In its legal complaint, Spry Fox claims that 6waves Lolapps approached it after Triple Town's successful launch on Kindle. Spry Fox had decided to expand the game to Google+ and Facebook, and the two companies began negotiations with a view to 6waves Lolapps publishing the Facebook release, and later releasing it on mobile devices.
Bound by NDA, 6waves Lolapps was given private access to Triple Town while it was still in closed beta. On December 20 Dan Laughlin, 6waves Lolapps' executive director of business development, broke off negotiations and the company released Yeti Town, which Spry Fox describes as a "virtual duplicate" of Triple Town, on the iOS App Store.
"I need to back out of any further discussions on Triple Town," Laughlin wrote in a Facebook message which Spry Fox has included in its legal filing. "We've just published a game on iOS that you're not going to like given its similar match-three style.
"Wish this wasn't happening, but it is, and there wasn't anything I could do about it, despite my attempts."
Spry Fox would later self-publish Triple Town on Facebook, though it has since announced a deal with Playdom that will see the Disney-owned social studio take over publishing duties. In a post on his blog, Spry Fox CEO David Edery writes: "Yeti Town, as launched by 6waves, was a nearly perfect copy of Triple Town. We're not just talking about the game's basic mechanics here.
"We're talking about tonnes of little details, from the language in the tutorial, to many of our UI elements, to the quantities and prices of every single item in the store."
Edery, and co-founder Daniel Cook, were at first reluctant to take legal action. "We're not enthusiastic about the prospect of spending our time in court as opposed to making games," Edery continues. "And in general, we believe that only in the most extreme circumstances should a videogame developer resort to legal action … the last thing our industry needs is frivolous lawsuits.
"Unfortunately, it is our opinion that 6waves has behaved in a reprehensible and illegal manner, and we cannot, in good conscience, ignore it."
The tipping point, Edery says, was an interview given to Gamasutra last week by 6waves Lolapps chief product officer Arjun Sethi and Marc Tardif of subsidiary Escalation Studios, which handled development of Yeti Town.
"There are a lot of other match-three games out there that are similar, and I think that being criticised like that is just part of a natural process," Sethi said. Tardif insisted that his studio hadn't cloned Triple Town; instead, he claimed, Yeti Town had been in the works internally for some time.
"The game turned out to be really fun," he said, "and we had an opportunity to test some of the stuff that 6waves Lolapps wanted to do, and given that there wasn't anything like it on the platform, we chose to release it." 6waves Lolapps said it intends to add to the game, and distinguish it from similar games, with future updates.
"We believe that there is nothing 'natural' or ethical or legal about 6waves' behaviour," Edery writes. "What they did was wrong. And if they did get away with it, it [would] simply encourage more publishers to prey on independent game developers like us. We refuse to sit back and let that happen."
Strong stuff, but hardly surprising given recent events. Last week Nimblebit hit out at Zynga for cloning Tiny Tower with Dream Heights and, as we reported, it's far from the first time the king of Facebook gaming has come under fire for ripping off the works of small indie studios; Buffalo, developer of Facebook's most popular bingo game, Bingo Blitz, has also now accused Zynga of cloning. The most worrying trend is that, in each case, the larger company has proposed an acquisition of either the rights to a game or its developer.
In a comment on Edery's blog post, an independent developer named Bart Henderson warns: "It's sickening how bad doing business is with these San Francisco companies … [they] are only out there to use your ideas for profit and will take the path [of] least resistance to do so and won't think twice about screwing you."
Edery has said he will not be commenting on the case until it concludes, referring enquiries to Spry Fox's legal team. In an interview last week, before the Gamasutra article compelled him to act, Edery told us that cloning was becoming so prevalent that it would ultimately hold back innovation.
"Let's be blunt," he told us. "Cloning has always been an issue, but today it seems to happen faster than it's ever happened before. There seem to be companies that have risen in the industry with it at the core of their business model as opposed to something that unfortunately happens sometimes."
It's happened to Spry Fox before, with clones of Steambirds, and Edery believes Spry Fox will always be a target because it makes mechanically simple games that are easily cloned. "We're not going to stop making them," he told us. "But the pressure means we may need to slow down – instead of releasing on one platform and six months or a year later we release on others, we shoot straight for cross-platform. The copycats don't give us time.
"It demands initial investment which means it's harder to innovate, which means that many more developers are going to make the safe choice of being iterative instead of totally original. That's really sad … it is a serious problem and it is going to stop people from making original games."
Unlike Nimblebit, Spry Fox is able to take legal action against the studio that cloned Triple Town because it has copyrighted its work. It's evidently something that indies need to consider before they release a game of their own, further driving up the cost of development; as Edery says, it's not hard to see a future where studios aim lower in development lest their idea be cloned by a monied Silicon Valley firm.
Spry Fox seeks compensation for lost revenue of over $100,000, a permanent injunction against 6waves Lolapps, and its Yeti Town revenues, which it believes are in excess of half a million dollars, plus fees and costs.