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Great Boardgames - digital ripoffs
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
Alberta
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The past year has seen an explosion of board and card game implementations for the iPhone and iPad. Many are officially licensed and have the full support of the original boardgames' designers and publishers. But some lurk in the shadows, selling under alternate names and never acknowledging the source material from which they were built let alone paying royalties to their original inventors and appropriate rightsholders.

This geeklist is my attempt to explore the ethics surrounding that latter type of implementation and how we view and interact with them as a community of boardgame enthusiasts. Please add to the list and share your thoughts in the comments.
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Popular Tags: Copyright_Infringement [+] Piracy [+] copyright_FUD [+] Imaginary_Property [+] App_Store [+] [View All]
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1. Board Game: Two by Two [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:3118]
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
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First a bit about me and the biases I bring to the table. I'm a boardgame designer and Two by Two, released this past October by Valley Games, is the first of my games to be published. If you're curious, check out this really cool review on Wired.com. And yes, there's a digital version pending although currently not for the app store.

As a designer, I own the intellectual property that I create. If someone were to release an unlicensed version of my game, I would consider it theft. I dream of someday being able to make my living, either full or part time, as a boardgame designer. Lost revenue on digital versions makes that dream harder for me to achieve.
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2. Board Game: Scrabble [Average Rating:6.36 Overall Rank:1139]
Rob Bartel
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I'm also a 12-year veteran of the video game industry so I'm very familiar with the digital side of the equation. I work for Electronic Arts who, among many other things, develops digital versions of Hasbro's boardgame titles on a wide variety of devices, including the iPhone / iPad. I don't work in that particular division, however, as my focus is instead on role-playing games.

Regardless, one of the interesting cases is that of Scrabulous, an unlicensed Scrabble clone on Facebook. It was an excellent implementation, gained millions of fans, and was really at the forefront of what games could be on that platform. Hasbro filed a high profile lawsuit against the developers to pave the way for an official implementation by Electronic Arts. The lawsuit ended up being settled out of court after Scrabulous was renamed and modified to make it less like Scrabble. The official EA implementation of the game was initially fairly weak so the vast majority of fans continued to play the unlicensed, revised Scrabulous and were very critical of the lawsuit - pundits called it a horrible PR blunder. With time, however, EA improved the official game's implementation, eventually overtaking Scrabulous's usercount. Subsequent implementations of the game on other platforms have proven very popular.

So does a superior implementation justify supporting an unlicensed version of a game? For a lot of Facebook users, it clearly did although for the initial period it must be said that no officially licensed version existed. Would Scrabulous have become as popular as it did if the Scrabble board game had never existed? Clearly not - people who played Scrabulous thought of it and referred to it as playing Scrabble online. They were leveraging the board game's hard won popularity and success to drive their own.
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3. Board Game: The Witcher: The Adventure Card Game [Average Rating:5.65 Overall Rank:8386]
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
Alberta
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Another interesting example is Polish video game company called CDProjekt. If I have my facts correct, they started as a pirate operation that cracked computer games, translated them into Polish, and then resold them or distributed them for free within the Polish market. It wasn't long before some forward-thinking publishers actually sat them down, signed some proper licensing deals, and helped them go legit. We ended up working with them on the officially licensed versions of "Baldur's Gate" and "Neverwinter Nights" for the Polish market and they did an excellent job. We even licensed our "Neverwinter Nights" engine to them at some very favorable rates so they could develop and release "The Witcher" (which was in turn an officially licensed game based on a popular series of Polish fantasy novels). That then spawned an officially licensed card game. And so the wheel turns.
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4. Board Game: BattleLore [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:148]
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
Alberta
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What prompted me to create this geeklist, however, was a recent report on Purple Pawn extolling the virtues of a $3.99 iPad app that's clearly an unlicensed clone of Battlelore by one of the friendliest designers in the industry, Richard Borg:

Quote:
The game play is identical to Richard Borg’s Command and Colors system. You have a left flank, center, and right flank that your units play on. You’ve got 3 classes of units: fast but weak, well balanced, and strong but slow. The only things that Battlelore has that Viking Lords doesn’t is Lore and Lore Masters.


