Monday, 2 April 2012

Why Are Games Devs Comfortable With Clones?

I'm sure we're all familiar with copycat games, particularly on mobile: the Zyngas, the XYZ-villes, the Something-Wars... this isn't developers (or publishers) riffing on an existing genre or drawing inspiration; this is outright theft with little to no attempt made to cover up the fact. This is developers remaking an existing game (one of their own, or someone else's, it doesn't seem to matter) with slightly different graphics and adding an 's' to the end of the name.

Why is this okay in games and nowhere else?

Now, before my agent slaps me silly for openly criticising a huge portion of the game industry let me step back a little. This sort of flagrant copying is not new, is not unique to any one studio or industry, and has strong historical precedent. Aping the work that's come before is a fairly usual interim step in creative development: most writers, for instance, start out drawing rather more clues from their favoured authors than they would be comfortable with later in their careers when they develop a stronger personal voice. Film started out in exactly the same place: early Hollywood was rife with the likes of Ed Wood producing cheap knock offs of more ambitious films to satisfy an audience that, at the time, demanded quantity over quality. Those films helped establish a base standard and allowed producers to develop their skill sets beyond it. Even today you can still find the likes of '29 Days Later' and 'Snakes on a Train' on the budget shelf of certain video shops.

The big difference we need to note is that the likes of Touchstone, Pathe or Universal would never dream, today, of releasing 'Saving Private Brian'. To be seen to do as much would be an incredible embarrassment for all involved; so why do the games industry equivalents fail to bat an eyelid?

It's worth observing, here, that while the rise of iOS and other mobile systems has seen copycat games make a massive resurgence, this is not new ground for our industry. Just like film, we started out in a rather more amateur, less profitable place where games were put in the back pages of computer magazines, and creative ambition was of a far lower priority than bums on seats. Without regulation or any great financial investment we had something very similar to the clone culture that exists for certain indie developers: 'I love this game, so I'm going to remake it'. If when Mario Bros came out everyone had gone to great lengths to avoid producing anything similar it seems reasonable to think we'd be in a less varied, less exciting development environment today.

Perhaps my point here is rather obvious, but I expect the reason a major games publisher is no longer embarrassed to put out a clone (as they may have been ten years ago) is that the rise of casual gaming has rendered doing so a hugely profitable pursuit. iOS has brought so many new consumers to our industry that in some respects we're back to square one: an audience base that demands quantity over quality.

This, surely, will not be the case forever. Games are due a far more torrid gestation than other mediums, and this must be another step in that journey just as unpredictable as the last. I can't say I'm not looking forward to the next jump; but equally I do wonder whether there's an even more profitable middle ground there between building on proven mechanics and creating something with ambition. A Doodlejump that does something Doodlejump didn't do sounds like a winner to me.

1 comment:

  1. Am I being harsh? Am I ever going to work for Zynga? Should we even care as long as we're putting out new product at the same time?

    Header image: Great Giana Sisters; one of the most unashamed Mario clones of all time.