower attract so much attention.

A contrarian could make the case that cloning is a virtue and not immoral but they would be in the minority. They probably wouldn't agree with this article but it wouldn't really matter because the "morality" of the issue resonates with the majority.

In the end the value of the article is not derived from being rationally and rhetorically correct in the assessment of the issue. The article is written to generate resonance, traction, visibility, and mindshare within a community and build momentum around a certain point of view. So while you may be able to make the case that rhetorically the argument is "feckless", I would say that by all other measurements it has been quite effective in accomplishing its goal.

Chris Crawford
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Dan, I'm sure that the article accomplished at least some of its goals in terms of raising people's awareness of the issue. My argument is that it does not provide a disinterested observer with a compelling case. It serves well as cheerleading for those who already accept its premises, but it will have no effect on those who engage in plagiarism. A concerted, community-wide effort to condemn plagiarism might shame some people into being less egregious in their plagiarism. But that grey area between obvious plagiarism and innocent development of an idea will always provide plenty of cover for the plagiarist.

Dan MacDonald
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I think some developers plagiarize because they observe that the metrics for success appear derived from a games ability to generate revenue and maximise profit margins. Plagiarism seems to be a way to optimize for these metrics and mitigate the risk of failure.

Some developers are staunchly plagiarists and proud of it and for them this article will do little but anger them. I like to believe there are some developers that are naively plagiarists because they haven't been provided an alternate value system. An article like this one goes a long way in informing developers and providing another value system should they decided it has more credence then values they see in practice in the market today.

Chris Crawford
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Dqn, good points all. There are indeed an appallingly large number of young people on whom the concept of intellectual property is lost. In order to make that point effectively, I would have, in the author's shoes, talked about all forms of abuse of intellectual property. Concentrating all attention on the single form that hurts the author detracts somewhat from its power to convince.

Naomi Clark
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What I see being decried most often in recent controversies is a very specific definition of plagiarism that corresponds to #1 in the article above:

"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."

... except that instead of doing this as a learning process, it's released as a commercial product without any credit or value provided to the game that was copied. This is what's called "cloning," as far as I can tell, and the word makes sense -- the DNA is identical, there are no mutations, hybridization or recombinations.

Doesn't this definition provide a pretty "bright line" not to cross, and point out what you're calling "plagiarism as replication?" 99% of the time, cloning doesn't move the art of game-making forward in any way. It's the kind of thing that Zynga can effectively quash in their competition (Vostu) via lawsuits and armies of lawyers, but NimbleBit cannot stop Zynga from doing, even though both Cityville to Mega City and Tiny Tower to Dream Heights involve the same kind of replication. Anyone who's looked closely at these games can see where they are relative to this "bright line," it's all in the details of the mechanics. Most commentators don't bother, however, which is how some people can get away with claiming that it's not cloning but mere genre-similarity, the distance between Sonic and Mario or Quake and Gears of War.

Why shouldn't we come to a broad-based agreement in this industry that cloning, replication, copying a design, is wrong? We don't need to pinpoint an exact line in the sand and eliminate any and all grey areas; we can at least agree that copying is wrong to the degree that you approach the ultimate pole of "this is exactly the same game in all perceptible functional respects, but with different assets swapped in." It's up to us as professionals to determine what standards of professionalism are. Lawyers do it. Doctors do it. It happens in those professions because unwitting customers can get horribly harmed otherwise, so it's more important, but if we have the sense that something wrong is happening and that we could push ourselves collectively to "borrow ideas better" instead of "copy more exactly" for the betterment of our craft, why not? We're often the ones making or influencing hiring decisions and awards. Inviting people to speak. Granting the accolades or approbation of a group of peers. If that brightly line were defined, and there were consequences for obviously stepping all the way over it, fewer people would do it.

Luis Guimaraes
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I confess, I was 9 years old when I saw Monopoly at a friend's house and then built a clone of it when I got home to play with my brothers, and it wasn't the last tabletop game I cloned this manner. Two years later, I drew some maps, monsters and puzzles for a Resident Evil 2 clone. Let's not even get into the pen-and-paper RPG matter...

