Cloned mobile games hurt indie developers

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Cloned mobile games

JohnBWe don't normally feature articles that aren't game reviews or round-ups on our site, but this bit of news is a special case, as it affects everyone who plays and enjoys independently created games, both in our browsers and beyond.

In the past few months (arguably even longer than that), a pattern of blatant plagiarism has surged in the gaming community. Studios large and small have taken creative, original ideas released by independent developers and repackaged them for release on the iTunes App Store. These products are not merely "based upon" or "inspired by" another game, they are blatant, shameless copies of the original with only minor differences in appearance and gameplay. The screenshot you see above is a prime example of this, showing Andrew Moorish's free game Super Puzzle Platformer as compared to its iOS clone on the right.

Now, everybody knows that stealing is wrong, but this kind of thievery manages to slide by for a number of reasons. Some of our favorite indie developers have fallen victim to this mobile thievery, including Vlambeer, creator of Super Crate Box and Radical Fishing, Andrew Moorish with Super Puzzle Platformer, as well as Halfbot that found its game, The Blocks Cometh, "released" on iOS devices with the exact same name before it was even finished!

"The best weapon against game cloning is us, the players, who can vote with our wallets, report clones when we spot them, and support indie developers whenever we can."

Independent developers make unique, often free games that push creativity beyond its normal bounds. It's largely indie content that fills our pages on a daily basis. Developers and artists are hurt by this practice, and there are very few ways to fight back. The best weapon against game cloning is us, the players, who can vote with our wallets, report clones when we spot them, and support indie developers whenever we can.

If you want to read more about the cloning business that's been going on, feel free to check out the following articles on some of our favorite gaming sites:

Thanks, and remember to enjoy and support indie games!


Anonymous August 16, 2011 11:06 PM

App Store needs to see better.
They allowed and even brought to the main list two "Angry Birds" copies.
There are hundred of stuff questionable at the App Store: Bejeweled, an attempt at Braid, World of Goo,etc! Some of them say we should play them because they are better than the real ones!


We have battles between Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, and conflict between Minecraft and Terraria. Once it comes to plagiarism, it only just gets worse. I do enjoy playing games, indie games, whatever. I'm going to bet we're going to have a discussion here. This article might need one.

Concerned August 16, 2011 11:47 PM

I don't mean to be rude, but I would like to point out a discrepancy: just a short while before posting this article, the game "Scuba" was posted. Scuba is, though not a direct clone, obviously based on and copying Minecraft. I know that this article is talking specifically about cloned mobile games, but I wonder if you could extend the message to all game developers. I don't think it's right to so blatantly copy ideas, either in a mobile format or outside of one.

arcticwolf15 August 16, 2011 11:58 PM

I understand minor plagirism but with major changes, but copying and entire game, with only minor changes, that's just wrong. Wow.


No, guys, this is not about similar games. It's about ctrl-c ctrl-v and then changing the graphics and sounds (or not).

One would think that the thin line between inspired by and plagiarism was clear enough for everyone, but apparently not.



While I haven't really played CoD or MoH, leaving me unable to comment on those specifically, I do know enough to say that Terraria is not a Minecraft clone. They are related, and are in roughly the same genre, but Terraria is not a clone. Notch himself has stated that he supports Terraria, and the developers of Terraria have thanked notch for the publicity (and thus, customers) he's given them.

Even games like, to go a bit retro, Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo Kazooie are not clones of each other. If all they had done was changed the characters and the locales, perhaps, but the three games are all different enough from each other to occupy their own slots in the "3D adventure game where you collect shinies" genre.

This article, and hopefully the following discussion, are about games that are blatantly clones. Not even ripoffs. Clones. Games that look and play and sound the same as or incredibly similar to other games. Just wanted to try to get this bit out of the way before the pending discussion went way off topic.


@Concerned: there's a huge difference between a game created that's "based on" or "inspired by" another (in the case of Scuba being inspired by Minecraft and Terraria) and direct and blatant cloning, which this article is about.

Scuba is not a clone of Minecraft even if it shares some similarities.


There is a difference in being the same (or just very similar) genre, and being a complete rip-off. The problem is that are games such as "angry bird" and "crush the castle" clones, or are they only in the same family?

Also, first person shooters like CoD and MoH are extremely similar and may result in players of them wonder if one of them is a copy of another, but players never say "Halo copied Call of Duty" or vice versa, because while it's obvious they're both first person shooters, they are no where near being the same game. For something a bit more closer, no one argues about CoD and BF (Battlefield) being rip-offs of eachother as well, because while they're both going for "realistic" first person shooters, they came out completely different, and people are fine with that (excluding fanboys who MUST argue over which one is better, but at least it proves they're unique).

