Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 February, 2012

Clones… clones everywhere!
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:25 PM
(This post has been viewed 3291 times.)

I recently attended a conference on social and mobile games (yeah, I know) and they talked a bit about cloning of games. Again. A few high-profile examples of cloning have brought this back into the spotlight. So, let's take a look at the business realities of cloning and how it affect small game companies.

I say "again" because I wrote about cloning a bit over a year ago. Since then, it's just continued to become a bigger issue in the game industry.

More aggressive cloners

There were two major events recently that brought the cloning issue to the forefront of game discussions. The first was a humorous note from developers NimbleBit pointing out how a new Zynga game looks quite a bit like their existing game. They take a rather jovial approach, thanking Zynga for being such obvious fans of their work. They also point out that they are merely 3 people compared to Zynga's thousands of employees. Now, it's perhaps not all light-hearted fun as a recent tweet might indicate: "Even when you refuse to go work for Zynga, sometimes you end up doing work for Zynga anyway." But, the original image inspired fans to post in support of the developers and bring some more attention to them and their games.

The other major news was a lawsuit by Spry Fox against developer 6waves Lolapps (6L). The lawsuit (downloadable in PDF format from that link) alleges that 6L cloned Spry Fox's game Triple Town; further, the two parties were under a confidentiality agreement and 6L had confidential access to inside information that Spry Fox provided in anticipation of a partnership. Certainly suspicious if the accusations are correct.

The face of modern clones

At the conference i was at, one of the talks was about Trends in Social Game Product Development. One of the panelists was the ever insightful Brenda Brathwaite, a developer known for her honesty. She lamented that cloning was becoming much more common, saying that she had never heard the term "Fast Follow" until she got into social and mobile games. Fast follow is taking an idea from another company and using other competitive advantages (distribution, customer base, etc.) to get ahead. For games, that means taking a core game concept, executing it well enough, then tapping into your existing user base or marketing machine to gain more users. (Note that this seems to be a perfectly valid business strategy, it's just that we tend to have a different perspective when the idea being duplicated is a creative effort instead of something less emotional like a business model.)

The biggest problem, as Brenda points out, is that this puts a lot more emphasis on the idea. I've previously lamented how secretive the games industry tends to be, and this only exacerbates the problem. If you worry that your idea is going to get ripped off by a larger company who has more resources than you do, it becomes better to not discuss the idea until you can execute on it to the best extent you can. On the other hand, it becomes harder to test out ideas in the open and smaller shops might have trouble executing at all if they are too secretive. The old recommendation in the past was to share your idea as much as possible, as you were more likely to find people who wanted to help you rather than someone so creatively stunted they had to nab ideas from a small company.

Haven't we always had cloning?

Some people will argue that there has always been cloning in the game industry. But, in a discussion after the panel, Brenda pointed out how it's different this time around: using DOOM as an example, she pointed out that if you wanted to clone a game, you had to re-create the tech base. Since most programmers weren't John Carmack, they had to make different tech decisions which lead to different design decisions. Add a new theme on top of these new design decisions and the games felt more like different games in the same genre rather than just clones of each other.

Unfortunately, in this area of more unified platforms and stable code libraries, you don't have quite so much diversity in the technology part. Once you've got the basis for making one game, you can crank out a new game pretty easily. With most social and mobile games aiming for a wider audience, the theme is going to fall within a few fairly well-known areas: a modern or fairytale setting with cutesy or cartoony character, or something along those lines. As a result, a game inspired by another is going to look awfully similar.

New business realities

What does this mean for a game developer? Once again, we see that business reality intrudes upon design despite what most people would prefer. As I've written before, innovation is risk, and polish is the opposite of innovation, so I'm looking at things through this lens. What lessons can you learn from all this?

Move as fast as you can. In my previous post about clones, I referenced the story about how QCF's Desktop Dungeons had been cloned and put on the iPhone. Even a year ago we saw that releasing on one platform and slowly improving gave another company the opportunity to take your core game idea and move it to a new platform. Unfortunately, the more aggressive cloners mean that you need to move as fast as you can to establish your games on multiple platforms. Execution matters a lot if you don't want someone else to move in on your territory. Obviously, this is tough for smaller companies to do.

