Plagiarism as a moral choice

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Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work, but the notion remains problematic with nebulous boundaries.

The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to “copy the masters as closely as possible” and avoid “unnecessary invention.

The 18th century new morals have been institutionalized and enforced prominently in the sectors of academia and journalism, where plagiarism is now considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics, subject to sanctions like expulsion and other severe career damage…

Plagiarism is not a crime per se but is disapproved more on the grounds of moral offence…
-Wikipedia’s entry on Plagiarism

Thought: Most professional game developers are also professional plagiarists

Here’s a quiz for all the game developers who are reading:

  • Do you follow the rule of thumb “90% familiar, 10% fresh”?
  • When you look at the game you are working on is there a direct comparable?
  • Do your designers say “For that feature let’s model how X did it” and consistently refer to the same pre-existing game?
  • Is your primary reference a game considered original or innovative in the last 3-5 years?
  • Is your primary philosophy of design “I could totally make a better version of game X”
  • Do you copy mechanics and assume that adding different content such as levels or graphics makes your game unique?

If you follow these patterns, you are likely a plagiarist. To rewrite the industry’s golden rule in the language of other arts, “90% is plagiarized and 10% is remixed to give the illusion that the player is engaged in an original work.”

This lazy and morally offensive practice has become a social norm within our incestuous industry. We don’t even consider that there might be alternative method of developing games. We are the equivalent of the western world before the suffrage movement. Or the South before the civil rights movement. We look at our current derivative behavior, acknowledge that it is harmful and then proceed to dogmatically justify its continued pursuit based off economic, legal, historical and short-term selfish reasons. Yet the fact that ‘everyone does it’ fails to provide a strong moral foundation for an act that diminishes our industry and damages the minority that strive to create original works.

Where plagiarism differs from evolving key innovations of the past

It is a common practice to include individual mechanics inspired by previous games. This is a natural part of the creative process. Plagiarists, however borrows systems en mass. They takes not just the movement mechanic from Zelda, but the flow of the dungeons, the majority of the power ups, and the millisecond by millisecond feel of the game.

Game designs are very close to a mechanical invention.  The rules, interface and feedback systems all create a reproducible set of player dynamics.  Think of a game as an invented ‘fun engine’ that when placed in front of a player yields delight and mastery.

Developers go through a few stages of invention when building games.

  1. Copying a design. Most programmers make a simple copy of an existing functional game as part of their learning process.  You copy everything including interface, levels, scoring and more. You don’t understand why the game works so you replicate it in the hopes of blindly capturing the magic. You may change out the art, but otherwise it is the same game. 
  2. Modifying an existing design. Usually this involves just playing with existing parameters or content.  You might add a a triple shotgun and new levels to your Doom-clone.  You still don’t understand the game, but you can play with safe variables like narrative, level design or theme that are unlikely to ruin the value of the core mechanic. Warcraft is a classic example of a modification of the original Dune 2 RTS design. 
  3. Adding to a design. Taking the core fun engine and add something to it. Think of this as adding a turbo charger on an existing car.  Sonic took Mario and made the main character much faster.  In the best games this results in a cascade effect throughout the entire design that requires you to rethink content, pacing, scoring and more. 
  4. Synthesizing a new design. Take multiple disparate parts and put together a new game that has unique dynamics. A game like PuzzleJuice is a great example of a synthesized design that takes elements from Tetris and Boggle.  To many players, it feels like a brand new games built out of familiar pieces. 
  5. Inventing a design. Using a variety of sources of inspiration, create a new fun engine that is unique and new to the world. 

The early stages of copying are an essential process that all students of game design should undertake.  As a learning activity, there isn’t a lot of money in creating master studies, but it is a respectable pursuit along the path to self improvement.  As long as students cite their inspiration and refrain from competing directly with the original creator there is little conflict.

The later stages of invention are risky, difficult work.  There’s an immense amount of experimentation and failure.  Even the simplest game inventions (such as Tetris or Lemmings) were the result of years of diligent labor by master designers.  There aren’t a lot of these people, yet they bring immense amounts of joy to the world.  They deserve to profit from their inventions and in general players are excited to spend their money on new, delightful games.

The plagiarist is someone who wants to shortcut the process of invention. They decide that it is cheaper to copy as much a possible so that the dynamics of a previous game are preserved. Then cosmetic tweaks are applied and the copy is sold as a new thing by an original creator. Changing out the graphics or giving the game a new plot are the most common tweaks because they are easily decoupled without damaging the delicate dynamics of play.  When you look at the games released on the market, you can easily see that there is a spectrum of theft.  The most blatant plagiarists are those that steal the most and innovate new mechanics and dynamics the least.

