Should you not participate in game jams because someone might clone/steal your game? Of course you should! Not practicing what is so dear to our hearts – making games, is a sad and unacceptable response.
I have been a part of such debates countless of times. Not just for jams, even for finished games. Not just for games, for any kind of software projects. And somehow, more often than not open source also gets thrown into the debate.
I feel very strongly about this, since I do all of the above: I organise and participate in game jams, I make games for a living, I volunteer to open source projects and over the past decade have extensively worked with open source organizations, communities, projects and contributors.
So I thought maybe it is a good idea to put my thoughts about all of this into a single (huge) post (read: rant) out here. In future, when I run into a similar argument, giving a link to this post is going to be much more simple than having a long-winded unnecessary debate.
Forewarning: this is going to be a long rant. Also, remember, I am not a lawyer. It is easy for me to throw out legal advice, but it is also very easy for me to be wrong about these things. I speak from my experiences and my understanding of things, which is not all exhaustive. To understand the legal consequences of anything being discussed here, always speak to your lawyer, and be on the right side of things.
This post is pretty huge and you may not stay awake by the end of it; so let me save you some time if I can. Here are some of the things you should take away from this post:
- Participate in Jams/Sprints/Hackathons as much as you can
- Release as much content as you can
- Never live in fear of your good work being stolen away; this fear is counterproductive – it keeps you away from doing your best work
- Explore licensing and open source models; use what benefits you
- Evaluate and understand the challenges and complexities of putting stuff out there and the remedies available to you
- In unhealthy situations: always evaluate your options, speak to a lawyer. The law exists to protect you and your interests when used properly
- Similarly, never infringe on other people’s rights and interests; be the good guy
Why do Jams?
This would apply to pretty much any jam, in a very generic way. More often than not Jams/Hackathons/Sprints (let’s just call them all Jams) are supposed to be academic exercises. The intention is to exercise your creative muscles within a set of severe constraints. Most common of these constraints are time and topic. A jam would ask you to build a proof of concept within a limited time window (usually 48-72 hours), usually around some topics. Eg: Build a game about a poor business tycoon in 48 hours.
The jam can be an open event for everybody, or it could be just between a few select people. So many organisations do internal jams – for fun, to find the next thing, to solve existing problems, to find a new perspective.
The purpose of the Jam is to work within your peers (participants of the Jam) and see what they came up with. How they interpreted things and how they built it. It is not a contest of who was best (though some are, but that’s not a generic rule applicable on all). It is an exercise about interpretation and execution and is done to help you get more exposure and practice.
The jam puts you in a situation, where on top of all the constraints of the jam, you will have to work with different people, ideas, technologies, approaches; collaborate and build together – it can be very daunting, challenging and yet a very refreshing exercise of taking an idea to a form of existence within a brief window of time. Jams can be wonderful opportunities to work with talented individuals you might have not encountered yet.
Here is a delicious example of the kind of things achievable in a jam:
But what about Quality of Life?
This is one of the most common counters I get to the above. What Quality of Life? You mean working non-stop for 48 hours in a Jam is conflicting with your work-life balance? How? A jam is a voluntary exercise. It is quite similar to a Star Wars movie (or your favorite series) marathon. It is not your job; your boss is not forcing you to do it.
In some rare cases, your boss might actually ask you to participate in a Jam (I do), but even then it is not a part of your job and it definitely doesn’t mean you have to work for 48 hours straight. The time constraint is there to help you focus and practice your time management skills. So, IMHO, Work-Life Balance has nothing to do with a game jam, really. It’s an exercise of passion, if you feel being forced into it – you aren’t the right person to be doing it in the first place. Save yourself some time and energy, and don’t drop the game for others.
Whatever. But if I put my game out there, someone might clone it!
Frankly, if your game has value, if you put it out there in any form someone can always clone it. In any case, people will always be inspired by good games. Have you managed to do any technical/design/art innovation in your game jam game? Have you executed something so amazingly well that it is kickass? Well, that’s wonderful and another reason why you should jam in the first place.
But let’s focus on the avoiding your game getting cloned or stolen. Frankly, there is no simple answer to it. Your game can always get cloned. Your code and assets can always get stolen. In the border-less world we live in right now, where you make your game in one country, publish it in another (many others) – there is no simple mechanism to protect your work. There are no simple remedies available.
