What the Copycat Saw: Creative Theft in Mobile and Social Games
January 5, 2012 Page 3 of 3
An Ally of Obsolescence
Many developers and publishers have realized there are alternate ways to dealing with copycat games. "I have this conversation with my clients literally everyday: what is the most worthwhile use of your time and money?" Boyd said. "You could spend your energy and resources on a lawsuit overseas or just focus on developing something even better."
"A great example is what we were seeing with black market virtual property right at the turn of the century. It was a tremendous problem right at the beginning, then everyone realized what we were seeing was actually a market force. If game designers could incorporate that force into their work from the beginning, and tap into the market themselves, it would be much less of an issue. Now the free-to-play model with virtual item sales is the norm. Even downloadable content is a version of downloadable property that we tap into, that we didn't used to tap into."
Another way of considering copycat games is as a natural sign that it's time to push forward into new territory. "Emotionally it bothers us [when we see copycats] but we feel like our best defense is to continue to be innovative," Ben Liu, COO of Pocket Gems, said.
"You have to think about where some of the imitators are coming from. When we launch a game we have several months of lead time, so when an imitator launches they're often several months behind already. Our product will already have evolved from where their product is starting from."
Booyah has also been proactive in trying to either break new ground with each new project, or to form business partnerships that will give them a natural advantage in the marketplace. "On mobile we have a lot of patents for specific mechanisms in location-based gaming and virtual items, and we definitely try to protect those," Cho said.
"One thing that helped us protect ourselves with DJ City was that we had a lot of direct deals with specific artists and music labels. We had a lot of good music and a lot of our competitors didn't and I think that's what made the game really stand out initially."
Likewise, the technical possibilities in mobile and social games are quickly expanding, which will begin to make possible the kinds of genre and budget differentiation that helps thin the ranks fast-followers on consoles. "After seeing what's going to be possible on Flash with the Unreal Engine, I'm hoping more and more quality developers will be drawn to developing on browsers now," Harbin said.
"If you want to add defensibility, you just have to do things that are harder to do. Doing something on the Unreal Engine, you're moving into a different area where you've got to differentiate yourself in a lot of areas -- content, story, graphics, how good is your art department, how good are your writers."
If this approach is followed through for a few years, the low-end copycats will simply be priced out of the competition. "As the quality of the games goes up it will be a less viable for a lot of competitors to just clone a game," Cho said. "You're going to have to be even more unique, differentiated, and triple-A quality to be successful. In the early days it was viable to just clone and reskin, but I think it will be a lot harder to do that in the coming years."
"All Those Things Are Going to Get Better"
Even in embracing new technologies and investing in more lavish productions, mobile and social games developers will inevitably come to a point reached by all media, wherein repeating what others have done becomes unavoidable. There are only so many times a creative form can experience revolutionary paradigm shifts. In the time between, there is often a negotiated peace between what works and what differentiating improvements can be added to it.
"I make no bones about the fact that War Commander was heavily influenced by Command & Conquer: Red Alert and Red Alert 2, which were on the PC 13 years ago," Harbin said. "I wanted to play Command & Conquer in a persistent real-time environment -- more of an MMO style where there's a 24/7 world that's always alive and breathing, there are always battles going on, and you're fighting for territory."
"Those experiences were no longer available to people, but I always wanted to improve upon them. But the first big no-no in my book is to copy a game or take a big degree of influence from a game that's currently available on a platform that you're going to deliver to. That's what's hurtful to the industry."
For most developers, the task of creating new games lies in the murk between inspiration and mimicry, relying on a consideration of what's already been done, what's available currently, and what opportunities emerge from that search that most excite the individual.
"We have a combination of people who try to make games based on what they would enjoy playing," Liu said. "We want to create things that are customized and right for mobile, but also universally accessible and fun for all kinds of different people. Our ideas come from looking through all of those areas and then finding something that we'd most want to play ourselves within them."
It's unlikely that copycatting will ever go away, but it seems that a balanced approach that favors focusing on new creative opportunities while selectively choosing which cases are most worth the energy and expense of litigating will be the most fruitful. "All those things are going to get better," Boyd said.
"There's enough money in social and mobile and there's enough power in the platforms as they mature that people will make better games. People won't just be making fancy addiction mechanisms masquerading as games. Long-term cloning and copycatting disincentivized quality, which is the shared goal of most game developers and people who play games. "
And in truth, it's in everyone's long-term benefit to avoid the alternative possibility where copycatting becomes so ubiquitous that there is no money left for creative risks and industry expansion. At this point the industry will become self-consuming and risk the same terrible contraction brought about by short-term profiteering.
Becoming fixated on punishing imitators can be a resource-draining preoccupation that keeps developers from moving forward. In most cases, we're remembered more for the things we make than the rivals we defeat. So long as the only thing the copycat sees is your back as your breaking new ground, rest assured you're winning. It's hard and scary work, but so too the prospect of turning around and mustering for a fight.
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