Tiny Towers, Zynga, and the Appstore killing fields

25 Jan
January 25, 2012

This is going to be a bit of a diversion from our usual topics, that of niche RPGs and suchlike that appeal to your average grumpy grognard. We’re going to talk about iPhone games, and F2P ones at that. Why? Because it’s interesting to analyze, that’s why, so put away your pitchforks and let’s take a gander.

The story is thus : Small, lovable indie underdog ( 3 devs total, 2 brothers and a spare) make a popular F2P game for the iPlatforms. It’s a smashing success. And when I say smashing, I mean smashing.

After Apple’s 30% cut, that’s $262,000 per month (note, this is just an estimate – Gareth).

So. Well done those lads. Here’s where it gets sleazy. Zynga, of Farmville fame (we all love Farmville, right guys?), noticing that these guys are making all that lovely dosh, offer to buy them out. They refuse, as one does when the devil comes knocking. Forward 6 months, and Zynga releases ‘Dream Heights’. You can see where this is going, right? It’s a carbon copy. This image explains it best.

Click here because I’m too lazy to do more than link to the image host.

Well, they’re upset, aren’t they? As you would be, I think. Cloning of popular games is not new. But this is an almost direct rip-off, not simply an ‘inspired by’. Someone played that game while making very careful notes.

So yes, anger. But! Someone else posted this image in response.

Again with the clicking! So much clicking! Think of the children, man!

Ah, yes, SimTower. We can’t forget that, can we? Now, NimbleBit didn’t do as much of a direct clone of SimTower as Zynga did of their title, make no mistake, Zynga is still the villain of our story. Zynga’s tactics can’t help but leave a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who holds the art and craft of game design close to their hearts. But I’m going to take this conversation in a somewhat unusual direction and lay part of the responsibility on the nature of Appstore/F2P development itself.

Yes, indeed.

Why do I say this? Well, consider the numbers. According to that article I linked to, Tiny Towers was developed in 4 months and released in June last year (on my birthday in fact, the 23rd. Mark that date, I’ll be expecting presents). Zynga released its game on the 17th of January. So, around 7 months after their release, Zynga’s clone pops up.

Intuitively, 7 months feels…soon. Snapping at their heels, yes? But what would be the equivalent in mainstream PC gaming?

Well, normal game dev cycle is what, around 3 years? The equivalent time scale would be develop a game for 3 years, release it, then 5.25 years later, someone releases a clone game trying to cash in. Clearly, in that scenario most people wouldn’t be that concerned. 5 years is a long time, you’ve already made almost all the money you’re going to make on the title. In fact, if it’s that popular, chances are you will already have moved on and released a sequel of your own. By the time their clone came out, it would be competing with your shiny new iteration.

So part of the problem here is that there is this hyper-accelerated dev cycle for Appstore titles. 4 Months isn’t unusual, most of the iPhone developers I’ve read talk about development cycles around the 3 month mark. For the F2P model this is especially true, as the goal there is to release a title, track metrics to see what people like, then release regular updates with more of those likable things. It’s a “quick-to-market but long-term support” model. This means that it is especially vulnerable to this kind of tactic.

Zynga isn’t unusually evil. Other big companies are plenty evil (EA, Kotick, cough). But the amount of time and effort it takes to develop new AAA titles is a bit more of a barrier, for them. In the mobile games market, your breakout hits, like all the other titles, probably have a <6 month dev cycle. And there is nothing you can produce in 6 months that a large team with money to burn can't replicate fairly trivially. Regardless of what you think of the ethics of it, I expect this to continue and get worse. It simply makes business sense. Competition is incredibly fierce in the Appstore, it seems to be (in my opinion) even more of a 'winner-take-all' situation than the mainstream industry. Partly because of the crazy expectations of the average customer (pay more than $1, lolwut?), partly because of the process of discovery of new games, partly because the journalism around mobile games is still in its infancy. From the point of view of a Zynga, it makes sense to let the small fish act (unwillingly) as an incubation lab. Let the thousands of enthusiastic indie teams mine the 'design space' of game ideas, then rush in and use your development and marketing might to displace them from any mineral veins they discover. It's not a new tactic, but in this environment it's particularly brutal. It sucks, of course, but them's the breaks. The only suggestion I can think of is to look for elements to add that are hard to clone. Avadon and King of Dragon Pass are narrative-heavy games, it’s a lot harder to simply rip off a game plot. So plot/characters are one element, anyone else got any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments. The cheaper-to-produce art styles that indies favour are unfortunately out, too easy to copy.

