13 February, 2012
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?