Clone Wars: What Copycats Really Do To The Social Games Industry

Yesterday, Backyard Monsters developer Kixeye sent a letter to press representatives claiming that Kingdoms of Camelot developer Kabam “copied our game” with its upcoming title, Edgeworld. Kixeye is calling for action on the part of the social games industry — but it’s not clear what action anyone should take.

Backyard Monsters is a real-time strategy game released in May of 2010 where players harvest resources to construct a base that eventually produces different types of monsters. These monsters can be sent out to attack other players’ bases, thereby netting more resources. When the game launched, it had a gender neutral art style with arguably “cute” monsters. Since that time, Kixeye has retouched the art for more “male” appeal and added a series of gameplay tweaks and new features that enhance the RTS elements of the game.

Edgeworld is a space-themed real-time strategy game in development by Kabam that’s been live on Facebook in “evaluation mode” since June. Kabam has asked us to withhold detailed descriptions of the game’s mechanics as part of a reviews embargo. In the open letter to the social games industry, Kixeye CEO Will Harbin claims that, “There is no question that the engineers of Edgeworld had Backyard Monsters open in one window while they coded the copy in another.” Included in the letter is a side-by-side comparison of the two games (Backyard Monster on the right):

When asked for comment on Kixeye’s accusation, Kabam CEO Kevin Chou replied to all press outlets with the following statement: “Our team draws ideas and inspiration from many sources, including movies, pop culture, science fiction, literature, history and, most importantly, from our players. We’re flattered by the fact that others in the industry are commenting on Edgeworld. It validates our belief that Edgeworld is a great game worthy of attention, and we’ll have more to share about the game soon.”

The question for us is a two-part affair: 1) When do we call it “copying” as opposed to “drawing inspiration” in social games and 2) what impact does copying really have on the industry?

The first part is a subjective argument. When Backyard Monsters was first released, our ISG reviewer compared it to established PC strategy games Envoy and Civilization. When Kabam’s Kingdoms of Camelot was released in 2009, it was also compared to Envoy and Civilization. One could argue that all strategy games — be they real-time or asynchronous — will be compared to other strategy video games dating all the way back to 1992 PC game Dune II. Some mechanics implemented in certain games, should they prove effective, will consistently turn up in future games made by other companies because that mechanic is vetted for developers and trusted by players. The same holds true for other game genres on Facebook, which is why its very easy to spot similarities between Gardens of Time and Mystery Manor in the hidden objects genre and between Empires & Allies and Army Attack in the asynchronous combat genre.

“It’s a bit of a gray area,” Harbin admits to ISG. “You kind of call it when you see it.” Even so, he says, Kabam very clearly crossed a line in developing Edgeworld. “There are just way too many similarities between the games to call it a [game that used Backyard Monsters] as a starting off point. Users have come to us to ask if we licensed the Backyard Monsters engine to Edgeworld. Some of our users are even asking us for support on it. That’s a pretty compelling argument that it’s [too] similar.”

Even if you could call a game a clone without a second thought, it’s not something that can immediately dismissed as a bad thing. From the traffic and revenue perspective, clones have actually performed quite well on Facebook. Take, for example, Restaurant City and Cafe World. The games looked identical at launch and both went on to achieve monthly and daily active users in the millions. Both games are still running almost two years later at or above 20% retention. Other clone-heavy genres like farming sims and aquarium games are still getting new entries that reproduce identical game mechanics to the earliest titles and those games have usually found traction. Most important of all, Facebook has no rules against copying and only a handful of larger game developers have ever publicly pursued legal action against other developers perceived as copying its games. It’s usually Zynga doing the suing or the one being sued.