The economic and human cost of plagiarism

By cheaply creating games without needing to pay the cost of research and invention, plagiarists are able to quickly release games into markets that the original innovator has not fully addressed. Clones therefore capture value that would have otherwise eventually accrued to the original innovator. For example, clones of Minecraft that reach XBLA earlier tap unmet demand and reduce the audience for Minecraft when it eventually releases there.

On first blush, consumer advocates might imagine that this is a fine situation. They get a product they like faster and as the population of plagiarists merrily plagiarize one another, you end up with an explosion of quality choices.

Consider how this effects the original source of the innovation. While the overall market may be larger, the original innovator is left naked with no protection that lets them recoup the cost of the initial invention. There are few legal protections for game inventors. There is only the stark reality that many smaller independent developers, the life blood of innovation in our current markets, are blindsided by a blast of competition that they lack the development resources, distribution agreements or business expertise to successfully compete against. The plagiarists capture the majority of the market, establish well known evergreen brands and the original innovators are at best a footnote.

As a result of this tragically common feedback loop, those inclined to innovate are discouraged from innovating in the first place. Why innovate when it costs you money and doesn’t yield the competitive advantage you might hope due to the nearly instantaneous influx of copy-cat competitors? It may look like a better business option to simply join the plagiarists and avoid the whole expensive innovation thing in the first place. It is no surprise that the game industry tends to have a large number of evolutionary works, but fewer genre-busting founder works.

The plagiarist’s ‘make a buck at any cost’ attitude directly results in a creatively stagnant industry long term.  You don’t need to look far to see concrete examples of these dynamics in action. Note how quickly the cartoonishly mercenary plagiarism-focused culture of social games turned a bright spot of burgeoning innovation into an endless red ocean of clone after clone within a mere handful of years. Such a wasteland fails to grow the market and ultimately leads to less consumer choice.

Plagiarist pride

There is of course skill in plagiarizing well, just as there is skill in forging a famous painting. To be a professional plagiarist is laborious work. I acknowledge this. We’ve developed a whole subculture of designers that specialize in the subtle arts of copying the work of others. A ‘good designer’ is one that excels at ‘researching comparable games’. They steal with great care from only the best. They also excel at ‘polish’ which has been warped to mean the skill at reverse engineering a comparable game so that the copy feels identical down to the smallest detail.

The current industry put such skills on a pedestal. We hire for them and we pay top dollar for reliable execution. Yet at best, these are the skills of a journeyman, mechanically copying the master works of past giants.

If you stick to doing only this, there’s a pretty clear career path. You end up as a wage slave. Typically such laborers are hired by businesses that couldn’t give a damn about pushing the craft of game design forward. Instead, the goal is another product for another slot on either the retail shelf or the downloadable dashboard. Grind it out, worker bee. If you can copy a past hit by the flickering candle of midnight crunch, your family gets its ball of rice for the day. This is the entirety of your creative worth. If you go to sleep each night thinking “I’m a hack, but at least I pay the bills”, you deserve pity. And you need to contemplate the quiet whisper that maybe you don’t need to spend your entire career diligently copying others.  Remember when you were a sparklingly original creative person?  Remember when you wanted to change the world? Remember that time before you compromised?

Plagiarism is a moral choice

We live in an economic world.  Yes, you need to eat. We also live in a legal world.  There is a rather low minimum bar for our behavior. But as creators and artists, we can each choose where we put our creative energy. What we create has a moral and emotional component that is perhaps more important for both our mental health than any paycheck. To be a plagiarist and to stay a plagiarist is to waste your very limited time on this planet. What amazing things could you be making if you didn’t spend so much time slavishly copying others?

What’s the alternative? Why not start up a small prototyping project? Knock a genre down to its most basic element. Give yourself constraints so you intentionally do not replicate games of the past. Rebuild your game from that simple foundation, borrowing elements from the entire breadth of game history. Finish a game that has a half dozen influences from widely disparate games that in the end create a player experience that is uniquely yours. This is how you stop being a plagiarist and start becoming a master game designer.  There is still time to create something amazing and new.

take care,
Danc.