In conclusion: we need to tell developers that games can be in the same genre, but we cannot accept Christmas presents that have different wrappers but both open up to be a candy cane.


@Nickyh: Angry Birds is not a clone of Crush the Castle. Very similar, yes, but there is enough different about Angry Birds to avoid being labeled a direct copy.


@Jay: thanks for letting me know, because I haven't played angry birds before, only knowing that some people think they're similar, which is why I raised the question.

Andrew Suffield August 17, 2011 1:44 AM

If it's an actual copy - they took art, sounds, or software from another game without appropriate permission - then it's already illegal, can be dealt with through the courts, and there is no problem.

If it's not an actual copy but somebody just drew art that looked similar, used the same freely available and properly licensed sound effects off the same website, or wrote their own code to implement some extremely simple game mechanics first seen in another game, then this is legal, widely done by games developers for years (especially the kind of flash games that are posted on this site), and there is no problem.


I think the main issue here is the possibility of confusing one title for another. The game featured in the image above is a good example of copying; the two are so similar, that most people would not be able to tell the difference.

Angry Birds and Smash the Castle don't count as copying, because there's no possibility of confusing the two. I'm given to understand that there are some differences in gameplay as well.

Unlicensed attorney August 17, 2011 3:03 AM

Sorry, had to post. Videogames are protected by US copyright law. In some cases, the statutory damages for a willful violation can be up to $150,000 per infringement-- especially in cases where the material is pre-release.

My recommendation for indie game makers is to talk with a copyright attorney about this.

Unlicensed attorney August 17, 2011 3:22 AM


Again, this is US copyright, so with the global nature of the internet, YMMV:

Copyright law makes a distinction between an idea and the expression of an idea. Only the expression is copyrightable, not the underlying idea itself. Therefore, the mechanics or gameplay of a game might not be legally protectable, but the art, music and overall "feel" are protectable. Yes, separating the two is vague and subjective, but that's why we have courts. So you cannot copyright a side-scroller with a sprite stomping on enemies as it moves left to right, but if another side scroller's sprite happens to be a mustachioed Italian-American plumber with a hatred of turtles and mushrooms, you will be hit with a massive lawsuit.

Scuba used the idea of combining things to make other things, much like Minecraft, but because it is a 2d diving game, there are substantial enough differences to be considered a new work. You can't copyright a 3x3 grid.

XaonRider August 17, 2011 5:13 AM

From what I can see, there doesn't seem to be clear definitions on what can be considered to be "inspirations" or "ripoffs" or "clones". To state an example, is Terraria considered to be inspired by Minecraft, or is it considered to be a ripoff?

Anonymous August 17, 2011 5:53 AM

Hmmm, can't these just be taken down due to copyright infringement? (though I suppose how much does porting count as copying is a factor- it's not that cut and dry and there have been lawsuits against whether a similar design done in say... C++ and Java violates copyright rules)

As for the knock-offs... this kind of thing will pretty much always happen regardless of medium. Whether it is handbags, shoes, electronics or games, less than moral people will try and copy things and have them pass as the original. It's pretty much up to the distributor and the creator to handle many of these cases as simply the general audience might not be able to tell them apart. (iPhone games I feel reach out to far more of a crowd than flash games for instance, and reaching out to them to boycott them would be difficult)


Problems like these are why IP law is a necessary evil. Unfortunately - and as demonstrated by responses in this thread - it is difficult to stipulate in writing what qualities of a body of work (like a game) make it unique, and what copied qualities would constitute infringement on that uniqueness. This is the basis of why copyright law is so muddled, confusing, and abused. Consequently, it's not simple for small-time publishers to protect themselves properly.

Ars published an article in a similar vein, except in a more general context: small companies and how they protect the "ideas" of their product. (What's to stop Google/Facebook/MS from stealing a 3-man start-up's idea and building a similar product more quickly?) The article explores whether patents are the solution (among other topics). See:


I'm sorry, but if someone doesn't realize there is a difference between comparing Terraria with Minecraft and comparing Super Puzzle Platformer with I Hate Puzzle, he not only needs an eye exam, but a brain one as well.

Chicknstu August 17, 2011 8:54 AM

The problem is that the mass market don't know the difference. They won't be reading this article, and they won't realise what they're buying is a cheap knock off, or that it's damaging indie developers.

Seeing as it's clear the platform holders aren't going to help developers on this front (It's a greyish area anyway).

So the action has to come, as usual, from developers.

Cloners only do it because they're rewarded for it. What we need to do is come up with a system which works against this, which means it's not really worth them making a cheap cone.

Not quite sure what that might be. But I know the vow from us not to buy cheap clones won't help, because we're not the mass market.


My best advice to indie developers: develop your game with multiple platforms in mind from the start, or at least when you feel your game idea is a successful one.

