The line between infringement and inspiration is often a blurry one, but especially so where the mobile games industry is concerned. Mechanics are borrowed, art styles mimicked, and the pressure of a “fast follow” culture is bound to encourage more than a little unhealthy borrowing.
China’s mobile gaming market is perhaps the most notorious for this, with heavy fragmentation and very little means of going after copyright infringers, piracy is frequently cited as one of the greatest fears for western developers entering the market.
But in truth, the problem is industry-wide, so when Korean developer 4:33 came under fire this week for some not-so-minor advertising infringement, it prompted us to look at the copy-catting and Korean culture. [Thanks to Kotaku]
Dark Souls Copyright Infringement
It was a netizen on the Korean forum, Today’s Humor, that first noticed the striking resemblances between the mobile blockbuster Blade and the popular console/PC franchise Dark Souls. First, the trailers seemed to have some extremely similar scenes:
And their subway advertising felt a little borrowed as well:
4:33 blamed the mishap on the advertising agency hired to run the promotions, telling Gamemeca in an interview that “There is a clause in our contract with them saying the agency will fully be responsible if there is any third party copyright violation. We’ve sent the agency a legal note saying they’ve damaged our image.”
Still, some netizens are commenting that it’s the advertising and trailer that are a problem, but that 4:33 tried to ride the coat-tails of Dark Souls with their whole game. But how grievous is their copy catting really?
Aesthetics and Mechanics
When we talk about plagiarism in games, there are really two separate, but related,problems. The first is the copying of art and design, the second is copying the core game mechanics themselves.
The problem in the game industry is that the majority of games all do this to some extent. Even if we agree to not discuss the rampant cloning of Flappy Bird, there are plenty of other examples. Candy Crush, when it comes down to it, is just slightly different version of Bejewelled. Hay Day is Supercell eating Zynga’s lunch. Korean companies have not been shy about doing this either.
Gamevil’s Epic Raiders was a near mechanical clone of Mika Mobile’s Battleheart.
A skim through the Korean Google Play store and you will see it populated with similar match 3s, runners, and sim games that all feel a little similar in one way or another.
But this points to a problem in the industry as a whole, not just with one developer. It’s a symptom of a fast-follow culture where games are created with a “what works” mentality, producing only a narrow band of originality and creativity.
Which is why when artistic styles are copied, it feels like a much more grievous trespassing. The mechanics are already going to be similar by the nature of the industry, so when the aesthetic looks just a little too similar, it seems as though the line is being crossed too far.
So did Blade rip off Dark Souls artistically?
In terms of the game itself, I think not. Skeletons shooting arrows, and knights fighting the undead is a horse carcass this industry has been kicking around since its inception. But there is no denying that the trailer and advertising were copied.
**Update** Below are a couple of game play videos to compare Blade against Dark Souls. As you can see, Blade is a much brighter game, and one that is based primarily on wave clear, with little narrative. Dark Souls on the other hand, has a darker atmosphere and is much more in depth than Blade.
I think we might be able to shed a little light on why the advertising campaigns look so similar, and the answer is probably not one you are expecting: movie posters.
A Culture of Copy-Catting
Not too long ago, it was reported that around 30% of Korean film posters may be ripping off from foreign film posters and album covers. Creative agencies site advertisers who become fixated on design concepts inspired by other foreign posters as a major source of the problem, but the problem truly runs a bit deeper than that.
For decades Korea has enjoyed a perfect environment for copying intellectual property. With a relative lack of popularity compared to China and Japan, Korean companies have been able to copy others while staying off the radar. This is partly because there exists a mindset that copying successful companies is, not only normal, but part of what it takes to become successful yourself. Even if a product from the west was being plagiarized, the chances of anyone noticing were pretty small, and the chances of them caring all that much equally so.
But, particularly recently, that is becoming less true. The constant political tensions, influx of foreigners teaching in Korea, the hallyu wave, and efforts by the Korean government to export Korean cultural content have all helped to shine more light on the country.Some people couldn’t help but notice that a lot of things looked… similar. Korean companies have been accused of copying everything from underwear, to electronics, and even restaurants. The similarities are often far too glaring and the problem is one that is going to need to be addressed.
Bad for Mobile Game Industry
Thankfully, 4:33 is taking action in this case and has already sent legal notice to the advertising agency they used to run the campaign.
The extent to which we allow any game to borrow concepts from another, whether its mechanics or aesthetics, may be up for debate, but cases like this have to be acted upon swiftly, particularly in Asia. China has already created a bad reputation for piracy that has caused western developers and publishers to be wary of the markets in Asia in general (though less so with Japan). If Korean companies allow this kind of plagiarism of foreign content to go unpunished, there is a risk in pushing potential investment away.
Tell us what you think
Do you think Blade borrowed too much from Dark Souls as a game? Was it just their advertising and trailer that crosses the line? Where do you think the line is on inspiration and infringement? How do we deal with these problems in a fast-follow industry? Leave your comments below and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!