Goldman Sachs-Backed Cloner Uses War Chest, Ad Buys to Overshadow Original Games

UPDATE: “Game cloning” (copying the core mechanics and gameplay loop of a released or in-development title) continues to be a rampant problem, especially on mobile storefronts. The latest victim is “Donut County,” a game by Ben Esposito and published by Annapurna.

Not only did a copycat beat “Donut County” to the market, Voodoo (the French company behind it) managed to land a $200 million investment. A press release announcing the partnership with Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs heralds the publisher for its “vision, execution capabilities, and innovation velocity.” This vision, according to Voodoo, includes metrics-driven app development and aggressively buying targeted ads to boost installs.

If you’ve never heard of “Donut County,” think of it like a reverse “Katamari Damacy.” Instead of making larger and larger balls of junk, you’re swallowing things up into a hole that gets wider as it consumes more. It’s adorable and colorful, and it’s due out later this year.

When it does release, some people are going to be confused. There’s a game out there right now on iOS and Android called “Hole.io.” Players take on the role of holes and swallow up the world around them. Sounds familiar, right? That’s because “Hole.io” is a “clone.”

“Game cloning” is a euphemism. It’s what you say in polite company when you don’t want to outright accuse someone of stealing your game idea and rushing a slipshod version to market. It’s hard to be genteel about the behavior though, when the culprit touts a massive influx of cash from a Wall Street investment bank.

The practice of cloning has been going on for years. The worst part is that unless the cloner rips off art assets, sounds, or the title, the practice dances just on this side of the legal line.

“Game ideas or mechanics are not protectable under copyright law,” says Odin Law and Media founder Brandon Huffman. “Individual assets (like specific art, music, etc.) are. Most clone developers know this and so they avoid taking specific art or sound assets and try to build, from scratch, a similar game – albeit usually a crappier version.”

There are few things a developer can do to combat a clone, because of how Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown requests work. The app stores themselves can be prickly to work with. Bringing a rival developer to court over a clone isn’t an inexpensive process and, sometimes, it’s simply not feasible.

“In order to recover for infringement from a clone developer, the original developer would have to show either actual copying or that the two games are so strikingly similar that one basically must be a clone of the other,” Huffman explains. “For example, individual features, like a HUD or a game mechanic, on its own, isn’t sufficient. But if there is a long list of similarities and very few differences, that might be enough to hold the cloner accountable. Taking action against the app stores is tough for three big reasons. First, the costs. Submitting a DMCA request is easy, but if the clone developer counter-notices, filing an infringement suit can be expensive. Second, the app marketplaces aren’t always cooperative. They sometimes don’t take things down or they restore apps without a proper counter-notification which requires consent to jurisdiction in US federal district court. Finally, often clone games are produced in foreign markets and cross-border enforcement is both logistically and financially more difficult.”

Some try to release their own games (or direct copies of the originals) on mobile storefronts under the original names to trick users and rake in some cash before they’re shut down. Even if a DMCA request swats the clone off the store because of the title, it might not be gone for good.

“One tactic that I’ve seen work is using trademark, rather than copyright, to get the games taken down,” Huffman says. “For example, if I made a game titled ‘Super Title Game’ and I registered the trademark, and the clone game is titled ‘Super Title Game Extreme’ I could ask the marketplace to remove the game on the trademark basis. If they then rename the game ‘Extreme Game’ without the infringing title, the game would probably be allowed to remain up, but fewer consumers would stumble on it when searching for my game.”

Apple and Google each have guidelines to try and combat cloning. Unfortunately, the law is often the restrictive force, putting platform holders in precarious situations.  Apple did remove a number of “Flappy Bird” clones that were wholesale theft of code and assets, but it allowed the influx of similar experiences (especially after the original game was removed from the store).

Apple directly addresses the cloning problem in a guideline section called “Copycats.”

“Come up with your own ideas,” Apple urges. “We know you have them, so make yours come to life. Don’t simply copy the latest popular app on the App Store, or make some minor changes to another app’s name or UI and pass it off as your own. In addition to risking an intellectual property infringement claim, it makes the App Store harder to navigate and just isn’t fair to your fellow developers.”

