‘Splosion Man vs. MaXplosion: On Imitation, Cloning and Ethics

‘Splosion Man and MaXplosion — two games, one concept. That’s the stance of Twisted Pixel, the guys who created ‘Splosion Man and called out Capcom Mobile over the release of the similar but iPhone-bound MaXplosion.

The two games aren’t just remarkably similar, they’re basically the same. Both are platformers in which the main character has the ability to create explosions. These explosions are used to propel both characters through the air, to bounce off walls, and to trigger explosives for greater lift and speed.

Both carry “par times” for each stage, both have one hidden object to find per level, both are about science experiments escaping the scientists that are experimenting on them. It’s pretty clear that MaXplosion isn’t just inspired by ‘Splosion Man, it’s a replication of the game with a tweaked art style, on a different platform.

It’s ridiculous, and it shows some pretty rough things about the gaming industry as a whole and mobile gaming in particular, where this kind of thing happens all the time. For one, Twisted Pixel doesn’t seem to be planning to attempt any legal recourse for the apparent plagiarism, mostly because they could potentially get outspent and otherwise squashed by the much bigger and better-equipped Capcom. While Capcom came forward with a release not quite apologizing for the development (and denying the insinuation that Capcom stole the idea after Twisted Pixel brought ‘Splosion Man to the company for publishing), a minor PR statement expressing “sadness” over the situation isn’t the same as rectifying it.

Now, it’s fair that neither ‘Splosion Man or MaXplosion are extremely original. Both borrow liberally from other gaming conventions, as do most games available today. More than probably any other entertainment industry, just about every game is built on the shoulders of games that came before them, and new games are more about expanding what’s already out there than creating something wholly new. But “similar” isn’t “same”: Guitar Hero and Rock Band are awfully similar, but each offers at least a slightly different experience.

But in most sectors, one game company can’t just flatly rip off another. Gamers and game journalists pick up on the similarities quickly, so they get called out. A game that takes too liberally from another game is always worse than its inspiration, as well — so basically, all stealing from another company really gets you is a worse game of which people make fun, comparing it to its better counterpart while also faulting you for not creating an original product.

Then there’s mobile gaming, a market that has exploded and is thick with terrible clones of decent games. Wander around for a few minutes on iTunes and you can find about two billion games that slightly tweak the Angry Birds formula, or worse, just remake it — most recently there’s Bullistic, in which Millipede Creative Development attempted to do their own take on Rovio Mobile’s famous bird-slinging game. That one’s at least free. But there are plenty of other examples of games in which various animals are shot from a slingshot at a structure filled with things that need to be smashed. The pictures on the screen are different; the gameplay is the same.

In the App Store, the issue is that there are about a million little developers who can quickly whip up a game and get it pushed through to the marketplace. Apple lets it happen — doesn’t matter to them whose copyrights are being infringed so long as they’re making money off everyone — and one would assume that small-time developers don’t have the money or energy to try to take on so many imitators. LimaSky, the creator of the uber-popular Doodle Jump, made an attempt to protect its copyright by hassling everyone who makes a game with “doodle” in the name. The Internet rose up and slapped the company around a bit in terms of public relations because of what many players saw as LimaSky overstepping, and all those potential trademark claims have been dropped as a result.

Basically, it’s a horrific legal quagmire. It’d be a pain for anybody to fight a video game copyright claim — good luck proving your concept is original while the other guy’s isn’t — so it comes down to ethics, really, as well as an idea of what you can get away with.

Seems to me, Capcom Mobile thought that in the App Store, they could get away with blatantly stealing another company’s game, giving it another coat of paint. They were right, and except for some public backlash, the consequences are minimal. MaXplosion continues to be on sale in the App Store, and as “sad” as Capcom might be about the situation, they’re not turning down any money. The “sad” part probably relates a lot more to being caught.

That makes me sad, too. Video games are constantly fighting stigma in the mainstream about somehow being a lesser medium than other forms of expression, and here we have a big player in the industry in Capcom pretty much stooping to IP theft to make a quick buck.

Obviously the corner-cutting is a testament to what the company thinks about mobile games and their players, and maybe about players in general. It’s not okay to rip off anybody’s work and creativity — even if you’re “just” making an iPhone game.

‘Splode everything up real good using our full text and video walkthrough.

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