Big game hunter: Our inability to hold games to equal standards (when they nick stuff from each other)

Last week Our Zach Alexander pulled the still-warm corpse of the last round of !!CLONING scandal!! discussions from our collective freezer and got me thinking about it all over again. Channelling Mattie Brice as if by séance from earlier in the year, he discussed the ugly head-rearing of the double standards we often encounter when the contentious topic of cloning is raised. Both Alexander and Brice are quick to identify that decrying something as a clone is a heavily subjective act, and that how one approaches the debate and frames their standpoint within it is highly reflective of their ideals both politically and humanistically. I’d like to take their sentiments and step back just a little, if I may, and try to unpack the contradictions surrounding why it’s often, but by no means always, seen as damnable to wear inspiration on one’s sleeve. 

The examples of Flappy Bird and Threes! put forward by Alexander and Brice are apt because they call into focus the two most contested areas of the industry; namely hobbyist/ individual operations and the smaller-end of indie development. It’s here where we encounter the incensed cries of “cloning!” most readily and forcefully. With regard to Flappy Bird, accused of nicking them pipes from Mario (and by extension all of our childhoods), Brice notes that sole developer Dong Nguyen’s game didn’t stand a chance against our collective outrage because, well, he’s foreign and his game was perceived to be, like most “mobile [and] casual games, mostly just looking to grab people’s money.” It mattered not that Nguyen had simply incorporated a well-known visual motif from one genre into an entirely different one: he was labelled as scum, so no one needed to listen any further.

Threes!, on the other hand, was the victim of a heavily publicised ‘cloning saga’, and its predicament was treated very differently than the outright dismissal levelled against Flappy Bird. As Alexander says, by virtue of it being “the product of a Software Company, where the employees followed formal processes [developer Sirvo] got to defend itself using their own design documents, in their own voice, and on their own site.” Yes, they were the aggrieved party in this case, but as Brice intimates throughout her piece (and states explicitly a couple of times), they can also be considered a part of the publisher-driven big-budget ecosystem of games “because they don’t threaten how big business works; instead, they merge right in with it”, so were conspicuously given a lot more scope to discuss the matter publicly. I’m not in a hundred per cent agreement here, especially with the forcefulness of her assertion, but I do think the general sentiment stands: developers at different positions within the industry are perceived and therefore treated differently, creating a hugely unfair spectrum of possible responses, rather than a uniform means of discussing wrongdoing.

Examples of this skewed vision of propriety can most readily be seen when we look to the Triple-A space. Here mechanics are lifted wholesale from games and transplanted unaltered into new products without huge uproar and angry protest. Speaking in exclusively contemporary terms, many popular/successful mechanical innovations of the last decade have been widely appropriated by other developers and transposed onto an ever-expanding roster of increasingly familiar-feeling titles. Cover mechanics in third person shooters; time-rewinding in driving games; experience-based levelling in multiplayer shooters; Arkham Asylum­-style fisticuffs; meaningless or out of place RPG levelling and skill-trees in literally everything: there’s nary a marquee feature of a financially successful Triple-A that hasn’t found its way into other would-be financially successful Triple-As.

This practice has created a cycle of good and/or novel ideas being introduced, exploited, overused and then eventually - generally once revenues dip, rather than when artistic fervour dissipates - discarded. These practices act not only as examples of cheeky opportunism and profiteering, but also - in the long run at least - as stiflers of genuine progress. This is also the case for those series of games which endeavour to be annualised or at least long-running franchises, but without the gameplay diversity/advancements to justify it and prevent audience fatigue. In these situations it could be said that developers are in effect cloning their own game, which I reckon could easily be painted in much the same - if not worse - light as a third party doing the plagiarising. These common practices are, however, usually only met with jaded cynicism or snarky passive-aggressiveness, if in fact they are viewed negatively at all. They are certainly not widely met with the levels of anger that greet those developers and games associated with genuine (whatever that may mean) cloning.

I'd suggest that a lot of this is a product of the amorphous nature of Triple-A development. While we may well be aware of a few of the most celebrated individuals within it, grand-scale video game production is largely a faceless endeavour - oftentimes even for the employees themselves. This creates an environment where no one is visibly accountable for anything, meaning instances of pilfering within this stratum of the industry are left largely ignored by commentators. By this same logic, no individual is seen to suffer when ideas get nicked; simply a development studio or publisher en-masse, so I think this is widely perceived as a victimless crime, again justifying it being ignored.