While this a guideline and not an operating procedure, it gives Apple a foundation for addressing rampant cloning. Google also mentions infringement, but doesn’t appear to specifically call out clones or copycats.

Attack of the clones
The cloning issue rose to prominence with mobile gaming. Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail and JW Nijman ran into it with “Ridiculous Fishing,” as detailed in an extensive “Polygon” story. Their game premiered as a browser-based experience, with the intent to port it to app stores. The duo retained the rights for a mobile release, but before they could get there, a developer named Gamenauts copied “Ridiculous Fishing” and released a clone.

The same situation is happening now to developer Ben Esposito and his upcoming title, “Donut County.” Esposito and publisher Annapurna have shown “Donut County” at a number of industry events, including PAX East 2018. Enough of the title’s core mechanics have been on display that it was easy enough for someone to swoop in, take the basic concept, and fire it onto the app store.

That’s not enough to damage a studio working on an original title, though. Clones by themselves might gum up the works and make it harder for the original developer, but they aren’t the death knell for a great game.

Discoverability is a massive issue for mobile gaming (and, recently, PC storefronts). If players can’t find your game or it isn’t highlighted on the front page, they won’t find your title organically. One of the ways storefronts are combating discoverability issues is with rankings. If your game is popular enough to float near the top of a “most downloaded” list, it will be much easier for players to find.

That’s all well and good if everyone is playing on a level field. As you might have guessed, that isn’t the case for many games. It’s an even bigger issue with clones, like “Hole.io.”

“Hole.io” publisher Voodoo recently announced a massive $200 million investment from Goldman Sachs. The press release suggests that Voodoo is entering a period of “hypergrowth” with Goldman Sachs’ help.

Looking at Voodoo’s catalog, you’ll find games like “Flappy Dunk!”, “Rolly Vortex”, “The Fish Master”, “The Cube”, and “Infinite Golf.” Those are essentially clones of “Flappy Bird”, “Rolling Sky”, “Ridiculous Fishing” (yes, another “Ridiculous Fishing” clone), and “22 Cans’ Curiosity – What’s inside the cube?”

Voodoo’s entire visible portfolio (the company says it is working with more than 700 developers at this time) seems to be comprised of algorithm-driven clones. Voodoo is taking the stance that, like Match-3 games, titles like “Donut County” (of which there appear to be only two: “Donut County” and Voodoo’s own “Hole.io”) are a sub-genre that is fair game for mimicry.

“Developers are free to create their own games,” a Voodoo spokesperson says. “To do this, there exists a limited amount of preeminent gameplays. However, there can be an infinite amount of interpretations and execution. For example, the puzzle Match 3 gameplay is popular amongst developers and on the stores, however different studios have created original games by adding their own experience and art direction. In this spirit, other examples of popular gameplays that have been interpreted by many developers are hidden object, casino, bubble shooter and first person shooter games.‎”

Cloning alone isn’t enough to fuel the cash machine.

In order to get those clones into consumer view, they need to rank highly on the download lists. Voodoo isn’t shy about sharing its recipe.

Voodoo originally told Variety that it purchases its bulk installs from “Facebook and many other ad networks.” The company’s comments to Variety and text on its website aligned with the definition of inappropriate manipulation of Apple and Google’s ranking systems.

Following publication of the story, Voodoo changed the language on its website and provided additional comment to Variety. The company said that despite the way its website described its user acquisition, Voodoo doesn’t pay for installs, but rather spends on targeted ads.

Prior to publication, Voodoo boasted on its website that it “[buys] cheap installs in big numbers.” The website currently says, “We are experts at game promotion, so that millions of players will discover your game.” The company changed the language after publication of Variety’s story.

The concept of “buying installs” sounds nefarious, and if Voodoo were doing that directly (paying install farms to download the device on multiple devices or incentivizing individual users), it would be in violation of the App Store and Google Play guidelines. Instead, Voodoo said it employs a system of ad purchases using its massive war chest to boost the popularity of its games.