If you don't have the skills to develop for other platforms, then find someone you can partner with that can port your code or work with you on development of the game from the start.

Strike first so you don't give these leeches an opportunity to beat you.


If your game has enough depth and complexity, it won't be copied.

Simplifying gameplay for the sake of portability sounds awful. You should concentrate on fun, fun is the most important thing.

But conversely, if your game play is simple, then you would really have to follow Jay's route. If the game is simple and easy to port - it will be copied.


I'm very much not a copyright attorney, but I did take some notes in my Communications Law class last year. (We only spent two days talking about copyright... which is sad, I really wanted to go more in-depth with the topic.)

Regarding the originality of the game, there are certain instances where groups were able to successfully sue on the grounds of substantial similarities (for example, the makers of the Australian film "Great White" were successfully sued by Warner Brothers for being too similiar to "Jaws"). Exceptions do apply, such as in the context of parody or the accused not having access to the original, but I feel (not having access to the cloned game in question) that these two defenses probably don't apply here.

There are four standards that come into play when trying to defend the accused's work as "fair use":

  1. The purpose or character of the use of the copywritten material, which is to say, is it for educational purposes, non-profit uses, or for commercial gain? (The latter. Strike one.)

  2. The nature of the copywritten work, which is to say, the medium. (Both internet games. Possibly defendable because the accused is mobile, but I'm still marking this as strike two.)

  3. The proportion of the whole work that is used (Um... Lots. Strike three.)

  4. The potential impact on the market by the use of the copywritten material. (The cloned version detracts from the publicity and potential revenues for the original owner, so this is pretty much strike four. (I was never really good at baseball.))

So given the above, I don't think "fair use" really can't be used as a defense by the accused.

So is there a case? I still really couldn't say, because most of the examples I was given involved music, films, and TV shows, which have a completely different umbrella of restrictions than digital media, which I'd imagine would be covered under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which I can't claim to know too much about. I would hope at the very least there are repercussions of some sort for the accused, because this sort of violation of rights makes me sick to my stomach.

Jay has a good point saying that proactivity is probably the best cure, since ideas aren't copyrightable, but tangible goods are. It's sad that it has to come to that, and that we can't trust others to act in good faith, but c'est la vie.

Again, I'm not an expert on copyright law, but this is my understanding of the law from two days in class. Please feel free to correct me or call me out if I'm wrong, because this is an area I'm quite interested in.


First of all, thanks to JiG for posting this article. Yes, we indie developers need all the support we can get from the public!

Now, as for the debate going on in the comments here, let me throw in my two cents.

The folk process - that is, the reimagining of and making of additions to earlier works - is hugely important. There's no reason game designers should reinvent the wheel every time... indeed, the similarities between games is what makes them accessible; when an interface or mechanic is intuitive to the player, it's because it's similar to ones they've experienced in the past.

I'd say the majority of great games, in fact, come from someone saying "hey, imagine if I took this idea from game A, and this other idea from game B, and added original idea C to make them work together. That would be awesome!"

Cloning, on the other hand, is a terrible thing. The intent there is entirely different; the interior monologue there goes like "Whoa, this game is making a lot of money. How much do I need to change so that I can cash in on that without getting in legal trouble?"

So, how do you tell the difference? It's in the details.

If a developer is genuinely inspired by a game, they will connect with the spirit of its mechanics; the nature of the "copying" will be to recreate a similar experience, while the details of the interface, graphics and so forth will be different. You may not even recognize what game inspired it until you start the play, and then you will say "Hey, this feels a lot like (whatever)."

By contrast, someone cloning a game may not even like the game, or "get" it. They just know that other people are paying money for it, so they will copy the particulars of the game without understanding its spirit. Thus, the details will all bear an uncanny resemblance to the original, but the soul will be missing; if you've had much experience with the original, the clone will just "feel" wrong - whatever differences there are from the original will be accidents, rather than improvements.

Anonymous August 17, 2011 12:55 PM

We should do this debating more often.
Is it stealing when the original is Minecraft and the other is Microsoft's FortressCraft?


Relying on copyright law should not be the only line of defense for developers. Creating a hit game is tiring enough, dealing with the additional threats of copycats and thieves should not have to be added to their plate, let alone the costs associated with it.

John B is reminding us, as consumers, that we can contribute to the cause by being more attentive to our purchases. He's pointed out a couple of recent copycat games that really don't show any creativity, and are capitalizing on the hard work of others who have developed the mechanics and demonstrated the demand.

This is a good post and JohnB is doing us all a service for having taken the time to write it.


Plagiarism is when someone copies a game in its entirety, and only makes minor changes, by a different company, and releases it, normally with a very high price, with the same name.

Being based on another game is simply copying the concept, not the game in its entirety.


