In May 2009, a poster on the forums of the popular Web comic xkcd asked fellow forum-goers: What was the “most geeky thing” they had done recently?
The original poster was watching the BBC’s “Walking With…” animal history series in evolutionary order. One respondent was learning to program in the Python programming language. Another designed an RF tracker for his cat.
The ninth response was from a user calling himself “Notch”: “I started working on a clone of Infiniminer. That’s pretty geeky. =D”
Three days later, Markus “Notch” Persson posted on an independent game development forum, TIGForums, to unveil a playable alpha of his clone: The first version of Minecraft. Within 12 minutes, a player had discovered an underground cave, and praised the game’s “great sense of exploration.” Within a few hours, someone had already made art out of the game’s endlessly recombinable blocks: A giant recreation of Nintendo’s flagship character Mario.
As explained in Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s book about Minecraft, the basics of Infiniminer will be “eerily familiar” to Minecraft players:
The game is enacted in square, blocky worlds automatically generated before each play. Every individual block can be picked loose from the environment and assembled into something new. Certain blocks, often the ones deep in the ground, contain rare minerals. Others are just dirt and rock to be dug through in the search for treasure.
Here’s the thing, though: Persson did nothing wrong, and there’s a case to be made that the status quo of game cloning is the least bad option.
Off the bat, it’s worth noting that cloning a game is legal. This is because copyright doesn’t protect creative ideas — such as the concept of having a randomly generated world of blocks — but rather the specific expression of those ideas in a published game. Plus, Persson made some crucial changes. He replaced Infiniminer’s third-person view with a first-person view, putting players in direct contact with whatever they crafted and built, and arguably making the creative experience more intimate.
Goldberg and Larsson interviewed Infiniminer creator Zachary Barth for their book, and even he agreed: “The act of borrowing ideas is integral to the creative process.”
Not all developers are quite so forgiving. Earlier this year, an innovative $2 mobile puzzle game called Threes was rapidly cloned and tweaked into a bevy of free-to-play titles, led by Ketchapp’s 2048, that outpaced their inspiration in downloads. Although Threes creators Greg Wohlwend and Asher Vollmer did the iterative heavy design lifting, 2048 became a monumental hit on the back of Threes’ minimalist sliding-numbers mechanic.
Unfortunately for Wohlwend and Vollmer, appealing to the public was about as far as they could go. Regardless of what feels fair, Ketchapp legally made a game that people wanted to play, and designed it to have greater viral reach because it was free rather than paid. It’s hard to say if those free-riding gamers necessarily would’ve ever tried, or even heard about, Threes.
Persson and his startup Mojang managed to build Minecraft into a $2.5 billion property through years of updates to the game, while Infiniminer’s audience dispersed when the game’s source code leaked and the Web was flooded with indistinguishable copies; Barth wound up releasing his version’s open-source code and abandoning it. Knowing in hindsight that Infiniminer would fizzle, it’s worth considering: If Barth had been able to block Mojang from developing its own more tightly controlled take on the genre, would anyone be better off?
In any case, with one of the hottest games of all time now under its belt, Microsoft is probably pretty glad for the status quo.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.