[The following began as a comment left by gaming veteran Tadhg Kelly on a post we wrote last week about Zynga’s Café World, a clever clone of Playfish’s Restaurant City. Café World had 8.6 million monthly active users at that point, only a week after launching. Today, a week later, it has 15.9 million, according to our AppData service. In the article below, Kelly explores the history of cloning in the gaming world and the ramifications for social games in the future.]
While social games as a sector has exploded onto the scene as the new thing in recent times, there are some parts of how the sector operates which are very old-school. Chief among these is rampant cloning. Cloning has a very long and ignoble history in games for a couple of reasons:
It’s much easier to develop a game when you know what you’re aiming for.
Developing a new game is a complex undertaking because the target can be unclear. It’s not just how to develop it, it’s what are you trying to develop in the first place and how sure can you be that it’s any fun at all?
However developing a version of an existing game removes half of that complexity and reduces it to an engineering problem. You already know it will be fun because you can use the previous version as a reference point. Developers and publishers generally like that sort of certainty.
Many developers like to copy other games as a way to learn how to code better.
Indeed it’s considered a part of learning how to develop games that you will at some point copy another game in order to learn how good games work. Tetris has been copied and recopied by every amateur developer you can think of for the last 20 years because the game mechanics are so instructive.
Many publishers like selling a recognisable concept to their audience.
Game publishers like a game that they can sell, and that means one of three things:
1. An instantly recognisable concept
2. A instantly recognisable brand
3. A game concept so brilliant that it conveys itself
In an ideal world all games would be the third option but in actuality that is very rare. Wolfenstein and Doom are examples of games that managed that. For most other developers and publishers, however, they exist within the first or second option most of the time.
Invention is hard. What many developers do is opt for instant recognition through cloning either a specific game or following its genre. Game genres are simply a gathering of conventions from some source games that were cloned so much that they became standardised.
When Doom appeared there was no formal First Person Shooter genre. Now there is. Many games have cloned, adapted and expanded upon Doom’s roots. All game genres have similar roots.
Cloning is hard to defend against from a legal standpoint.
When Pong was released by Atari back in the 70s, it spawned many clones. Atari spent a great deal of effort trying to stop this sort of thing but discovered they couldn’t. Pong and Bejewelled and a bunch of other casual games have gone on to be cloned by just about everyone since because the games were very easy to clone.
Cloning is not generally considered to be copying.
Copying is lifting not just a game’s mechanics but also its look, feel and intellectual property. Legally speaking the reason why cloning has always been hard to prevent is that the law does not protect ideas. It protects the expression of ideas.
Cloning is a major source of innovation, through adaptation and improvement
Cloning has a sliding scale. Many of the cloned copies of Bejewelled are carbon copies that essentially swap artwork styles and brand name but are otherwise identical. On the other hand, Puzzle Quest certainly takes inspiration from Bejewelled but rolls a whole RPG out of it and so has become a unique and interesting game.
Cloning and Social Games
Zynga has managed to create a clever commercial engine for their games and a vast userbase as a result. But their tactics of the last year have relied heavily on cloning to get there. They tried original development but that did not go well (see their $2m fantasy title).
However they are not the only ones by a long shot. Playdom’s games are also largely clones, in many cases clones of clones. Playfish, often thought of as the more original social game studio, has based several of its games on Nintendo and other casual games and have also recently gotten into the virtual farming market with their own clone.
The RPG format in particular has been cloned far and wide into dozens of themes. Many of the other successful games are quite simply adaptations of existing concepts already in web games and transported into social networks. Farming games, rpgs, Poker, etc are some examples.
It is fair to say that the vast majority of social games are actually clones of other social games or casual games to a greater or lesser extent.
Is Cloning a Problem?
So cloning is everywhere. But is it actually a problem?
Zynga seems to be approaching 150m users. They may have a catalogue of games that have clear origins in other games. They may be making money hand over fist.
The Zynga difference is that Zynga have become experts at funnelling. They do this through spending an awful lot of money on advertising externally, and also use their own games as advertising platforms for their other games. Zynga is able to generate enormous user adoption of their games very quickly as a result (as seen by the recent explosion in Café World users). The same is true of Playfish, who cross-promote all of their games with a sidebar but don’t advertise as much.
This also means that the monthly active user (MAU) figure may be a false metric, as it only counts per game, not per developer. So Zynga may have 150m MAU on paper, but if those users are each across 3 or 4 Zynga games, the company’s MAU may actually be as low as 50-60m actual people. (This is also why it’s better to use DAU as a way of judging real activity in games on Facebook).
But so what? Does Zynga’s activity actually affect the original developers? It doesn’t seem to.
A recent example of this is Farm Town and Farm Ville. When Farm Town launched on Facebook it exploded up the charts with no advertising. It was a game concept so brilliant (for the platform) that it conveyed itself. Zynga (and later Playfish, with Country Story) jumped on this new market and applied their commercial model.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that Farm Town still has 19m users. While Café World may have a lot of similarities to Restaurant City, it hasn’t actually taken any Restaurant City users away. Playdom’s Poker title has its own audience, it hasn’t eaten Zynga’s Poker audience.
Unlike the console video game market where games are comparatively expensive and competition between titles is very much a win/lose scenario, social games are free. What we forget in comparing the MAUs obsessively is that players can be both Farm Ville and Farm Town players because it costs them nothing.
Social games are thus not a zero-sum market. The viral channel effect that brought 19m users into Farm Town is very much alive and well and raising new applications all the time.