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58 Comments

  1. \”Most (though not all) of these comments make me sad. Just because there is a fuzzy line between wholesale copying of the majority of innovative systems in a game and being inspired by a key concept does not mean that the line doesn't exist. That's just looking for loopholes and ignoring the argument being made.\”I disagree. A \”fuzzy line\” is a contradiction in terms. You're talking about a continuum, but using the language of absolutist, black-and-white thinking. It's a pretty common mistake when talking about something you feel strongly about. It's still misleading, so when you get comments that are misguided, you shouldn't be surprised.I don't think there's anything wrong with copying as such. If there were, nobody would be able to use Experience Points as such. You distinguish between \”copying\” and \”evolving\” a design, but the stages you've outlined are idealized. Most developers will go through them out of order, visit some of them repeatedly, others never. If, in the attempt, they end up with a World of Warcraft to some other game's EverQuest, are they plagiarists or just \”evolvers\”? There is no particular feature of WoW's design that EQ didn't do first, but the implementation was more competent. Same deal for Saint's Row to Grand Theft Auto. Same deal for Okami to Zelda.You'd say that those are evolutions and not copies. Ain't that just because they're good? Saint's Row looks and feels a lot like GTA, but it's got some extra character customization and convenience features that turned out to make the game a lot more fun for some people. Okami is Zelda with a much more interesting art style and, well, different items than usual. These games are derivative, and they don't really try to hide it, although you won't find citations within the game as such–if you want to argue for that, I'm with you. But if you're arguing that excessive derivativeness is unacceptable, then you're casting a wide net that will also include a lot of honest attempts to make an Okami to some old Zelda, but which happened to fail.Maybe your anger would be better directed towards business practices like those of Zynga, where the alleged developer doesn't even hire designers as we know them, and \”outsources\” that work to some guy like yourself.

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  2. This is an interesting article and discussion on a subject that I have been researching for the boardgame community for some time, with the hopes of publishing an article by the end of the year.It certainly is nothing new in the boardgame market, either, and the majority of designs fall into the varying shades of gray area between \”incomparably innovative\” and \”plagiarism\”, with only a few examples of the extremes every few years. Charles Darrow borrowed heavily from Elizabeth Maggie's \”The Landlords' Game,\” for example, and other popular board games such as Sorry!, Ludo and Parcheesi are simply variants of the 1500-year-old Indian game Pachisi (interestingly enough, the makers of the German variant of the game, Mensch aergert dich nicht!, were claiming that these other versions were plagiarism of their design).The problem with the grey area is that most designers who start pointing the finger there will, very suddenly, find that fingers can justifiably be pointed back at them. As an example, it has been brought to my attention during my research for my article that Steambirds was designed after the developer played the board game Wings of War at a convention, and borrows heavily from that design. I would be interested to hear your comments on that, and also, on the topic of borrowing from different types of media (analog to electronic, or electronic to analog), and how that can also be a form of disguised copying.I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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  3. Steambirds is very much part of a genre of games involving radial movement stretching back at least 20 years or further. A good question to ask is if there is a single source. Neither WoW nor Steambirds can claim to be the first of this odd little sub-genre. Nor will they be the last. If you compare Steambirds & Wings of War (which I still haven't played…I tend to blackbox my design process) you'll see that the movement system, damage resolution system, interface for controlling the planes, the pacing, scoring and various powerups are different. Are there similarities? Certainly…both are turn-based aerial combat games with radial movement. To put that in context, chess is a turn-based ground combat game with grid-based movement. Lots of options are possible there without being a copy of chess. The same goes with radial movement; it is a broad and poorly explored design space. I do like to think that Steambirds added a number of things new to the mix…in the context of this article, it is somewhere between stages 3 (adding) and 4 (synthesis). I certainly wouldn't call it a grand new invention. Evolution of designs is a natural part of how our industry improves and riffs off games. However, while it is fine to stand on the shoulders of giants, the moral designer will use this progress to reach for new heights. It is worth noting that while there is indeed a gray area that many love to wallow in, plagiarism is typically a wholesale lifting of systems. When you can actually match up numbers between two games and they work identically, there is a clear issue. take care, Danc.

