French gaming industry behemoth Ubisoft has just published CSI: Hidden Crimes on iOS and Android. Controversy is never far in the gaming industry, as games very often draw inspiration from their illustrious not-so-distant predecessors, and outright cloning is an ever-present worry (ask the Vlambeer guys). In this case, CSI Hidden Crimes uses mechanics that are very reminiscent of Criminal Case by French startup Pretty Simple (full disclosure: I used to work at Pretty Simple, but I no longer do, nor am I linked to them in any way), and it raises the question:
Is this a case of cloning, or is it legitimate inspiration?
Clear cut opinions on each side
Here’s what Pretty Simple cofounder Bastien Cazenave replied to my email asking for Pretty Simple’s official reaction to the publication of CSI Hidden Crimes: “We have just learned, as you have, that Ubisoft has published CSI: Hidden Crimes. We do not comment on games from our competitors, especially when it is a bland copy of Criminal Case. The iOS version [of Criminal Case] will soon be ready, and we can’t wait for our 120M of Facebook players to be able to enjoy the original on their mobile devices”.
On the other hand, a spokesperson for Ubisoft insists on the originality of the story of CSI: Hidden Crimes, highlighting that CSI writer Jack Gutowitz wrote the first 4 episodes of the game. Ubisoft actually has a long history with the CSI franchise, dating all the way back to 2003, and it’s not the first social game based on this IP that they publish. They furthermore point out that this game took 18 months to create for a team of about 20 people at Ubisoft Abu Dhabi, with original content, dialogs, and graphics.
That old Cloning Chestnut
The difference in perspective on this is stark, and informal discussions with people at both companies show that both think they are right in their analysis. While players will be the utlimate judges of what is or isn’t worthwhile, there are some objective elements that can already be considered.
Criminal Case has achieved a success that was unheard of for hidden object games, by creating an innovative blend of hidden object gameplay and story-based investigation gameplay. That being said, Criminal Case builds upon the many hidden object games before it, and its creators have never been shy about their love of crime novels and police procedurals.
CSI Hidden Crimes does provide an experience that feels very similar to Criminal Case, and it is easy to see how similar its game mechanics are. At the same time, it is undeniable that the storyline and characters in CSI: Hidden Crimes are original creations. What’s more, CSI has been around since 2000, which would tend to turn the tables on who came first.
Let’s agree to disagree
It is a fact of life – and business – that success begets competition. It is just as true for TV shows as it is for games. I very much doubt that Pretty Simple would win a lawsuit against Ubisoft if they went down that path. CSI is one of the most emblematic police procedural on TV, and its success has been an inspiration to many in the entertainment industry. Pretty Simple, on the other hand, has showed just how big the audience for casual investigation games can be, and they will increasingly be an inspiration for other game developers as well.
This time around, Pretty Simple should probably thank their lucky star: the very similarity of mechanics between the games means that Ubisoft missed an opportunity to create a game with a gameplay that would have stood out. When compounded with the pull of the CSI brand and the original content produced for the game, such a game would have presented a competitive threat with much more potential to disrupt the upcoming launch of Criminal Case on iOS.
As it stands, this whole story is business as usual for the gaming industry: successful games get “followed fast”, and game companies with a lead in a genre must keep on innovating if they want to keep the upper hand – and their players entertained.