Simple games are riskier. As much as I can admire a simple design, and as much as I realize how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into making an elegantly simple design, the fact remains that simple games are easier to clone, and therefore riskier to implement. A game like Triple Town that was originally designed to run on the Kindle is going to be easier than Storybricks, a system that is designed to be simple to use but that has a lot of very complex mechanics under the surface. Unfortunately, a move away from simplicity means that many social and mobile games will start to resemble more traditional games, which means they will lose some of their advantages over traditional games. It'll be interesting to see how this works out.

Lawsuits might become more common. The lawsuit that Spry Fox is bringing against 6waves Lolapps might be the tip of the iceberg. Depending on how the results, lawsuits might become a lot more common. The downside is that lawsuits are costly both in terms of money and time. A developer who gets involved in a lawsuit might find the time they have less time to spend on actually making games. Worse, a small developer might find they don't have the financial resources to take on a company with deep pockets that can drag out a court case. Ultimately, it might make more sense to just focus on making more games rather than taking on potential clones. We might also see some developers trying to win points with the "court of public opinion" as NimbleBit did with the image I linked above. At any rate, this is another risk to keep in mind as you build a game company.

Rolling with the game design punches

Hopefully your eyes haven't glazed over reading this, especially if you're a game designer. As I've said before, I'm not passionate about business issues, but I feel I absolutely need to be informed about business issues if I want to make a living doing game design. Understanding these potential issues allows me to make games that have a chance to be more successful.

What do you think? Is cloning of games going to become more common? Will we grow to accept it? Or will lawsuits become more frequent as developers clash?

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13 Comments »

  1. I think cloning is going to become ever more of a problem as time progresses. It wasn't an issue per-zynga as - like you said - cloning was mere imitation, and it took long enough that there wasn' any real impact on the developers.

    What it's grown into now, however, is a serious problem. An independent developer can be ripped off before he even gets to market if the wrong person sees his beta, and a code-farm company like Zynga (there will be many more) can duplicate your game with likely substantially better graphics in no time at all by throwing groups of artists and programmers at it.

    There isn't a solution, though, other than "voting with your wallet" which, despite people's dreams, will never work because the vast majority of Zynga's customers neither know not care. You can't legislate a solution, because increasing copyright laws inevitably results in creating tools for large companies to bludgeon those same indie devs.

    Comment by Derrick — 13 February, 2012 @ 10:34 PM

  2. Your original article was exceptionally well-balanced and this one is insightful too.

    I hadn't heard the term "Fast Follow". Having a phrase associated with the business practice really illustrates how common it is. Kinda reminds me of the old Microsoft "Embrace and Extend" phrase.

    It's also worth noting that these clones seem to follow the gold rush on new platforms: Facebook, iPhone-- I imagine native-browser games (Chrome on the forefront) are next.

    I have thought out-loud a few times that puzzle games seem to get cloned the most and you've defined it better as the "blood, sweat, and tears goes into making an elegantly simple design".

    I don't know what to conclude, because well, what's the answer? Laws & litigation? That doesn't sound like it'll turn out well for the little guys. We're in a boom of Indie development right now, but I cannot think of anything that would kill it quicker than requiring a wide patent portfolio as a barrier to entry. Or any need to lawyer-up.

    I don't like this business stuff. I just want to make games.

    Comment by Rog — 13 February, 2012 @ 11:01 PM

  3. Looks like NimbleBit's humorous image paid off in rousing their supporters:

    http://www.edge-online.com/news/zyngas-dream-heights-launches-dismal-reviews

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 February, 2012 @ 2:53 AM

  4. Interesting article.

    My reaction to the tiny towers thing was that copying someones game is a loser move and if I was a Zynga game player I would stop. However you are right that most people do not care, they just want to play a fun game.

    Not sure what the solution will be for small developers.

