Justice For Desktop Dungeons

By Alec Meer on January 17th, 2011 at 8:37 pm.

As you may recall, last December saw the frankly maddening news that an alleged rotter had allegedly cloned QCF Design’s most splendid Desktop Dungeons. The goodly chaps behind said ten-minute roguelike were worried they mightn’t be able to do anything about it. Turns out, they could.

League of Epic Heroes – for it is no longer damaging to QCF to reveal the alleged rotter’s allegedly cloned alleged game – has been withdrawn by its author.

While DD is, of course, a PC game, LoEH was an iPhone title that bore a few similarities to it. Just a few. For instance, most of it. QCF Design were planning on a later iPhone version themselves, as well as a Unity-based, massively spit’n'polished update to the PC one, so this clearly presented a rather significant obstacle to their making money.

LoHE creator Eric Farraro, aka the bittersweetly ironic Lazy Peon, had maintained for some time that he’d done nothing wrong, even telling Edge last week (in a must-read investigation by Rich Stanton) that “My formal line is that League Of Epic Heroes violates no law, and that QCF does not have a valid legal claim.”

He admitted, at least, that “Obviously it’s not what you want to be known for. Do I think it’s fair? I would say it’s hard to say. I would say it’s somewhat not really fair. It’s inevitable. Obviously I want to do the right thing.”

Entirely coincidentally I’m sure, he happened to do the right thing just after QCF went down the legal route. In an email sent to them yesterday, which they’ve posted here, he said “Just wanted to let you know that as of today, I’ve removed LoEH for sale in all countries, following the copyright infringement notice I received from your lawyer.

“I apologise for all the issues this has caused, and wish you best of luck on your IGF nomination. Looking forward to the full version of Desktop Dungeons on iPhone.”

Which sort of sounds gracious, I guess. Unfortunately for QCF (whose response post you should read in full), it may have created a new problem for them: “We now have to deal with the fact that there are people out there who have seen LoEH before they were even aware of DD. Yes, this is partly our fault (uh, for not marketing to a user-base we didn’t have a product for yet, I guess) but now we have to conquer that odd first-adopter loyalty just because someone else stole our work.”

Us lot, at least, should get to enjoy the fact that impending update “DD v0.15 blows LoEH out of the water. It’s not even in the realms of comprehensibility to compare the final full version to something that’s not as good as our own alpha. But, when the full comes out, we’re going to be told that we “stole” features from LoEH.” This includes an inventory system, which QCF were apparently working on long before LoEH turned up. Will this duly put them in hot water?

Maybe so, maybe no. For those of us who do know DD was there first, it’s good to see that it’s going to continue, and hopefully gain the prestige and success it deserves. Too many wonderful indie games (which almost invariably start off on PC) get ripped off, and reduced because of it – Canabalt and Death Worm to name but two. Although Canabalt-copying did lead to Robot Unicorn Attack. Hmm. DILEMMA.

I’ll leave you with a salient observation from QCF’s Danny Day: “Cloning is financially riskier than building an original game: You are increasingly likely to have your clone’s earning window cut short through either technological, legal or consumer-awareness avenues. In the end, cloning isn’t about trying to go for the “quick win” and earning a bunch of money you wouldn’t have gotten before. It’s actually about trying to lose slower than the other guy. You don’t have to be a rocket-surgeon to realise that’s a stupid way to try and earn a living.”

So if basic morality doesn’t stop you from cloning, maybe basic business sense will.

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58 Comments »

  1. Lilliput King says:

    Good!

  2. Baboonanza says:

    Not A Shame!

  3. SpinalJack says:

    What about all the mine craft cloners, bet they haven’t owned up to cloning another successful game. The people on the unity forums who’ve made minecraft in unity are partly doing it as an exercise in learning how to produce such a game but I know at least one version up on kongregate without proper credit given.