Strategies to Deal With Cloning
However if you do think cloning is a problem then there are several approaches to tackling it.
Of all the casual games that have been commercially cloned over the years, one stands out as a highly significant exception: Tetris.
Tetris is not a difficult game to clone, mechanically speaking. It is a very simple game after all, and everybody knows how to play it. Tetris has certainly been copied by just about every college game development graduate at some point but it remains relatively untouched commercially.
This is because Tetris is a strong intellectual property. Tetris, unlike Bejewelled, is a game name which most casual players know very well and as a result they tend to favour the brand. Tetris launched the Game Boy, it is addictive, it had a song named after it and it is iconic and instantly recognisable. So clone developers tend to stay away from carbon copying it because there’s no point.
So a strong brand is good protection against cloning, but it is difficult to achieve.
The law may not protect game innovation but it does protect expressions of that innovation. That’s why Mattel was able to get Scrabulous taken down: It was so close to the Scrabble intellectual property that they were able to make the case that Scrabulous constituted an infringement.
The other form of legal protection that you could employ is patenting. Patenting requires that you have the means to file a patent, the means to protect it and that your game has a genuine innovation that other games do not yet have. Patents also take years to be recognised, although you can obtain some protection from using the phrase ‘Patent Pending’ clearly.
Patents have protected Slingo (a casual game mashup of slot machines and Bingo) from being commercially cloned for a decade. Nintendo has used patents to prevent anyone from using the insanity mechanic in Eternal Darkness.
Patents are something of an ethical minefield however as they can also stifle innovation. Many developers are not comfortable with that idea because software development is usually iterative and relies on being able to use innovations that went before to do something new.
There is a correlation between the apparent complexity of a game’s design and how likely it is to be cloned. Bejewelled is easy to clone because the mechanics are on display. The Sims and Animal Crossing, on the other hand, are not. It takes time to learn how they work as much as how they work well, and this means the actual effort of cloning either of them is probably greater than is worthwhile.
That doesn’t mean that you have to create a huge life-sim game just to avoid being cloned. Some casual games like Peggle have not yet been cloned to any great extent, partly because Popcap learned their lesson with Bejewelled and protect Peggle aggressively, but also because Peggle is very reliant on good physics. Good physics are hard to get right.
The real reason why many games on Facebook get cloned heavily is that they are easy targets. Restaurant City, Farm Town and Mobsters are simplistic games, and this is what makes them clone-able. Their game mechanics are very easy to understand and the kinds of reward that they offer are simple levels and item drops.
Social games to date are mostly just fancy interfaces with very little back end depth. It does not matter in Restaurant City what combination of items and menus you use in your restaurant. It doesn’t really matter what farm orientation you have in Farm Town. Most of the side quests in any RPG have no variation. Most of these games cast aside compound effects and deep design and so they are very easy for any developer to interpret into a rule set and then clone.
Social games are by and large extremely dumb software. So if you want to avoid being cloned, the answer is to not design dumb software that can be reverse-engineered in a week.
Does Cloning have a Future?
The current social game market, in particular the Zynga model, has a lot in common with television. Television is also a market in which cloning is also rampant. One channel creates a reality TV show and next season every other channel does one too. One channel creates a house-buyers guide and every other channel too. As with games, the easier the format of the show is to copy, the more likely it will be copied.
The Zynga model is basically applying funnel marketing to direct users from one game to another, like TV channels try to do from one show to the next.
However Facebook is not television. It does not have formalised channels, it is viral. Many web companies over the years have tried at one point or another to fence off users and keep them within their funnel (often with portals) but funnelling inevitably fails because it cannot keep up with changing user tastes fast enough. The internet audience is atomised and full of niches. It is not a constrained and channelled audience. Even Facebook itself seems to understand this with Facebook Connect.
The inherently viral nature of Facebook (and the internet generally) means that every social game developer is always vulnerable. We still exist in a phase of the social game market where the majority of users are still new to Facebook and social networking. Most users on Facebook are less than a year on the platform. Many of them don’t know that there are games on Facebook. Many don’t realise that it’s not Facebook hosting those games.
However, at some point soon the Facebook audience is going to start to mature. They are going to be less interested in dumb software and more interested in finding better quality ways to spend their time. This makes the cloning model very vulnerable.
Atari, the original cloned company, failed eventually because their model had become so reliant on dumb software that they could not contemplate another way of doing business. They eventually crashed, giving way to Nintendo’s much more depth-focused approach. Historically speaking the pattern of all game markets has been similar. The initial rush gives way to substance.
Game depth, original ideas and niche games command much greater loyalty over the long term, and loyal users tend to monetise much more readily and regularly than casual users. Viral channels ultimately reward this more because friends are always more likely to share what they consider to be remarkable and interesting things over average things. Advertising also tends to become less effective over time in all markets, so a brute force approach to marketing will not work so well without the virality to back it up.
Unexpected viral hits will continue to land, but so too will audience maturation, and that’s going to take us to more interesting places. All the top social game companies have built themselves a presence but a presence by itself is only a short term advantage. The real challenge for them is whether they can convert their advantage into a broader vision, or whether they can achieve an exit to a major publisher like EA, and whether any of the major developers and publishers will start bringing their much more mature games to Facebook. I expect we will see a number of such moves taking place in the next year.
Tadhg Kelly is the chief creative officer of Simple Lifeforms, a social games company dedicated to creating the best social games. He is a keen advocate of social games as a new evolution in games and game players, and a noted blogger and article writer to that effect.