Rooting for Goliath

Clones war


Before departing for a trip last week, I decided to load a few new games onto my iPad. I was in the mood for some Diablo-style dungeon crawling, so I hit the app store and took a look around. Not surprisingly, mobile game devs have produced many titles in the Diablo vein, and the most popular is a game called Dungeon Hunter, released by Gameloft. I bought it, played it, and it was fine - a generic reproduction of Diablo with wonky, but manageable touchscreen controls. It scratched an itch.

Curious to peruse the Gameloft catalog, I paid a visit to their website, and...well, well, well. Gameloft makes clones. Lots of them. A certain perverse madness set in, and I began downloading one after another, eager to see just how far this studio has gone to mimic the most popular franchises and genres.

Here's a taste of what I found. Gameloft titles on left; originals on right










Dungeon Hunter



Order and chaos

Order & Chaos Online


World of Warcraft


Zombie Infection


Resident Evil

Eternal Legacy


Final Fantasy




Grand Theft Auto

BOF (3)

Blades of Fury


Soul Calibur

Shadow guardian

Shadow Guardian




Sacred Odyssey


Legend of Zelda

It doesn't stop with these. Gameloft has produced clones for God of War, Brain Age, Tony Hawk, Hot Shots Golf, Modern Warfare - and the list goes on.

On one hand, I'm not terribly troubled by Gameloft's strategy. My own situation is a prime example of why it works. I wanted to play Diablo on my iPad, and, lacking alternatives, I found something close enough to satisfy me (for an hour or two anyway), and with a cheap pricetag - no small factor. If I want a Zelda-like experience or a GTA-like experience, Gameloft has something to fit the bill. None of these clones have impressed me, but they're not shoddy knock-offs. To Gameloft's credit, they're professionally produced, and just good enough to deliver genre-specific facsimiles of the originals.

But there's more to the story. Gameloft doesn't just produce games inspired by popular franchises; they develop facsimiles that mimic - no, I'm going to use the proper term here, rip-off - the games they're based on in ways that extend beyond genre and mechanics.

As the images above illustrate, Gameloft's clones are whole cloth derivatives of aesthetic elements like character design, art style, user-interface, and even color palettes. No art is wholly original; we all create from the inspiration of others. But these copies aren't simply inspired by their originals. They appropriate the creative work of artists and designers and re-purpose them with mostly cosmetic changes.

What the images above don't convey are the uncanny similarities in music, dialogue presentation, and story. When you meet the hero of Zelda-clone Sacred Odyssey, you won't be surprised to learn he's asleep and must be awoken to embark on a great journey...after doing chores on a farm, retrieving a sword/shield, and locating his horse.

I don't know much about business and industry, where small alterations from an original can protect one against accusations of infringement. I've made my career in the arts, where we take such obvious thefts quite personally. It's one thing to borrow a staging idea or a plot device; it's quite another to reproduce an entire production concept, throw on an eerily similar title (Gameloft's knock-off of COD:MW is called Modern Combat; its God of War is called Hero of Sparta), and peddle it as your own.

I realize nothing is simple, and I don't begrudge the hard-working developers at Gameloft their right to make a living in a tough, competitive market. While their expanding catalog contains many clones, Gameloft also produces licensed games, like the mobile version of Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6.

Maybe gamers don't care about these things. Gameloft's profits are booming, so it would seem their strategy is working. Maybe I'm missing something here that I ought to consider more carefully. I don't know. Having purchased or demoed nearly a dozen Gameloft titles in recent days, I confess to feeling a little dirty. I just can't feel good about supporting such a parasitic strategy for developing games.