A brief history of plagiarism

One of the great ironies about the videogames industry's powerful and often-voiced objections to copyright infringement is that, of course, the entire industry was built on a foundation of that very thing. Almost everyone in charge of a games publisher today started off engaged in the production of unlicensed clones of old arcade games like Pac-Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Frogger etc.

Fig.1 - Unashamed ripoffs.

(Often, so shameless was the copying that the publishers wouldn't even bother to change the name. Later they decided that to foil trademark laws they'd cunningly change just one or two letters - hence Phoenix would become "Pheenix", Galaxian would become "Galaxians" or "Galakzian", and so on.)

As time went on and the industry matured, it started to clean up its act slightly. Ocean's 1984 conversion of Hunchback is widely thought to be the first instance of a legitimately-licensed home computer version of a popular arcade hit, and from then on blatant unlicenced ripoffs started to become the exception rather than the rule.

(Interestingly, Ocean, who had published an unlicenced Donkey Kong clone in 1983, later went on to release an all-new, officially-badged conversion three years later, licencing the game from an uncharacteristically forgiving Nintendo. As far as we can tell, this is the only instance in gaming history of a company publishing both unlicenced clones and official conversions of the same game.)

Fig.2 - Slightly ashamed ripoffs.

All this meant, however, was that developers and publishers started to find sneakier ways of ripping off the work of others. Most boldly of all, a coder called Harry S Price specialised in slightly rewriting existing titles and selling them as his own work, sometimes even under the nose-thumbing "Pirate Software" label. (A detailed breakdown of Price's works and where they were swiped from can be found on this page, originally hosted at the currently-offline cl4.org.)

Well-known figures in even today's games industry got their start in a similar way. For example, the first known published work of Martyn Brown, currently director of Worms publishers Team 17 (Worms itself, of course, being an unlicenced, uncredited updating of a 20-year-old game) was a game called Henry's Hoard, which was produced by hacking the code of Matthew Smith's classic Jet Set Willy and rejigging it to make a "new" game - obviously without any crediting of, or sharing the royalties with, original creator/coder Smith. (A somewhat technical breakdown of how this fact was uncovered can be found here.)

Developers also sought to get round the problem of having good ideas by continuing to copy them from arcade games, except this time by choosing obscure arcade games almost nobody had heard of, and covering their tracks by giving the games entirely new titles rather than using the original name with one letter changed. This tactic was widely used in the 16-bit era by Amiga and Atari ST publishers (Core Design, of Tomb Raider fame, started out by producing Amiga games like Car-Vup, an uncredited copy of Jaleco's 1985 arcade title City Connection), but slowly the practice died out - a process which was accelerated by the growth of emulation, which made videogames history much more accessible and hence such ripoffs a lot harder to get away with - and it's very rare these days to see professional software publishers releasing unlicenced, uncredited clones of someone else's game.

Or at least, it used to be.

Ocean's Kongs (1983 and 1986 versions): the games industry has a brief outbreak of morals.

The growth of the internet, and the rise of the mobile phone as a device for gaming, have brought the practice of disinterring old videogame corpses, painting a hasty disguise on them, and flogging them as your own work, back to life with a vengeance. The web is awash with unlicenced clones of other people's games, being sold commercially by professional publishers without either credit or payment to the original authors. These aren't games which are a bit similar to existing titles - we're talking absolute 100% ripoffs of all the design ideas and gameplay mechanics, with a few cosmetic tweaks hastily pasted on top in an attempt to justify what is in fact a straightforward case of barefaced plagiarism. Or, if you want to use the more common term for the unlicenced commercial use of someone else's intellectual property - piracy.

Unlicenced clones highlight a curious fact in the attitude of both gamers and the games industry towards piracy - namely the fact that it seems to get less offensive to people the more brass-necked you are about it. For example, take these three diverse approaches to the selling of other people's games for profit:

 - Sell other people's games for money on a pirate's market stall or a "warez" website, and the games industry (along with many gamers who've swallowed some of the industry's endless propaganda and rhetoric on the subject) regards you as a deadly cancer to be wiped out with all the force it can muster, setting the full weight of the law against offenders and gleefully recounting their prison sentences on its websites.

 - Put those same games on a nice, professional-looking DVD, however, and sell it in a High Street shop (such as the case of the totally unlicenced "Classix" CD compilations of old Amiga, Spectrum and other titles which your reporter unwittingly purchased from his local HMV a couple of years ago - which actually carried HMV branding on the box artwork - and which are still openly and illegally sold on the web at staggering prices, eg 68 for a DVD full of pirated Amiga games), and you're a respectable businessman who'll be left alone by ELSPA and their chums to coin in the cash.

 - But if you're really smart, then what you do is completely rip off other people's ideas and implementation, sometimes even lift the actual graphics and sound straight out of their games, but present it as your own work without the slightest credit to the people who actually invented it. Far from hunting you down with its merciless packs of lawyers, enforcement agents and Trading Standards officers, the stupid old games industry won't just let you make profits, it'll actually give you awards.

Above: the award-winning 2003 independent game Zuma Deluxe, from Popcap Games.
Below: Mitchell Corporation's 1998 coin-op Puzz Loop. Spot the difference.

When World Of Stuart drew attention to a similar incidence of for-profit plagiarism in 2003, your reporter was mildly surprised to see that many coders, as well as a sizeable minority of gamers, didn't appear to think the cloners had done anything wrong. Indeed, some indie developers made venomous personal attacks against your reporter, and some even went so far as to issue violent threats - not against the plagiarists ripping off other developers' work, but at the person who'd reported it. (Ironically, when they become the victims of such behaviour themselves, their view changes somewhat.)

The actions of the plagiarists are even more contemptible when viewed in the light of the coders who work to revive the games of the past in an entirely more honourable manner. Remake developers such as Retrospec and PeeJay's Remakes spend months at a time recreating vintage games with updated graphics and sound (and often additional gameplay features), but rather than claim them as their own work and try to sell them for profit, they openly admit that they are other people's designs, produce the games under their original titles, usually obtain the creator's blessing, and then give the finished work away for nothing.

Above: Retrospec's beautiful, properly-credited and free remake of  8-bit classic Head Over Heels.

World Of Stuart could spend many hours listing only the most blatant unlicenced ripoffs of other people's games which are currently being openly sold to PC and mobile-phone gamers by clone publishers as original releases. However, since it's hard for WoS to name and shame the guilty without actually advertising their plagiarised products, it won't bother. The details of the website charging 70 quid for a disc of old Amiga games, however, have been sent to ELSPA's Anti-Piracy Unit, so we'll see if they can find some time in their busy schedule of persecuting non-profit emulation sites and small-time market traders to take action against people who've been boldly and openly making an ostensibly-legitimate business out of it. Keep an eye on WoS for news of any developments.

You may also like to watch for the outcome of the recent lawsuit launched by Sega against Fox/Electronic Arts, the makers of The Simpsons: Road Rage, a blatant copy of Crazy Taxi which is still less of a clone than a great many of the "independent" titles this feature is concerned with. (Sega's suit is actually concerned with a specific patent rather than general plagiarism issues, but should it get to court, the judgement could well set a precedent.)

And in the meantime, if you want to play Puzz Loop on your PC, then buy the Playstation version - which actually costs less than the PC clone - and run it on an emulator (because emulators, even though the games industry hates them and spends infinitely more time trying to crush them than on trying to stop the commercial plagiarism of its members' works, are perfectly legal). And you're really determined to play it illegally, then World Of Stuart recommends that you go and download MAME and the arcade ROM file, because at least that way you won't be lining the pockets of a bunch of ripoff merchants.

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