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TI Imposters: Clones, Innovation, and Iteration in Digital Games
by Ethan Tussey `

by Steven Boyer for IN MEDIA RES

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.

 

This Commentary is related to the following Clips:
TI Invaders game clip by Texas Instruments (1981) Texas Instruments gameplay