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A video game clone is either a video game (or series) similar to, or inspired, by a previous popular game or series. Usually the term is derogatory, implying a lack of originality and creativity; however, an intentional clone may be anything from a "ripoff" to an honorary homage to its exemplar. The accusation of a game being a clone carries the implication that its developers or publishers try to profit off of the exemplar's success. It may even take the form of an allegation of plagiarism or fraud, which could be taken to court.
Cloning a game in digital marketplaces is common. It is hard to prevent and easy to compete with existing games. Developers can copyright the graphics, title, story, and characters, but have more difficulty protecting software design and game mechanics. A patent for the mechanics is possible but expensive and time-consuming.
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Within the field of video games, popular game concepts often lead to that concept becoming incorporated or expanded upon by other developers. In other cases, games may be developed with clear influence from one or more earlier games. Such derivations are not always considered clones though the term may be used to make a comparison between games. As copyright law does not protect gameplay concepts, the reuse of such ideas is generally considered acceptable. Games like Tetris and Breakout inspired many games that used similar core concepts but expanded beyond that; the Breakout-inspired Arkanoid itself inspired many other clones that built upon its unique additions to Breakout. Gameplay elements of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat became common gameplay elements in the fighting game genre, A large number of games that tried to capitalize on the success of the 3D adventure game Myst were grouped as "Myst clones". Some video game genres are founded by archetypal games of which all subsequent similar games are considered derivatives; notably, early first-person shooters were often called "Doom clones", while the success of the open-world formula in Grand Theft Auto led to the genre of GTA clones. The genre of endless runners is based on the success and simplicity of the game Canabalt. In these cases, games that are "clones" of another are generally not implied to have committed any intellectual property infractions, and otherwise considered legally acceptable practices, although calling such games clones is generally considered derogatory.
True video games clones occur when competitors, on seeing the success of a video game title, attempt to compete by creating a near-copy of the existing game with similar assets and gameplay with little additional innovation; developer Jenova Chen compared the nature of these clones similar to plagiarism in which there is little attempt to distinguish the new work from the original.BYTE reported in December 1981 that at least eight clones of Atari, Inc.'s arcade game Asteroids existed for personal computers. The magazine stated in December 1982 that that year "few games broke new ground in either design or format ... If the public really likes an idea, it is milked for all it's worth, and numerous clones of a different color soon crowd the shelves. That is, until the public stops buying or something better comes along. Companies who believe that microcomputer games are the hula hoop of the 1980s only want to play Quick Profit." Video game clones are seen by those developing them as low risk; knowing that a game or genre is popular, developing a clone of that game would appear to be a safe and quick investment, in contrast with developing a new title with unknown sales potential.
Such cloning of video games initially bore out from arcade games, buoyed by the success of that sector during its "golden age" in the early 1980s. Cloning would continue as home video game consoles became popular, and in part, the number of clones being produced and saturating the market were considered part of the reason for the video game market crash in 1983. A new resurgence in cloned video games came with the rise of social network games, typically which were offered as freemium titles to entice new players to play.
More recently, the cost, ease and simplicity of the tools needed to develop mobile games has made cloning in that sector a significant problem. For example, Flappy Bird had been cloned dozens of times due to programming code clearinghouses offering templated code to which others could easily add their own art assets. The creators of Threes! spent 14 months developing the game and tuning its mechanics, but the first clone was released 21 days after Threes! and the original was quickly overshadowed by 2048, a clone that was developed over a weekend.
In 1981 Atari, Inc. warned in full-page advertisements "Piracy: This Game is Over", stating that the company "will protect its rights by vigorously enforcing [its] copyrights and by taking appropriate action against unauthorized entities who reproduce or adapt substantial copies of ATARI games", like a home-computer clone. In present-day law, it is nonetheless held that game mechanics of a video game are part of its software, and are generally ineligible for copyright. The United States Copyright Office specifically notes: "Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles." The underlying source code, and the game's artistic elements, including art, music, and dialog, can be protected by copyright law. In the United Kingdom, "neither a game's 'look and feel' nor its mechanics are protectable", according to Nicolas Murfett, a legal associate for Harbottle & Lewis, while the European Union has yet to come to a resolution on the matter. As an alternative, some elements of video game software have been protected through patents or trademarks.
It is generally recognized in the video game industry that borrowing mechanics from other games is common practice, and their widespread use would make them ineligible for legal copyright or patent protection. Courts also consider scènes à faire (French for "scenes that must be done") for a particular genre as uncopyrightable; games involving vampires, for example, would be expected to have elements of the vampire drinking blood and driving a stake through the vampire's heart to kill him. Up until 2012, courts were reluctant to find for copyright infringement of clones; attorney Stephen C. McArthur, writing for Gamasutra, said that courts opted to take a more lax view to balance innovation in the industry and prevent overzealous copyright protection that could have one company claim copyright on an entire genre of games.
A shift in legal options for developers to challenge clones arose from the 2012 federal court decision that ruled in favor of the Tetris Company, the owners of the Tetris copyright, over the clone Mino which used the same gameplay as Tetris but with different art assets. The developers for Mino has cited in their defense that they only used the uncopyrightable gameplay elements of Tetris in Mino. The court ruled that copyright law was in favor of the Tetris Company's claim, as the gameplay was copied without changes, and while the art assets were new, the "look and feel" of Mino could be easily confused for that of Tetris. This decision serves as case law for other developers to fend off "look-and-feel" clones. Similarly, SpryFox LLC, the developers of the mobile game Triple Town, successfully defended their game from a clone, Yeti Town, developed by 6Waves, through court settlement after the judge gave initially rulings in favor of SpryFox; these rulings suggested that there was copyright protection on the gameplay mechanics despite drastic differences in the games' art assets, though other factors, such as prior agreements between SpryFox and 6Waves, may have also been involved.
Other notable legal actions involving video game clones include:
More recently, with the popularity of social and mobile game stores like Apple's App Store for iOS system and Google Play for Android-based systems, a large number of likely-infringing clones have begun appearing. While such storefronts typically include a review process before games and apps can be offered on them, these processes do not consider copyright infringement of other titles. Instead, they rely on the developer of the work that has been cloned to initiate a complaint regarding the clone, which may take time for review. The cloned apps often are purposely designed to resemble other popular apps by name or feel, luring away purchasers from the legitimate app, even after complaints have been filed. Apple has released a tool to streamline claims of app clones to a team dedicated to handle these cases, helping to bring the two parties together to try to negotiate prior to action. While Apple, Google, and Microsoft took steps to stem the mass of clones based on Swing Copters after its release, experts believe it is unlikely that these app stores will institute any type of proactive clone protection outside of clear copyright violations, and these experts stress the matter is better done by the developers and gaming community to assure the original developer is well known, protects their game assets on release, and gets the credit for the original game.
Another approach some companies have used to prevent clones is via trademarks as to prevent clones and knockoffs. Notably, King have gotten a United States trademark on the word "Candy" in the area of video games to protect clones and player confusion for their game Candy Crush Saga. They have also sought to block the use of the word "Saga" in the trademark filing of The Banner Saga for similar reasons, despite the games having no common elements. Within the European Union, one can register for a European Union trade mark that includes multimedia elements, which would allow a developer or publisher to trademark a specific gameplay element that is novel from past games, providing a different route for them to protect their work from cloning. For example, Rebellion Developments filed to register its "Kill Cam" mechanic as a trademark from its series Sniper Elite in October 2017, though as of February 2018, the application is still being reviewed.