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  4. Hello.Being the designer of Wings of War, I first heard of Steambird when a gamer for a British boardgame club wrote to tell me about such a similar game. You had told that one day Andy Moore played Wings of War at PAX and then showed you the prototype. This gamer suggested that we could then get in contact so that you could directly license the boardgame for a fully faithful online version. I forwarded the suggestion to my publisher.Of course I first checked Steambirds and I found that the turn-based sequence, the absence of a hex- or square-grid (even a concealed one as I used in an old dogfight videogame of mine), the use of arrows for planned paths, the presence of a cone of fire (not so natural for fixed forward-firing machineguns that should just fire straight), the lack of hit point localization (most boardgame simulation localize hits to wings/fuselage/tail/engine instead than keeping them in a common pool as WoW and as SB seems to do), the special damages, the lack of altitude made it feel a steampunk version of WoW mor than of any other boardgame.True that examining any game you can probably say: for this mechanic, the designer choosed the same solution of the designer of Game A. For this other mechanic, of the game B. For this other, of the game C. Hard to invent anything really new. This is what I also found in your invitation to finish a game with \”a half dozen influences from widely disparate games\”. In interviews and speeches, I actually quoted many boardgames as sources of inspirations for this or that detail of my game. But with SB, many designer's choices that could had several different solutions reminded me in the end of WoW (a declared source of Andy's inspiration by the way) instead than of other boardgames. Even in points where WoW went against the mainstream solutions chosen by other air simulations. I also had the feeling that if I could see SB's internal mechanics, for example how damages are assigned with each shoot, more similarities could most probably come out.Of course I suspected that my opinion could be biased, being personally involved, but I quickly noticed that I was not the only one to feel that way. I saw unknown boardgamers starting to post the new of SB's reelease around with comments as \”SteamBirds plays like the basic rules game of Wings of War\”, \”For those that like Wings of War here is a nice flash version of the game\”, \”a flash game which…oh let's be nice and say that it's ''heavily influenced'' by Dawn of War\” (being the name of WW2 Wings of War), \”A bit too much like Wings of War\”, or directly calling Steambird \”Online Wings of War\”, just to quote the first comments I have at hand in English.To make it short, I find similarities between WoW and SB going quite further than just being two \”turn-based aerial combat games with radial movement\” as you say. Using your own words, and from what I read around, to many players SB feels more like a \”close imitation\” than \”a brand new games built out of familiar pieces\”. I am glad that you are now supporting the cause of sparklingly original creative persons, but with the release of SB I must say that its staff built a quite different images of itself. At least to the eyes of several gamers.Regards,Andrea Angiolino

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  5. Hi Andrea,Andy has written that Wings of War was an influence for his initial prototype. There was also a radial racing game he has mentioned in the past (also a board game) that was also an influence. Credit where credit is due. But we shouldn't stop there. Steambirds was also fundamentally influenced by the digital realm: Snake (the way that the gas trails work), the bombs of Every Extend Extra, and spline movement comes from research into on-object UI. The visuals and feedback systems hearken back to overhead shooters. Whatever Andy brought to the table changed quite substantially from the initial prototype. Adding an analog spline-base movement to a game all about movement tends to do that. As far as I understand, despite the thematic similarities, Wings of War does not have this as its base. As an aside about how complicated game lineage can get, a little history. Wings of War seems to have come out quite recently in 2004. A digital game called Critical Mass by Sean O’Connor actually bears a far closer resemblance to Steambirds (including all the 'unique' properties that you ascribe to Wings of War) came out in 1995. There are also a half dozen games in the genre including Crimson Skies (1998) and some horse racing and space-based variants from even earlier. Sadly, neither I nor Andy played these other games before or during the development of the original Steambirds. As I’ve mentioned, I tend to black box my design efforts and avoid playing anything vaguely similar. That way there is ample opportunity for the design to naturally diverge. I was shocked to see how similar Critical Mass was since it uses the same key UI innovation as Steambirds despite neither of us knowing about the game. I wouldn't have believed it unless it happened to me, but there is such a thing as parallel invention in game design. It is a very strange feeling to remember the exact moment of thinking up the movement system for Steambirds and to have spent multiple iterations getting it right only to find out that someone else had come up with the same solution 15 years earlier. Sometimes, even when you are hoping for divergence, there are common solutions to common problems. With all this past history in mind, why do players claim that Steambirds is like Wings of War? If I understand correctly, WoW is the most popular board game in the genre released in recent years. People have a classic tendency to ignore differences and rely on simile for describing games. Triple Town for example is both 'like Bejeweled' or 'like Farmville' depending on who I’m talking to. For people who have only played Wings of War, it is the closest predecessor they can imagine for Steambirds. I do try to be open about my development process and my influences. Ideally this note helps shine some more light on the past. Success always has many parents and I think you should be proud of the influence that Wings of War has had upon the genre. I hope however that you do not bear an ongoing grudge due to the belief that Wing of War was the only or even the predominant influence on Steambirds. It was not. BTW, JeffinBerlin asked earlier about the transfer of designs between board games and computer games. James Ernest and I have been chatting about this lately. My personal opinion is that it is far, far harder than one might imagine. Computer games are very much toys where pacing, simulation, feedback, progression and interface issues dominate. Even when games are mechanically in the same general universe, a strict boardgame port tends to not do as well as one that is reimagined from the ground up for the computer. All the best, Danc.

