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Opinion: Clone Vs. Genre - When Art Imitates Art
Opinion: Clone Vs. Genre - When Art Imitates Art Exclusive
September 21, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

September 21, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this editorial, originally published in the September issue of Gamasutra sister print publication Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield muses over the distinction between game genres and so-called "clones."]

We often talk about “clones” of games, or copies of ideas -- but at a certain point, if an idea is copied, expanded, and massaged enough times, nobody says "clone" anymore.

When does an idea become large enough to lose its identity and flourish into a full-blown genre? Perhaps it’s better said that the idea gains a new identity, one that’s more generally applicable.

Most recently, we stopped referring to "Tower Defense clones," and began discussing tower defense games as an entire genre, which has since been expanded to include a number of variations by companies as diverse as Square Enix and PopCap.

"Doom clones" stopped appearing around the time Quake came out, and we started to deal with the first-person shooter as a genre.

Bejeweled, itself inspired by earlier matching puzzlers like Columns, is no longer copied per se; we now have the "match three" genre, which includes the robust Puzzle Quest in its ranks.

Will The Original Concept Please Stand Up?

This question occurs to me as I work on an iPhone game that's heavily inspired by one specific existing game. This original game has had one or two "clones" already, but they're not well known enough for the mechanic to have become pervasive. So how do I know if I've expanded my own version of the concept enough to safely claim I'm not making a "clone?"

Let's consider some existing examples. PopCap's Astro Pop successfully iterates on a concept popularized by the Data East game Magical Drop (grab colored balls from a well, form groups of three to remove them) by adding powerups and changing the setting to outer space. (Magical Drop III is pictured above.) Magical Drop's creator Data East was no longer around to make another entry in the series, so who would begrudge PopCap's renewal of the still-enjoyable concept?

One step further, there's the mobile game puzzler Critter Crunch, which looks familiar, but changes the chaining structure to such an extent that it feels like a totally different game.

Then there's Zuma -- also from PopCap -- versus Puzz Loop from Mitchell Corp. In this case, only the setting was changed; the gameplay was not significantly altered or upgraded from the two existing Puzz Loop titles. This is much more likely to be labeled a clone, because while the platform has changed from the original arcade game to the PC (and other devices), the game feels very similar. (Mitchell has since brought its concept to other devices under the name Magnetica.)

The game I'm working on may well be more similar to the original than it is different. Though the platform, characters, and controls will have all changed significantly, the core concept is still quite reminiscent of the original. So how will my game be labeled?

I Am Not A Replicant

So where is the line drawn? How much is "enough" concept evolution to make a game a step forward within a genre shard versus being labeled a clone? I say "shard," because as games evolve, genres themselves become more granularly defined. Though Tetris, Sokoban, Sudoku, and Bejeweled are all puzzle games, you wouldn’t paint them with the same brush. Falling-block puzzle, action puzzle, brain puzzle, and match three are the more correct terms.

Sokoban (a game in which you push boxes into the correct areas, trying not to trap yourself) is an interesting one, because most games based on its concept are in fact true clones, to the point that they use the Sokoban name in their titles and reuse the puzzle maps from the original. Variants like Chip's Challenge and Boulder Dash seem to escape the "clone" distinction by adding different goals and scenarios.

Then we have genre-defining games like Grand Theft Auto's 3D iterations. Certainly open-world games had existed previously, but the term "sandbox game" was used to describe something like SimCity rather than an action game like GTA.

After Grand Theft Auto III, any game with similar structural and mechanical elements was called "GTA-like," and to some extent that's still true. Perhaps this is because we heard a lot of publishers saying, "Make it more like GTA" at the time. But perhaps it's also partially the fault of the press for wanting to compare everything to a specific gold standard.

In the case of the game I'm working on, the original concept is simple. I think that's the major factor here. It seems the simpler the core concept, or the fewer core concepts exist within one game, the more likely a successor is to be labeled a clone. But of course, we don’t call Madden and NCAA clones of each other, nor clones of the sport on which they're based, even though they follow the original core concept of American football to the letter.

Ultimately, it's a question of semantics, evolution, and feeling. If a game simply feels too much like another, it’s going to get called a clone. If it works to distinguish itself within a solid concept, every game like it will work in concert to create a new genre.

