WeChat’s latest viral game looks eerily familiar

WeChat’s latest viral game looks eerily familiar
Josh Horwitz

Just before the new year, Chinese social media giant Tencent released a new feature in WeChat, its wildly popular messenger, allowing users to play games inside the app without first downloading them.

It’s part of Tencent’s effort to turn WeChat into a mobile Swiss Army knife that will reduce the need for users to ever download another app in the first place. On Dec. 29, Tencent unveiled a list of 17 titles (link in Chinese) as part of the first batch of “mini games.” Of the series, one in particular has gone viral—Tiao yi tiao, which translates roughly to “Jump and jump.”

It has all the qualities of an addictive smartphone game—users simply press down on the screen to move a hopping black figure from one platform to another, collecting one point for each successful jump. High scores can be shared with friends on WeChat, of course. The title has exploded in popularity, and articles have surfaced online revealing ways to improve scores (link in Chinese) or unearth hidden Easter eggs (link in Chinese).

Yet some gamers might notice that Tiao yi tiao bears an unusually close resemblance to another game—Bottle Flip, released in 2016 by French app developer Ketchapp.

In that game, players press down on the smartphone’s screen to flip a milk bottle from one cube to another. Tencent itself has acknowledged these similarities. In response to general queries about the games from Quartz, representatives for WeChat sent over a set of Q&As drafted by its mini-game team.

One of WeChat’s own questions asked: “WeChat’s mini game looks like a foreign game, has Tencent received licensing permission? Is this WeChat copying?” The response reads: WeChat’s mini games are developed by Tencent’s internal teams. The games and the elements in the games are original, and make use of visual easter eggs in WeChat and daily life, for example WeChat’s colors, red envelopes, and other lighthearted graphics.

At the same time, the games add the special social gameplay of WeChat, like score comparison with friends, watching others play, and rankings.

From the beginning, WeChat has paid respect to classic works, innovation, and habits of technology. For example, WeChat version 5.0 added an airplane game that paid homage to a classic game, likewise, Tiao yi tiao lets everyone get familiar with the mini-games feature, and reminds everyone to seek a sense of play and happiness.

When asked for further comment, Tencent pointed Quartz to the same statement. Ketchapp did not respond immediately to Quartz’s request for comment. It’s not uncommon for game makers to take inspiration from one another. This is particularly true for casual smartphone games—it’s easy for anyone to download and play a number of swipe-and-match, bubble-pop games that are virtually identical save for some graphics and sound effects.

Even Ketchapp has been accused of knocking off well-known titles from other companies. Its numbers game 2048 bears a striking resemblance to a game called Threes, and ultimately eclipsed it in popularity. Its puzzle game Skyward, meanwhile, bears some visual similarity to the hit indie game Monument Valley. Games are a core part of Tencent’s business.

Of the 65.2 billion yuan ($9.8 billion) in revenue the company generated during the quarter ending on Sept. 30, 2017, about 50% came from PC and mobile games. Most of this comes from China, and is driven by titles like Honor of Kings, which appeal to serious gamers, rather than casual games. If WeChat’s casual mini-games prove popular, they could boost that revenue stream further. Tencent is also steadily taking its gaming business international, with the upcoming release of Arena of Valor—a re-launch of Honor of Kings for overseas markets. That and other global forays are bringing the international spotlight toward Tencent. As other companies take notice, they’ll likely also notice instances when its content drifts too much in the direction of “homage.”

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