The article goes on to heartily recommend the app and even adds the now-standard disclaimer that the developer had provided them with a free copy of the app for review purposes.

I don't know what appalled me more - that a popular industry news site such as Purple Pawn would be actively encouraging their readership to give money to an intellectual property thief or that said thief would have the gall to give review copies out to such sites in the first place. Clearly, in our excitement over new technology and platforms, we've allowed a certain wild west lawlessness to take root and be considered normal.

I'm well aware of my own biases but, even so, I was surprised by how out of step I seem to be with public opinion.

UPDATE: Purple Pawn has posted a new preface to the app review that prompted this geeklist:

Purple Pawn wrote:
UPDATE: A fellow Pawn, Richard Bliss, just got off the phone with Richard Borg. Apparently Richard hadn’t even heard of Puffin Software or Viking Lords, and was quite shocked to see his game so blatantly ripped off. Richard is going to look into how to pursue legal action. Purple Pawn in no way condones the actions of Puffin Software.

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Rob Bartel
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I'm not the first one to come up with a list like this, of course, and I recommend following the chain of links to further discussion. It ultimately leads to a 10-page monster thread about the legalities and ethics of creating your own hand-crafted versions. Personally, I'm not as concerned about people hand-crafted their own versions for personal use. As a designer, I know how much effort a hand-crafted prototype can take and I know that it's a labor of love.

I feel that people begin to cross the line when they enable mass production of that personal-use version. Even posting print-ready files to the 'Geek is cause for concern (note that I'm not referring to player aids or enhancements of different sorts but to full-fledged replacements for the game in question). This gets one step worse once they make those files readily and conveniently available for manufacturing on a site like ArtsCow (nothing against ArtsCow and other print-on-demand manufacturers - as a designer, I make frequent use of them myself). To start charging money and actually profiting off of the unlicensed product is even more offensive. Doing that in the digital space becomes even more damaging due to the fact that there's no iteration cost - for many games that don't have the backing of large companies like Hasbro and EA, the existence of a digital ripoff can significantly hamper or even eliminate the possibility of an official version even being released.
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6. Board Game: Hey, That's My Fish! [Average Rating:6.83 Overall Rank:467]
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
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Some argue that the existence of an unlicensed digital version is actually good for a game because it introduces it to new audiences and generates more interest and sales of the original product over time.

That logic breaks down, however, in cases where the ripoff goes under another name, applies a different art & theme, and fails to acknowledge the original game, its designer, or its publisher. The clone of "Hey! That's My Fish!", for example, disguises itself as being about bees crawling over a honeycomb. That sort of subterfuge a far cry from free marketing and the only people who will see the connection will be those who are already familiar with the original game - anyone else would be oblivious.

If an enthusiastic app developer wants to expose a great board game to new audiences, the proper way to do that is to approach the original designer and publisher to obtain the rights and reach an agreement. You'll find that most designers and publishers are eager to have their games out there in digital form and will happily assist with the art, branding, and marketing. In many case, particularly if you're not attempting to directly profit from the product, they won't even charge royalties or licensing fees - they understand the marketing value of having an officially licensed version out there.
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7. Board Game: BANG! Wild West Show [Average Rating:6.76 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.76 Unranked]
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
Alberta
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To sum up, the iDevice app store, much like Facebook before it, is pretty analagous to the wild west right now - chaotic, lawless, with rumors of gold in them thar hills. It won't take long for that west to be tamed, however - I give it a couple of years at most. I expect we'll see a few lawsuits before the whole thing stabilizes. In the meantime, we have an opportunity as a community to vote with our wallets. Personally, I intend to direct my money to official implementations that actually share the profits with designers like myself and I will refuse to purchase or support digital implementations that do otherwise.

What are your thoughts on the matter?
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8. Board Game: Travel Blog [Average Rating:6.23 Overall Rank:2573]
Rob Bartel
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Edmonton
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And, to close the file on this, I've posted a final summary of events to my Canadian Gamer blog. I end with some constructive advice on what I feel different sectors of the industry can do when confronted with this problem.

Thanks for the discussion, everyone.
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