5 replies
  1. nickhallsa says:

    From a legal perspective you could amend patent or copyright laws to basically prohibit clones, but as a lawyer, I don’t think that that would be a wise option.

    How much money/future sales are Nimblebit likely to lose from this though? As you have mentioned the “lifespan” for an app game is about 6 months (there are exceptions though I realise) so if Zynga HADN’T released Dream Tower, would there have been that many more sales of Tiny Tower?

    • gareth says:

      I don’t think you could even effectively prohibit cloning. Zynga’s copyright lawyers would carefully scan the law, find the line where you game is just changed enough to not violate, then create a product around that. To really prevent this kind of behavior, you’d need to push the definition of clone so far that it would strangle games that are merely ‘inspired by’.

      Actually, I think that NimbleBit are likely to lose a fair amount of money from this. It comes back to the F2P model. Unlike traditional game sales, where the majority of sales are in the first month, quickly dwindling down, these types of games intitially launch to little acclaim and then word of mouth starts kicking in and the number of new customers trying your product grows exponentially. Minecraft is still going incredibly strong, once word of mouth reaches a certain critical mass the ball can keep rolling for a long time.

      Also remember, with F2P you aren’t ‘making sales’ of the game. You give the game away for free, people play it as a distraction every so often, and you hope that eventually people drop a couple of bucks (or cents, even), into buying some novelty fluff item that catches their eye. You’re not making most of your money from the first time a person picks up the game. You’re making it from the people who stick around and drop small amounts of cash sporadically. So a competitor coming along and funnelling off the player base is damaging, yes.

      It’s not the lifespan of an app store game that is 6 months, it’s the dev cycle. Especially with F2P, where you’re not relying on people being heavily invested over time, just invested enough to spend 5 minutes a day grinding their numbers (see Farmville).

  2. nickhallsa says:

    “It’s not the lifespan of an app store game that is 6 months, it’s the dev cycle” Sorry I misread that.

    I think we agree that there is not a legal solution so we must look for alternatives. Being first-to-market must be a huge factor here, if the model relies on getting people to stay, then logically, surely your established market should remain safe? If we hold this to be true, then Devs need to build in loops to encourage existing players to bring in the new ones (given that a small dev team cannot rely on traditional advertising to do this).

    If your existing base is leaving for another game (and thus giving up all the progress they have made) there must be a compelling differentiation between the games. The Devs then need to identify this differentiation and build it in to their own product to bring the users back (and hopefully attract new ones).

    Ultimately though in this the premise of a free market? Isn’t this just normal competition? You now have a competing product, if yours is superior you shouldn’t have to much to worry about.

  3. Calego says:

    It is normal competition, but with one catch. The inventors of new game ideas are basically giving other developers something for free. The other developers can clone new ideas without paying, which reduces the incentive to think up such ideas, meaning a less than efficient quantity of such ideas is produced.

    One partial solution is philanthropy. If there were enough charitable institutions out there looking for innovative new games, games whose ideas spawned lots of imitators, and if these institutions gave out prizes and recognition for that innovation … Well, ideally it would work a bit like the Oscars. It would subsidize the creation of new ideas. It’s an imperfect solution, but it’s something.

  4. gareth says:

    Nick, agreed, this is just the free market at work. While you want inventors to be rewarded for new ideas, you’d stifle innovation tremendously if those same inventors could lock other people out of making similar products to theirs.

    Built into the system is the idea that you should expect competition when you come up with something profitable, but that your advantage, as the inventor, is the head-start of being first to market.

    I think you nailed it with ‘there must be a compelling differentiation between the games’. This is, I think, what is lacking in this space. People need to do a better job of branding and uniqueness.

    It’s possibly asking a lot from 2 devs who made a game in 4 months, but I think this is why copyright laws tend to protect the presentation rather than the mechanics. The ‘look and feel’. If you can strongly brand your product, then you start to protect yourself against people simply ripping off a simple set of mechanics and marketing harder. And it doesn’t have the stifling effect on innovation that copyrighting mechanics would.


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