What Goes Around

A number of Astute Readers pointed out that Atlantis, which I reviewed on Friday, is actually a reimplementation of an earlier game, Popcap’s Zuma, and Mumbo Jumbo’s modified Zuma clone Luxor.

I tried Luxor tonight, and I liked it. In the abstract, I liked it more than Atlantis, with the exception that the Mac version suffers from some slowdown when things get hairy. The experience of playing the two identical games got me to thinking about some of the structural stupidities of the so-called “casual game” market. To use one good example, Phil Steinmeyer talks a bit about the saturation of the market with Zuma clones:

The past year in particular has demonstrated that a close clone of a hit game, albeit with a new theme, can sell quite well indeed (see the string of successful Zuma clones - Luxor, Tumblebugs, Atlantis, Beetle Bomp). None of these game were much better than Zuma, though Luxor introduced a new gameplay style (move along the bottom rather than in the middle), and Tumblebugs used 3D graphics to nice effect. There were only a couple of Zuma clones that failed, and those were markedly inferior in execution to the original Zuma and itís clones. So basically, if you released a Zuma clone in 2005 of roughly equal quality to the original Zuma, your chances of at least moderate success were right around 100%.

All of which raises some interesting questions.

First, at what point does one game infringe on another game’s copyright? Copyright does not protect ideas, but it does protect the expression of an idea fixed in a tangible medium of expression, which includes videogames. One could argue that slapping a new theme or outer story on a game changes it enough to not be infringing. And most of the players in the market are content to observe a sort of detente where they all borrow from each other without suing, at least so far. But really: brightly colored balls, each about the size of a child’s marble. Narrow channel. Similar sound effects. Similar powerups. Shooty things. A new background and a name doesn’t cut it: sooner or later, someone is getting sued. Especially when larger companies decide to capture a piece of the casual gaming market for themselves.

Secondly, what’s a game reviewer to do in this environment? Do we discuss each game in a vacuum, merely considering how well it is implemented? Or do we discount a game somewhat, to the extent that it is copied from somewhere else?

I think I will settle on a middle course. Realistically, truly innovative games are few and far between. And when a really innovative game hits, its publisher is rewarded by it utterly failing in the marketplace. So it’s not really fair, I think, to think less of a game just because it has lifted its gameplay, in nearly every way possible, from an earlier title. Copy away, boys! More games for me! Go for it!

However.

If, in the marketing and promotional materials for your carbon-copy game, you dare to describe it as “innovative,” then I think you’ve gone out of your way to qualify for a little eye-rolling scorn.

So, to whoever at Funpause described Atlantis as having “innovative” gameplay: here’s looking at you, kid. You should feel ashamed of yourself.

The reason this irritates me, on some level, is that so many of the casual games market themselves as being “intellectual” challenges, because of course moving blocks to align colors is a very sophisticated, intellectually rigorous activity. Yet I don’t see any consciousness on the part of the makers of the games that the customers have a wider view of the gaming ecosystem. So the marketing talks to the customers as if they’re smart, but acts as if the customers are dumb.

What I’d really like to see is one – just one – of these casual game makers who steps up and, on a regular basis, admits that they copy the ideas, and embraces it. “Yes, our new game, Rly’eh takes many game elements from Zuma, Luxor and Atlantis. We think you’ll like it even better than those games, because it’s shinier, and has Cthulhu in it. In fact, here’s a link to Popcap, to Funpause, and to Mumbo Jumbo. Try all of our games. Buy the one you like.”

I’d really like to see that. But I’m not going to hold my breath.