One could make a defensible case arguing that many games in the AAA market contain elements of more successful products and that much of the industry is based on ripping off other people’s ideas.
Shields and regenerating health are seen in many modern first-person shooters such the “Halo” series, there is a discernible trend toward open-world sandbox games, so on and so forth. It’s almost standard industry practice at this point. Blatantly cloning other games, painting a new skin on them, making a fortune in the process, and using that leverage to put the thumbscrews on smaller developers to the extent that you copyright household words is another thing altogether.
Enter King Games Ltd., the British casual games studio responsible for the wildly popular mobile game “Candy Crush Saga.” The game, released in 2012, was listed as the top grossing free app in the iTunes App store for 2013, and according to The Verge and Forbes, it boasts over 500 million downloads across mobile devices and social networking websites like Facebook. Also, in spite of its aesthetic and barring maybe one or two gameplay mechanics, it’s almost a by-the-numbers clone of Pop Cap’s “Bejeweled,” which was released over a decade ago.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon and it certainly isn’t new to King Games. Many of their most popular titles, such as “Bubble Witch Saga” and “Papa Pear Saga,” are similarly identical to other titles–Taito’s “Bust-A-Move” and Pop Cap’s “Peggle,” respectively. The minimal effort required to make knockoff games such as these has proven to be a lucrative enterprise for King Games. In spite of being a free-to-play app, “Candy Crush Saga” alone makes daily revenue of just under $1,000,000, according to Think Gaming, and as of press time it is the second highest grossing free app. Much of the profit made from the game comes from subtly manipulative monetization models that involve in-app purchases, according to Gamasutra.
Perhaps spurred by the realization of their own personal experience, King Games has taken measures to protect its intellectual property, to the extent that they have actually trademarked the words “candy” and “saga.” In 2012, King filed a trademark for the words “candy” and “saga” with the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, the agency responsible for international trademark protection in the European Union. The United States Patent and Trademark Office approved a similar trademark registration on Jan. 15, 2014.
King’s efforts to protect their trademark have not been idle. Shortly after their U.S. trademark was approved, Benjamin Hsu, creator of “All Candy Casino Slots,” received a cease-and-desist notice from Apple’s legal department asking him to pull his game from the app store. Hsu has since complied, but expressed frustration in a subsequent interview with Gamezebo, stating that small game developers that have come under King’s crosshairs such as himself do not have the resources to fight back. A month previously, in December 2013, King filed a notice of opposition against Stoic Games, the developers of the popular indie RPG-strategy game “The Banner Saga.” In both circumstances, King Games objected on grounds of potential brand confusion and damage for the use of the words “candy” and “saga” in their titles respectively.
In an open letter posted on their website regarding the “Banner Saga” case, King Games made it known that they had no intention of stopping the development of the game, and only filed the notice to establish a precedent for future potential cases of legitimate trademark infringement, and will only do so on a case-by-case basis applicable to game titles. This contradicts with the fact that their U.S. trademark accounts for every conceivable product, from metal diving boards to chimneys and animal skins.
The recent actions of King Games can most charitably be described as hypocritical. They have recently been accused of copying Stolen Goose, the creators of Scamperghost, by creating their own rebranding of the game under the name Pac-Avoid. This occurred after publishing deals between the two fell through in 2010, Stolen Goose has stated. King denied the claims on their website but have since rescinded the game.
The trademark crusade has given King no small amount of negative publicity. itch.io, a website that hosts independently-developed games for free, has staged an online protest dubbed “Candy Jam,” encouraging indie-game developers to make as many games as possible using the word “candy” in solidarity with Stoic, Hsu, and Stolen Goose, among others.
On the protest website, itch.io claimed that King Games “clones games while making millions over it. King bullies smaller game developers. King uses curious monetization tactics… All of this screams unethical behavior.”