From music, to phones, to reality TV, China has built a reputation as the world’s most notorious copycat.
While the government has made some strides in cracking down on piracy in these established industries, the mobile video game industry is seldom mentioned in reports on the state of intellectual property.
That changed this month, when Snail Game released a statement alleging that the popular mobile game The Journey of Flower is a blatant knockoff of its own Taichi Panda.
Based on the popular TV series of the same name, The Journey of Flower was created by Skymoon and promoted by the streaming media site iQIYI. The popular TV series brought the game to fan attention, and it was soon ranked third on the iOS bestseller list.
“We demand Skymoon and iQIYI halt their distribution and apologize. The Journey of Flower should be taken offline and removed from every mobile game channel, otherwise we will file a suit to fight for our interests,” Snail Game wrote in a statement.
In spite of common wisdom, such lawsuits are becoming increasingly frequent in China.
In late 2014, Beijing Chukong Technology was accused of copyright infringement for its mobile game Tianzhijie.
In January, Blizzard Entertainment and Net Ease sued Chengdu Qiyou Technology for plagiarism in its Au Star of Warcraft. The two companies also sued Unico Interactive for the company’s Crouching Dragon Legend, an alleged copy of Hearth Stone.
Theft to Cut Costs
Among domestic mobile game makers, intellectual property theft is typically employed as a cost-cutting strategy.
“Developing a new game is time-consuming and expensive,” said a game developer who refused to be named. “For developers, it’s a brain-wasting process to design characters, content, systems and effects.”
In the journey from pitch to production, most game makers carry out a comprehensive market study to learn about player preferences. Faced with the data, professionals deduce what creative changes would be required to make their game stand out from the competition.
The Chinese market is a highly saturated mess of the good buried under the very bad. Without a highly focused promotion strategy, it’s almost impossible for new games to gain ground in the mobile market.
Intellectual property theft offers one hopeful shortcut. “Once a new game is created, other game developers can copy the model and attract players quickly,” said Yu De, a Baidu columnist.
Yu pointed to TiMi Studio’s Craz3 Match as an example. “The game is in vogue among mobile phone addicts, so you will see various similar games pop up in the blink of an eye. Most have only minor differences in content and setting. The worst just swap the main character,” Yu said.
In a sense, game developers’ success in the mobile market depends less on innovation than speed and marketing.
Few players care who creates the game: most focus on whether the game is interesting or fun. Creators who don’t invest enough in marketing can easily lose their idea to an effective pirate.
For small companies seeking an easy business, it’s worth risking a lawsuit to steal a proven model.
Although game creators strive to safeguard their copyrights, infringement remains rampant in the mobile arena.
Part of the problem is that well executed piracy stands to earn far more than it can lose in a court battle.
Free of development costs and with half the marketing work already complete, imitators can turn a substantial profit on a much smaller investment during the short time their game survives in market.
Even when the original creator brings a lawsuit, pirates face little risk. Typical court battles drag on for at least six months, far slower than the churn of the mobile market. For the pirate, a legal loss is only the loss of a stale product.
For original developers, the slow legal system serves as an energy-wasting and money-wasting fight. In most cases, companies who seek to enforce their intellectual property rights exit the battle as net losers.
But China is slowly waking up the fight against intellectual property theft.
Future of Mobile Games
Though frequent theft remains China’s shame, it is in a way contributing to the industry’s long-term development.
“While I don’t expect Snail Game will win its suit, at the very least they are drawing attention to the problem of intellectual property theft in the game industry using the popularity of the TV series,” wrote an online commentator.
“We are not only looking out for our own interests. We want the whole industry to wake up and fight back,” Shi Tao, the vice president of Snail Game, told DoNews.com.
“If no one faces punishment for this kind of theft, who will have the confidence to develop original games in the future?” he said.