Chi-Coder: The Business of Game Development

I read Reddit a lot, and over the last couple of weeks a fellow developer posted two articles (here, and here) about some recent trouble he’s had.  I’d recommend giving them a read for yourself, but here is a quick recap…

The writer is an iOS developer who created a fairly simple but interesting game.  Instead of self-publishing, he contacted a well-known iOS publisher and submitted his game in hopes that they would publish it.  The publisher declined and he was disappointed, which is where the story should have ended.  A few weeks later, the same publisher posted a virtually identical game on the app store.  The writer’s claim is that this publisher solicits game submissions from developers as a means to steal ideas, replicate them, and publish their versions.

Not a bad looking iOS game!

My first reaction to reading this was to be furious on behalf of the developer.  I work hard to create games that I think are cool, and I wouldn’t want anyone stealing my stuff. So I can imagine how this guy feels, and as I read it I started to seethe with rage.  People stealing other people’s work is the lowest of the low; the scummiest, most lowlife business practice one can engage in.  I believe it’s wrong, and I feel bad for the developer, but there is another side to this story…sort of.

As Reddit tends to do, it played devil’s advocate, offering some very interesting opinions.  First off, stealing ideas isn’t illegal (as long as they’re not patented).  However scummy I may think it is, there is no way to prove that they weren’t having the same idea for the same game at the same time as the developer.  But the developer’s product wasn’t an idea, it was a full-fledged product.  Let’s talk about the difference there.

Virtually everything is stolen, when you think about it.  Final Fantasy is just Dungeons & Dragons which is just Lord of the RingsCall of Duty is Medal of Honor which is Wolfenstein.  Pepsi is Coke.  Wendy’s is McDonalds.  Hell, every comic book movie ever made is basically the same as the last one.  Obviously, my comparisons are exaggerated, but that’s the point.  Final Fantasy is most certainly not Lord of the RingsCall of Duty certainly takes queues from other games, but I think we can all agree that it’s still definitely its own franchise.  Innovation is theft, for the most part.  What’s more, I think most would agree that even though Wendy’s and McDonald’s are nearly identical in concept, their food is different in practicality.  Wendy’s food tastes different than McDonald’s.  Sure, they both primarily serve hamburgers and fries, but that stuff is prepared in very different ways.  This is a fact that no one seems hung up on…ever.  My point here is that most products can trace their roots back, in some form or fashion, to similar products.  In some cases, the new products aren’t even innovative, they’re just variants.  Pepsi isn’t an innovation of Coke, it’s just a slightly different flavor.  Copying ideas may not be the most upstanding activity, but it’s reality, as evidenced by nearly everything we consume.

Very different products, clearly.

To me, the question isn’t whether or not the publisher who stole the idea (assuming they did) are scumbags, it’s whether or not the developer should have known better.  Almost everything we see is a derivative of some other thing.  As a general rule, if you don’t want your product to be copied the next day it needs one of two things (preferably both):  It has to be difficult to copy either in concept or creation, and/or it has to be polished and presented better than anyone else’s version.

Microsoft Windows has its issues, but creating an OS is complex enough that the market isn’t flooded with them.  Complexity of concept, in action.  By contrast, the iPhone isn’t the only smart phone available, but Apple’s presentation is the best in the business.  So again, your idea better be complicated, or your execution flawless.  I shared these thoughts with my wife and she was profoundly upset by this, as am I.  She argued that stealing is wrong, and that the developer shouldn’t be the one being lambasted.  I agreed but stressed that regardless of our feelings, the truth seems be that the market is a cold mistress.  The market only cares about profit, and if it can turn a profit despite our distaste of it’s methods, it will.  A very sad, but very evident truth.

It sure looks pretty.

Go back and analyze the market for almost any product created over the last 200 years and you’ll typically find the original, and then the plethora of copies.  Henry Ford created the first car, but is Ford the only car manufacturer today?  Obviously not.  Furthermore, did Henry Ford himself design and engineer all of the pieces that made up the car?  I’d bet not.  In fact, somewhere in the unwritten annals of history there is probably some genius in a barn literally inventing the automobile.  Henry Ford comes upon this guy, sees an opportunity and seizes it, which is why we remember his name, and not the inventors, just like Mr. Nugget (NSFW).

This is a blog about video games though, not cars or hamburgers.  The reality of the video game market (especially the mobile market) is a bit different than those other markets.  Up until about the 1950’s, you could probably copy someone else’s ideas with relative anonymity.  For instance, as long as McDonald’s hadn’t set up shop in your city, you could start a chain there and most people would probably think that you invented the “drive-thru”.  Nowadays, the internet, TV, and smartphones make it easy to reach everyone instantly.  The world is your market now, not just your local area.  Instead of taking months or years to copy your idea it takes weeks or even days.  The developer from the articles was operating in the exact same market as the thieves.  They didn’t just copy his idea, they copied it then rubbed his nose in it, while they laughed all the way to the bank.

I understand this guy’s anger.  Writing this article makes me mad.  The problem is, game development has become a market with an extremely low barrier-to-entry financially, so anyone with a good idea, the willingness to do a little hard work, and a relatively common skillset can make a game.  This is a massive problem for indie devs because while there are more opportunities, there are equally as many opportunities to be swindled.  Most of us aren’t MBAs, and we don’t spend hours poring over market research and statistics.  We’re just trying to create something cool and make a few bucks.  There are others though; those who see the Flappy Birds and the Minecrafts of the world, those who wish not to create but simply to replicate and profit.  They’re the ones willing to steal your idea, step on your throat, and get paid the whole time.

This particular developer isn’t wrong for being angry, nor is he dumb or a bad person.  He’s simply the most visible example of the current (sad) state of our marketplace. We can no longer simply be creators.  We must, however stomach-turning, also learn to be business people.  Making games can be incredibly profitable, and with profit comes profiteers.  They’ll take every idea and every dime from us if we let them.  So we have to evolve; we have to become smarter than them, or we’ll end working day-jobs for them.  I, for one, do not welcome our new overlords.