  4. safetydank says:

    It’s a continuous spectrum, copying vs innovating. If Lazy Peon had used the clone as a starting point for an original game we might be enjoying 2 takes on the genre. Cloning isn’t a skilless task, it takes technical ability. He stopped right at the point that needed game design nous, in all likelihood due to limited resources.

    Contrast this to Jeff Minter cloning Asteroids to kickstart Minotaur Rescue development. Minter developed the mechanics much further, until it developed it’s own character.

    Straight up cloning is wrong, riding on the back of the work of another team. The pity is many software developers hold themselves to the minimal legal standard instead of the ethical one. At least the professional organizations try to set out industry codes of conduct – it’s still the wild west out here in the indie world.

    • bob_d says:

      But if the clone wasn’t as good as the alpha of the original, it couldn’t have been a straight-up clone, but a stripped-down version of the original at best, which complicates the issue. It could only survive because it was on a new platform where the original didn’t exist.
      This sort of game cloning is really only an issue in the indie world; it’s the only place where a game design can be simple enough that wholesale replication is possible, and in AAA games, differences in implementation are sometimes the only thing that distinguishes one game (especially tightly defined genres like FPSes) from another, because they otherwise have the same basic features, concept, setting, art direction, etc.

  5. bob_d says:

    I feel kind of mixed about this; on the one hand, it sucks to have someone lazily clone your successful design in order to capitalize on it; you come up with a smart, popular design only to see someone else make the money off it because they were faster. But on the other hand, there’s a long tradition of clones in the game industry (Hangly Man, anyone?), and plenty of games are minute variations of other games; ideas ultimately don’t count for as much as implementation. How many rogue-likes are there out there, for instance? How many iPhone games are there that are identical in gameplay (but later versions are more popular because of how they’re packaged, e.g. Angry Birds)?
    Unless he was using resources from the original game, there doesn’t seem to be much of a legal case here, which also makes me feel weird. Having someone cave in because they can’t afford to fight a legal challenge isn’t ideal; it smacks of bullying, when Desktop Dungeons should unambiguously be in the right. If their version was so much better, the first-adopter argument seems more about their desire to avoid unfair accusations, but ignorant gamers throw around accusations like that all the time.

  6. Alaric says:

    This is why I don’t make games, movies, music, or books. Because someone can copy them. In fact I think I’ll go write a virus. People can copy that one all they want.

  7. Berzee says:

    Excited for new Desktop Dungeons. Huzzaaaaaaaa

  8. zebez says:

    And this is good for the end users how? Now we have one game less to choose from. Just because he was faster to make the game than the original authors. This is why copyright law is shit, it stops people making cool stuff.

    • bob_d says:

      Copyright law doesn’t apply in this case (you can’t copyright ideas), which is why they didn’t have a valid legal case. The threat of legal action in situations like this only serve to bully someone for whom the cost of a lawyer is prohibitive.

    • Nick says:

      Um, you fail at law and understanding what this was all about.

    • ophite says:

      Bob_D? Now that I’ve finally got my bar results, I can cheerily tell you that, as a matter of law, you are wrong. Both under U.S. law and under the Berne Convention.

      EDIT: Okay. So, that screenshot up top is from an early-build tileset I wasn’t familiar with — the one before Derek Yu worked his magic on the default tiles. I had thought that it was a LoEH screenshot. I’d though there was a direct graphical ripoff, and a 1/1 swap between characters. But I’ll stand by what I said: copyright law still applies. He’d have to rely on the “look & feel” of the interface, not the underlying game mechanics, but while that’s difficult, games with this direct a relationship generally settle rather than risk trial. This is especially true outside the US.

    • Quirk says:

      Ironically, if you want more cool games to choose from, you would -want- the law to hammer the cloners. In this case, they appear to have rushed out what was pretty much a subset of the original game’s functionality, slavishly copied in every respect, in a bid to make money off the creators’ design. If cloners make money, and new creators don’t, the games market fills up with cloners and drains of new creators.