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  6. Thanks for your detailed answer. WoW has been designed in February 2002, and released in March 2004. I am proud both of the many variants developed by the fans and of the influence it had on several other games (starting from when it was showed to would-be publishers at the Gama fair in March 2002, more than from its actual release date).Some side notes that could contribute to the matters you talk about in your article. Please believe that I know about parallel developement, I even experienced it when both Domnique Ehrhard with Jumbo and me & P.G. Paglia (with Winning Moves) released a boardgame about Ulysses in 2001. Both with the basic concept of having only one pawn to move in the game: usually in boardgames each player has his own, but in these cases all players are gods and move the same toward different goals. Same identical concept in his Odysseus and in our Ulysses (but of course pretty different developements). If we were not sure that Mr. Ehrhard did not see our prototype in some publisher's booth when the prototype had been showed in previous fairs, and he being sure about us, it would have been a real problem (and still some heated words came from our agent to Jumbo, that actually saw and tested our game – but that's another story).In this case \”parallel\” is a perfect metaphore, as far as timelines are concerned. Both Ehrhard and us worked at the same time, without crossing each other until the end. With the past I think that it is a less working image, lacking simultaneousness. To avoid \”parallel\” developement with a previous product, I have quite an opposite aptiutude than your \”black box\”: my strategy is historical research. I understand the desire not to be influenced, but I fear more the risk to go unaware on somebody's else path, especially when – after deciding to go in a general direction, some decisions could become quite natural. As you say, \”common solutions to common problems\”. So before designing my air combat games (Wings of War is the sixth after three boardgames, a web-based game and a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook) I did actually a study and a comparation of previous boardgames. A small part of this even appeared on the Italian Air Force magazine in the '90s. In this way I can see which solutions are similar to those of other games and which diverge, and so I can also honestly say that my design is different enough from previous games while \”borrowing elements from the entire breadth of game history\” and having \”a half dozen influences from widely disparate games\” to use your words. While I have always tried to check previous games when working on a new project, this year I have even seen this kind of practice suggested by the SAZ (the Germany-based Game Designers Association) in its \”Code on Matters of Intellectual Property Rights\”: \”Before a designer presents his game to a publisher, he/she should have made sure to the best of his/her knowledge and belief, that no other game on the market is alike or similar in its essential elements\” then suggesting to contact designers of previous comparative works if discovered. You can see it at https://www.spieleautorenzunft.de/newsreader-en/items/with-the-code-on-matters-of-intellectual-property-rights-the-saz-wants-to-achieve-better-fair-play.html if you are curious.[To be continued]

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  7. One point that could probably be interesting to dig deeper is my impression that boardgamers have a better memory than videogamers. You wonder why why do players claim that Steambirds is like Wings of War. Well, some of the comments I quoted about WoW as a clear derivation of WoW come from http://www.boardgamegeek.com (and there are several more I did not quote). Here there are still many fond players not only of Crimson Sky but of such games Blue Max (1983), Dawn Patrol/Fight in the Sky (1982/1966), Ace of Aces (1980) and other similarly themed games, besides other pre-plotted movement ones. I can agree that casual players can comment about similarities just thinking to the last success, but if in such a community all comments quoted Wings of War and no other games when announcing Steambirds, I'd suspect that there is actually some ground for that and it is not just a matter of short memory or last impressions. More details on BGG itself, where I saw that you posted too:https://boardgamegeek.com/article/10004278#10004278As for your final note, I agree that usually a strict boardgame port to computer tends to not do as well as one that is rethinked for the new media – Civilization is a good example, having had both and with the second being the one reaching big success. But it is also an example of how a derivative computer game can owe so much to the boardgame that inspired it. Anyway, I see several recent successes of boardgame quite strict portings and I hope that more will follow.Back to WoW and SB, and to make it short, I will only add that I appreciate the spirit of the article you posted in this page. But the past tendency of your team not to quote sources and to minimize the consequence of cloning did not win my sympathy. I had no problems to name the games inspiring my work in articles and interviews, whie I see SB's roots usuyally quoted as \”obscure boardgames\” at best. Besides Andy' reticency to name them, I also noted a post on his blog where he admits that his earliest tech-test prototypes were indeed very much boardgame clones, but that this is not a serious problem since they were several years old and they had a realistic, non fantasy settings:https://web.archive.org/web/20111229185048/http://www.andymoore.ca/2011/08/the-third-cloning-of-steambirds/Of course I can not disagree more with him – if I will find time and will, I'll probably post an answer to him too. Nobody is responsible for his co-designer's opinions and I can see quite a big distance between yourt arguments and his, but overall I think that you can understand why I can have some cold feelings toward Steambirds.

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