Monday, June 9, 2014

Flappy Bird & Clones

There are different shades of game cloning. Frank Lantz wants us to acknowledge that cloning is complicated because declaring that a game is a “clone” is prone to subjectivity and personal bias. Cloning runs the gamut from ripping or recreating art and mechanics to be a 1:1 match, to taking the same code and wrapping it in different skins, to slightly changing mechanics, to being “inspired” by existing games, to participating in a genre without much variation. There are loving tributes, which combine elements of different games into a unique form. There are legal boundaries, which vary by jurisdiction and the language of which is sometimes impenetrable. There are ethical boundaries, which are wholly unenforceable. There are grey areas, and there are audiences who don’t know or care about the differences.

It’s really hard to be consistent in how you talk about cloning games. When it’s hard to be consistent, our natural biases—including societal biases—sometimes tip the scales of our decision. Awareness of these different factors should preclude any discussion of clones.  With all of that in mind, Mattie Brice asks why some games have value and others don’t. In order to shed some light on that disparity, let’s compare Flappy Bird to Threes.

Flappy Bird is a really incredible game. Every part of Flappy Bird, from the exact physics of the flap up and the plummet down, to the pacing of the obstacles and the precise gap you need to navigate, seems to have been lovingly crafted and fine-tuned.

However, my appreciation for Flappy Bird is not universal. In an article titled “Flappy Bird Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art”, Kotaku published an article claiming it achieved undeserved respect, using weak evidence tailored to fit that conclusion. Kotaku accused Flappy Bird’s creator of copy-pasting art from Super Mario Bros, but Kotaku’s evidence, consisting of side-by-side images, didn’t support their accusation.

The article was later updated to indicate Kotaku regretted the misleading headline, but the question remains as to why Kotaku boldly attacked the game’s financial success. Mattie Brice did an excellent job of breaking down some of the hidden assumptions embedded in the conclusions Kotaku reached. Essentially, Mattie argues, Kotaku was reacting to an unknown developer from outside the mainstream bypassing the traditional structures of industry.

When Flappy Bird’s developer decided to pull it off the market, the void was quickly filled by clones. Stephen Beirne followed up on the logic of the Flappy Jam, which was explicitly about creating Flappy Bird clones. Many of these clones did commit the crimes Kotaku accused the original of committing: stealing resources from Flappy Bird or Mario. Many clones were also inferior to Flappy Bird itself. [1] Months later, Kotaku published an article admitting maybe it was a bit harder than it seemed to create Flappy Bird.

Recently, something similar happened to the developers of the game Threes and Kotaku wrote an article about the controversy. Similar to Flappy Bird, Threes was an original game that resulted in a swarm of clones. Unlike many Flappy Bird clones, which all emerged roughly simultaneously, most of the Threes clones came from a single clone called 2048. 2048 is slightly different from Threes, and most clones of Threes are actually using the 2048 code base, so the Threes developers attacked 2048 specifically for riding their coattails by releasing their design documents in order to demonstrate that the 2048-esque mechanics were a possibility they investigated and ultimately discarded. Kotaku said of the controversy, “It’s easy to sympathize with the creators of Threes.”

In contrast, most of the Flappy Bird clones were straight attempts to recreate the original game and despite Flappy Bird clones being a more clear-cut case of cloning, sympathy was not extended to the creator of Flappy Birds at any point during Kotaku’s coverage.   

The way Threes was treated versus how Flappy Bird was treated is a little disturbing to me. Threes got to defend itself using their own design documents, in their own voice, and on their own site. Other sites were more than happy to link to the creators’ unreadably huge pile of emails explaining the concept behind Threes. Flappy Bird’s creator only got a few interviews, which by definition are controlled by the interviewer, so they didn’t give the Flappy Bird creator hardly any opportunity to give a lot of detail.

In a way, this information disparity makes sense. Threes is the product of a Software Company, where the employees followed formal processes and had design documents and a paper trail. Flappy Bird is, by all accounts, a personal project that suddenly exploded. There were no other team members. There was no need for status reports or accounting. It was a hobbyist making something amusing in his off time. When Flappy Bird became a huge, international hit, there was no material to assemble in defense. Neither was there an inclination to do so, because hugely successful games don’t traditionally need a defense.

So while it makes sense that Flappy Bird just didn’t have the professional structures in place to be able to defend its process, the contrast in how the two games were received disturbs me because it puts a lot of burden on hobbyist game devs. The message I get is, if you don’t follow the Industry Best Practice, and your game becomes popular, you are vulnerable to an unprovoked attack.

Mattie’s point is similar. If you don’t pay the right dues, follow the right formal processes, or don’t have the right support network in place, it doesn’t matter if your game is “really” a clone or not. The label of “clone” is subject to things other than passionless examinations of precise details. It is influenced by the surrounding culture. The next time we are tempted to call a game a clone, we should think long and hard about what we’re targeting and why.

[1] I wanted to prove a point about Flappy Bird’s polish by comparing every single clone I could find against the original game. It seemed like a fun project to dive into the nitty-gritty of a game’s mechanics and compare it to imitators to see what was the hardest aspect to mimic, what people got wrong and right, and so on. I ended up not following through on this.

I didn’t give up on this project because it was ambitious, or it was hard. I gave up on it because so many of these clones did what Flappy Bird was originally accused of (stealing assets and ideas), and on top of that, they tried to make money off it. In my opinion, it’s unethical to profit off someone else’s work so directly. I didn’t feel like justifying the clone developer's decisions by paying them in order to download their app, or by viewing ads on my device. This stance is apparently considered “unreasonable” by some. I disagree.