[Continuing a new casual game-specific monthly column, Reflexive's director of marketing Russell Carroll (Wik, Ricochet series) makes the fascinating, fact-backed assertion that the casual game biz "is growing chiefly because game types are more popular than games".]
'Clone - n - a person or thing that duplicates, imitates, or closely resembles another in appearance, function, performance, or style (dictionary.com)'
The casual games industry is often accused of cloning. While there is some debate over this usage of the word 'clone,' it's just an issue of semantics. It would be hard to find anyone who doesn't agree that the casual games industry is replete with games that 'imitate or closely resemble' each other in 'appearance, function, performance, or style.'
The Evils of Cloning?
Many arguments have been made as to why cloning is bad, such as: 'Artistically, clones feel like the street vendor knock-off.' 'Creativity is dulled when copying someone else's great idea is your primary focus.' 'Nothing is added to the collective innovation of the industry, and creates a negative perception towards casual gaming in the eyes of gamers and critics.' And, 'The long-term prospects of an industry built on lots of variation on a few ideas can't be very good.'
I tend to agree with each of those statements except the last one. The business of casual games has been booming with a capital 'b.' It has been growing at obscene rates even while the clones have proliferated. In fact, I believe that the clones have been a vital part of the popularization of casual games. The clones themselves are driving the growth of the industry, or rather, the public's demand for clones is what is making the industry grow.
The argument has been made that clones don't pay the bills, so developers shouldn't make them. I would argue the opposite is true. Clones do sell, which is why people keep making them. Money drives the casual games market just like it does any other industry. Where there is no money, people take a different path. Clones are being made because they are often more lucrative than original titles.
The Problem with Originality
Though I'm personally a huge fan of the new and different, most of what is different is not notable. However, what is common becomes familiar, which decreases the barrier to entry. Casual game players tend to stick to what they know.
Stepping away from that familiarity necessitates additional learning, which can be a barrier that discourages players from trying new games. This is a common phenomenon; from music to movies to mainstream games, most original ideas have to be copied before they become popular.
The Problem with Complexity
Mainstream games have become more complex over the years. More buttons on the controllers and the move from 2D to 3D has made playing games more challenging. While this level of difficulty thrills a portion of the gaming population, that segment has become increasingly niche over time.
If you were to graph difficulty over time, you would create a series of steps and steep slopes as you progressed from Pac-Man to Super Mario Bros. to Street Fighter 2, to Super Mario 64 to Oblivion. Some players couldn't make the step from Pac-Man to Super Mario Bros or from SF2 to Super Mario 64 because the step was too steep for them to climb.
The Casual Games Solution!
Casual Games has a different solution to originality and complexity problems. Most casual games are variations on a simple game play mechanic. Instead of reinventing the play mechanic in Diner Dash, games like Cake Mania and Sally's Salon refine and improve it. The most dramatic differences are in the theme. Players who are looking for more of what they enjoyed in one game can easily transition to another game without having to spend timing learning how to play anew.
The complexity level of casual games is a return to simpler 2D gaming (there are no hit 3D casual games) and the games haven't become more complex over the years. They focus on single-button mouse control and easy accessibility. There has been relatively little increase in complexity as we've moved from Bejeweled to Zuma to Diner Dash.
If you were to create a difficulty graph for casual games, you would find a very subtle slope. Subtle slopes are easier to scale than stairs. With the barriers to entry decreased, players aren't turned away at a step that is too hard for them to take. That is part of the reason that, according the Casual Games Association, the industry has been growing at 20% each year.
Using data from Reflexive Entertainment, which I have access to thanks to my employment, I pulled information from the last 3 years on three common clone types: Match-3, Hidden Object and Click Management. I created a list of clones within each type, focusing on games that were most alike and eliminating games that I felt deviated noticeably from the mechanic (i.e. Nanny Mania was included with the Click Management clones, but Pizza Frenzy was not - Monarch was included with the Match-3 clones, but Chuzzle was not).
Taking in just these three commonly cloned game styles, you account for 68% of the amount that sales grew on Reflexive over the last two years - despite figuring in less than 25% (127) of the new games. That means that the other 32% of the sales growth had to be split among the remaining 75% (over 450 games!).
To put it another way, if we normalized this year's sales numbers to state that the average new game created an additional 100 extra sales, then, the average new Hidden Object game would have created 293 additional sales, the average Click Management clone would have created 161 additional sales and the average Match-3 game would have created 132 additional sales.
In contrast, the average new game that wasn't one of those three types would have created only 30 additional new sales. Put together, just three types of clones created 20 new game sales for every 1 new game sale created by all the other game types combined. At a rate of 20:1, it's clear that these commonly cloned games are a key factor driving the growth of the Casual Games industry.
What it all means
The Casual Games industry is growing chiefly because game types are more popular than games. This leads to a proliferation of similar games (clones) which due to that similarity are creating additional new sales at a much higher rate than their more original counterparts.
Like in the days of the arcade, when Street Fighter 2 lead a wave of very similar games from Mortal Kombat to King of Fighters, or when the PC industry was awash in very similar RTS games after the release of Dune II, the casual games industry is responding to what its customers want.
Consumers vote, en masse, for what they prefer with their pocketbooks. The casual games industry can, and does, create original games, but unless the consumer buys them, there is no market for them. Financial success is ultimately what drives game creation and, in the casual games space, consumers have awarded that success chiefly to games that mimic each other.
'Clones,' as termed mostly by industry observers, are the outcome, and for the financial growth of the Casual Games industry, they've been tremendously successful.