Game Design: Rise of the Clones

There has been a recent flurry of media coverage on big game companies releasing clones of games developed by smaller, indie studios.  Here are a couple of claims made by two studios against Zynga:

http://kotaku.com/5879046/zynga-totally-rips-off-tiny-tower
http://venturebeat.com/2012/01/29/buffalo-studios-blasts-zynga-for-copying-bingo-blitz-social-game/

And here is a more recent and more serious accusation that is actually turning into a lawsuit, against our own publisher 6waves/LOLAPPS:

http://www.edery.org/2012/01/standing-up-for-ourselves/

Having been in contact with several folks involved in the accusation and lawsuit, it’s been interesting to hear people’s take on the issue.  There is a really fine line between inspiration and copying, and this problem has been seen in any creative field for a long time.  It has come up before in the game industry in the past, but it has become more of a focus in the current social/freemium game landscape.  Why?  Because the efforts involved in cloning a game have been reduced while the financial reward has gone up.

For a long time, shipping any computer game was not for the faint of heart.  Development cycles often lasted a year or more, and studios lived and died by the whims of publisher because games generate no revenue until it finally hits the shelf.  Game developers worked long and hard hours to deliver milestones to just keep the publishers happy, and it was commonplace to see game projects canned for financial reasons.  Even when a game was completed, it still needed the publisher’s buy-in to get the shelve placement and marketing effort required to reach financial success.

However, the tough landscape did bring the best out of the game industry.  The game economy filtered out anyone that didn’t have the passion for it.  It had never been a good paying gig outside of a few rock stars, but folks stuck around because of a sense of pride and ownership in what they created.  A lot of industry visionaries made their marks, and they all brought something unique to the industry – in the form of game design or technology.

Nowadays, with the advancement of dev tools, distribution channel, and new revenue models, online freemium games are achieving financial success while having shorter production cycles.  I am still trying to wrap my brain around this every day.  Some of my friends in the traditional gaming space are making almost half of what my other friends are making at some social game studios.  Hey, game developers are finally able to pay their bills and put food on the table!

The new landscape brought in more money, but also fundamentally changed how games were designed.  In traditional games, we have seen the occasional bad games that sold well due to licensing and buzz (Enter the Matrix, 62/100 on metacritic, 5m copies sold), critically acclaimed games flopping commercially (Grim Fandango, Okami, etc), and bad games sold poorly despite big marketing effort (Haze, <500k copies sold).  It’s a hits-driven business, and a fun game or strong marketing alone does not guarantee commercial success. Combining with the fact that traditional game productions are rather expensive and lengthy, it makes cloning games a rather risky business.

In freemium games, it becomes a very different numbers game.  There are many fun games that simply don’t monetize (unfortunately, I’ve worked on a couple), and not-so-fun games that monetizes well.  In fact, just a few key numbers determine the entire fate of nearly any freemium games – conversion rate, retention rate, and revenue-per-active-user.  If a game converts free players at a high rate and monetizes them well, the developer/publisher can continue to ramp up marketing and buy installs as long as each player brings in more revenue than the acquisition cost.  Conversely, if you have a lot of people playing your game but few are paying, the game is going to eventually shut down, regardless how fun it is.  The financial success of games can now be projected early and accurately from the sea of metrics, and this is something that is very hard to do in the traditional game space.  And this gives rise to a new kind of visionaries – the ones who master metric driven design, A/B testing, and monetization techniques. With the advanced understanding of metrics, it has become easier and less risky to replicate the financial success of an existing freemium game.  Not to mention the time to market on these games are also shorter than the traditional games, making the decision to clone a game an even more profitable one. While I believe it’s a good thing that more dollars are flowing into the market and developers, I also believe that the recent focus on monetization has relegated game design innovation to the back seat.

One other key difference is that these cloned games are serving the new “freemium casual game audience”.  These players are not the ones who read reviews in gaming magazine.  They have not been playing games long enough to build a “refined” taste that traditional gamers have.  They are not the ones who will tell you that Angry Bird is a copy of “Crush the Castle”, which is inspired by “Worms”, which is inspired by “Scorched Earth” (they call it The Mother of All Games for good reason).  In a landscape where audience does not yet fully recognize and reward innovation, it is natural that the market supplies only what the consumers demand.

What used to be a creative process of “designing games for the sake of fun” becomes a financially driven process of “quickly expanding revenue generation portfolio”.

Let me go on a tangent for a second and look at another sector flooded with copycat ideas – the current day Silicon Valley.  With regards to the start-up world, the industry seems to have relatively little problem with cloning ideas.  Just look at all the daily deal companies (Groupon, LivingSocial, Bloomspot, etc), FourSquare/Gowalla, and of course, Friendster/Facebook/Myspace.

Why hasn’t it been an issue?  I believe it’s because the ultimate gauge of success for start-ups is financial success.  At the end of the day, whoever is able to get a bigger market share, generate more revenue, and offer more value to the shareholders is the winner.  The better product is the one that generates more revenue, not necessarily the one that is functionally and aesthetically superior.  Folks are constantly bashing Microsoft products, but we all recognize that the company is enormously successful.  Zynga has a terrible reputation among game developers for their design practice, but they are one of the mos most valuable gaming company in the US.  They are innovative in proving out the freemium business model, but not so in game design.  The game industry looks down on them for delivering copycat products, cranking out uninspired ideas that are based metrics and not fun factors.  But as long as they are able to reward their shareholders and offer their developers twice as much money as traditional developers, you bet they will keep their formula going.

When a good, innovative game idea comes about, it will attract designers who are inspired by the game mechanics, as well as players who has grown familiar and become attached to those same game mechanics.  As future “inspired” games sprouts out from the first innovation, they form a game genre over time.  The success of Dune 2 and Warcraft draws in many subsequent developers and designers who create the RTS genre together.  In a way, Zynga has also paved way for many of the freemium games today with their innovation in monetization strategy.  The forming of a new game genre tends to happen organically and is sprinkled with small bits of innovation in each new iteration along the way.

However, there is definitely a line between adhering to a genre and copying a game.  It’s a very subjective matter, and I don’t think there’s an easy way to define how the line is drawn.  But when a company crosses it, the public tends to see it quickly.  But in our current space, the developers are the ones who recognize and speak up, but not the audience – yet.  Companies looking at these short term clones are making the business decision between short term gain versus a long term reputation and growth.  Will the consumers be knowledgeable enough with a discerning taste to reward the ones who come up with cool ideas and good execution versus the ones with recycled ideas and clones?  Only time will tell.  But I believe that all businesses should to stay true to their core value.  And for us at FableLabs, it’s about creating games with original content that offer a unique experience to players.  We want to be the next group of visionaries that marry the learnings from the freemium model with the good ol’ spirit of game design innovation.

I do think that this new freemium/social/casual game audience is quickly maturing.  And this will only in turn foster a new crop of games that will build on the existing mechanics that they are familiar with, while introducing new ones that provides many of the things old school gamers have general come to recognize as being a good, original games:

  • A story line that create emotional attachment
  • New game mechanics that departs from or combines existing ones
  • Emergent game play stemming from a good set of game rules

FWIW, here’s Zynga’s internal response to the accusations:

http://kotaku.com/5880941/zyngas-formerly+secret-defense-against-copycat-accusations

This entry was posted in Gaming Bizdev, Theoretical Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Comments