App Store fak­ers

Spot the tricks used to get your money

Mac Format - - CONTENTS - Words: Craig Gran­nell Images: iStockphoto.com

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.

Clone wars

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”.

Blame game

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

re­skinned apps

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.

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