App Store fakers
Spot the tricks used to get your money
The App Store is often described as the Wild West of software: oft-uncharted territory where hardy pioneers battle it out in a stern, frequently brutal survival of the fittest. In recent years, though, corners of the App Store have become murkier and without any semblance of honour, akin to a bootlegger’s paradise. Rather than striving for innovation and quality, certain developers instead resort to outright trickery, stealing icons, names, artwork, App Store descriptions and even the codebase of entire apps or games, and then try to make a fast buck selling the results to unsuspecting iPhone and iPad owners.
A commonplace tactic is to essentially rip off a popular app or game, and use a similar name, aiming to confuse people searching the App Store for specific terms. Shameful examples over the years have included Tiny Birds, Numbers With Friends, Temple Jump, Plants vs. Zombie (where, presumably, all but one zombie had scarpered), and the oddly named ‘Impossible Hexagon - Super Swing Adventure Road of Infinite Copters’, seemingly aiming to snare fans of a whole range of titles, despite the App Store grabs showing a rough-looking Super Hexagon clone. (Rather more cunning developers simply add ‘+’, ‘Plus’ or ‘Pro’ to a popular app’s name, all of which happened to screenshot remover Screeny, which shortly after release found itself surrounded by terrible clones.)
On some occasions, apps aim to deceive by seemingly offering content that should not exist on the App Store: apparent facsimiles of Nintendo games that, when launched, in fact resemble terrible browser games from 1997, or titles that turn out to be ‘guides’ for games, where the guide largely comprises text copied from gaming websites.
More brazen cloners and fakers go further, quite literally stealing content from existing products. Game creator Frank Condello (chaoticbox.com) recalls having his music stolen in the past, but when SHREDD (then called dEXTRIS) hit the top ten, all bets were off: “Clones stole artwork, music, sound effects, and even my app’s name and App Store description. I fully expected this in a post-Flappy Bird App Store, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating”.
Elsewhere, you can even find people using existing apps to set up cloning factory lines of sorts. “After I released Shoot The Moon, I stumbled on a YouTube video promoting the sale of source code for a similar game”, says Shaun Coleman (pipsqueakgames.com). “They openly presented it as such, showing my game’s App Store listing, commenting on the high user ratings, and urging people to try it”.
Fakery of this sort sews confusion, exacerbated by people intent on hijacking reviews on the App Store. A Google search is enough to uncover companies selling bundles of four- and five-star reviews. Apple has in the past sternly warned developers that even if they’re not “personally engaged” in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, “employing services that do so on their behalf” may result in the loss of their Apple Developer Program membership. Yet even a cursory glance at the App Store shows plenty of developers getting away with this nonsense, their apps boasting a suspicious number of high ratings from users with an identical writing style and bizarre semi-random usernames. The net result is App Store reviews become unhelpful and potentially shield fake apps that may even end up with better ratings than the apps they’re copying.
Unsurprisingly, developers are frustrated, on behalf of consumers and their community. “There’s confusion for sure, especially when a cloner sticks a ‘2’ or ‘pro’ on the end of your app’s name and rips off your art”, says Condello. “I’ve even had hilariously angry emails about my ‘rubbish Android port’, despite never making an Android app”. Remzi Şenel, ‘chaos monkey’ at Gram Games (gram.gs), adds that such problems can “impact on word of mouth, causing you to lose a link in the chain of viral spread”. And while Semyon Voinov, Creative Director at Cut The
App Store reviews potentially shield fake apps, which may end up with better ratings than those they copy
Rope developer ZeptoLab (zeptolab.com), reckons “the scale of the impact typically isn’t massive”, it’s nonetheless “a pity to ruin the expectations of people who might have heard about your product, but end up with a badly crafted clone”.
The impact is palpable in other areas, too. “Clones and fakes don’t heavily impact our business, but are an encouragement to the development community to steal”, suggests Şenel, adding that copies are usually poorly made, without the awareness of crucial design decisions. Screeny developer Sonaal Bangera (screenyapp.com) says his team works “really hard to stand out from the crowd” and so when someone comes in and “uses your design style, name and even App Store description to make a quick buck, it’s disheartening”.
Others echo these thoughts: Condello calls copies “demotivating and a real drain” that waste time he could spend making new things and updating existing apps. Coleman says “when you’ve obsessed over every facet of your output and see cloners attempting to capitalise on your work with rushed hack jobs, it’s galling, no matter how philosophical you try to be”. In perhaps the most well-documented cloning case in recent years, the developer of hit puzzle game Threes! outlined in an enormous and detailed blog post (http://bit.ly/threesblog) the many-months-long, sometimes painful path to completing an app. It concluded by referring to the rash of copies (mostly various flavours of 2048 that still litter the App Store): “But cloning or ripping off a design in a week, that’s a bit different isn't it?”
A fine line
Fortunately, avenues do exist for responding to fake apps (see ‘Fighting back’ on page 78), and as an aggrieved party who’s bought a product that’s essentially pretending to be something else, getting a refund is perfectly justifiable. But for anyone creating apps, whether it’s worth going after fakers and cloners isn’t so clear-cut.
