Creative poison of being cloned

The cloning of Triple Town hurt me for a very specific reason. It occurred at a time where the future of Spry Fox was by no means a certain thing. Triple Town was that rare lottery ticket that looked like it might yield a lifeline. 

And just as we were about to cash in the ticket, a slew of swindlers showed up with their own counterfeit tickets.  These cynical sharks wanted to steal food from my family’s mouth and thought nothing of it. Nor did the gamers.  Most were delighted to have a choice. 

We bit back.  And ripped out a chunk of flesh. It worked.  When a copy of our core mechanic appears, journalists and fans tend to label it a riff on Triple Town.  We established our brand and cashed in a lottery ticket. 

Emotional moments teach us lessons.  And not all those lessons are entirely positive.  Often, instead of stating those lessons up front and acknowledging them, we live them as unquestioned constraints. 

Here are are design lessons I’ve internalized.  I want to get them out in the open and shine a little sunlight on each. 

Lesson 1: Keep secrets
I’m a lot more secretive now and rarely share progress on a game until the core is almost completely baked. I don’t share dev logs.  I don’t participate in most game jams.  There’s a large opportunity cost here: those serendipitous creative moments that come from the open bumping of ideas are greatly diminished.  

Also community begins building far later in the development process.  Instead of starting a dialog with your players early, you develop in a vacuum and the essential fan fiction-like extension of the world remains stunted. 

Lesson 2: Think defensively
There is a constant mental task ticking in the back of all discussions, “How will the cloners react?”  This takes up precious energy from making the best game possible.  I end up stuck in defensive thinking instead of imagining a bigger future.  

For example, I’m writing this article instead of writing about how to make better games. 

Lesson 3: Deploy cross platform rapidly
Triple Town was a two-year old game by the time it hit mobile.  Originally, it had been built for the e-ink Kindles and everyone pretty much ignored it.  However as soon as it hit the red oceans of the social networks, copies started appearing immediately on mobile.  We were lucky that we were able to turn around a mobile version quickly.  If we had followed the common 12-month indie porting lag, there is a good chance that one of the copies would have established itself as Warcraft to our Dune 2.

In response, we are thinking of all our games as cross platform games early in their lifecycle.  There’s a technical expense here that is mostly satisfied by using platforms like Flash or Unity.  However, there is a larger expense in limiting public iteration.  A game like Realm of the Mad God took well over a year to prove out its business model.  We had the freedom to cultivate a community, test monetization techniques and build up content.  This ‘baking time’ resulted in a better product than if we had just pushed towards massive distribution immediately. 

There is immense pressure put games out into distribution on many platforms immediately.  You want to colonize them with your brand. Even if the games aren’t quite ready for primetime. 

Lesson 4: Build for niches
A good number of players and developers were upset that people cloned Triple Town.  Most were not.  Instead, they were delighted to have more choice on more platforms. A high quality clone was to be celebrated.  In a competitive market, players have a short relationship with a game before moving onto to the next piece of candy.  These masses will not wait.  They will not work with the developer.  They do not acknowledge past efforts.  Loyalty and justice are meaningless concepts.  The overwhelming sentiment is “What did you feed me today?” 

With niche markets of people that have tried your game and made it part of their lives, the attitude couldn't be more different.  I saw respect, compromise, encouragement and yes, loyalty.  There’s always a portion of a community that rages, but it is often the rage of caring.  Very different than the cold apathy of the person that plays a clone because they find charging $2.99 for 100 hours of superior gameplay morally insulting. 

As a creative person, I find the mercenary masses poisonous.  I don’t want that relationship with my players and if I build for niches, I don’t need to. 

Lesson 5: Embrace complexity
I’m designing more complex games that are less easily copied.  I look at Realm of the Mad God which is a technically ambitious, gloriously convoluted multiplayer design.  It’s been quite hard for cloners to stamp out duplicates. Most small lazy minds won’t even try. 

Essentially, I’m intentionally obfuscating my design and sacrificing elegance. Multiplayer, large feature sets, messy simulation, deep emergent strategies that stem from subtle edge cases. I could make another game as simple as Triple Town.  But I won’t. Think of this as a form of copy protection.  However, the additional complexity slows down the prototyping process since designs turn baroque at a rather early stage. 

Most of these lessons make me a bit sad. I don't necessarily recommend you follow them.  

In my heart, I love it when people riff upon my ideas and come up with exciting new games.  I love sharing and cross pollinating.   My games are built on the inspirations of dozens of other games and I know deep down that I get immense benefits from bringing more exciting people into the creative process.  

And yet there it is.  Another year, another scar. 

take care, 
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