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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. 

Conclusion
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, 
Danc. 
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21 comments
 
Great but heart-wrenching post, but I can't help but feel you're robbing yourself of something with this defeatist attitude. I'm sorry, I know your situation was rough, and nothing you say is not understandable, but the optimist in me hopes that there must be a better way than to lock down and be secretive. 

Lesson 5 just seems odd and contrary to what good design needs to be. Adding complexity just for the result that it makes it harder to copy seems like a disservice to your players. Maybe I misunderstood.

Cloners gonna clone. It's something we'll have to deal with in one way or another, as the platform holders don't seem to want to care.
For what it's worth, I've paid for Triple Town at least 3 times now (iOS, Steam, Android) with no complaints! 
 
Does keeping secrets help? I would think the primary MO for a cloner is to wait until a product has success and then clone it.

For cross platform, it seems like you can do the same iterative refinement and community building across multiple platforms as easily as you do one (assuming you use cross-platform dev tools).
 
I'm not sure if keeping secrets helps.  The simple truth is that many of these are based off fear, not scientific tests. 
 
When fear is driving me, I find it useful to take some opposite-to-emotion actions.
 
I guess it's also important to caveat this with the fact that we're still more open (radically so on a relative basis) than most "major" game developers and publishers. We simply don't think we can, for example, release a game like Steambirds or Triple Town anymore, at least not in the state that we released those games and with the level of readiness we had at the time we made those games.
 
+David Edery Understandable, but also sad. I want more games like Steambirds or Triple Town. Feels like a "this is why we can't have nice things" moment :(
 
I think the core lesson I've had reinforced from seeing the cloning issues from the outside is "you don't have the luxury of time".  I don't think secrecy is a good defense, because you eventually have to release the game, and releasing it in a cloud of secrecy is a sure recipe for failure.

It's obvious by now that as soon as there's a whiff of success, others will be swarming to copy it.  Of course, this has been true in business for a long time; every successful company has had someone come in and try to do it cheaper (although rarely better) once a market is proven.  You might (not) be surprised to see how many "child wizard" books were released after Harry Potter was a success, or how many "vampire romance" books were flogged after Twilight sold stupid numbers. 

The main difference is that writing takes time, whereas you can do game coding and art fairly quickly, as game jams show.  The hard part is coming up with a fun core to build the game around, and that's why cloning is so rampant.

So, if you want to make games that focus on fast, simple fun, you have to move quickly.  You have to ramp up your marketing efforts rather than relying on slow word-of-mouth, because a cloner will come along and bury you in marketing if you don't do it first.  You have to get ready to put your game on as many platforms as possible, so plan early for that.

You also need to focus on your competitive advantages.  +Daniel Cook, obviously you have a lot of experience and know how to design fun games.  I did cringe at your "lottery ticket" metaphor, because I don't think that's the way you should look at your business; you didn't just get lucky, you used your skills to create some games that people love.  Keep doing that, don't rely on the luxury of time, and you'll outlast the cloners.
 
I think the situation is unfortunate, but it's not all that difficult to imagine how a small dose of secrecy and complexity could make a big difference. For classic games like chess and go, simplicity is strictly necessary, because people have to memorize the rules. But for game software, that constraint no longer exists. And in most cases, a significant dose of mystery can add a lot to the experience, as long as it doesn't feel overly arbitrary. And if I've become a fan of the game, and don't have every tiny rule and edge-case memorized (or if it's impossible for me to even know them all), then I'm likely to view any attempted clones as being fundamentally inferior, whether they are or not.
 
+Brian Green We, of course, engineer our games for success. You've read my writing over the years...not all hot air. :-) And we have a higher hit rate than most. However, hubris aside, not all games are successes and I plan on this reality.  Even as a small developer, portfolio management is key. 

Obviously, no one 'just' gets lucky...you need a solid love-worthy game to pull the lever. And just getting a solid game is a hell of a lot of work. (Fools, often with money, do occasionally breakthrough but  rarely.)

But also worth keeping in mind is that everyone who succeeds in this business also benefits from luck...it is what remains after you remove every obstacle that can be removed using skill and talent.  I've noticed a correlation. If you meet someone that claims that talent alone resulted in their current success, they are probably a serious ass. :-) 

One of the downsides of giving up on 'the luxury of time' is that haste can hurt the rather organic creative process.  A bit like saying market forces required us to make a baby in one month instead of nine.  Secrecy is the obvious solution to give more breathing room, This rational sequence of logic doesn't sit well with me. 
 
