When people find out that I developed the iOS version of Crush the Castle, they often respond in a peculiar and surprising way. They come to my defense.
“Man, aren’t you angry that Angry Birds ripped you off?” they ask. “They totally stole your idea.”
I tell them, no, I’m not angry.
“Really?” they reply. “I would be. I would totally sue those bastards.”
And I say, no, we’re not going to sue Angry Birds. I’m fine with it. It’s cool.
Today I want to explain why I’m cool with it and why you should be too.
Let me first mention that I didn’t develop the original Crush the Castle. I created the iPhone and iPad versions on behalf of Armor Games, who had originally developed the game for the web. I’m only part of the Crush the Castle story. This post is my opinion only—I’m good friends with the Armor Games guys, but I don’t speak for them.
I think I do have a unique take on the game-cloning issue. I’ve been in the games industry since 1995. I helped build Ultima Online, a game that was later “cloned” by Everquest and ultimately, perhaps sorta kinda, by World of Warcraft. (Yes I’m hereby staking my claim on 0.000001% credit for World of Warcraft’s success, a credit still worth about a million dollars.) More recently I’ve joined the faculty of the Guildhall at SMU, where I teach game programming and Ethics. Yes, you heard me right: a university course on the ethics of games. So I’m interested in the question of what kind of “cloning” is the bad kind and when and why it’s okay.
IGN recently mentioned the cloning of Crush the Castle by Angry Birds. In the article they argue that games copying other games may be unethical, but it is good for gamers because it represents the evolution of innovative ideas into genres. On the whole I accept the article’s conclusions, but some parts of the argument are logically and ethically weak.
When it’s Not Okay to Steal
The article argues that gamers shouldn’t care when developers rip off other developer’s ideas, because ripping off is good for gamers. How so, you ask? The article answers: because games stealing other games’ ideas is how genres are born.
There are two problems with this argument.
First, just because something is good for you doesn’t make it good. If it hurts someone else, you should be concerned. Even if gamers benefited when developers steal other developers’ ideas, it would still be wrong for developers to do it. The article’s attitude seems to be, “It’s nasty when developers do that, but it’s good for me, so who cares?” This is unethical thinking.
The second problem with the article is its suggestion that gamers win when developers steal. This isn’t unethical—just untrue.
When a game developer has an idea stolen, that game developer loses. They’ve spent extra time, extra sweat and blood, to create something new and beautiful, only to see someone else get the money and the glory.
This developer then has less incentive to develop new, innovative ideas. They see that the winners are the ones that take existing ideas and re-implement them—like the case of Plague, Inc. versus Pandemic 2.5 that is highlighted in the article. Pandemic developed the idea, but Plague—a closely similar game with subtle improvements that was released a month later—has sold vastly more copies. If the way to win is to steal, why build anything new?
The result is that developers produce fewer and fewer innovative concepts and create more and more copy-cat games. Before too long, yes indeed, you’ve got yourself a “genre.”
But why is creating a genre such a wonderful thing? The IGN article seems to think that genres are the bees’ knees—the lush fruit of game development “evolution.” That’s not clear to me. To me a genre often looks like a devolution—a logjam of simpering cowards making boring and uninteresting games.
When game developers copy other developers’ innovative concepts and make more money than the original developer, stealing is rewarded and innovation crushed. This hurts players because it limits the creativity of the games we play. We find fewer and fewer “Wow! I’ve never seen anything quite like that before!” moments in our games, and more and more “Hm, they’ve made the muzzle flash slightly brighter” moments.
In any creative or technical field, innovation must be protected. It’s the reason (or used to be the reason) why we have copyrights and patents: to protect those daring thinkers who spend the effort, time, talent, and money to create the truly new.
So I disagree with the article’s implication that game developers should be allowed to steal each others ideas with impunity. The law should protect against this, and all gamers should decry it, because it harms both developers and players.
I wondered how the writer of the article would feel about having his hard work stolen, so I went ahead and stole his article. Don’t worry—I changed a few things. That makes it okay.
Why Angry Birds Didn’t Really Steal
So if I think it’s wrong and harmful for game developers to steal each others’ ideas, why am I cool with Angry Birds stealing Crush the Castle’s ideas?
The reason is simple. I don’t think Angry Birds stole our ideas.
Sure, Angry Birds took elements from Crush the Castle. But those elements were hardly novel or innovative. Crush the Castle borrowed from many previous games. Castle Clout is the most obvious example (obvious because the Crush the Castle credits give them a shout-out), but the general idea of allowing the user to smash buildings dates back to Rampage or even earlier.
When I was a kid, my cousin and I would play a game in which each of us would use dominoes to construct a makeshift castle. We’d place an army figure inside the castle as the “king”. The goal: smash your opponent’s castle by sliding a domino into it. When the enemy’s king topples, you win. We were playing this game in the 1970s. No doubt many other kids have had the same idea through the centuries. So the idea behind Angry Birds and Crush the Castle is hardly new.
A few years after this misspent childhood, someone published a physical game called Crossbows and Catapults. It was pretty much the same thing we had been playing. Did they steal our idea? Of course not. They just stumbled across the same concept on their own.
This illustrates the principle I’ve been driving at.
It’s okay to steal a game’s ideas. It’s wrong to steal their innovative ideas.
If an idea is obvious, commonplace or well-established, then it’s fair game. Steal it. If it’s non-obvious, if it’s innovative, if it took work or insight or luck to discover, then keep your filthy hands off it. Let the one who found it enjoy the credit and wealth. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Innovative ideas are valuable and should be honored.
Rovio (the developers of Angry Birds) didn’t take anything innovative from Crush the Castle. They tapped into a broad, rich, ancient tradition of physics-based structure-crushing play. They implemented it well, with skill and charm. And they reaped the rewards fairly.
Now if we had created some truly innovative gameplay feature—a touchscreen joystick implementation that doesn’t suck, for example, or a novel game concept like Cut the Rope or Bumpy Road—and they had reimplemented the exact same feature with minimal modification, that would be different. Them would be fightin’ words. That would harm us and it would harm players. That kind of cloning needs to be hated and stopped. But that’s not the kind of cloning Angry Birds carried out.
And you know, Angry Birds is an incredible phenomenon, but Crush the Castle is a hit, too. We’ve had millions of downloads, we’ve topped the App Store charts. (You should go buy it for your iPhone. There’s an iPad version too.) Crush the Castle has served its makers and players well. I don’t believe Angry Birds did anything to harm that.
No, I don’t feel like suing them. I wish them every success. In fact—hardly anybody knows this—I actually work with one of the Angry Birds programmers, Jani Kajala. He’s a nice guy and an awesome programmer. I hardly ever punch him in the face.
I don’t begrudge Angry Birds. They simply flew in the same breeze for a while, rode the same thermal up to the heavens, though admittedly higher than us. Still, what’s to be angry about?