One reason we see so many clones? Communication.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Why do game companies make clones of other games? Misplaced financial envy? Trying to ride a trend in the market? Hoping to capitalize on an existing fanbase? Yeah. But those aren't really reasons why a designer would want to lean heavily on another title for "inspiration". Surely designers want to make unique original games?
Let's zoom in a second.
Ask a random person what they imagine the most challenging aspect of designing a game is and you'll hear a few familiar guesses. "Coming up with ideas?" No. God no. "Balancing the game?" Sure, tough, but just another task. "Making the game feel good?" important, but not it. It goes on...
In my opinion, without doubt, nothing comes close to the hellish task of trying to pull a vision from your head and propagate it out to a team of developers. I'm talking about communication. Idea transfer. Debate. Salesmanship. Mustering an army, unrolling your battle plans, and doing what we can to convince the generals that the plan makes sense. The longer you work with teams, the more you realize that's the bulk of what we do (assuming you're working with others).
There are countless tools for this of course; detailed design documents, prototypes, art reference folders, animatics, presentations, PowerPoints, 4 hour design meetings, shells, Lego dioramas, whatever, you name it. ALL of these exist purely to overcome our inability to directly wire your brain to mine. Just 30 seconds of co-op mindlink and we can have one symbiotic shared imagining of what this proposed amazing game could be like. People could 'get it', experience the game in a common moment, and march off with enthusiasm and shared purpose. Hell yeah! Thanks, Mindlink 2000!
Sadly, there's no wetwire technology yet, so we have pitches, greenlight processes, milestones, and other bureaucracy. At many companies, a dedicated designer's only job is this communication loop, the 'brain dump'.
The closest thing we have to a human 'brain dump' is our shared experiences. It's why I can say to you in an elevator "CoD meets MechWarrior"... three freakin' words... and you can picture TitanFall in pretty vivid detail.
I drop a 50 page document on your desk for a bad ass viking game with clans, ship upgrades, encounter types, plot points, and mechanics? If you're like everyone else on the planet you're not going to read that, who would want to? But I say "FTL with Vikings!" and again, Mindlink 2000, we are 90% on the same page! We have our starting point and you can start making assets now!
From a developer's point of view, existing games are a fundamental communication tool. Games themselves are our language.
(I certainly applaud developers who are creating games that defy comparison in such a way. It's a very frustrating reality when your game pitch doesn't easily fit existing molds; you're depending more on everyone around you to drop preconceived notions and really try to like what you're saying. It can be especially hard for another developer to hear out someone else's game vision with an open mind.)
This communication issue scales up with larger organizations, logically. You've got 10 layers of management and marketing and external studios working on various aspects of the game; it's more important than ever to have the common crutch of a shared past experience.
Similarly, why do we see 5 sequels of every major game? Because that's 4 projects staffed by people who basically knew what was expected of them on day one of the project (5 if the original was a clone!).
With this in mind I'm frankly astonished when a larger organization creates something that isn't easily summed up with "X meets X", it's something of a miracle.
When it comes to pure 'clones'? Hell, we're looking at a fully realized "design document" that everyone has thoroughly digested! What could be better?! (That is sarcasm, dear internet)
Obviously the issue is when people execute an existing vision and stop, without bringing anything new to the table. I've actually really enjoyed two fairly obvious clones since iOS hit. Veggie Samurai (sorry HalfBrick, I love the double slash! Forgive me!) and Harbor Master (think Flight Control with traffic coming and going. Later Imangi made Temple Run!). Both of those games brought some new elements and slick execution.
I dislike when critics or users (or devs!) quickly dismiss games for having obvious common elements. As an observer, you're not clever by being able to point out "that game is just blah with blah". Of course it is! And? Rarely is it a negative to make those associations. Games are like brownies, there's only so many common ingredients involved; it's all about the ratios of those components in the recipe and how it's all executed. The best games out there are the ones that borrow heavily from existing games, but execute it so well that players feel like they're experiencing something new and unique.
IMO, developers just starting out should absolutely try to learn from what's out there. I fully support the idea that a team (indie or AAA) can have a common goal of being "like" something else as a starting point. That momentum can propel them through very difficult production phases and discussions.
But, above all, devs have to treat it like a 'jumping off point' and continue their progress with added innovation. Once the project is shaping up and standing on its own merits, you'll have your own game itself as your Mindlink 2000; then you can cast off the crutches of needing to reference everything else as much.
PS- If you're someone blatantly *duplicating* a game, and selling it, I'm not defending that... it's scummy, no doubt. May you have months of indigestion. >:-/
Thanks as always for reading.