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I'm not sure where this question belongs, but as it pertains to the development of a game idea, I figured I'd try to post it here.

Recently I've been inspired to create a game based on another game I've played. However, the idea that I have is very similar to the original game. I was wondering, when does a game idea cross from being a homage or parody into the realm of being a ripoff? Are there any hard or fast rules or does this cross into a gray area?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Other answers seem to be looking at this from a legal standpoint, but it sounds like you are talking more conceptually.

First, note that Parody and Homage are two very different categories; in the former case you're ridiculing the game's weaknesses, in the latter celebrating its strengths.

I would say in either case, the question of when you cross the line to "just another ripoff clone" is answered by whether your game adds anything new to the discussion.

For a parody, your game should not just be copying another game's mechanics, but it should be engineered to point out the flaws in the original in a way that the original game does not. For example, a parody of an old-school CRPG might not only have the player do a meaningless treadmill-grind for XP, but constantly remind them of how meaningless this is and how the game is just artificially increasing their required play time. Or it might eliminate the grind entirely, shortening the entire epic 40-hour experience to five minutes. In either case, the original game's mechanics are selectively copied (or not) to showcase a weakness with the form. To tell whether you are successful, I suppose a worthwhile question would be, "after playing this parody do you feel different about playing the original game?"

For an homage, you should be taking the original game further, improving it in some meaningful way. Here the question would be, "what reason is there to play this homage game, rather than playing the original?" and you should have a good answer!

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Ian, sorry for the late acceptance but your answer is great! – Daniel T. Jul 12 '11 at 19:01
I consider League of Legends to be a kind of "homage" to (DOTA on the Warcraft 3 engine) – bobobobo Sep 12 '13 at 15:08

Really, games are fluid, they're concepts, and you haven't implemented your game yet, so to me, that begs the question: Why even bother doing something that seems to you excessively similar to the other concept?

If there's any question in your mind that it's too similar, then it -is- too similar, by a long shot. And why would you want to put lots of work into something that someone else might consider similar as well? Now is the perfect time to throw some original ideas into the game to take it in a different direction.

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I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

In the US, parody is a class of "fair use" of copyrighted material. The primary litmus test used appears to be whether the derivative work offers significant commentary on the original work. If the derivative work simply emulates the original, parody as a defense to an infringement claim is hollow.

An example of a parodic commercial game derived from another commercial game was 1996's Pyst, a parody of Myst. It was basically a tour of Myst Island as interpreted after everyone who bought a copy of Myst had tromped through it. It didn't have significantly similar gameplay to Myst, and obviously presented a significantly transformed version of its setting. It was also subtitled A PARODY at every possible opportunity, which came across as a slightly desperate "please don't sue us".

Intellectual property law outside the US should not be assumed to grant any protected status to parody.

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It's worth noting the similarities between commercial games from the same creator, but after the rights were lost. Compare Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander, for example, which are exceedingly similar games from Chris Taylor after he lost the TA rights.

I personally would start by looking at the significant differences, rather than the obvious similarities. If the game is significantly different, you can probably escape, even if they have a lot in common.

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Personally, I find this line is when the game that uses concepts from another game doesn't include anything new at all, and is generally worse than the original game. A homage should almost exactly replicate the original game, lest with some fixes or different content; a parody should do the same, except possibly exaggerate some flaws in the game. Finally, a ripoff is something that tries so hard to be another game, yet doesn't really achieve it. The developers have tried to add something new to the mix, yet it isn't very original.

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When you have to ask your question, it is safe to assume that at least some people will cry "ripoff!" (assuming that your game reaches a certain amount of people, that is)

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Game devs have been doing this for years, with some impunity - Torchlight and Diablo, or Zelda and 3D Dot Heroes.

It seems to me that the best "marketing strategies" around the problem are being honest about it and admitting that your game is "a tribute of game xxxx" or "heavily inspired by xxxx".

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