With the sudden and surprising success of Flappy Bird, many traditional gaming media outlets are taking a microscope to the App Store and they don’t like what they see. Kotaku recently wrote an article that is critical of the app reskinning business, even calling out app flipping pioneer Carter Thomas for his approach to the app business. Gamers have expressed everything from resentment to outrage at the way some developers approach the app marketplace.
It’s safe to say, traditional gamers HATE clones. To them, an app cloner is no better than a shady character selling knockoff watches from under their trench coat in a back alley outside some seedy bar. So do they have a point? Is the business of app reskinning morally reprehensible? Is it ultimately destructive to the entire app industry?
(Full disclosure, I am currently working on a project to reskin a simple whack-a-mole style game.)
Let’s walk through some common complaints on the practice of cloning and reskinning apps and try to come a conclusion on this topic.
Complaint #1: It’s outright theft!
I can’t fault gamers for feeling this way, I have felt this way myself on occasion (notably the Ninja Fishing / Radical Fishing saga). While there are many different elements that comprise a game or app, the experience and gameplay is what most people associate with them. Some gamers even mistakenly believe that cloning a game must be illegal somehow. But the fact is, gameplay isn’t something that can be copyrighted easily.
There have been rare occasions when gameplay mechanics have been protected under copyright law, but the game industry as a whole generally frowns upon this practice because pretty much any major game since the 1980s have borrowed heavily from the gameplay elements of other games. Think for second how the game industry would look today if Nintendo copyrighted the ability for a character to jump onto platforms as the screen scrolled forward. That would have killed the game industry and thwarted any innovations on the platformer genre that came after Super Mario Bros.
The aspects of a game or app that can be copyrighted include art, sounds and music along with traditional intellectual property such as characters, names, etc. So that is why there are no legal ramifications for reskinning an app – all the copyrighted elements are replaced with original work.
Lastly, developers of the original apps sell their source code for use by others. Those who reskin apps purchase the rights to the code directly from the developer. Yes, often times developers are creating close replicas of popular games and apps in order to sell their code on these marketplaces, but usually they are variations on the theme, not outright copies.
Complaint #2: It’s unoriginal!
Yes, it is. No dispute from me on this one. But then again, so is practically every FPS dating back to 1999. People don’t reskin apps to be original. The whole point of reskinning, from a business perspective, is to take a validated concept and repackage it for another market and audience.
All being said, I agree with this complaint. As an artist and a gamer, I must admit that it does bother me to see one of my favorite games cloned without any attribution or recognition of the original work. But in the end, I believe that the original creators reap the most rewards. In the case of Ninja Fishing & Radical Fishing, the developer of the original flash game (Vlambeer) went on to release an iOS version of the game called Ridiculous Fishing which was a breakaway success – much more successful than Ninja Fishing ever was. In fact, the cloning story may have even helped them by providing a ton of media coverage and expanding their fanbase.
Practically every smash hit on the app store have spawned countless clones, and none (to my knowledge) have ever managed to take market share away from the original app. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Complaint #3: It’s not fair!
Developing an app from scratch is hard work, no doubt about it. Developers spend countless hours of their time refining every aspect of their app, often times with little to no financial gain. App reskinning seems like an unfair shortcut by comparison. There is no doubt that a lot more passion and effort goes into the development of an original app, but that doesn’t mean that there also isn’t a lot of effort involved with reskinning an app.
In order to be successful with reskinned apps, a lot of work needs to be done to conduct market research and creating new art assets (or managing designers who create them). It also requires a good deal of business savvy and industry knowledge.
Complaint #4: It dilutes the quality of the app store!
Of all the complaints mentioned so far, this is the one that I find to be the most valid. The app reskinning business does tend to diminish the quality of the app store by flooding it with hordes of similar apps.
Unfortunately, there are even some app reskinners out there that use questionable tactics to get their apps to rank above more worthy apps. Some even implement functionality into their apps to defraud users with superfluous charges by-way of ridiculously expensive , worthless in-app purchases. (I’m looking at you Racing Penguin!) For users who have been burned by these kinds of apps, it leaves an impression that the app store is rampant with low quality and fraudulent apps.
However, I believe it is possible to reskin apps in ways that don’t take advantage of people while also providing value to users. A developer should always seek to offer quality and provide value in their apps, no matter how they were made. Never resort to manipulation to scam people out of their hard-earned money, it will come back to you eventually. With a reskinned app, you can provide value in a variety of ways, including amazing art work, a unique story, or by creating a theme that attracts a new kind of audience.
When Is App Reskinning Acceptable?
While app reskinning does reside in a murky grey area of sorts, I believe there is a place for the practice and here’s why:
Reason #1: It’s good practice and provides experience for those breaking into the app industry, especially for non-coders
This is the reason I decided to first try app reskinning. I am not a coder, but I do have talents in other areas such as design and marketing. I felt that reskinning an app would give me the best opportunity to learn the process of creating and launching an app. It’s a time-effective way for me to dip my toe in the water, so to speak.
Reason #2: It can help developers test the market
By cutting down on development time, app reskinning provides developers with the opportunity to test out different markets and see what works. Keywords, app icons, art assets and the viability of a market/audience can all be tested in this way.
Reason #3: It can help developers fund the development of original apps
Developers need to eat, support their families, pay the bills and all the other essential things that keep many of us chained to an office chair in a cubicle 5 days a week. But what if reskinning apps could provide a way to fund our dreams? Developing an original app can be hit or miss. You could spend months developing an app you are truly passionate about, only to see it tank on the app store. In order to hedge their best, some app developers resort to a hybrid approach where they focus most of their effort on the development of an original app, while launching smaller reskinned apps to bring in income while their main project is still under development.
Reason #4: It can help a developer promote their original apps
For the small guy to make it in the app store today, they need visibility. With so many big players like Zynga and EA dominating the charts, app marketing and app store optimization is key. By creating a large portfolio of apps, it gives a developer the opportunity to cross-promote and drive traffic to their main apps, giving them the boost needed to compete with the big boys.
So, is app reskinning wrong? I don’t believe so, so long as you seek to provide value to users and treat them with the respect that they deserve. Reskinned apps will always have a negative perception among hardcore gamers and some developers and many of their gripes will be justified. But its not all negative. App reskinning provides a way for some people to jump into the app business and learn as they go. Those lessons can be invaluable for a developer once they make the shift toward developing their own original apps.
What’s your take? Let us know in the comments.
Image from i k o