Yet, everyone agrees on Intellectual Property and Copyrights. The basic act of you posting your binaries/assets/code online is an act of publishing it – whether you publish it in a jam or do a commercial release on some platform. There are copyright laws applicable on it right-away, and you can help your case more by explicitly applying a license on it (during an argument, this is usually where Open Source gets thrown into the ring, but I will come to that in a while).
Usually, applying a license is as simple as including a license text in your package, which, as clearly and as objectively as possible, spells out what people can do and cannot do with the contents you are distributing. You can research about a lot of popular licenses (mostly open source) and find something that is very relevant to your situation.
Remember, whether a jam game or a published game, it is not impossible to get cloned or stolen. Just look at how many Clash of Clan clones or Temple Run clones exist on the mobile app stores – curated or not. It boils down to what preemptive measures you have taken as the original author and how well can you afford to fight it, if it happens.
Also, honestly, do you even care if your game gets cloned. I know, I don’t. It is one thing to copy your idea, it is another to execute it as well as you do. But I understand this is not necessarily sane logic and is very debatable as well.
It is never easy
At Hashstash, we have been on the other side of the cloning debate. When we released Circulets, we were wrongly accused of cloning a game. It resulted in some very lucrative visibility being denied to the game and a lot of community backlash in the early days. We reached out to the original author, involved him in our game’s beta and thankfully he agreed that we haven’t cloned his game. I still wonder what could we have done, had the original author felt that our game is a clone or at least very similar to his, even when we knew it was not. Thankfully, sanity prevailed.
When I was working with Mudit on Huerons, we found another developer on game development forums making something very similar. Think about it: two independent developers came up with very similar concepts in the same time window, while in complete isolation of each other. We reached out to the other developer, discussed the whole situation, got their blessings and moved forward with the game.
There are scenarios, you cannot completely prepare for. Look at how Vlambeer dealt with Radical Fishing getting cloned. You will find quite a lot of clones out there, but few stories about games getting vindicated.
So release often and under suitable licenses
In our age of bleeding edge technology, these things can happen. And if it happens, you have to deal with it head on. Each situation is unique and there are no simple answers. And that is why releasing your work under suitable licenses is important.
In my personal opinion, I see immense value with Open Source models here. Especially for students, I very strongly believe that they should work on as many creative ideas that they can, and more often than not keep releasing their work in the open source domain. Not only does it make for a very good skill portfolio, it also creates opportunities for collaboration and build dedicated teams committed to reaching certain objectives.
I said especially for students, because most of the work they are engaged in is either passion projects or academic exercises. And just because you made it open, does not mean you are done with it. By making it open, you are encouraging people interested in the idea to come and contribute. These can be experienced devs, or interested people from completely different domains wanting to build an accessible solution.
While the whole model works similarly well with the whole job/employment/professional/career domain, there are many more aspects to consider, which complicates the situation. I hate saying it so many times, but there are no simple answers.
Open source, you have to understand, does not mean giving away your source code for free. Open source deals with publishing your code in such a manner that the source code is accessible to anyone who wants to access it. That does not mean they can do whatever they want to do with it. OpenSource.com explains this way better and exhaustively here.
Your work will be made open source by applying a suitable license on it. These licenses very clearly specify terms for what people can do and cannot do with your work. Whether they can pass it around or not, even whether they can make money with it or not. Read this excellent post by Jeff Atwood about how important it is to license your work (possibly, also, how easy).
Open Source is a very practical model of writing good software between a huge number of contributors. At no point of time, does it mean that you have killed any business/commercial value for your work. I have had the opportunity of working with so many talented developers who have put their stuff out there in the open, and who are doing thriving business with the same. Remember, knowledge breeds knowledge, and it is never wrong to share more knowledge. If we weren’t doing that, we would probably be still living in the dark ages.
So, full circle, why do Jams?
Jams encourage you to think within constraints, think fast, execute faster and collaborate. They are a very useful exercise in becoming better at finishing and delivering stuff. They are very useful to quickly prototype a concept and get constructive feedback on it. They are a very handy platform to showcase your work, skills and concepts. They are also useful in helping you prioritize between your concepts. If nothing, it is very healthy and encouraging to see people actually consume what you have made and their reactions to it.
Fear of your work getting stolen or cloned is not healthy. It can be risky, and you can take precautions, but nothing guarantees that your game won’t get cloned. If it does get cloned, fight it. But withdrawing into a shell and not practice what is so dear to our hearts – making games, is a sad and unacceptable response. And if that happens, then the cloners have already won. They stopped you from making your next awesome game.
Note: With edits and notes from Yadu Rajiv; nothing I do is perfect without him.