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Unpacking and Wordle copycats put game cloning back under the microscope

It appears the Clone Wars are far from over. The practice of copying the essence of popular games and repackaging them for financial gain exists almost as well as video games, but has become a particular problem on mobile platforms in recent years.

Not only will this be frustrating for creators, but at worst, clones could dwarf the original’s performance on the store, as in 2018, when Ben’s Donut County Esposito knockoff Hole.io hit iOS the peak time. App Store before Esposito’s game was released. Sometimes developers even compete with copies, like Threes, a puzzle game that was copied as 1024, and then not one, but two games called 2048.

Attack of the clones

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“Brier reports an average of three Unpacking clones per week, for a total of 31 reported so far.”

In the face of this wave of clones, the question is, how can developers protect their games? Should platform owners do more to moderate their stores? In terms of precautions, Dr. Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of the video game industry group TIGA, urged developers not to prematurely release information about their games and to use NDAs that explicitly prohibit cloning before sharing ideas with third parties.

In theory, developers also have some legitimate options. “Copyright protection covers non-functional elements of the game, such as source code and audiovisual representations, but not the idea behind the game,” Wilson said. “Patents protect functional aspects of a game, such as game mechanics. A trademark can also protect the name of the game.”

However, this may not be feasible for indie developers who cannot afford protections such as trademarks until the game achieves financial success. Civil lawsuits against clones may be more complicated than they’re worth: many are in the Philippines and Indonesia. “In addition to being located abroad, clones can easily get to the ground by deleting your websites, closing your inbox to prevent you from accessing them, or canceling games before you get close,” said Mo Ali, intellectual property coordinator at the trade group Say. U.K. “It’s important not to rule out legal action entirely, but in practice, most indie developers are better off using the app store’s reporting process to remove clones.”

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Credit: Witch Ray

Asking developers to report clones is not a perfect solution. Brier said he reports on an average of three Unpacking clones per week, most of which are just apps full of ads and no game content, using the Unpacking name or assets to attract users. So far, she has reported 31 times. As such, Brier believes it’s understandable that platform owners “definitely should be doing more” to adjust their stores, and that the shipping research process could use some improvements.

By improving reporting processes, organisations such as UKIE can help, Ali said. Developers are advised to learn how to spot copycats: While cloners make some changes to the game, most will use pirated assets or call the original’s name to improve their search results, meaning social media and IP monitoring services scans may is a useful tool. There is hope, he said: “We found that developers who report games quickly and efficiently tend to put off cloning in the long run.”


This feature first appeared in issue 370 of edge magazine† For more great articles like this, check out all Edge subscription offers at direct selling magazine

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Unpacking and Wordle copycats put game cloning back under the microscope

The clone wars, it seems, are far from over. The practice of copying the essence of a popular game and repackaging it for financial gain has been around almost as long as videogames, but it’s become a particular problem in recent years on mobile platforms. 
Not only can this be dispiriting for creators, in the worst cases, clones can overshadow an original game’s performance on storefronts – as in 2018, when Hole.io, a knock-off of Ben Esposito’s Donut County, shot to the top of the iOS App Store before Esposito’s game was even released. Sometimes, developers even find themselves competing with copies of copies, as in the case of Threes, the puzzle game which was copied as 1024, then not one but two games called 2048. 
Attack of the clones

(Image credit: Witch Beam)
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(Image credit: Josh Wardle)

“Brier reports an average of three Unpacking clones per week, and has reported a total of 31 so far.”

In the face of this wave of cloning, the question is: how can developers protect their games, and should platform holders be doing more to moderate their stores? In terms of preventative measures, Dr Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of video game industry body TIGA, recommends that developers avoid releasing information about their games too early, and use NDAs that explicitly prohibit cloning before sharing ideas with third parties.
There are also – in theory – some legal options for developers. “Copyright protection covers the non-functional elements of a game, such as a source code and audiovisual display, but not the idea behind the game,” Wilson notes. “A patent offers protection to the functional aspects of the game such as the mechanics of the gameplay. Trademarks can protect the name of a game, too.”
This might not be viable, however, for any indie developers who cannot afford protections such as trademarks until their games are financially successful. And civil action against cloners can be more hassle than it’s worth – many are based in the Philippines and Indonesia. “As well as being based abroad, cloners can easily go to ground by deleting their site, shutting down inboxes to prevent you from reaching them, or pulling the game before you can get close,” says Mo Ali, intellectual property coordinator at trade body UKIE. “It’s important not to rule legal action out fully but, practically speaking, most indie developers are better served by using app store reporting processes to get a clone taken down.”

(Image credit: Witch Beam)
Requiring developers to report clones isn’t a perfect solution. Brier says she reports an average of three Unpacking clones per week, most of which are little more than ad-filled apps with no game content, using the Unpacking name or assets to attract users. She’s reported a total of 31 so far. Understandably, then, Brier feels that platform holders “should definitely do more” to moderate their stores, and that submission vetting processes could do with improvement. 
Reporting processes are getting better, Ali says, and organisations such as UKIE can help. He advises that developers learn how to spot a copycat: while cloners will make some changes to a game, most use ripped assets or mention the original’s name to improve their search ranking, meaning social media monitoring and IP scanning services can be useful tools. There is hope, he says: “We’ve found that developers who report games quickly and effectively tend to put cloners off in the long term.”
This feature first appeared in issue #370 of Edge Magazine. For more great articles like this one, check out all of Edge’s subscription offers at Magazines Direct.

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