The App Store guidelines state: “If we find that you have attempted to manipulate reviews, inflate your chart rankings with paid, incentivized, filtered, or fake feedback, or engage with third party services to do so on your behalf, we will take steps to preserve the integrity of the App Store, which may include expelling you from the Developer Program.”

Google offers similar guidance. “Developers must not attempt to manipulate the placement of any apps in Google Play. This includes, but is not limited to, inflating product ratings, reviews, or install counts by illegitimate means, such as fraudulent or incentivized installs, reviews and ratings,” the company advises.

“Our marketing and advertising strategy is to purchase media space on social networks in order to run advertisements we have produced of games we are promoting from our portfolio,” a Voodoo representative told Variety. “We purchase such ad space either directly from Facebook or from media resellers, including from wholly owned subsidiaries of Google and Apple’s Search Ads. We advertise in this way to encourage prospective users to install our compelling games. In marketing parlance, this is frequently referred to as user acquisition, which is used by nearly every major actor in the gaming ecosystem. To be very clear, we definitely do not pay for installs of our games, which means we also clearly do not pay to artificially inflate the rankings of our games.”

The publisher said it purchases some of its advertising upfront, but also compensates some of the ad networks based on success. “Voodoo pays for the purchase of such media either directly at the time of the purchase or based on a result-oriented formula whereby the media reseller is remunerated if the viewers decide to install Voodoo games after having reviewed the said advertisements,” the company says.

A results-driven compensation model could breed ad networks to fraudulently inflate its own success. However, Voodoo said it is prepared for that. The company has a multi-step process to verify if downloads are fraudulent or genuine. “All contracts with media resellers and/or Google or Facebook also include clauses which specify that all platform users have the obligation to prevent fraudulent installs and/or displays,” Voodoo told Variety.

It’s this practice of mass, inexpensive ad buys aimed at targeted users that has put “Hole.io” atop the Free Games ranking list (above #3 ranked “Fortnite”). The fourth, eighth, twentieth, and twenty-third spots also belong to Voodoo games. The scrappy, minimally funded developers of original games (like Ben Esposito) can’t compete with a machine like Voodoo’s.

A harsh reality for “Donut County”
Since game mechanics can’t be protected, “Hole.io” will live atop the rankings, earning ad revenue from legitimate downloads obtained from a clone of a yet-to-be-released game. With so much of Donut County’s mechanical conceit revealed to the public, it was ripe for the stealing.

There are some things developers can do to protect themselves, though. Romero Games co-founder Brenda Romero offers the following tips.

“I’m going to talk about the game when it can’t be caught,” she’s quoted as saying in “The GameDev Business Handbook.” “This is particularly important in games that could be rapidly developed, like many mobile games, certainly those that don’t have a two- or three-year timeline like most triple-A or triple-I titles do. I will never talk about my game too early, and I will never talk about my game when I know you can catch me.”

She also urges developers to keep at least one aspect of their games hidden from public view. That way the whole core gameplay loop can’t be copied. In those cases, ripoffs will never replicate the whole experience.

The truth is, there’s nothing Annapurna or Ben Esposito can realistically do to have “Hole.io” removed from the mobile storefronts. Voodoo has clearly used “Donut County’s” core mechanic to build “Hole.io,” but that’s within legal bounds. In a Twitter post from June 25, 2018, Esposito identifies that the two games are different enough, but is honest about his feelings.

“There are differences. ‘Donut County’ is a story based puzzle game, and ‘hole.io’ combines the premise for ‘Donut County’ (you’re a hole in the ground, swallowing objects makes you bigger), with the ‘.io’ king of the hill formula,” he writes. “It stings a little after 5+ years of convincing people a game about a hole in the ground is a good idea, lol… I can’t do anything about them stealing my thunder, really. I’m gonna focus my energy into finishing ‘Donut County.’”

Ben Esposito, Annapurna, and Apple did not immediately respond to Variety’s request for comment.

Disclosure: Michael Futter is the author of “The GameDev Business Handbook.” Romero was a subject in the book.

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