The (gaming) clones never stopped attacking

Clones keep getting through app review despite App Store rules about copying. It's a sign of the weaknesses in mobile app stores — and the weakness in Big Tech’s after-the-fact moderation approach.

Screenshot from Star Wars Episode II of thousands of clones in an army

Clones aren't always illegal, but they are widely despised.

Image: Disney

Two of the most fundamental tenets of the mobile gaming market:

  1. Free always wins.
  2. No good gaming idea is safe from copycats.

In combination, these two rules help produce what the industry calls a clone. Most often, clones are low-effort, ripped-off versions of popular games that monetize in not-so-savory fashion while drawing in players with a price tag of zero.

Cloning has been around since the days of Atari’s Pong, but the concept took on new life in the mobile market and, more recently, reared its ugly head after two high-profile clones went viral on Apple’s App Store and Google Play: one of popular daily word game Wordle, and the other of the zen organization hit Unpacking. Each of these episodes speaks to the state of mobile gaming and app store moderation in unique ways, and illustrates just how hard it is today to protect a good idea from the wrong hands.

Clones are not always illegal, but they are widely despised. Mobile app stores are full of games that borrow popular Nintendo characters or try to swindle unsuspecting consumers into buying overpriced garbage.

  • These apps are easier to produce than a full-blown console or PC game, and they typically don’t survive long on app stores or ever go viral. Clones, however, are trickier, because they are in some cases well-made and savvily produced copycats that walk the fine line between inspiration and ripoff.
  • In the case of Wordle, a game that itself is based on many prior word games, a developer unaffiliated with creator Josh Wardle openly touted his clone as the official Wordle app, using the name (though it was not trademarked) and hawking a $30 per year subscription. For many, this crossed the line, even if Wardle had no intention of going after the developer.
  • The case of Unpacking was equally egregious, but in a different way. Indie studio Witch Beam’s hit game is available on game consoles and computers, but not smartphones. The lack of mobile port inspired game publisher SayGames to launch Unpacking Master, a shameless copy of Witch Beam’s creation though with its own art style.
  • Both games were eventually removed by Apple. In the case of Unpacking Master, SayGames voluntarily removed its Android version and apologized, too. But this was only after scores of other clones began populating both stores and developers and fans made a lot of noise on Twitter and elsewhere. Witch Beam in particular brought attention to its clone with a viral Twitter thread.

Video games are built on borrowing. Generally speaking, copyright law covers the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. That’s why you can play a new game today that, for instance, looks and feels like Super Mario or The Legend of Zelda or Grand Theft Auto but qualifies as an all-new creation. The line is hazy, however, and there is inconsistent legal precedent that defines what is and isn’t permitted in the realm of game design.

  • Game developers large and small often iterate on existing ideas, from an interesting macro game design concept to a specific application of a rule that governs how a game is played. And it’s not always clear what legal recourse a developer has available to them, or under what circumstances it’s even warranted.
  • Additionally, it’s often costly and potentially fruitless to take another game-maker to court over cloning unless someone has in some obvious way infringed on a copyright or trademark, like direct reproduction of code, art assets and music, or reuse of trademarked character names and titles. Witch Beam may have had a strong case with Unpacking Master, but it would have cost it to find out.
  • “We're a tiny indie team, and even with the success we have achieved, we still don't have the resources to pursue companies trying to use our game's distinct look and feel to make a quick buck. We have to rely on storefronts like the App Store to better curate their content,” the studio explained.

Apple and Google keep slipping up. App stores have rules around copying other apps and media, and Apple in particular has for years cracked down on viral clones when they earn media attention. (Remember Flappy Bird?) But clones keep getting through app review, exposing the weaknesses in mobile app stores and Big Tech’s after-the-fact moderation approach.

  • The App Store and Google Play have long been breeding grounds for all kinds of fraud, scams and other security and privacy risks. Mobile gaming provides an easy avenue for all three, often wrapped up in a free-to-play disguise and easily hidden from reviewers, who now check thousands of apps submitted per day to each platform.
  • A cornerstone of Epic’s legal argument in the Fortnite antitrust trial was casting Apple’s moderation and store policies as haphazard and inconsistent. And despite its victory in the case, Apple’s iron grip on the App Store has weakened in the months since the trial through regulatory concessions, though it has so far managed to keep the hugely lucrative mobile gaming category on a tight leash.
  • Both Apple and Google benefit by collecting commissions from apps, including cloned games and especially those with exploitative monetization. So long as it doesn’t pose a public relations problem (or a legal risk), tech companies tend not to overcorrect on moderating such content or feel any incentive to address the core problem.

Stopping clones may seem like an impossible task. So long as it remains relatively cost-effective to produce and self-publish a quick mobile app and there continues to be little risk to copying someone else’s game idea, the industry will continue fighting this practice.

Console and PC gaming may be somewhat insulated here due to the cost and difficulty of big-budget game development. Yet that still doesn’t stop a good idea from turning into an industry gold mine; just look at battle royale progenitor PUBG, the owners of which are now suing a rival (and Apple and Google) over alleged copyright infringement.

Right now, the path of least resistance and, unfortunately, the best chance of success is to be angry on Twitter and hope someone at a tech company takes notice. But there should be a better way to protect creators and crack down on clones. Because they won’t stop coming until there is.

A version of this story also appeared in today's Protocol Entertainment newsletter; subscribe here.

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