TI Imposters: Clones, Innovation, and Iteration in Digital Games

Curator's Note

One of my favorite childhood video games let me pilot an onscreen spaceship, firing upward at slowly descending, perfectly organized rows of pixelated aliens. For most people, this description invokes Taito's iconic Space Invaders. For myself, however, it refers to TI Invaders, the TI-99/4A knock-off in the video above. My youth is filled with these types of clones, where instead of eating power pellets in Pac Man, I consumed the Texas Instruments logo in Munch Man.

"Cloning" is only way to view the games industry's reliance on continual iteration, refinement, and experimentation of existing systems, resulting in convoluted game geneologies. Determing game originality is also legally complicated, as audiovisual elements fall under copyright while mechanics are covered by patents, if creators even bother. The classic Pong's immense success, itself embroiled in patent litigation, triggered numerous imitators, but also internally inspired iteration on the bouncing ball and paddle concept to create Breakout, another hit that spawned its own clones.

In the late 1970s, the same aspects that led to the explosion of the games industry – stabilized hardware platforms, interchangeable cartridges/discs/tapes, insatiable consumer demand, easily understood game concepts with simple graphics – also created a prime environment for high levels of imitation. While this period of rapid iteration and experimentation led to extremely creative games, a market saturated with low quality copies was a major contributing factor to collapse of the American games industry in the early 1980s.

These conditions have returned today with the rise of smartphone and social gaming that thrive on simple concepts, quick and cheap development cycles, and constant iteration. This has brought about a new wave of game cloning controversies, exposing the economic and legal tensions between corporate and independent developers, along with familiar concerns that app store marketplaces are approaching saturation.

The continued relevance of cloning debates indicates the persistence of struggles over ownership of digital games, the lingering lack of regulatory solutions to decades-old questions, and the fundamental complications in simultaneously fostering creativity and innovation while protecting content creators from exploitation.



Nice post, Steven. You're pointing out continuities between early and contemporary games, which I think are historically significant. Here are a couple of more that I see. Casual gaming today has much in common with early gaming (brief periods of play, fairly simple situations without much narrative, technological novelty). The Angry Birds phenomenon recalls Pac-Man in its emphasis on cuteness, its address to a wide audience beyond a core of boys 8-18, and its ubiquity in licensed merchandise. I'm sure there are others, these are just ones I've noticed...

Thanks, Michael. You're right that there do seem to be a remarkable number of major areas of continuity emerging. Just to add to the list: microtransactions are the digital currency evolutions of inserting quarters into arcade machines, there's a return to small or micro-development teams, and I just heard a convincing discussion about the linkages between (or even codependence of) visual iconography and game systems' graphical capabilities. 

While some of these factors seem deeply embedded in the medium itself (visual icongraphy, technological novelty, gender/age tensions), I tend to think that most of the industrial continuities in particular aren't just re-emerging, but are cyclical.

We're already seeing platforms like smartphones or the consoles' digital download marketplaces that have been touted as open, "democratized" environments with low development costs and highly experimental content become colonized by the existing mega-publishers, requiring larger budgets, higher consumer prices, increased risk aversity, more stringent regulation and oversight, and more powerful hardware (e.g. Retina display). 

This is just one indicator to me of why we should note these types of continuities to question things like - what underlying factors continue to make cloning a relevant but controversial source of debate, or why has "boys culture" remained so central to gaming for decades? - so that when we hit a familiar part of the cycle we aren't blindsided by what is ahead.

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