Hong Kong was abuzz last month with the arrival of South Korean boy band sensation Big Bang as the newly minted spokesmen for local smartphone game Tower of Saviors. The subway system was plastered with ads announcing the partnership between the game and the musicians, both of which are popular in the city.
By all accounts, business is good for the makers of Tower of Saviors. Last October, Tech In Asia reported that the smartphone game had passed the 7 million download mark with an average revenue per paying user of 40 U.S. dollars. And in March, Pocket Gamer reported that China game publisher Forgame paid over 90 million U.S. dollars for a 21 percent stake in their parent company.
But behind the commercial success lies a mob of really, really angry netizens who accuse the game of being a shameless clone of another smartphone game made in Japan called Puzzle & Dragons. The similarities between the two have sparked a series of inventive and humorous anti-shanzhai memes on the web (shanzhai refers to Chinese imitation or pirated products).
One features the founder of Tower of Saviors’ parent company Madhead drinking out of a mug with the text, “Success depends on shanzhai.”
Someone even created a parody app called Toilet of Plagiarists:
The song below by Hong Kong hip hop artist Arho Sunny is not only funny, but also immaculately produced. The first verse of the song says:
Shanzhai, shanzhai, why are so many people buying
Be loud, copy quickly, then you can sell big
Twisting the original creation, and getting yourself “high”
Because this game is being played by tools
A politician eats his words
The creators of Tower of Saviors have received criticism for their imitation of Puzzles & Dragons since the game's early rise just over a year ago. At the time, Hong Kong legislative councilor Charles Mok was caught lauding them in newspaper Sky Post for their “work hard, play hard” attitude and for seizing the opportunity of Puzzle & Dragons’ not releasing a non-Japanese version. Two days later, Mok wrote a lengthy retraction in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, citing Facebook commenters who had pointed out the fallacies of his earlier article including one who even went as far as to “unfriend” him in anger.
But within these two days, Mok did his homework. First, he discovered that there are over 20 Puzzle & Dragons clones, which makes Tower of Saviors unremarkable in its mimicry (though it did disturb him that he publicly supported copycats).
Then, he found out that Tower of Saviors creators were previously involved with Pencake, a Facebook app company that was banned from Facebook for its unscrupulous business practices. Mok wrote, “If it is not the first offense, then it's a problem of honesty.” He ended the article with a Bruce Lee quote: “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” And added, “I've admitted it, will Madhead?”
Apathy and legal challenges
Upright politicians and diehard netizens aside, most people actually don't care. One of the most common questions asked about the topic is simply, which game is better? Puzzle & Dragons lost points early by only being released in U.S. and Japanese app stores, which insulted gamers and pushed them into the arms of its clones.
Cloning games is not an uncommon practice; casual gamers are pretty forgiving about it. One recent example was the breakthrough puzzle game Threes, which was created in the U.S., then promptly cloned as 1024 in Beijing, which was in turn cloned and open sourced as 2048 in Italy — much to the dismay of its original creators who had labored on it for over a year.
One of the major underlying problems is that there's no clear or easy way to “copyright” a game (though it is possible to throw money at the problem in the form of flimsy software patents). As such, it's usually technically not illegal to clone and sell a game.
Only time will tell whether Puzzle & Dragons and Towers of Saviors will succeed over the other, flop entirely as a fad or co-exist in the marketplace. It's possible that the original's design will remain superior and “crush” its clones. But it's also possible that the clone's significant marketing budget with Korean pop stars will allow them to buy out entire markets.
What is already happening is that another Hong Kong-based game publisher, 6waves, is under fire for cloning smartphone games. It's already lost its case once, and it's slated to appear in court in San Francisco for another batch of products. Will Tower of Saviors follow a similar fate in the courts one day?