Aug 242011

Talk about cloning games is in fashion this season. Colin and Sarah both wrote about it on their blog recently, and there’s been numerous accusations flying about the net with tons of examples and case studies to pick from. Greg Wohlwend’s open letter about Ridiculous Fishing (and some backstory) was particularly soul-wrenching.

I don’t particularly want to talk about cloning, but a bunch of people keep bringing the latest SteamBirds clone to my attention, so I should probably address it at least once, and point people here from now on.

As a quick pre-amble, you may recall that I have nothing to do with SteamBirds anymore, nor am I authorized to speak on the franchise’s behalf. I also have not played or seen the offending title in action, and have no idea how different it may be.

Also, I was also cloned two other times – someone beat me to the punch with a shitty iOS version of SteamBirds, and someone else beat me to the punch with a shitty multiplayer version of SteamBirds. So technically this is the third clone. This is the first clone that isn’t shitty, and is being done by a big studio.

The Culprit

Here’s a screenshot I’ve seen of this brave new completely original IP by Bungie (Makers of Halo!), Crimson: Steam Pirates:

(Click for Bigger)

So the UI there is pretty similar (with identical placement for buttons). The movement controls, the powerup selection, the gameplay style – it pretty much looks like a clone of SteamBirds to me. Then there’s the name (also mentioning “Steam” in the title), and the backstory to the game (also an alternate universe WW2-era fiction), and not to mention that SteamBirds has always had boats and pirates in it’s lore and design docs (things I have spoken about at the various talks I’ve given and posted in the SB official forums, when people ask what the next version has in store – very much public information). Then there’s the multiplayer gameplay that takes all the best elements from the Android edition of the game.

So yeah, my knee-jerk reaction is that this is uncomfortable cloning territory.

I think Colin did a great job summing up most of the counter arguments, so I won’t repeat them here. Again, Greg made a heartfelt post about originality, so I won’t go on about that either. But there is something that does irk me that is rarely addressed, and came to light in a recent Google+ post I was browsing:

G+ Rocks

The fine fellow in the original post here is stating his rage about the recent Bungie announcement; a new game called Crimson: Steam Pirates. The responder is saying “No big deal, SteamBirds wasn’t original either.”

But what isn’t mentioned here is TIME ELAPSED.

WHEN You Clone is Relevant

Yes, SteamBirds’ core mechanic had been “done before” in an aviation video game [unbeknownst to me]. The most recent? A game from around 2001. Before that, there was a spaceship game that apparantly ran pretty similar in the late 90s, and an even older one in the late 80s.

There’s a card game with similar mechanics to SB, but for automobiles – from the 80s. There’s one about airplanes from around 2001 (and I’ll admit that the earliest tech-test prototypes were indeed very much clones of these games).

I think waiting 10 years before cloning something is a lot different than cloning something that isn’t even released yet, or cloning something that has only been out for a few months. It’s only been TWO WEEKS since the latest version of SB launched.

The one video game that was a big influence on my Steambirds designs is called DarkWind (2009) – an awesome, fully 3-D car-racing simulator… Done in a turn-based fashion. I am a pilot, and I wanted to do the same thing for aviation as Darkwind did for automobiles. Which leads me to the question,

Is SteamBirds a Clone?

Let’s see. I wasn’t aware of any other games; kinda hard to clone them right there. Despite this, previous title is more than 10 years old (in forms digital or otherwise). No sources of inspiration (including card and board games) included the fantasy/steampunk elements or aesthetics; other games in this genre (digital or not) tend to focus on realism and accuracy. Power-ups, gameplay balance, control mechanisms, UI, and all that other good stuff that goes into the game – completely original.

Darkwind’s inspiration resulted in almost zero practical crossover to my design (the game is simply too different). The only thing I lifted for the released design of SteamBirds was the SteamPunk universe that I surely did not create.

If someone told me SteamBirds was a clone, I’d have to laugh at the ridiculous implausibility of the suggestion.

Is Crimson: Steam Pirates a Clone?

I’d say yes.

I’m sure they’d phrase it something more like “We are acting on current market pressures to deliver an enhanced gameplay product that iterates on other previously successful titles, in a legally distinct way.”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? It’s probably very much “legally distinct,” and there probably is no legal defense the current SteamBirds team can use to protect themselves from them.

Bungie is being a moral dick for scooping the next release of SteamBirds though. Why couldn’t they have waited a few years at least?

  41 Responses to “The Third Cloning of SteamBirds”

Comments (35) Pingbacks (6)
  1. Well said. I was hoping someone would post something solid on the matter.

    There really isn’t anything truly original. Everything is a derivative of everything else – that’s how evolution works. Originality only goes as far as familiarity doesn’t.

    That said, there’s an obvious distinction between reviving a long-forgotten mechanic, setting, etc. and, riding the coattails of an actively developed franchise. I’m a big fan of all that Bungie has accomplished and I really can’t believe that they’d stoop so low.

