When is it borrowing?

An interesting article on IGN from a developer who has yet to be stolen from got me thinking.  Is there a point where you can say it’s stealing and not simply influence?

Watching Torchlight assets being stolen (along with misspelled file names) seems a rather clear event of theft.  Having Zynga use the same Tiny Tower play style and graphic styles for their Dream Heights game makes me think theft, but more so because Zynga is the one doing it and they’ve done it for every one of their games.  Uniloc suing Mojang for patent infringement though, that’s grey for me.  The entire patent industry is full of trolls just trying to find a big fish to make some cash and Uniloc has done it in the past.

I don’t think you can steal an idea but you can steal an implementation of that idea.  If I drew a black and white anomorphic mouse that talked, you bet Disney would be all over me.  If I drew him blue and pink, I’d be fine though.

In games, certainly there are limitations on the art assets of main characters.  Ezio in Assassin’s Creed and Marcus Phoenix are identifiable and likely people won’t try copying them.  But the secondary characters in both games are stereotypes that you’ll find in many others.  If I had 1000 characters in my game and took 200 of them from another – straight copy mind you – would that diminish the quality of my game?  At what point does it?

WoW made it’s success from being able to take existing systems and improve upon them.  They certainly innovated with the LFD/LFR tools and in-game flight but every other system clearly existing in another game first.  Rift further improved on those systems with dynamic content (to some degree) but it still used the same systems.  TOR is the same.

Back to the original story.  Borderlands is an amalgam of FPS and RPGs that has yet to be replicated.  I think it’s fair to say that it had success as 2 years later, the game still has a fairly solid multiplayer going on.  It’s surprising to me that no one has attempted this model again.  There is certainly some money to be made.

Perhaps there isn’t a defined line for theft and inspiration.  Maybe it’s up to the people to decide when it’s clear theft (Torchlight), system inspiration (Tiny Tower) and trolling (Mojang).  It sure does make for an interesting read.

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