Innovation or Renovation? Video Games and Cloning

(Originally written for AIMS at Miami University)

The issue of “cloning” in video game production has garnered a lot of attention lately, even surfacing in the New York Times a few days ago. On a basic level, “cloning” describes a situation where the core gameplay mechanics of an original game are copied, repackaged, and sold as a different game with distinct graphics, audio, story-line, etc.. While the two games might be almost identical in terms of their play mechanics, they differ on the level of representation.

NimbleBit's Tiny Tower

The Times article mentions a few examples which have recently caused a stir in the gaming community. First, the wildly popular game Tiny Tower, created by the tiny game development company NimbleBits, was cloned by the towering game company Zynga which released a similar title Dream Heights. (Take a look at NimbleBit’s humorous attack on Zynga’s game to see just how close they resemble each other.) Second, Spry Fox’s Facebook game Triple Town was cloned by the game publisher 6waves Lolapps, which released an almost identical, mobile game called Yeti Town. 6waves was able to release Yeti Town before Spry Fox (a much smaller company) could port its game to mobile devices; thus, the larger company capitalized on the popularity of the game mechanics developed in Triple Town before Spry Fox could make the jump from Facebook to the mobile market.

It gets worse. Spry Fox had been sharing private information about Triple Town with the larger company 6waves, negotiating with them to publish the mobile version of the game. When this didn’t work out, 6waves published Yeti Town. Damn. Although the details of the story have yet to emerge and Spry Fox has sued 6waves Lolapps for copyright infringement, it seems as though though Spry Fox was led along while the DNA of Triple Town was studied, extracted, and cloned.

Spry Fox's Triple Town

Such infringement is certainly not new—even dear Pac-Man had his day in court with K.C.Munchkin. In fact, this cloning dynamic is at the heart of popular culture itself where films, TV shows, books, pop songs, etc., are endlessly cloned and repackaged so companies can cash in on the latest trends. There are many responses to the phenomenon of cloning: one can debate the yays and nays of patenting gameplay mechanics (which will protect the indie developers but probably stifle “innovation” in the long run); one can voice moral outrage at the unethical practices of large businesses who strangle the start-ups; one can embrace the power of the consumer, choosing to pay to play the “original” games while boycotting the bully businesses that capitalize on others’ ideas; or, one can don the hat of the realist and sigh, “Welcome to capitalism.” There are many interesting discussions floating about on the topic of cloning, for example, Killscreen’s enlightening article “Attack of the Clone Attackers” which takes a more sober approach to the issue.

Bertolt Brecht, the great 20th century German playwright and poet, had a word for aesthetic innovations which were not truly innovative. He called them renovations. Indeed, this seems an apt term for cloning practices, a kind of aesthetic remodeling, a face-lift of a structure which changes the outward appearance of a structure (to make it seem shiny and new) but not the structure itself. Thus, under this view, there are true innovators (Tiny Tower) and flashy but false renovations (Dream Heights).

Yet, for Brecht, the difference between innovations and renovations was not judged according to who got there first or who generated the idea first (Tiny Tower was itself a simplified renovation of Sim Tower). The criteria for judging the true from the false was far more serious. Brecht wrote that true innovations strive to change society, to fundamentally alter it at its core, to change the mechanics of life entirely instead of just tweaking some of its superficial aspects.

Such is a heady thought. Alas, “innovative” video games are probably not going to cause massive social change anytime soon. Yet, Brecht’s thoughts do provide us with a new, socially and politically engaged, notion of innovation—an innovation that tries to affect the social space, to encourage players and the public to think differently, reflectively and critically. Are video games like Zynga’s Dream Heights or 6waves Lolapps’ Yeti Town innovative? No. Clearly they are renovations—a new whitewash for Triple Town, a new paint job for Tiny Tower. But, according to Brecht, would NimbleBits’ Tiny Tower or Spry Fox’s Triple Town be innovations? Not really. While Tiny Town sucked me in for a totally pleasurable week of constant, distracting maintenance of a tiny, insignificant world…I’m not sure I was left with much else.

If game designers—and budding developers—have a fear of cloning, adding deep reflective meanings to mechanics will be more difficult to clone and copy. Can one clone or “monkey” the mechanics of 2D Boy’s critically acclaimed game The World of Goo? Certainly. Can one clone The World of Goo’s intense, fascinating reflection on the process of creative innovation, the revolt against large business practices, and the dream of indie liberation from the “Product Z” mentality of corporate production? Maybe, but not as easily.

When the Tiny Towers, Dream Heights, Triple Towns, and Yeti Towns disappear in the next wave of creative destruction (which is popular culture itself) I think many of us will still remember and replay The World of Goo because its layers of meaning are not repetitive stacks of more of the same, but meaningful layers of interpretative possibility that encourages us to reflect on our society, the games industry, and the problem of innovation itself.

Innovation or Renovation? Video Games and Cloning

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