Attack of the Clones

The fan game menace.

Final Freeway 2R, an ’old school’ iOS racing game, was released last week. It’s marketed as a homage to classic arcade racers like Out Run and Chase HQ, but where do we draw the line between inspiration and replication? What makes Final Freeway a tribute to the classics, rather than intellectual property theft?

The games industry has a long history of iteration at the expense of innovation. Craig and I have discussed at length the prevailing ‘Sequelitis’ that has afflicted game development. There are obvious examples like the Street Fighter series, but there’s more to it than that: Sega’s Congo Bongo was their answer to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong; Capcom sued Data East because Fighter’s Destiny bore a strong resemblance to Street Fighter, which was itself preceded by Data East’s Karate Champ. Like today’s smartphone patent wars, with everyone copying ideas from each other, it’s impossible to tell who infringed first.

Game developers of the 1980s and early 1990s played fast and loose with intellectual property rights, probably because gaming was a niche hobby and bloodthirsty lawyers had yet to descend from the shadows. Metal Gear‘s cover art is a retouched picture of Kyle Reese from Terminator. Out Run let players race across the country in a Ferrari Testarossa, but Sega didn’t license the car from Ferrari. Compare this to the recent OutRun Online Arcade, which was removed from Xbox Live Arcade after Sega’s Ferrari license expired.

One of my favourite Mega Drive games, Revenge of Shinobi, lets players battle against Rambo, Godzilla, Spiderman, Batman and the Terminator. The ninja on the box looked like actor Sonny Chiba. Subsequent revisions of the software removed those likenesses, except Spiderman who Sega licensed from Marvel and was patched to no longer morph into a devil midway through the fight. They just don’t make them like they used to.

Licensing became the norm. Some developers held out against the relentless tide of royalties, with Sensible Software cheekily shifting the players’ names in Sensible Soccer to things like “N BACKHEM”. As home computers became more prevalent and powerful, fan games grew in popularity: fans would make their own Sonic and Mario games using original assets, but didn’t charge for them. Fan games aren’t always seen as the sincerest form of flattery: Chrono Resurrection was an ambitious remake of Chrono Trigger that caused Square-Enix to issue a cease and desist letter to the developers. Yet, fan gaming communities remain strong: hell, even I made one back in the day.

Final Freeway 2R (2012)Out Run (1986)OutRun Online Arcade (2009)

Davide Pasca is a developer at Oyatsukai, the team behind Final Freeway. I asked him about the inspiration behind the game and its relationship to titles like Out Run. He said:

“Most people will associate it with Out Run, others with Lotus Turbo Challenge, Road Rash, Chase HQ, Cruis’n USA, you name it.

To me, these games are more about the experience. When I moved from Italy to Los Angeles, my first comment off LAX was: “this looks like Out Run“! To me that meant that Out Run‘s originality was in many ways the reflection of a real setting, accessible to anyone.

Suzuki-san himself was inspired by the movie Cannonball Run and other American and European settings. If you’ve been there, you know where it is.”

I don’t think Final Freeway is so similar to Out Run that Sega should be filing a complaint. Pasca is a developer who treats the source material with reverence; not everyone is so lucky. While I was researching this article, one developer had their game cloned and released on the App Store by a rogue company. Their reaction:

A developer is the victim of code theft

Some developers are the victims of programmers who reverse engineer their games and publish clones on the App Store. Others are the victims of ‘mere’ idea theft: recently, Farmville developers and third horseman of the casual gaming apocalypse Zynga ripped off Tiny Tower with their game Dream Towers. Nimblebit’s response is hilarious, but not everyone can afford to be so good-humoured. Capcom’s mobile team ripped off the cult classic Splosion Man in their game MaXplosion, which was later withdrawn from the App Store. But what about the games that don’t get removed?

Gameloft are a French publisher whose modus operandi is to clone popular games from other consoles onto mobile devices. It’s like they just can’t help themselves: any gamer will easily spot the inspiration in games like Nova, Modern Combat and West Coast Hustle. What surprised me were the mixed responses from gamers: on this site, some call the Gameloft titles “shameless”, while others comment “who cares if the games are good?”. There’s a sentiment that if the original developer hasn’t ported the game to iOS, then we gamers are entitled to a surrogate. If that surrogate crosses the line between inspiration and rip off, it’s the original publisher’s fault for not stepping up to the plate and delivering an alternative.

In the wake of the Mass Effect 3 ending furore this week, let me be clear: you are not entitled to anything. You’re not entitled to Half-Life 3, no matter how much you want it. You are not entitled to play a Pokémon ripoff on your iPhone: you can buy a DS or you can not buy a DS. That is the choice. While cloned games are bad for obvious financial reasons, I believe there’s a more important underlying issue as well.

Innovation and competition have given us so many fantastic games: Sonic was developed as a rival to Mario, embracing a different design philosophy. Sega didn’t make a platform game starring an Italian plumber scoffing mushrooms: they made something uniquely different. Unreal broke the Quake engine hegemony with adventures in vibrant, detailed alien worlds. Tekken, Ridge Racer, Forza Motorsport, Burnout, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Half-Life: these games took existing concepts and made them even more exciting, raising the bar. They weren’t completely original concepts, but to (allegedly) quote Picasso, “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. They take ideas, build upon them, and make them their own. I worry that game cloning will diminish the innovation that drives the industry forward.

In the 90s, the console manufacturers controlled software licensing. No one would have dared to attempt a brazen Sonic or Mario clone: that’s why there were terrible games like Bubsy the Bobcat that iterated, but didn’t innovate. The rise of the App Store and the Android Market have led to the opposite scenario: a digital Wild West, where clones and rip offs flood the marketplace. To be fair, with the sheer number of apps being approved every day, this is difficult to police. Yet Apple’s sheriff is slow to react to claims of IP theft, while Google don’t seem bothered as long as their adverts monetise the spoils.

More needs to be done by the market owners to protect developers, especially small ones. They need security to ensure their innovations will pay off, to allow them to thrive. Otherwise, we’ll be left with a regurgitated banquet of unappetising game mush. While I enjoy Final Freeway for the nostalgia it evokes, I can’t wait to see what Oyatsukai come up with when they’re freed from the shackles of history.


Every week in Reality Check, we tackle technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.