  2. Bungie? Good lord, Bungie? With all that Halo money and fanboys around, I figured they could do much better things with their time than clone Flash games!

    I’d consider it a complement in the ugliest, most asshole form possible. Freaking assholes!

  3. Oh interesting. Apparently Bungie isn’t at fault. They have an indie publishing program that Harebrained Schemes is using to publish their game.

  4. Heh, i commented on their site with this link. Lets see if gets moderated away or if they allow the public criticism.

  5. @FuzzYspo0N – I’m not seeing your comment on that page (as of 7AM Pacific, at least), so I am assuming that the cover-up is now officially underway. :(

  6. I posted seconds before posting this one. So give it time. But I am assuming the usual news sites will hear and rant some (RPS, Indiegames maybe, etc).

  7. I’d take this as a huge compliment, especially since the game is no longer in your hands, and it’s really not a slap in the face. As for WHEN you clone, I couldn’t agree more. I’m almost positive they’ll build upon the game, which is great, but I do agree that it hasn’t been long enough to warrant such a blatant copy. Either way, it really is an honor if you look at it from the right perspective.

  8. I’d add a corollary to this: Cloning is an especially egregious offense when the cloner is an extremely visible company with brand recognition, since folks will make a purchase on pedigree alone. If Joe-Sixpack Games does a clone of Angry Birds, chances are it doesn’t hurt Rovio’s bottom line. Flip that, though, with EA doing a clone of some college kid’s thesis project… it’s unconscionable.

    (And yes, you could see it as an honor. I wouldn’t call that the “right” perspective, though. Imitation-as-flattery only works when it doesn’t affect your paycheck; so if someone pats me on the back while nicking my wallet with his free hand, I’m not going to smile and bounce on my merry way.)

  9. Why not fight back and put a burr under Bungie’s saddle by making a ‘Pirates’ skin for SteamBirds?

  10. Dan – I LIKE IT!

  11. Loved Steambirds, a fav of mine!

  12. Chris has the right of it :)
    This is akin to people complaining that Warhammer stole ideas from Warcraft.

  13. (Quick Update to the article: Bungie is doing a publishing thing here, and the Studio in question is Harebrained, to be clear. Took Tycho@PennyArcade to point that out, heh)

    Chris + Eric: Did you read my article? Yeesh. I even acknowledged games that came out in the 1980s, 1990s, 2001, 2002, and 2009, for christ’s sake. Guess what came out in 2001? The Crimson board game.

    I don’t think this is anything at all like the warhammer->warcraft thing. I’m focusing on TIMING here. SteamBirds wasn’t being a dick and scooping some long-awaited Crimson release. Crimson (board game) -> Steambirds was a ten year gap, and the video games aren’t even comparable in any way.

    Harebrained WAS aware of SteamBirds existence, AND they knew we were working on an epic sequel thing (that is still in the works via SpryFox) and decided to release BEFORE SpryFox. Which is a total dick move. Probably perfectly legal, and they have all right to release their own IP, so, whatever. Still a dick move.

    (That said: it does appear that they copied many mechanics, display choices, UI, menus, control mechanisms, and powerups from SteamBirds, so I *COULD* go down the “it’s a copy of SB!” road if I wanted to)

    I’m all for cloning and iterative developments. I think that the industry would stagnate if nobody was allowed to copy anything. I’d hate to be held back from my sources of inspiration even. What I have a problem with is WHEN you clone things.

    If you KNOW somebody is working on something, and you make something that is pretty much goddamn the same fucking thing (except the art is different! now it’s SHARKS instead of AIRPLANES!), you’re being a complete fucking asshole.

    You say: “That’s business! sink or swim! lol!”

    I say: “That is very true! and you are still a complete fucking asshole! Come here and let me kick you in the nuts!”

  14. “(Quick Update to the article: Bungie is doing a publishing thing here, and the Studio in question is Harebrained, to be clear. Took Tycho@PennyArcade to point that out, heh)”

    Actually I pointed this out in the third comment. :^D

  15. HareBrained Schemes: dick-move.
    “Get your Swashbuckle on (whatever that is) and get to PAX Booth #682 to set sail for adventure!”

    Bring your sabre.

  16. There’s a game on the iPhone (and web), “Supreme Air Combat”. It was published several months before Steambirds, and its very similar to it, even the interface. You should check it out, its free. There’s even a video on Youtube , July 2009 : . Steambirds was published on 2010. Would it be fair to say Steambirds is a clone of Supreme Air Combat?

  17. Simultaneously developed independently derived games happen all the time. The word “clone” implies intent; the fact that I wasn’t aware of that game until now is enough to prove that SB wasn’t a clone of it (if you believe me, anyway).

  18. “Simultaneously developed independently derived games happen all the time”.
    LoL, so when it applys to you it’s not your fault.

