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.
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.
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.
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.