      If you don’t protect the rights of creators of original work, there’s no incentive to be original. Making something new work for the first time is an expensive business. Even with patent protection, many a small firm has had its lunch eaten by a larger competitor, having spent itself on proving their new idea was viable.

      I wouldn’t be quick to bet that QCF had no legal case, though. By the time you’re cloning all the stats of the game, you’re cloning not merely the idea but the expression of the idea – and that, I fear, would get you into hot water in court.

    • bob_d says:

      @ophite: Wait, are you saying that copyright explicitly covers ideas rather than the implementation of those ideas (which seems like an abusive expansion of the power of such laws outside their original intent), or that some other aspect of IP law is actually being used here? I suppose either way, if they had a valid legal case, it’d strike at the heart of game industry practice.

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      ophite: what part of QCF Design’s copyrights do you believe were infringed? Game rules and mechanics themselves are not eligible for copyright (in the US at the very least). Was LoEH infringing on QCF’s copyrights in the graphics or game text?

      From the little (admittedly very little) I know of this, QCF didn’t have much of a case. But then since the creator of LoEH didn’t seem to care to fight it (for whatever reasons), their letter and its (presumed) threat of legal action was enough to make him stop. It’s a common enough tactic, enough though it does smell of bullying.

    • zebez says:

      @Quirk: If the product was inferior to the original, it wouldn’t sell very good. And the original authors could have released their own better one. But no, now we have no game at all instead, and no guarantee any will ever come.
      And if the product was better, how is that bad for the consumer?
      From a consumer perspective more competition is always good.
      And consumers should never care about whether the authors make any money or not, cause the authors certainly do not care about the consumers.

    • Lilliput King says:

      zebez: Not really as straightforward as all that, though. They released their version first, free, on PC. This fella releases his wholesale copy onto the app market (taking all the mechanics [and they're very good mechanics] from that free PC version) before they’ve managed to get their app version to their desired state of polish. The one that comes first will sell better than the real version because the app consumers will mistakenly consider that real version a knockoff. And, well, after you’ve played the game once, why would you buy it again, even if it is better? It’s the same basic game.

      Incidentally, perhaps consumers ought to value studios that produce innovative games over those who produce knockoffs simply because if we do it’s more likely we’ll receive more innovative games rather than more knockoffs.

      Put another way, who cares about caring? I care about games!

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      @Lilliput King: Oh, don’t worry. The app consumers wouldn’t buy it at all.

      They would pirate it.

  9. Mike says:

    Although that logic doesn’t seem to apply to Facebook game dev, so…

  10. DrunkDog says:

    Justice. Just reminds me of that wonderful “The Day Today” sketch:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7zDebveHeM

  11. dadioflex says:

    “So if basic morality doesn’t stop you from cloning, maybe basic business sense will. ”

    Who’s going to explain to Zynga that their business plan isn’t going to work?

    • bob_d says:

      That only applies to indies. If you have lots of resources and more importantly, like Zynga, many, many more users than your competitors, then cloning is great. Zynga can clone a promising new game that’s quickly increasing in popularity, and instantly have orders of magnitude more players than the original game does (and keep them). Same thing for Blizzard – on more than one occasion a new MMO would be announced and they’d proudly show some feature that WoW didn’t have. Before the game was actually released, Blizzard would have added that feature to WoW.

  12. Big Murray says:

    Huzzah!

  13. Lambchops says:

    Good news.

    I’m looking forward to the snazzy updated version of Desktop Dungeons. The current build still sits there tempting me to play a game from time to time. One day I’ll get those pesky tougher unlocks!

  14. Matzerath says:

    A sadder story for the people that made ‘Splosion Man. Their game got ripped-off and put on the App store by … CAPCOM. They aren’t even going to bother and bring litigation into the matter, as they are small, and Capcom is, you know, monolithic.
    Even shittier is they apparently pitched their game to aforementioned big company and were rejected.

    http://blogs.forbes.com/insertcoin/2011/01/13/indie-game-splosion-man-ripped-off-by-corporate-giant-capcom/?boxes=Homepagechannels

  15. jiminitaur says:

    The real problem here is that the LoEH guy is going to cave and let some those crybabies claim monopoly rights on a gameplay format. Maybe if he wasn’t such a Lazy Peon, he would have stood up for whats right.