    Who are you to say something is shitty or not?
    It’s just whine about a game that is not even still yours.
    Too noob to develop the multiplayer yourself I believe.
    Ho wait, “you can not speak about it”, LoL

  19. Uh… Maybe you don’t understand what “Independently derived” means.

    Another example: Incredibots and Fantastic Contraption are both very similar (at least, the launch versions of both titles were). Neither dev had any clue about each other, and when FC “beat them to the punch”, it was unfortunate – but nobody was being an intentional asshole here.

    Same with SB and SAC. I had no idea SAC existed, so I can’t possibly be an asshole and “clone” it.

    What I do have a problem with, and what I’m detailing here in this article, is that Harebrained did indeed know about the upcoming steambirds title – and chose to copy it quite closely, and release sooner. That is very much frustrating to me.

  20. You can’t patent Gameplay…

    Get over it.

  21. I’m… not saying patents on gameplay should be a thing. In fact, I even say that they are completely in their legal rights.

    I’m just saying they’re being a dick for releasing so early.

    I’d be over it by now if people didn’t keep refreshing my memory with blog comments. :P

  22. All games referenced in this article are ‘clones’ or ‘improvements’ on the table top game Star Fleet Battles game. Clones are good because someone will get it perfect eventually =)

  23. I totally agree (and star fleet battles was clones of earlier titles too!).

    The timing of the clones is what matters.

  24. I am myself guilty of cloning (MagicPen I and II), and although I gave credit to the author and added links to Crayon Physics I still felt dirty.
    Cloning is worse than work, it poisons your soul.

    The original games I’ve made on the other hand, those were actually fun to make and fill me with pride, even if they’re not a commercial success.

  25. Andy I admire your strength to comment on some of the boys in here. And I understand your anger. But you cant beat the unbeatable. The big man will always prey on the little ones, the rich will always suck money from the poor, and so on. And there always be someone that will try to get a piece of the pie. No matter the cost, because from a 1000 people there is at least one with low moral standards that lives from dick moves ;) (like that).
    Money is money.
    Look at minecraft and its clones. Averyone wants a piece.

    I hope you will make many more great titles.

    I know i will:)

  26. Yeah, I know I can’t stop it. It’s just when people are being dicks, I think they deserve to be called dicks.

    I’d hate for a generation of kids to grow up thinking that behaviour was morally acceptable.

  27. Harebrained WAS aware of SteamBirds existence, AND they knew we were working on an epic sequel thing (that is still in the works via SpryFox) and decided to release BEFORE SpryFox.

    Interesting… how do we know that Harebrained was aware of SteamBirds and it’s epic sequel thing.

  28. Because they told me they knew, back in March. (we met at GDC)

  29. Andy,

    I think that your post should be corrected. After reading the comments it seems that you’re now aware that Bungie simply published this game that was developed by Harebrained Studios.

    Also – maybe you should understand that Jordan Weisman, who was one of the creators of the original Crimson Skies board game, leads Harebrained studios. So in effect, he was just making a digital version of his own game.

  30. No need to edit history when the correction is here in the comments. :)

    I know who Jordan/Harebrained is, and I know what their previous games are. I’m not upset that they are using their own IP or working on their own game.

    I’m upset that they imitated a few key mechanics that I designed, AND that they did so knowing full well they were beating us to release.

    If they waited a year or three, fine. If they launched before I started presenting beta versions, at a conference they attended, also cool. Heck, I would have at least referred to them as DECENT PEOPLE if they had simply said “oh man, we don’t want to step on your toes, why don’t we launch after you OR at the same time as you?”.

    Most of all, if they had INDEPENDENTLY derived the ideas themselves, and decided to publish a game now (10 years later??) and it’s just a really big coincidence, also totally cool. I’d buy them a beer and celebrate the zaniness of life.

    But that is not the case. They have taken an idea they KNEW we were working on, swiped some key components and iterated on it (which is totally legal), and put enough money behind it that they could get it out the door before us.

    • I’ve just played a bit of the Steambirds Flash web-based version now, together with my 5-years old son. 10 seconds into the game, he said: “this looks like our boardgame with airplanes”. He was of course referring to “Wings of War”, the 2004 boardgames which Steambirds draws heavily from.

  31. My appologies, but. Steam Pirates is MUCH better then steam birds. As developer myself I appreciate such clones. That’s what drives our industry. Steambirds is an indie title. Steam Pirates has the value of a great commercial product. I’ve bought pirates, btw. And I would never pay for the birds. Just make good games, people and stop moaning. Respect.

  32. Sigh.

    AGAIN, I like Crimson, it’s a better game, it deserves to be released, I agree that it’s what drives our industry.

    It’s just that they released BEFORE SB and knew they were too, that bugs me. Why couldn’t they launch in December? Next year? 2 years from now?

    Why did they feel the need to beat us to market?

  33. Look, SteamBirds is so much like it! The controls and stuff. Actually I like it that way. Where’d U get the inspiratio for the Canabalt Plane anyway?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.