What Games Are: Why All The Clones?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Why are there so many cloned video games? The answer is simple. Whether you call it cloning, copying or fast following, a common perception in the industry is that the market moves in genres and it’s a safer bet to get in on a genre rather than strike out. Just as many technology companies do, lots of game makers watch a few leaders to see what’s next and use that as a form of social proof. Time to make a farming sim, an endless runner, a crafting game or an episodic adventure. That’s what’s hot now. That’s what someone will fund.

Of course this perception is – and always has been – a bit of an illusion, and it regularly leads the industry into irrational exuberance. The rush into social games, for example, evolved very quickly into blitz-style casual games, behaviorist Civ-style games, pet simulators, word games, quizzes, casinos and bare-bones roleplaying games. Wild innovation quickly transformed into a market where developers copied the hell out of one another, and effectively all provided variations on the same basic product to players (who then became bored).

Then came the crash, the regret, the millions lost on bad investments and the large-scale decamping to iOS. Now that iOS is all full up, the worry is what the next hot-ticket platform is going to be. Maybe next generation consoles or microconsoles? Maybe something to do with wearables? Maybe a surge in virtual realities or augmented realities, or both? A lot of people would dearly love to know, but it’s not obvious yet.

Game makers tend to be more risk-averse than risk-takers. At conferences, for example, some of the most-attended talks tend to be the ones that promise concrete numbers or discussions about successful techniques. There’s a constant search on for the next proven technique, the next risk mitigation, the next “it is known“.

Many are risk-averse because of perceived financial risk. A lot of cloners consider their more creative brethren as heroes, but feel that they can’t afford to be that risky right now. Yet even when they do manage to be super successful down the line, they still can’t justify the risk. Zynga, for example, mostly still fast-follows. EA developers have a hell of a time internally getting new creative projects off the ground. Supercell seems to be going through a difficult-third-game phase in the wake of its two very successful (but pretty clearly inspired by other games) hits.

Arguably the reason cloners stick to their cloning ways is also cultural: As the template for success is found early in many studios, it sets a precedent. There are numerous examples of single-franchise game companies (such as Jagex which just celebrated RuneScape‘s 13th birthday) that get stuck trying to make a second success that looks like its first success. Prior success becomes the filter through which new ideas are allowed, therefore if you’re used to looking at other games to be your guide, that’s what you’ll likely do again.

The other thing is that cloning sometimes works. There are many examples of an innovative game being developed by a small studio, but a bigger company rolled its own version and deployed its marketing might to get it into the hands of players first. In the social casino space, for example, players really don’t care or notice the difference between slots games and just pick the one that they see as the default. In the farming-game explosion on Facebook it was really all about who had the best marketing because the games were all basically the same.

The other kind of successful cloning happens when a genuine genre market does emerge around a type of game. Innovation within those genres becomes more important than from-the-ground-up design, leading to studios standing out within a market subset based on subtle distinctions. First person shooters, real-time strategy games, roleplaying games, racing games, side-scrolling shooters, point-and-click adventures and fighting games are all types of genre where specialization of this sort has occurred. To the outsider they would be called clones, but their audiences notice and celebrate the differences, and do not consider them as clones. 

Only a few game makers successfully manage to get beyond the risk-aversion. One example is the small studio that doesn’t know or care about the risks and just goes ahead and makes something. Vlambeer, for example, is a tiny studio based in Utrecht that created the wildly successful Ridiculous Fishing (and had a hell of a time with being cloned in doing so). Another smaller example is Kirkland-based Spry Fox, developers of Triple TownHigh GroundsLeap Day and numerous other highly innovative games.

On the other end are companies like Nintendo and Valve. Nintendo takes big risks in terms of its platforms, especially in interface innovation (some of which work out, others not so much). Yet the company also innovates very strongly on games. The sheer number of genres that it has spawned boggle the mind. Valve has a great track record of noticing interesting indie games that it then brings in-house and accelerates into full-blown successes.

The difference between successful creators and cloners is not merely about finance or culture. It tends to have more to do with process. Nintendo has a process that relies on building out a lot of a game before (in a sense) dumping it to then begin work on the real game. Many lessons are learned that can then be applied to the real project, so every Nintendo game is a sequel to itself.

The other difference is patience. Whether at large or small scale, the more successful innovators tend to find ways to give their games long-enough time to gel together. Daniel Cook (creative director of Spry Fox) regularly talks about how his company uses a gating process with its projects, resulting in lots of internal failures that are quietly killed. This process takes time and a willingness to let some projects ride for a while until they find what it is they are trying to be, so team sizes are kept tiny until the game is essentially found.

Clone companies tend to have poor (or no) systems in place for evaluating a game design (whether on paper or in terms of prototypes). They also tend to want to rush it. A clone studio typically regards the days, weeks or months that a designer says she needs as nothing but terrifying risk. What happens if, after all that time, the resulting product is no good? What do all of the other staff do in the mean time? What happens if the market moves on by the time the project is ready and the genre isn’t hot any more?

They clone or fast-follow and innovative games become their design document, their shortcut to success and their personal risk mitigators. Just copy the original until you get the same results that it does, they say. Write a playbook of all those techniques that we can then use in other games, they say. Just keep doing that enough. That’s what success in games looks like. 

Then comes the crash, and it turns out they learned nothing at all.