Please don't perpetuate the denial-laden belief that "It's OK if someone transgresses, you can just take them to court". That is a bit like saying it's OK if someone beats you up and steals your money, you can just take them to court. The original assault is still wrong.

In reality, individuals or small operators who have their material stolen usually stand to lose more by taking matters to court than just living with the original theft. The costs are potentially so high it can be the equivalent of more than a year's earnings. So people have to weigh losing more than a year's worth of earnings against losing some months worth of earnings, and often choose to get on with their lives and make more material. Additionally, taking someone to court to recover a lost living is vastly more stressful than just working for a living.

So, for some situations, it might achieve more if other action was taken.

Indie Game Developers Fame and Glory - walkthrough

  • If visitors to this site, who get hours and hours of free entertainment courtesy of indie game developers and artists, genuinely don't understand difference between the development and use of genres (seen rpg's without barrels and crates?), and blatant, deliberate replication of a a finished production, perhaps learning a bit more about it could be a good start.

  • Get to know your game developers. Compliment and promote the good ones. Buy some games. Note the blatant copy-cats, rip-off artists and thieves, and pass around links to posts about their skulduggery. And embarrass them. A Lot. If they have souls capable of feeling embarrassment. Also, do not buy their games. And tell your friends not to.

  • Draw attention to any action or inaction by powerful players such as Apple, potentially, which helps the baddies at the expense of the goodies. Their reputation matters very much to most of them. [Come on, you know this stuff, good versus evil, plus a Boss Fight at the end...]

  • Level up your casual gamer karma.

  • Put together a Humble-Indie-Bundle-RIPPED-OFF! edition, containing all-original games by the Original Artists, as featured in the above-mentioned articles. Apple gives unusual and prolonged prominence to this product in their i-tunes store. Jay-is-Games and other good game sites promote it shamelessly.


Any other ideas?


Great announcement, John! Hopefully it'll have the intended effect. :)

I'm a bit unsure about Radical Fishing among the three examples in the article though. With the other two, it's a clear case: not only game concepts/mechanics but also the assets have been cloned (and even the branding, in the case of Blocks Cometh).

The same cannot be said of Radical Fishing however. I think it's not a coincidence that articles about that case show only promo videos and not the classic side-by-side screenshot comparison, because with the latter, the clone accusation would hold no water.

It actually reminds me more of how Zuma was built on Puzz Loop mechanics and largely got away with it, with everyone talking about "Zuma clones" now. Even more interesting is that Zuma and Chinese clones have been featured right here on JIG in the past, even while admitting in the description that they are nothing but "clones" and "cheap imitations".

[Wow, that's an old link(!) Yes, it's true, we have crossed that line a few times over the course of reviewing thousands of games here at JIG. And I am proud of the coverage we have provided over the years despite that. -Jay]

zbeeblebrox August 18, 2011 2:43 AM

Jay, I'd say one of the reasons your site is so much better than a typical aggregation site is because in reviewing these games you're also able to bring to light whether or not something is a clone, so that new players aren't going into it thinking this or that is the first of its kind.

And also because it allows for the potential of these kind of discussions to crop up.

The iOS market has become notorious lately for allowing blatant clones like these to slip through the cracks. The more people are made aware to look out for them the better. Of course, much like the fan confusion over Minecraft and Terraria, everyone should keep in mind that "clone" is a very strong accusation, and shouldn't be a replacement for "inspiration"

[Thanks, zbeelebrox. Also, note that rampant cloning isn't exclusive to iOS, in fact, I've heard there are even more rip-offs happening in the Android market where there is virtually no curation or oversight. -Jay]


Oh my, I was just about to get ninja fishing for my ipod touch. I felt very very familiar with this game when I saw the screenshots. Now I know why I felt that. I must have played radical fishing here before. I think I don't want to get ninja fishing now.


I agree with SiamJai that the Radical Fishing example is not a good one.

This is the case of a game borrowing the same mechanics of an older one. It looks like it added/changed a mechanic and everything else such as the art style, theme and presentation are all new.

It's very different than the thievery experienced by The Blocks Cometh and Super Puzzle Platformer, where everything including assets, art style and even name was copied wholesale.

Ninja Fishing vs Radical Fishing is really closer to Zuma vs Puzzloop as has been said before.


Sadly this isn't just on mobile devices, this happens also on the XBox, and I'm sure if you looked on the WII and PS3, that this happens as well. In the end, another reason why I hate some companies, especially apple. But if you like macs, then, I just don't know...


Dude, Apple isn't the one cloning these games. I suppose you hate Google and the Android guys, too, since there are all kinds of clones happening on that platform, probably even more so than Apple's since Android it's not curated as iOS is.

Apple haters just don't have a leg to stand on.


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