The Copycat Conundrum: When Does A Game Become A Clone of Another?

It’s almost becoming somewhat fashionable to claim that games are “clones” of others, be they the smallest of mobile devices to the biggest of AAA titles.

What we fail to realize is this; during game production, developers and creators can often draw heavily on inspiration from other great games that came before. But then there is the unfortunate, albeit rare occurrence where games do actually take the entire formula of another game and use it as their own.

So, where’s the line here? When does a heavily-inspired game become what might be considered a “clone”?

The most recent accusation of this came about when Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya called PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale “just a rip-off” of other brawlers like Super Smash Bros.

Now, while he has all the right in the world to his own opinion, I can’t help but disagree. Sure, it might appear to be at face value, but in reality, the Super Smash Bros. games have nearly perfected the formula for a successful franchise brawler. How else could you approach that type of game without borrowing a few conventions from the original title that made it great?

Plus, it’s pretty well known at this point that developers at SuperBot Entertainment have actually taken some steps to make sure their game is not a clone of Nintendo’s. Multiplayer options and cross-platform play are massive innovations absent from Nintendo’s game, and ideas in level design and gameplay rules and conventions realize a departure from the traditional mechanics of games like Brawl an d Melee.

In this case, I’d argue that PlayStation All Stars: Battle Royale is much more inspired by Super Smash Bros. than it is a viable “clone” of the game series.

Switch gears with me for a moment and consider something else; is it bad to borrow elements from other games? My thought: absolutely not. Games are a form of a creative medium. The very nature of creation in any form focuses heavily on taking ideas or conventions of other projects and twisting them to suit your needs and make your own project unique. It’s the amazing give and take that is present in all forms of art, from music to literature, and games are no exception. Think of the game Limbo, and how many 2D platformers have borrowed elements from its colorless, ambient world. Are those games clones of Limbo? Certainly not, as they merely borrow elements of Limbo’s environmental puzzles and atmosphere to give their own project a unique feel and personality all their own.

Where we run into problems with this formula, however, is when game creators decide to take ideas from another game and put them in their own without bothering to change it or offer their perspective or take on it. Look no further than the masters at Zynga for this. Zynga has a long and ugly reputation of copying games of others and passing them off as their own. This could be anywhere from taking the gameplay mechanics to copying the entire game itself, whether it’s Tiny Tower or EA’s Sims Social (which EA is currently suing Zynga for over copyright infringement).

Where they go wrong here is taking the exact format or formula and branding it as original. When game makers do this, it officially breaks free from being merely inspired by great games that came before and crosses into the territory of being a downright, uninspired copy of an original game. The bottom line? Inspiration is fantastic, and lends creativity and credibility to our beloved interactive media. Copying is detrimental to the industry and hurts the credibility of developers as a whole.

So before you decide to declare a game a “clone” of another, consider this: has it really crossed that ugly line?