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.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories