Recently indie group Nimblebit called out games giant Zynga for copying their game Tiny Tower pretty blatantly. Zynga employees call this “fast following” – someone achieves success in the mobile or social games arena, and Zynga acquires or produces pretty much the same game. There are some nasty specifics to the Nimblebit saga, but I don’t want to cover that. Nor do I want to look at Zynga’s history (and current practice) of doing this. I wanted to free-think on the question: “What can an indie developer do to prevent fast following?”[1. I'll use the term "fast following" throughout to avoid the complexities of saying "copycats". I got the term from Video Games Hot Dog, but apparently it's a well-known concept.]
There’s nothing you can do about people making a similar game in the same vein. Intellectual property law won’t protect you. Nor should it. People should be free to be inspired by things and produce their own versions. We don’t want to discourage competition because if you’re worried about someone creating a better game in that genre, you’re tacitly admitting you don’t have much faith in your game. You have to do things that make you happy and proud.
We want to protect against nefarious people who essentially want to rebrand our game as their own. By this I mean more studios examining a game, copying all the features and behaviours and replicating that in their own code. Reskinning, renaming or repackaging is too blatant for this discussion. Fast followers are slavish imitations that require a few things to work:
- A popular game;
- Easily copyable technology;
- Enough scope in implementation to put your own branding on it without having to do actual game design or anything too creative.
These are the areas we need to disrupt to protect against fast followers. I know it’s a grey area between copying and imitation, but I hope you understand what we’re defending against.
The easiest solution is to not have a game. Or have a terrible one. Fast followers are motivated by money, and there’s no money in terrible games.
The next easiest thing is to send in the lawyers. Let them fight it out. This is boring and expensive. And it won’t protect you in the future. You certainly don’t want to try to restrict how the world interacts with your game via restrictive EULAs. You might vaguely disrupt a fast follower, but you’ll equally disrupt genuine customers and people who want to mod your game, which is a net loss.
Note that all the DRM in the world won’t help you. Fast followers can just sit there and play the game to learn enough to copy it.
The first easy solution dealt with the first requirement for fast followers. Let’s consider the second requirement: “Easily copyable technology”.
By technology I mean both game mechanics and actual technology in the game. Here we are protecting against fairly lazy reverse engineering. Again, there’s little you can do against people who open your game up in a debugger or disassembler and figure out the inner workings of your game. That said, that approach isn’t easy for the fast followers.
Simple gameplay mechanics make it easy to comprehend what’s going on under the hood, and thus easy to copy. This was Tiny Tower’s curse. Tiny Tower had an extremely limited set of gameplay actions. At best you could react to whatever the game had provided. You could speed things up temporarily through a series of microtransactions. There was very little that you could do to permanently unthrottle the gameplay.
I played Tiny Tower for a while. I angrily deleted it because of its fairly obvious attempts to squeeze money from you. But before that I thought, “Surely, someone could write a more fun Tiny Tower! Maybe even I could do it!” I didn’t, of course, but it was conceivable. For good or bad, Tiny Tower’s simplicity made it vulnerable to copying.
More complicated gameplay is more complicated to copy, especially if they don’t have access to the source code. This goes double for complicated technology. Trying to copy the technology in id’ Rage would be nearly impossible. Even though people in the industry generally get the idea of Megatexture, the years of expertise and technology that went into making their game engine would humble many a dev team.
Another example would be the advanced AI in a game like Facade. This was (and remains) cutting-edge stuff. The amount of work required to sufficiently emulate the storytelling in Facade is enormous. Faking it would likely give you a game not as good as Facade. It wouldn’t be worthwhile to fast follow it.
Gameplay is a funny thing to try to regulate to protect oneself from fast followers. In some situations, like first-person shooters, game mechanics are almost dictated by the genre. Messing with the gameplay too much might give you a substandard shooter.
One way in how you can protect yourself is via content. Write excellent content and there’s no way they can replicate it without obviously copying it. Tiny Tower has very little content, so it was easy to copy. Something like Portal would be relatively easy to copy in terms of game mechanics, but the writing and level design is so excellent, you’d have to come off second best.
Same goes for Skyrim, or any Bioware game. There’s so much excellent content there you’d die just transcribing it all.
And it’s not just AAA titles. Something like Kingdom of Loathing is comprised mostly of writing. Lots and lots of writing. You could copy the game mechanics, but you couldn’t copy the writing (because of copywriting, and their unique, humorous style). Some have tried, and provided shinier graphics, but ultimately failed.
Another strong way to prevent fast following is to have your gameplay and content deeply intertwined with your technology. An example of a series of games that doesn’t have this property is Zynga’s series of Farmville, Cityville and so forth. Each is more-or-less a reskin of the other. Mechanics are similar (not to say they are the same, Zynga does evolve somewhat). They could create a Spaceville game that worked much the same. This is good for franchises – players of previous titles can easily pick up the newer titles since they’ve already learned the mechanics and interface.
A game like Shadow of the Colossus would be a positive example for this idea. The technology involved in bringing the visuals to colossus-killing was quite an achievement, and it was a direct requirement of the gameplay. You could perhaps make a cheaper version without the technology that corresponded to an old-school platformer, but that’s more a cash-in than a fast follow.
The industry is in a bit of a stir given big companies like Zynga are adopting strategies of much smaller outfits, like copycatting, fast following and the like. This is amidst all the financial disruption of microtransaction models, cheaper prices for online games, and cloud-based game rentals like Gaikai. The games industry is adapting, but I think the positive outcome is that for games companies to survive, a great strategy is to make unique, creative games. It’s not easy, but if it were easy, we wouldn’t be worrying about Zynga in the first place.