If we accept that genre-borrowing, inspiration and imitation are a clear part of the modern game landscape, how do you get your customers on your side and work methodologically to stand out in the market?
Cloning has been a factor within the game industry since nearly the beginning, with early titles like Space Invaders
widely copied. Today, games like DotA, Super Mario Bros
launch not only imitators but entire genres.
Piggybacking has become the norm in mobile stores, where people not only leap aboard popular genres but cannily name their games so that they benefit from the progenitors' popularity in search.
"If you borrow something, it's a shortcut to a proven gameplay, a proven market, maybe even a proven business model," says Paradox Interactive CEO Fredrik Wester. "But there are also different ways of entering a market if you want to borrow a concept for someone."
Besides direct copying, there's the "inspired by" category, where a game that generally stands on its own may wear its influences on its sleeve. Or "spiritual successors", that focus on reviving beloved older ideas or adding to underserved niches with games that aren't "new" but are still very much wanted.
The pros and cons
On the plus side, cleaving closely to popular titles offers the chance to take advantage of a known market size, a proven design, and to work against an established quality benchmark, Wester says.
"They say, 'I played the game you're basing your game on for 10 years, so I can probably design this game better than you can.'"
Of course, taking gameplay elements from existing properties has a lot of downsides. Press and game fans have strong ideas about wanting innovation and newness -- and they are also very likely to be hyper-critical about genres they are familiar with or strict about comparisons to existing titles.
"The press say they want new things, but in fact they are pretty nostalgic," Wester says. "You can inherit a very demanding target audience -- people see you're doing something they recognize, and they want to be part of that."
Wester has been CEO of Paradox Interactive for 11 years, during which the Stockholm, Sweden-headquartered company has shipped over 70 titles. It has some 150 employees cross 4 internal studios, and works with 10 studios on contracts. He says he's more than familiar with "inheriting" passionate audiences from niche games.
"They say, 'I played the game you're basing your game on for 10 years, so I can probably design this game better than you can,'" he says. "That's your audience: In some ways, they're your best friends. And in other ways it's very challenging."
Paradox works in the PC space, where working within niche genres tends to provoke highly-engaged superfans: "There's a reason why it works to steal other people's names and gaming concepts on mobile: It's because people are not that engaged," he says.
"There is no 'die-hard fan' of Flappy Bird
, who will write ten pages on a forum about Flappy Bird
. But when it comes to, for example, Minecraft
, it's a totally different story."
Passionate niches, strong decisions
Underserved niches have fans deeply craving specific content, and Wester has some learnings about how they work: They have specific ideas about your game design, how you conduct your business and how you price your game, offer DLC and patch content.
Strong, recognizable characters and art help both establish a distinctive tone and support marketing efforts -- for example, Paradox's action PvP game Magica
has a highly-recognizable wizard character that fans frequently cosplay as.
"If your game was a book, what would it be about? Would it be funny, sad, ironic? What would be the actual feeling when you finish it, what does the reader take with them to the sequel?" Wester says. "If your game was a movie, who would be the 'lead actors'?"
"There's a reason why it works to steal other people's names and gaming concepts on mobile: It's because people are not that engaged."
"For our historical games it's harder, but Hearts of Iron
is a very deep strategy game. We use Douglas MacArthur as our main character, so if you want to cosplay Hearts of Iron
, you'd probably go as Douglas MacArthur."
"Very importantly, what do other people say about your game when they talk to their friends?" Wester poses. Unusual approaches to communication can help with niche games -- Europa Universalis
, for example, trades in legends of how repulsively difficult it is and how 'you might not be able to figure out how to play it."
The most expensive -- but most differentiating -- factor is technology. "The big studios will always win that race," Wester says. "You know the studios have very little to show, in terms of standing out, when 'fish AI' is a selling point."
"We are trying to teach our developers and each other to be good at support," Wester says, emphasizing the importance of customer service and relationship to loyal players as another key method of differentiating your game from similar ones.
"When we get abusive email -- 'I hope you die and your company goes bankrupt' -- I have a beer and I write an abusive reply," Wester says. "And then I take a walk in my apartment, and then I delete it. I get it out of my system, but you can never treat customers like that."
Less can be more
You can also look at what your competitors are doing, Wester suggests. Benchmarking is a very useful tool, comparing featuresets with rivals in order to prioritize and polish the most important ones.
and World of Tanks
are fairly different -- the former has a wide variety of infantry, vehicles and planes, and the latter focuses on tanks alone. But the latter has a specific personality, and that focus helped it become successful, while the game with a longer featureset had less impact on the market.
"You need to find some kind of key performance indicators -- numbers -- that you follow up on, not only regarding the game, but regarding how the customer behaves," Wester says. For example, some developers use achievements solely for marketing, but others use them to measure exactly what players do in the game in order to create more of those most desirable experiences.
"Once you're done on the market, you need to be brutally honest with yourself: You need to spend just as much work internally as you do externally," he adds. Paradox's own internal process requires developers say two positive things and one negtive thing about one another's performance.
"This builds up to your organizational strength," he says. "When you know what every individual on the team can deliver, you have your strength lined up, and you know how you stand out against your competitors."
The team needs to start with a strong vision, where everyone is on the same page and where leaders understand their role in that vision. That communication should be strongly defined, affecting everything from the game's title to the way people talk about the game to press and investors. Most of all, Wester warns about aiming as a studio to create a project simply for the purpose of filling a gap in the market or joining a popular trend. The team should be passionate about the game they are making overall -- "if you don't, you're working on the wrong game," he says.