Take the perennial favourite dairy-booze, Baileys, as an example. Some mornings - the ones where I'm up early enough for work, ALWAYS of a weekend - I have a coffee with a shot of Irish cream in it. While Baileys is the oldest of such liqueurs it now shares the shelves of British supermarkets with a load of knockoffs, with some retailers selling two ownbrand versions. I personally go for Lidl's Dundalgan Irish Country Cream, because it's a third of the price and means I can have a bottle in my fridge at all times and not just for special occasions. Where’s the uproar here? The good people at Diageo spent (according to Wikipedia) three (!) years developing the stuff, and now we’re happy to stand by and let their creamy drunken-stupor-inducing profits go to comestible highwaymen? The problem is, just like with video game mechanics, there’s no solid legal precedent with which to protect a mixture of milk and tangentially Irish spirits. Also, Diageo is a MASSIVE corporation so no one really gets hurt when their ideas get ripped off. We do, however, get all caring and sharing when a baker puts Marmite into a bun and then someone else does it a few years later ‘cos, like, she’s just one person so she needs our help.  

The cake lady is, if you hadn’t guessed, essentially the indie studio or solo developer in this story. While one still mightn't know the name of every individual working within an indie studio, their small size carries with it connotations of approachability, honesty and a little more vulnerability. Furthermore, aspects of a game are more directly attributable in the context of an individual or small team of creators, so we actually have a tangible victim when something is pilfered. This provides us with faces and lives to emotionally connect with; we can visualise these people as being like ourselves and so we empathise with them, unlike the great swathes of faceless desks when thinking about larger developers. This added visibility works both ways, of course, and in my estimation largely explains why most of the accused perpetrators of thievery also come from the smaller end of development. Again, it’s easier to single out a small group or an individual for wrongdoing than simply pointing in the general direction of a two hundred-strong team.

It’s unfair, then, that mainstream video game communities - both those ensconced within the media and the consumers of its various fruits - are quick to cry plagiarism when it suits, while at the same time largely ignore mass-homogeneity in the blockbuster space simply because it’s easier to defend - and pursue - the ‘little guys’. The imitation, refinement, distillation, extenuation, homage and/or satirisation of works of art has, and will continue to occur across the breadth of artistic mediums. That critics and consumers have conspicuously, and often militantly, shown their distaste for these practices only, in my opinion, highlights the relative infancy of the medium. Likewise, the vitriolic backlash against individuals and their creations once they are tarred with the brush of impropriety shows how limited the vernacular is with regard to identifying and discussing any and all cases of (mis)appropriation, whether they be warranted or not.

Ripping off games wholesale is unacceptable to be sure, but at the same time the willing blinkeredness of many commentators and consumers is also grossly unfair. Almost nothing about mainstream video games is original at this point; where mechanics, settings, basic narrative arcs and stylistic flourishes are routinely cribbed from well-received games and then propagated throughout entire genres and beyond. Crucially, though, this is largely the case for all forms of modern, profit-focused, mass-market entertainment. The unwillingness to address this aspect of video games makes it very difficult to have any form of serious debate about the wide spectrum of issues that arise from plagiarism in all its guises. As Brice said in February, “for money not to affect design and coverage anymore would completely change the landscape of games, both how we interact with and speak about them.” We can’t pardon one part of the industry for the same crimes we put another to death for simply because they are too large to be accountable. If we’re content with rehashed big-budget then we surely must pardon the transgressions of rogue operators and opportunists, regardless of their size or the severity of their crimes. Doing otherwise would be hypocritical and disingenuous, whether that sits easily with us or not. The only people who suffer in this situation, however, are the individuals or small teams whose livelihoods depend upon the sale of games our gluttony for mass-produced entertainment won’t permit us to protect.

Until we get to a point where we’re finally unhappy with our annual splurge of reheated Triple-A terrine we’re all just pigs in muck, suffering and savouring in equal measure. We must either decide that mechanics, ideas and creativity in general are like the three-point seatbelt - that is, owned by no one for the benefit of everyone - or, that they are sacred and protected - morally, if not legally - and belong entirely to their creators. While this wouldn’t preclude anything from the borrowing of ideas to the thievery of whole games, it would at least allow us a level playing field on which to discuss any and all forms of ‘cloning’. As long as the cost of creating Triple-A games continues to rise, though, this will never happen of course. Budgets of tens and hundreds of millions of dollars prevent much risk-taking, so we’re essentially at an impasse until there’s a fundamental change in consumer tastes. All that is left for us, then, is to calm the effing-jeff down until the rare occasions where something genuinely filthy occurs, because there’s dirt everywhere at the minute: we’re just not very willing to look at it most of the time.

If you don’t want to force me into a life of nicking games and flogging ‘em down Walthamstow market, maybe consider reading the rest of this paragraph. I’ve set up one of them Patreon pages wot a lot of other writers have got themselves these days. If you like my thought process and fancy helping me legitimise my type of video game criticism to a terribly unsupportive girlfriend and the wider world, then please consider a small donation to my peerlessly altruistic cause. It resides here: Chrz.