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Glenn Storm
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Interesting question, Brandon: "So how will my game be labeled?". In the current, Wild West climate we find ourselves in, you know as well as anyone that this is largely up to you. Unless the general public grabs your baby away from you and holds it up, giving it a new name, you're within your rights to call it whatever you want. (assuming we're not talking about legal trespass)

You bring up a really neat idea; that Name -> Name-"Clone" -> Genre label, but it appears that not all genres we typically accept have followed the same path. As you allude to, we say "strategy genre", not "Chess genre". If we were going to take the genre label seriously (and we had practical means to change them), perhaps "Tower Defense genre" would be reclassified simply as "strategy", which it clearly is.

But we should note that even the word "genre" is inherently vague. (even wikipedia says so) In light of how the genre labels are used; to give those who haven't played a particular game a sense of the gameplay experience, including the goals, the skills needed, and the progression of the challenges, perhaps there's a step beyond that progression, where games that provide the same style of gameplay experience all get a broader definition that we can relate to real world experience. There may be some tipping point where it just becomes easier (for communication and organization) to see how a larger group of games fit into an older, more established genre description of gameplay experience. But, this step would again be well out of the control of the original author of the game. No one can stand up and proclaim a brand new genre label for all to use. Rather, it is a socially collective progression of definitions.

It's interesting (or sad, depending on your perspective) that some broader game genres (Strategy, Sports, Puzzle, Adventure, Action) appear to describe the actual experience of gameplay, it's goal, required skill, challenge progression; while other game labels used (Casual, Serious, Learning, Core, HardCore, ... apple core) appear to describe the intended player of the gameplay experience, sometimes. Messy.

It's a shame that for the App Store, you have to try and pigeon hole your game, but keeping in mind the most important aspect of that labeling (to inform your potential customers what value they receive for their money), you should give it the most attractive label you can think of, maybe "Super Sport Brain Busting Action Sex Adventure".


/me goes off to design a new game

Leo Gura
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Good analysis Brandon. It really got me thinking. Here's my theory:

1. Once in a blue moon, a unique core mechanic is presented by a game for the first time.

2. If the game is successful in any way, business people exert pressure to clone (new niche opens up).

3. Finally some clever designer says, "What if I add this twist to it."

4. If step 3 happens many times, it proves the robustness of the core mechanic and establishes a new genre.

First-person-shooters seem to have followed this approach. Generally, any formal rule set broad and robust enough to support a wide assortment of variations and add-on rule sets defines a genre. Aiming at things turns out to be incredibly robust. So does match-3.

If your iPhone game is at step 3 for the very first time and emulates a fairly narrow core mechanic, then it will likely be labeled a clone (assuming enough people are familiar with the source material). Of course, as Einstein famous said, the key to creativity is hiding one's sources :)

I believe the best way to add to games as an artform at this point is by looking outside of gaming entirely. Try to emulate life, not other games. Otherwise the best you can do is make something fun -- it will always be derivative.

Mac Senour
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What I generally say to game designers is to think of the top selling game in one genre. Now, imagine that as the center point to a large circle. If you look at this circle from the side, it will be in the shape of a pyramid.

Plot a point in this imaginary circle. The point is based on known vs. unknown. If the point is to close to the center, your game a clone. If the point is far outside of the circle, you're asking the buying public to learn too many new things for your game to be a hit. The challenge for the designer is to hit the exact line of the circle. That's a perfect mix known and unknown. If you do it right, the circle moves to include your game.

I talk all about this stuff in my game dev blog...


Sean Parton
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Nice article. I'm sort of in the same boat as the author right now; in the middle of designing a game that is inspired by another, I'm fear it will be called a clone.

End of the day, though, I'm given a concept by my superiors to make work, and I'll damn well design it to make a good game. Making something fun, irregardless of other labels it could have, is mostly what I care about.

Chris Jorgensen
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Good article that I read in game developer magazine. I actually have firsthand experience with this. I took the core mechanic of Carcassonne (the german board game) and invented a new game for the iPhone... I packed it with a few twists that change things up (some say for the better). I made the mistake, however, of naming it "Starcassonne" which caused the accusations to fly. Ultimately, things lead to me changing its name back to its beta name, "Xeno Sola."

Nonetheless, as far as I know, I'm one of the first to genre-ize Carcassonne game mechanics. :)