    Comment by SirFWALGMan — 14 February, 2012 @ 8:13 AM

  5. I think we can definitely change the game-playing culture if we try hard enough. I've seen it done! Gamers on the popular Flash site Kongregate.com are quick to mark a clone as a clone, causing its rating to plummet and the game to be a financial failure (due to lack of ad revenue).

    But although this sounds great at first, it's a double-edged sword. The line between "clone" and "spiritual successor" is already wafer thin for industry professionals, let alone players. I've had my own game marked as a clone of my own other game because I reused my assets. I've also seen games killed as clones because they shared a strong theme but very different gameplay. And on and on.

    So yes, I think the way forward is to help players be more savvy. Like the down-voting on Dream Heights, this really does have a really big effect. But the first step has to be defining what a clone really is in very simple language. That in itself is a hard problem, but it's what has to be done.

    Comment by Eric Heimburg — 14 February, 2012 @ 10:31 AM

  6. (I should add that it's not universal; clones definitely do slip through and succeed, especially if the original wasn't a big hit or was more than six months ago. But it's a behavior that occurred because the site has lots of game developers who are slowly helping to create a trend towards this. Imagine what the results would be if it was a big effort across the gaming community. It would work. Whether we want it to, though, is a different question, given the ways it can backfire.)

    Comment by Eric Heimburg — 14 February, 2012 @ 10:36 AM

  7. "Looks like NimbleBit's humorous image paid off in rousing their supporters:

    http://www.edge-online.com/news/zyngas-dream-heights-launches-dismal-reviews"

    Zynga countered that by having the game featured on Free App-a-Day. It currently sits at number 14 in the App store's top Free games with a 4.5 star average out of almost 4000 reviews.

    They were able to use the masses who don't know about this or just don't care to drown out the passionate Tiny Tower supporters.

    Comment by Makai — 17 February, 2012 @ 12:01 PM

  8. Makai wrote:
    They were able to use the masses who don't know about this or just don't care to drown out the passionate Tiny Tower supporters.

    People have said that Zynga is a marketing company that happens to make games. They play to their strengths: getting a game in front of people, rather than trying to create great new game designs.

    But, I think NimbleBit doesn't have to dominate Zynga to win this battle. If they've gotten a few new players due to the word-of-mouth marketing efforts of their existing fanbase, they'll be doing good. The benefit of being a 3-person shop instead of a giant company with multiple thousands of employees is that you can survive (even thrive) on a much more limited userbase.

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 February, 2012 @ 3:04 AM

  9. True to Design: What I’m Reading

    [...] Clones… clones everywhere!: http://psychochild.org/?p=1122 [...]

    Pingback by Managing the Game — 20 February, 2012 @ 6:38 AM

  10. Fair enough. I understood your comment to imply that NimbleBit had successfully prompted its fanbase to "Amazon Bomb" Dream Heights' app store reviews.

    I find it actually pretty interesting that something like EA's Spore was unable to recover from its Amazon Bomb even with its high sales numbers(it still has an Amazon rating of one and a half stars), while Dream Heights was easily able to shrug it off. It seems like something only possible when you're on a free-to-play model coupled with a very powerful marketing machine.

    Comment by Makai — 21 February, 2012 @ 1:00 PM

  11. Makai wrote:
    Fair enough. I understood your comment to imply that NimbleBit had successfully prompted its fanbase to "Amazon Bomb" Dream Heights' app store reviews.

    The did for a short while, but it bounced back as you pointed out.

    I find it actually pretty interesting that something like EA's Spore was unable to recover from its Amazon Bomb even with its high sales numbers(it still has an Amazon rating of one and a half stars), while Dream Heights was easily able to shrug it off.

    Or, one company is more willing to take steps to recover a good rating than another. It's well known that mobile game developers "buy users", not too much of a stretch to see them buying reviewers just as easily.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 February, 2012 @ 5:06 AM

  12. I thought this post would be about WoW and how the MMO genre is pretty much dead..

    Comment by Tobias — 9 April, 2012 @ 11:01 PM

  13. Yeah, well, I've beat that horse to death. Plus, I'm working on an MMO project that isn't just a clone with Storybricks, so I'm doing instead of complaining in that area. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 April, 2012 @ 2:41 PM

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