Game clone raises questions about Mac App Store policing

The Mac App Store’s carefully crafted reputation for raising the app walls high might be undermined with Thursday’s public allegations by Wolfire Games that Apple allowed another developer to pirate Wolfire’s game, Lugaru HD—and at a far lower price point.

Wolfire's Ligaru HD features a killer bunny rabbit...

One of the arguable benefits of Apple’s curated approach to the Mac App Store is that it supposedly keeps out the riff-raff, including pirates and pornographers. Developers endure a tough, often-confusing screening process and give up a cut of their sales to grab a bit of the Apple spotlight. Consumers use the store because it’s easy, and because they feel assured that downloading from a trusted brand eliminates some of risk found elsewhere on the wild and wooly Internet.

But that doesn't mean there won’t be disputes like the one in which Wolfire finds itself involved. As of Friday morning, the allegedly counterfeit game was still available in the Mac App Store, and Wolfire officials were growing ever more impatient as they watched the clone climb as high as number 62 on the store’s list of paid gaming apps. The original game, on the other hand, is unranked.

“Apple is a big company with tons of apps to review and look over, but they also have a notoriously long review process—so we would have hoped they could have prevented something like this from happening,” Wolfire’s John Graham told Macworld on Thursday.

...as does iCoder's Ligaru. But the cloned version is ranked higher in the Mac App Store.

“People pirate our games all the time on the Pirate Bay, and people theoretically sell it on shady street corners,” added Jeffrey Rosen, Wolfire’s co-founder. “However, when Apple forces the Mac App Store onto your dock and trains people that this is the new way to buy Mac software safely … suddenly it becomes a really big deal when someone counterfeits your app under the same name.”

Lugaru HD features a butt-kicking bunny warrior in his quest to save fellow rabbits from slavery. Wolfire had been selling its game in the Mac App Store for two weeks, at $10 a download, when the company became aware on Monday of iCoder’s 99-cent version. Wolfire immediately contacted both iCoder and Apple, asking that the rival game be taken down.

As of Thursday, Wolfire had not heard back from iCoder. Apple responded to the developers on Thursday morning—three days after the initial complaint—with a short e-mail saying iCoder had been contacted. There was no information about how, or when, the matter might be resolved. In the meantime, iCoder raised the price of its version of Lugaru up to $2.

At the heart of the controversy is Wolfire’s practice of making Lugaru’s underlying code freely available for download—although the expectation is that other developers will use it to create their own games, Rosen and Graham said, instead of turning around and selling what is essentially the originl game. And they say the terms of the general public license they use to offer the code lets them retain the rights to the game’s key elements (like its artwork) while giving other developers a foundation for additional creativity.

iCoder's version is selling for $8 less than Wolfire's original game.

iCoder apparently contends, however, that it obtained full rights to the game when it downloaded the Lugaru code. “While we do understand [Wolfire’s] regrets, this does not change the fact that we have every legal right to market and sell the software, and we feel that $1.99 is a fair price,” iCoder’s Alex Matlin told the gaming Website Kotaku. (iCoder did not respond to Macworld’s request for comment.)

The kerfuffle may cause Wolfire to rethink its approach to making game code publicly available. But Graham and Rosen seem more focused on Apple’s response to their predicament.

“We have been advocates of open sourcing because it leads to a lot of awesome modding and makes it easy for people to learn about how game engines are put together,” Graham said. “But if Apple makes no changes to their policies, they will be providing a direct monetary incentive for developers not to risk doing so.”

Apple is often accused of inscrutability when it comes to the app review process, but open-source developers like Wolfire seem to bear the brunt of policing their own piracy issues. When problems are found, developers and customers can e-mail the company directly.

Rosen says he has few problems with self-policing, but that Apple needs to do better due diligence. “They clearly did not even search for ‘Lugaru’ before approving this other app,” he noted.

Mostly, though, he wants Apple to respond faster when a problem is reported. PayPal, he said, has been “instantaneous” about shutting down payments to Websites that sell his pirated software. Life inside Apple’s walled garden, he says, has proven somewhat less secure than the rough-and-tumble of the open Internet.

Wolfire hasn’t decided how to proceed against iCoder.

“We’re not a big company like EA with a big legal team ready to go,” Graham said. “We don’t want to set a precedent that people can get away with this kind of thing, but we also want to focus our resources and attention on” game development.

And despite frustrations, Wolfire plans to stick with the Mac App Store for now.

“I have high hopes for the app store,” Rosen said, “but it is a little scary right now.”

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