+Daniel Cook Oh, I certainly think luck plays a part in any business, particularly in the creative fields.  You can do everything perfectly then something beyond your control happens and disrupts your plans.  But, I think that viewing luck as having a very significant part is potentially self-defeating, as it can make any sort of planning or effort feel worthless.  That's why I didn't like your lotto ticket metaphor; I understand the sentiment, but it doesn't really capture the situation.

As for secrecy, I think you're mistaken about what part is important.  I suspect most cloners don't care what your next idea is.  As lots of designers have said, ideas are cheap and I'm sure even the sleaziest of cloners have a few ideas for games.  The trick is that good ideas are few and far between.  As I said above, the cloners are going to jump on your game as soon as they think it's successful.  So, keeping the genesis and development of the idea secret doesn't protect your game against the cloners; acting fast once it's apparent you have a successful game is what's important.

Let me share my own recent experiences.  With +Storybricks we focused on developing "out in the open".  We made it abundantly clear what our focus was, what we were doing, and why we were doing it.  Our demo was available online for anyone to play and dissect.  Are there any Storybricks clones?  Not that I'm aware of, and that's primarily because it's not obvious that our concepts behind Storybricks are going to be successful.  Personally, I believe 100% that what we are working on is the future of games, but we haven't demonstrated commercial success yet.  If we had seen success with that demo, I absolutely guarantee you would have seen people trying to ape what we had done.

So, I don't think you have to shroud yourself in secrecy.  Again, the important thing is that as soon as you see success in any of your work, you go full throttle and exploit that success for all its worth.  I think focusing on deeper and more complex experiences will help also help you against cloning.  The cloners will still be chasing you, hard, and you need to make sure you stay one step ahead of them.  Yeah, it's a shame you won't get to play around more and develop the concept organically, but you've unfortunately seen the alternative.

My thoughts.
 
+Daniel Cook Triple Town is a great game. Sorry to hear what has happened with the clones. I've always enjoyed your development commentary and insights. I hope they don't stop, and I hope good things come of all this in the end.
 
Thank you for sharing such delicate thoughts, Daniel!

Looks like the situation with how developers and broad audience percieve each other is really screwed at the moment. The attitude of an average player these days is like he feels somehow entitled to get a lot of great content for free, but each time developer tries to get some compensation for his efforts - here comes the rage "oh, they want money!". And at the very same time - for a great game, with modest and non-intrusive monetisation - the vast majority won't give a damn about giving something back to that generous developer, even after enjoying 10's of hours of gameplay!
 
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I followed the whole Triple Town clone ordeal as much as I could and it helps to see your side of it.  I know you can't disclose all of it, but this is some good insight.
 
Dan, please consider devoting some of your creative time on one project that you share with fellow devs. Don't isolate yourself from the great positive energy that most game devs radiate. That'll keep you from falling further into the dark side.

I was very jealously guarding the core mechanic in 7 Grand Steps, for three years. It's not even mine, but it's the first time in a video game. If the dev community had been able to play it from an early stage, possibly two years ago, this very cool mechanic might very well be in a mobile game by now, making my game seem derivative.

I think that was the right call, but I plan to make my next game far more open. It's not as novel, but it is very niche and shouldn't take more than 9 months to finish. Also, I expect to hear some great suggestions. I don't like inventing games by myself. I feel it could miss great design improvements. I know I do miss working in a quality team for that reason.

May you well heal this scar on your heart.  Perhaps your post here was a first step.
 
I'm sad to read this. Money killed the melting pot, creative and sharing Dan.

You created 5 creatively destructive lessons from one bad experience. Hopefully when you feel more financially stable you rediscover that ownership is not as important as you value it right now.

Lesson 5 is the one I despise the most. For me it goes against the core of what design is. All great design is simple. You're solving a personal problem and creating unnecessary design complexity. Design compromise is not copy protection!

Your forever disagreeable friend! Harsh, but always honest in opinion.

Peace and love,

Andre
 
Rather than thinking of each of these (somewhat reactionary) takeaways as lessons to be applied or rejected wholesale it's more helpful to reframe them as possible considerations in development and design.