“If they’re using your assets, lodge a claim for copyright infringement. Otherwise, you’re better off putting your time and energy into increasing the distance between you and them by moving on to your next thing”, reckons Coleman. Condello agrees with him: “Unless you have infinite money and a stable of lawyers, let products that sort-of look and feel the same be. They’ll almost certainly be massively inferior and might even drive traffic your way. But don’t tolerate thieves. People who directly steal assets need to be dealt with – even if it can be a long and drawn-out process”.
Several developers seem keen to explore this line between inspiration and rip-off. “We actually love it when we see our games inspiring other developers to create twists on their gameplay or art style. It’s only obvious clones that might push us towards legal action”, says Voinov, adding that all developers learn from each other, and therefore “being overprotective can actually harm the community – and your reputation”.
Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman (adamatomic. com) recalls incidents with his game that sit on each side of the line: “Robot Unicorn Attack was clearly inspired by Canabalt, but the creator emailed me and asked if it was cool to riff on my game. I thought the end result was great. But I also had my supposed Android/PSP porting partner release I Must Run, which remains the only part of Canabalt’s legacy that still sometimes makes my skin itch”.
Kurt Bieg’s take is rather more philosophical. He believes people should stop fretting about any kind of copying. The Simple Machine (simplemachine.co) founder argues that “the idea of possessing an object doesn’t translate to the digital world”, and that on releasing a creation, you are “agreeing to an implicit cultural rule: that it now belongs to the internet”.
He also reckons terminology has become hypocritical, used to garner ‘victim’ attention, but only when convenient. He reasons recent indie smash Crossy Road isn’t considered a Frogger
clone because the developer team “changed it enough”, but 2048 was slammed for cloning Threes!, despite the fact players will “tell you they’re fundamentally different”.
For this reason, after releasing word game LEX, which Bieg reckons was “ripe for cloning”, Simple Machine took a different approach, open-sourcing aspects, to “support the idea of opening creativity and inspiring others”. He adds: “If someone takes our products and makes them better, then that makes us better”, which he thinks is preferable to when the company more fully believed in the idea of ownership and “felt like we were always waiting for someone to do us wrong”.
The grey area
Bieg’s stance is admirable. It’s easy to get on board with creative talent taking ideas, building on them and changing them, and he has a salient point in that “being part of that dialogue is healthier than throwing stones, when everything we do is built on everything we did”.
For anyone creating apps, whether it’s worth going after fakers and cloners isn’t clear-cut
But the reality is most cloners aren’t interested in creating something new. “A download is all that matters to them, because they’re just trying to get up the rankings. So even when a user realises their mistake, the developer has already won”, thinks game designer and musician Whitaker Trebella (wtrebella.com).
Given such diverse opinions, it’s no surprise developers are split on whether Apple should do more to help consumers and app creators alike. “Apple doesn’t research whether an app is a clone, and that’s not its duty anyway – it’s up to developers to monitor the App Store and protect our properties”, argues Voinov. Şenel largely agrees: “The issue of fakery and cloning is tricky, especially when the lines are so blurry. Given the circumstances, I think Apple’s doing the best it can for all parties, in fulfilling its role as judge and executioner”.
Others disagree. Saltsman believes developers who’ve had apps repeatedly cloned should “not be shuffled off to the same, largely ineffective copyright report system”, and suggests an expedited process for clear infringement. Trebella agrees Apple should do more: “How could Apple approve ‘Pivvot Shape Twister Game’, which literally steals the icon from my own Pivvot and clones Super Hexagon? Developers help make Apple successful. Apple needs to protect us!”
Condollo goes further, complaining that Apple’s takedown process is a “horrid mess”, which takes weeks to merely get an email to developer and infringer alike, “asking them to work it out”. Occasionally, this scares an infringer into compliance, but “most know exactly what they’re doing and ignore the emails”. He adds a SHREDD clone that ripped his game’s audio and music remained on sale for seven months, in part because the infringer remained silent. “It’s beyond frustrating. Apple’s way too lenient on scam-devs, most of whom have dozens of cloned or reskinned apps in their catalogues. It’s a pervasive business model Apple could stomp out if it had the will”.
With a hint of irony, Condollo suggests Apple ‘clones’ the Google Play takedown process: “If an app on Google Play has obviously stolen my art or music, Google takes it down within days, without question. Apple twiddles its thumbs, acting as arbitrator for a one-sided conversation”.
Coleman offers a final word – and warning – for anyone hoping Apple goes further in reining in rip-offs: “Beyond copyright infringement claims is a grey area, and if Apple rejected apps based on the similarity of ideas alone, that would be chilling and detrimental. Still, if Apple does start to reject more egregious fakery cases, I won’t be complaining. Who would, apart from the cloners?”
Apple’s way too lenient on scam-devs, most of whom have dozens of cloned or
Some developers are permissive of those who at least try to augment an idea with new twists of their own, rather than outright copying other people’s creative work.
Some developers go so far as mimicking the icon of a successful app, or they might simply append a word or number to its name to more obviously ride on the original’s coat-tails.