Copying another game has been a time-honored tradition in game development. You can go all the way back to the beginning where Pong beget numerous Pong rip-offs, Space Invaders lead to Galaxian, Pac-Man lead to Devil’s World, and Mario/Sonic lead to a bazillion different mascot platformers to see the proud tradition of stealing game ideas. And stealing game ides exists for a good reason; game design is often an iterative process and it’s cool taking a neat game mechanic borrowed from another game and tweaking and expanding it on your own. Without such liberal uses of copied game design the evolution of certain genres would have never happened.
Yet two separate games/incidents have brought this practice of borrowed game design to the forefront of discussion. First is the release of EA/Visceral Games’ “adaptation” of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (unsurprisingly) called Dante’s Inferno which is heavily-inspired by the God of War series. And second is the now-pulled iPhone game Trundle which noticeably lifts a lot of influences from the Nicalis/Nifflas’s unreleased WiiWare title Night Sky.
With Dante’s Inferno its clear that in many ways this is an original game. No one would ever confuse the aesthetics of Dante’s Inferno with the God of War series. The setting, the graphics, the visuals and sounds are all completely their own. The thievery in this instance is one of gameplay. Every review of Dante’s Inferno has unquestionably noted the same thing: outside of a few minor tweaks to the combat system Dante’s Inferno fundamentally plays the same as God of War. From control layouts to action combos to even the same annoying button-mashing necessary to perform minor tasks it becomes evident that Visceral Games goal with Dante’s Inferno was to ape God of War.
And for this sin Dante’s Inferno is being punished by the game media. Both the negative and positive reviews for the game have commented on the lack of originality of Dante’s Inferno and this more often than not has helped sour the reviewer on the game as a whole. It’s one thing to copy another game, but to copy and not surpass the original as Dante’s Inferno seemingly does makes the transgression that much worse. And while big-budget titles in recent years haven’t been known for their desire to push originality and innovation the shamelessness of Inferno’s copying seems to be a step too far for even the most cynical player.
While the connection of Dante’s Inferno and God of War is mostly beneath the surface the case of Trundle and Night Sky is about copying what’s on that surface. While the gameplay of both Trundle and Night Sky are quite similar the base premise of platforming with a rolling ball is one that isn’t original or unique by any measure. It’s the effect of combining similar gameplay with obvious stealing of the unique visual style of Night Sky that makes the thievery by the developers of Trundle clear.
Understandably there has been a bit of an uproar over the entire affair. Indie games are also in a bit of a unique situation here. It’s not unheard of indie games to borrow concepts and mechanics from other indie games (think of how many physics platformers or bullet-hell games exist). But to steal another game so directly and especially when the theft is perceived to be taking away the livelihood of a very popular indie figure once again is a step too far. Even the Mobile Bros. – the developers of Trundle – seems to have realized so and have since pulled the game from the App Store and released it again with modified visuals.
With both of these games it’s clear that gamers and developers can only tolerate so much unoriginality before rebelling. It’s not that stealing game ideas is bad by itself as many of the best games in the industry at one point or another started off as clones. But at a certain stage during development they went above being a mere clone and took those stolen ideas and made them their own. With the backlash its clear both Dante’s Inferno and Trundle never took that extra step.