Lesson #5, for example, might be reframed as a guideline that "subtle and organic clones less readily than simple and elegant" but without any built-in prescription to eschew simplicity per se.
 
As long as we follow lessons 3 and (to some extend) 1, I fail to see the need to follow the other lessons and anything positive coming out of them, particularly 2 and 5. I'm a bit surprised by the tone of this post, this doesn't sound like you! :)
 
Reading this makes me sad. The world is a harsh place where justice does not exist, but at the same time thinking based on scarcity rather than abundance is just as dangerous as sharing all of your game designs directly with Zynga.

What are your goals? To make more money? To isolate yourself? Or make really good games? I can't really tell.

Lesson 1: I think you can still build your worlds, characters, and show them to people early on. You don't have to show your game, but show the stuff built on top of the game. Unless you are only interested in building core gameplay and nothing else. If that is the case then you are missing out on the biggest thing which can give you distinction. Everything is a remix ( http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/ ), and all gameplay is similar (we are all building on the shoulders of giants), all good design is universal, and we will continue to converge on the best ideas. Being constantly in fear does not help you or others.

Lesson 2: This is sad too, and I don't see the point. You only need to fear if you believe you cannot make a better game. People playing bad clones without the same gameplay, same polish, same obvious love are not playing your better game, but that does not make it impossible for them to find your game, and if they are a true fan of that kind of gameplay they will become true fans of the better game when they find it - yours. Minecraft is a clone of Infiniminer - its origin story is exactly that of a basic copy even though now it is much more, and yet most block games are now called Minecraft clones. With Triple Town, I've seen many games with mechanics of "combine alike objects to create higher level objects" accused of being TT clones all the while being older games - so there is extra toxicity created although even if it were not intention it sometimes cannot be avoided. Clones don't matter if they are not better games, they only act as additional funnels to your better games by expanding the audience for those kinds of games. The markets we work within are not finite. They are constantly growing. Many niche genres of the past are now mainstream. Many niches now will become mainstream later. And the reverse will happen too.

Lesson 3: This is important - being cross platform, but not waiting until you have a fully 100% polished ready to go hit to do cross platform. I wish you would let go of fear here also. This thinking is fear based scarcity talking again. It does not matter when your game is live on a platform as much as people think. Many "good" games with years behind them go fully unnoticed when launched. When it is good it will have the best chance of gaining players, it's never a guarantee, but still it happens more often than games made by smaller devs becoming instant hits on launch. History shows this over and over. Games go live, a dev continues to iterate, and a year later after many updates suddenly the game seems to become popular. Are you going after hit based games or niches? If niches then the way you take 3 goes directly against your potential for success. Even if you were going after hits - you can never know for sure, so you add on extra risk while constraining yourself from extra opportunity. It's lose lose for you.

Lesson 4: This is important. The True Fans out there will show the positive traits you described. The greater masses won't. The reasons are purely selfish, but that's OK. Even True Fans have selfish motivations - they do want what you make, but they realize that it is more useful to be positive than negative. The ragers are actively selfish as well. They see more things as threats to what they already like, so they attack them. This also goes along with complaining about pirates which many devs do too, and is just as useless. It is better to understand the reality than fear because there is unknown. Pirates can be converted to paying customers by being allowed to become True Fans by you. If a dev is overly toxic, poisonous, and full of fear then they can prevent that from happening. Annoying DRM is a case which makes pirates less likely to convert to True Fans. There are other possible reasons beyond that too which are more worth guarding against. Ultimately your True Fans are the most important part of your business.

Lesson 5: Also important, but I think you can take it a step further. Along with Lesson 1, worlds, characters, themes, art style, and pure love poured into your games shows through and is not easily copied if not impossible to copy. Where are the successful clones of Studio Ghibli films? There are no functional blocks in place to prevent people from making copies. And yet they are that full of wonder that no one could even attempt it, so why not go in that direction instead of trying to isolate yourself more. I like your games, but I don't see the point in allowing yourself to continue to hurt from fear. I wish you well and hope you can ease some of your suffering which seems to be showing through. Life is short.
 
:( I'm glad you're getting this out into the open. Not only for yourself but maybe it will help other people.
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