Which game genre has been beaten to death by entries that bring nothing new to it? MOBA, Match-3, Battle Royale, Hero Shooter, Survival, Sandbox, Mobile Strategy, CCG, Metroidvanias, Platformers? No matter the platform or development budget, if a game is very successful, than fast follows are guaranteed to well… follow fastly. But why do strings of companies attempt to capture the success of a genre leader by shallow-copying it? And more importantly, does this fast follow strategy ever work?
The why is easy to explain. Professional level games are very difficult to make and even more difficult to forecast revenue generation. Making a game with a completely original game design is risky both financially and executionally. Coming up with games that incrementally improve on a genre is still financially and executionally risky. Copying an existing game outright and swapping the art or story is viewed as much more predictable and safer.
The idea is that a business can offset risk by taking existing games on the market and proxy measuring the success of those games to predict their own. Even better, you do not need to spend development cycles refining gameplay, forming content pipelines and forecasting marketing and revenue when copying an existing game. To a game studio or publisher, sadly, video games are solely about revenue in either top line net gross or bottom line net income form (this depends on the stage of the company and whether they are public or private). At most game companies, being creative, incrementing on a current design paradigms or chasing new types of fun is too risky and plainly not encouraged.
NOTE: This blog post is addressing professional development studios. I have no judgement on passion projects, students or anyone creating a homage to their favorite genre or game.
The real question is does this strategy truly work? It definitely varies from genre to genre, platform to platform and really studio to studio. Cloning games got Zynga very far during the days of social games; Mark Pincus has been allegedly quoted saying “I don’t [expletive] want innovation, you’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.”
Some game genres are more winner take all; MOBAs have League of Legends which, according to SteamSpy back in 2019, has a larger audience than the entirety of Steam combined (which includes LoL’s closest competitor in DOTA2). Sergey Galyonkin, currently Director of Publishing Strategy at Epic, wrote an amazing article (link) back in 2015 titled “Your target audience doesn’t exist”. In it he describes how certain games ARE the genre, and the audience that exist outside of the top one or two games within a genre, i.e. the people who hop from game to game within a genre, is incredibly small.
A good example here would be the success of World of Warcraft that, as analysts explained to us ten years ago, has “vastly expanded MMORPG market beyond all expectations”.
Except it didn’t. It created a new market, World of Warcraft market, gathered new audience from other games in different genres, attracted quite a few people that haven’t played before, but haven’t expanded MMORPG market much. There were no big successful MMORPGs after World of Warcraft not because WoW took all the audience, but because there were never too many people in “MMORPG but not World of Warcraft” market to begin with.“Your target audience doesn’t exist”, Sergey Galyonkin
This is insight I couldn’t agree with more. Please read the article, it’s short and very informative (link again). A decent number of MMORPG developers either copied WoW outright or pivoted the unique game they were building to be more WoW-esk (i.e. Vanguard, R.I.P. Brad McQuaid). Companies comp’d WoW to get large budgets, but never had a chance at dethroning WoW by building well… WoW minus Warcraft.
So let’s answer the question, does cloning the incumbent game ever work? For this I’m going to choose one of the simplest, most cloned sub-genres: mobile Match-3 games. Let’s take a look at US Top 15 grossing Puzzle game on iOS and further define Match-3 into three incumbent sub-categories:
- Popcap derivatives where the game consist of 1-3 game modes where the player continues clearing game boards until they lose
- King derivatives where the player clears nodes on a map and includes meta-game progression and side content events
- Playrix derivatives that removes the node map and replaces main progression with a story that normally involves player choice
I’ll be ignoring Match-RPGs of any variant (Puzzle Quest, Puzzles & Dragons) and collapse games (Toon Blast, Toy Blast). Let’s see if Popcap, King or Playrix are ever dethroned by their own derivatives?
Measured every 6 months, here are all the US Top 15 grossing Puzzle games on iOS for the last 5 years:
That just looks like a giant mess and really doesn’t help us. Let’s break it down to the games that fit into one the three Match-3 subcategories:
Just eyeballing the data, Candy Crush Saga, Candy Crush Soda Saga, Fishdom, Gardenscapes and Homescapes all appear present and dominant.
Let’s break down the data into each of the derivatives:
Maybe if I extended this back 20 years we would see more Bejeweled-esk games, but there are only two data points in the last 5 years, making this category useless.
Let’s try King derivatives:
2012’s Candy Crush Saga spawned a Match-3 gold rush, with what seemed like, every mobile developer under the sun spitting out their CCS clone. Cookie Jam and Gummy Drop! both have strong showings early on only to fade to King’s top 2 titles. Candy Crush Saga can generate millions a day, yet none of its clones are present on the top grossing charts.
Let’s look at Playrix derivatives:
Very similar to King, Playrix has two strong competitors in Matchington Mansion and Lily’s Garden. However also like King, Playrix’s competitors lose steam and appear to be heading towards the Top 15 exit. Again, there are lots of recent high quality offerings to compete with Playrix, yet none of them have slowed the dominance of Playrix’s three titles.
King and Playrix both have two competitor games compared to their respective dominate games. What this doesn’t show is that there are hundreds of mobile studios that either took shots at or are currently taking shots at both of these games (less so at King these days). Companies like Zynga, Jam City, EA and Big Fish Games appear on these charts but they represent the tip of the iceberg of millions of dollars in development cost, IP leasing and user acquisition that studios and publishers have spent to try to reach the top grossing Match-3 games on mobile without appearing here.
Yes, there are a lot of factors at play here. Once Playrix had a hit with Fishdom, it was easier to leverage those existing users to also play Gardenscapes and again with Homescapes. However, the point still stands, millions and millions of dollars were spent battling over top grossing Match-3 games on iOS, only for the incumbents of each sub-category to stay. Also remember, this is just rankings and not absolute revenue which would show even more dominance by the incumbents.
Going back to Sergey Galyonkin, Candy Crush Saga was the genre and Homescapes/Gardenscapes is the genre. If you want to create a tent pole, top grossing game on mobile, console or PC, bring something new to the table. Bringing something new doesn’t mean a new art skin or an IP wrapper; new means the difference between Candy Crush Saga and Gardenscape. They are both Match-3 games expressed in completely different ways.
I didn’t write this to shit on specific games. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, has had different life experiences and brings a totally unique point of view on games to the table. The games that studios produce should be no different. Nobody got into the video game industry to make a Wizard of Oz wrapped Candy Crush Saga clone (I worked on this game so I speak from experience). We can’t let fear and insecurity stop us from taking risk or creating something that is different. If you want to have a hit game, you can’t copy existing hit games.