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