    Innovative clone or not, he cleaned roomed engineered that product. Unless they can prove he did otherwise, the blood, sweat, and tears (pepsi, cheetos, & pee breaks?) that went into that process at LEAST earn him a spot in the market. Leveraging flimsy copyright claims in an attempt to say otherwise shows that DD crew think that a few good ideas implemented on one platform entitles them to genre exclusivity across the board. The world just doesn’t work that way. It’s first come, first serve, and it’s not my fault if your in the queue for the bathroom instead of the buffet, because you already ate.

    Every Mario Brothers has a Gianna Sisters; it should be up to the consumer to decided if it’s Bros before Hoes.

  16. Malawi Frontier Guard says:

    If I were in charge of QCF I would have just shrugged and continued making fun games instead of having sleepless nights over some guy without ideas cloning a game (seriously, WoW-style graphics?).

  17. fuggles says:

    The edge article is really interesting in that it was written before today and so is not resolved. The closing thought is that this has all come about as the cloner was given access to the game in early beta, from which he lifted the entire mechanic, so should companies now see betas as a risk?

    Copyright or not, the guy has lifted everything from the game and drawn his own graphics, which is disasterous for QCF as when they release the same game in 6 months, who would buy it? That’s why there is not room for two games as there are not two games. It would be like someone launching Cubecraft on the i-phone. My favourite part of this is that the cloner offered QCF an i-pad if they didn’t take legal action!

  18. arccos says:

    I kind of need advice along this route, and I’m wondering what the community as a whole thinks of this.

    I’m planning on maybe porting a few GPL’ed rougelikes to Android and charging a couple of bucks for them. That’s cool as far as the the GPL goes, since owners would also receive access to the GPL’ed source code, and could of course do whatever they want with it as long as its within the GPL.

    Initially, it’ll be the exact same interface as the original roguelikes, with control improvements coming later to compensate for having to use a lousy software keyboard.

    Anyways, is that lame, a worthwhile task, or blasphemy? I don’t expect to make much on it, but it would be fun to do and maybe net me a few bucks.

    • adonf says:

      As long as you don’t break the GPL and distribute the source code I think it’s fine, but if your game is good it should take less than a few minutes for a free copy to appear on the Android market.

  19. adonf says:

    Copying and improving a game’s mechanics is standard in this industry (Yes improving, see the part about inventory). The guy who made Wolfenstein 3D could not sue the guy who made CODBLOPS and expect to win. QCF lose a lot of cool point in my book for their legal bullying.

    The case of ‘Splosion Man is different because these guys pitched their game idea to Capcom, they were in a business relation directly with them. To me this is similar to the situation in the Hollywood movie system where independent writers sell ideas to studios. You can’t sell an idea without telling it to the buyer and yet studios don’t rip off writers (at least not all the time) so there has got to be a reason for this. I don’t know if writers protect their ideas before they pitch them to a producer (I guess that would be part of the contract and the writer’s agent’s job) or if it’s just an industry practice to be honest in this case (the studios can’t afford the writers not to provide new ideas so they need their trust.). Probably the former.

    So where am I going with all this ? Oh yeah: what happened with Capcom is baaaad… The relationship between developers and publishers is bad enough and it didn’t need this. I think that if Twisted Pixel sued them they would have a much better case than QCF would have against Lazy Peon. But of course I am not a lawyer, just a random guy posting in a comment thread

    /rant

  20. Zuu says:

    Now you know how the creators of Rogue feel

  21. Was Neurotic says:

    I paid for my DD ages ago, and I’m tempted to go and buy it again, just as an F.U. to LoEH and everyone who first-adopts in it.

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