In this post, I want to talk about why cloning in game development is a good thing, and why developers should feel free to cherry-pick ideas from other games. The thing is, cloning gets a bad rap in gaming circles – yet few realize how some of the most popular casual titles are straight up clones of old Flash games. Angry Birds, for example, was basically Crush the Castle with… angry birds. And of course, we all know that the ever popular League of Legends was a clone of DoTA, which itself is still popular today.
So first, let’s examine some bad cloning practices:
Complete lack of originality – Cloning a title simply for the sake of cloning. Adding nothing new to the gameplay, just reskinning the basic elements. This mostly happens in cash-grab attempts. We saw this a lot when Bejeweled was popular – match-3 tile games spawned with unholy frequency, not even trying to be original. Obvious titles like “Gem Swap”, “Jewel Match”, etc. But the only Bejeweled clone to actually strike gold was Candy Crush.
Not giving credit for inspiration – It’s one thing to clone a game or draw elements from the gameplay, it’s another to pretend the game you cloned doesn’t even exist. It’s like when Martin Scorsese said he’d never heard of Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs after he filmed The Departed – even though The Departed is an almost shot-for-shot remake.
If you decide to clone a game, be honest and say, “yeah I thought the <gameplay element> from <x game> was really cool, so I built up around that”.
Now for the good cloning practices:
Adding something new to the genre – For this point, let’s take a look at the RTS (real time strategy) genre. On the surface, games like Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, Starcraft, and Stellaris are nearly the same, gameplay wise. Build a base, build an army, and invade other players. Its a 1-2-3, rock-paper-scissors formula that works. But beneath this genre surface, these titles vary from each other in incredible ways. You could play these 4 titles in a row, and even though you’ll immediately grasp the basic gameplay, each title feels like an entirely different game from the rest.
Command & Conquer took a familiar game theme – World War 2 – but gave us a unique “alternative timeline” story. Age of Empires gave us the hilarity of steamrolling civilizations still in the Medieval period with tanks and bomber jets. On the surface, these are nearly the same game – but they were presented in vastly different ways, and that’s what made the difference.
Why is Cloning actually Good for Game Development?
A game developer should realize one simple truth – people don’t really mind clones. They want familiar gameplay, in some cases they want identical gameplay – or else Call of Duty wouldn’t spawn so many successful sequels despite being the same exact game every year. Really, people just want additional toppings on the same flavor.
Almost everyone loves chocolate ice cream, right? So let’s say chocolate ice cream is your core game concept – what sets you apart from the hundreds of other chocolate ice cream brands out there, is when you include marshmallow swirls, almond bits, or whatever else makes you more than just a generic ice cream flavor.
So with that in mind, you can remove yourself from the mindset of trying to “revolutionize” a genre – aiming the creativity bar too high is a great way to crash and burn, as a developer. You’ll spend too much effort on trying to be completely original and unique. What you should really be focusing on is just combining various elements you like, and making them work together.
I’ll give an example off the top of my head – I love MOBAs. I used to be absolutely addicted to League of Legends. I also love ARPGs – I was similarly addicted to games like Diablo 2 and Torchlight years ago. You know what I think would be awesome? An ARPG game like Diablo, where you can create your own character, progress through campaign quests in co-op mode, and find epic loot. Then you can take your character into a 5v5 MOBA arena. Boom. Genius, right? We’ll call it League of Diablo.
The reason this would work well (in my opinion – I am fluffing my own idea after all) is because the two genres aren’t entirely different from each other. Both ARPGs and MOBAs are typically played from an isometric, click-to-move perspective. Both typically have hotspell slots. So all we’d essentially be doing is creating a MOBA with a PvE campaign – no stretch of the imagination.
So as you can see, cloning or combining elements from other games isn’t a bad thing at all – what’s bad is not trying to offer something distinctive to the genre. There are very few completely original titles out there, so don’t stress yourself trying to create something so completely original and fresh, it hampers your progress.
As I said before, people want familiar gameplay – for example, endless running games are super popular – the core design of Slope and Run 3 is basically dodging obstacles as long as you can. It’s the presentation and little nuances that make them separately popular.
If I try to think of “completely original” gameplay that saw incredible success, something like Plants vs Zombie comes to mind – one of very few games that felt completely original, the first of its kind. And in a way, it was (the first of its kind) – I can’t think of a game that played like PvZ before PvZ. Yet all Popcap Games really did was put a very unique spin on the tower defense genre, and give it a zombie theme – adding zombies makes anything successful. It’s a fact.
But while Popcap Games achieved massive success with PvZ (and Bejeweled), you have to remember they were publishing dozens of other titles at the same time, that didn’t see quite as much success. You could say Popcap Games took a kind of “keep throwing things at the wall to see what sticks” approach to game development, but it worked. And that’s something to also keep in mind when you’re developing titles.
So when you’re developing a game, don’t get strung up on whether or not you should clone a game or mix elements from various games – you should. You shouldn’t get strung up on whether or not your game will go viral because of your awesome originality and creativity – that’s always nice, but it takes a few tries to get there.