From Pong to Flappy Bird – Copying and Genre Building in the Games Industry

re:publica 2015


The fine line between imitation and inspiration in computer game development has been a cause for conflicts since the beginning of the medium. Especially in the dynamic and competitive mobile games market, where game developers try to simultaneously out-innovate and out-clone each other, the issue has intensified. This talk presents a research project amongst German game developers on the tension between imitation and innovation and the shared social norms and strategies they mobilize to deal with this issue.


Imitation in computer games has been an issue since the beginning of the medium. Even the launch of the first commercially successful game, Pong, brought two developers into conflict, as Atari was accused of having stolen the idea of electronic Ping-Pong from Magnavox.

Many disputes followed, both outside and inside court. For example, in 1988, Data East sued Epyx for copying their game Karate Champ, and in 2009 Xio was accused of making a Tetris clone. Recently, there also have been many cases of alleged cloning, such as Threes and Flappy Bird. It turns out that the complicated nature of games makes it nearly impossible to legally protect all of their elements.

In today’s games industry, frictions and conflicts seem to ever increase. Especially in mobile game development, where the low barriers for creating and publishing games as well as their immense popularity amongst broad audiences cause a flood of - at least at first glance - similar games.

Developers face the challenge to create games that provide a certain familiarity in order to be playable and enjoyable on the one hand, and sufficient innovation and deviation to differentiate them on the other. Therefore, they heavily rely on and are inspired by proven genre conventions, interface designs, and graphical styles. Yet, there is also the need to combine known elements in novel ways or to add elements in order to create new experiences. Thus, rather than producing something radically new, innovation in games to a great extent consists of remixing and re-interpreting existing elements and principles. Strategies to deal with this differ amongst subsectors and disciplines.

In this talk, we will present a research project on innovation and imitation in the German games sector, conducted at the Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society. Based on interviews with Germany-based game developers, this presentation addresses different strategies that actors in the sector apply to cope with this situation.


Dienstag, 5. Mai 2015 - 14:45 bis 15:15