We should be more capable than 10 years old kids.

Joshua Criz
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It has been my experience that plagiarism of game mechanics is often necessary to actually get things done. It isn't just publishers that are scared of sticking their necks out on something they can't pigeonhole into a previously created category. I've been in numerous meetings where someone specs out a feature that, on paper, receives a great deal of resistance - "I can't imagine players would be able to understand what's going on" or "how could you possibly communicate this mechanic?" or "there's no way you could balance the difficulty to compensate for this ability if they can use it anywhere"

Then all the designer has to say is "If you haven't played [Game X] they do something that's 90% the same" and then all of a sudden the conversation changes from one of disdain and trepidation to one of inspiration. People stop arguing and wanting to schedule discussion meetings, and start saying "actually I think we could get a prototype up in about 3 weeks." If a picture is worth a thousand words, game plagiarism can be worth a thousand meetings.

Clay Cowgill
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A slippery slope to slide down, definition wise. Are not all spreadsheets then plagiarized? Word processors? 2D CAD tools? Think about the amount of 'borrowed' ideas in those programs... What about TV's, automobiles, and hair dryers? These all have designers and engineers that mix a bit of 'innovate' with a whole lot of 'reuse'. When a 'system' (genre, mechanism, etc., for lack of a better term) hits a certain point of maturity trying to innovate out of a core functionality that is expected (or required for the application at hand) may not only be counter-productive, but actually detrimental to the end result.

Ara Shirinian
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I think the author, at least initially, is being far too loose and dramatic with the term plagiarism. Is a "best practice" plagiarism?

Also, consider how the context in which a "plagiarized" element is used by someone else can change its character and dynamic completely. Do we deride the re-use when its application is novel?

As noble as the desire to do everything in a new way is, really the system has no other possible result when there are so many people who want to make games, and so many people who want to make money, with so much a variance of skill and knowledge across the board. At the very least the result provides us with a rather large suite of reference to learn from. Maybe, the system is overloaded.

After all, when re-use of the same collection of things becomes frequent enough, we call it a "genre." Is a side-scroller worthy to be an acceptable genre? How about tower-defense?

Seems like much of the dichotomy comes from this: Some people make games to make money, others make money so they can make games.

Kyle Holmquist
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Wonderfully poignant article striking at the heart of a dire problem. I love how you've taken a stance of speaking directly at plagiarists in order to make the incredibly necessary point of this article. It saddens me all the copying we see in the industry. I don't enjoy living in fear that if I publish my designs on the internet, instead of someone contacting me, they'll likely simply steal my idea for their own. It's not a very nice landscape to be a part of. Thank you for writing this.

Paul Laroquod
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I agree with those who say it is mostly useless to moralise over plagiarism, as it mostly depends on what you define as the 'steak' and what you define as the 'sizzle'. For example, if you were to define basic film language such as edits, cutaways, and dolly shots as the 'steak', and the story as the 'sizzle', then every single filmmaker who has ever lived is a shameless plagiarist of D.W. Griffiths. If you define game mechanics as the 'steak' and story/textures as the 'sizzle' (a distinction no weirder than the one I just proposes for film), then the game industry is almost entirely made up of plagiarists. However, there is nothing in the universe that says that you have to divide things in this way; there is no way to demonstrate that say, story/textures aren't the steak and the mechanics aren't the sizzle, in which case the entire game industry is full of innovators who only copy the most trivial things.

Neither is really true. What is true is that absent a direct one-to-one rip (which is more like piracy), plagiarism is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Not the best basis for a moral code.


Dan MacDonald
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@Paul I think your viewpoint is attractive to anyone that rejects accountability to things beyond their own immediate needs and desires. It's easy to rationalize away morals and ideals and justify any action as morally ambiguous. That doesn't change the fact that the world feels like a better place when we choose to act in morally conscionable ways and take actions that pay homage to ideals.

Do you want to be on the side of using rhetoric to justify that "it's all relative", or do you want to make the world a better place?