Why is game cloning seemingly on the rise? Combine F2P's focus on simple-yet-addictive gameplay with a lowered barrier on releasing games, and you get the perfect market forces for the commoditization of game designs. More people can bring the same game to market in less time than ever before. In this article we'll talk about what it means to be a commodity game design and what to do if you've made one.
What is a commodity game design?
In business terminology, commoditization happens when products that were once uniquely identifiable become indistinguishable from one another in the eyes of the consumer. When products are commodities the only difference between them is their price. Flash drives are an example of a commodity relevant to our lives today.
The same argument can be made about game designs. The match-3 mechanic, popularized by Tetris Attack, Bejeweled, and Candy Crush Saga, is an example of a commodity game design. If you wanted to play a different match-3 game every day for a year, you could. You might discover that they all have subtle differences in their animations or scoring systems but at the core of their design they are all the exact same game.
Many people talk about the mobile market's race to the bottom on game pricing and the emergence of F2P practices as a result. Because games want to be free there is an interesting observation to be made: if you create a new commodity game design and attempt to sell it, someone else will give it away for free. Customers are going to prefer paying nothing to whatever it is you're charging and the free version will become more popular.
Let's see it in action. Here is Threes, a popular new puzzle game that is a paid download. You probably have heard about it if you closely follow the games industry and frequently visit gaming news sites.
Last couple weeks of Threes rankings
Threes is doing quite well for itself! It was even the #1 paid download during its launch week one month earlier. Now let's look at its commodity clone, a game called 2048 released only a month after Threes.
Last couple weeks of 2048 rankings
Up and away! 2048 is the #1 free download in the App Store. It's compared to Flappy Bird. It's written about by newspapers and covered by mainstream media outlets. It's also suspiciously similar to Threes.
These games share a commodity game design. It just so happens that Threes invented this game design, but consumers don't care about that. Since it's a commodity they just do price comparisons. One of them costs $1.99 and the other is Free. The free version, for no reason other than it's the free version of an excellent commodity design, will get lots of media attention and pop culture relevance. This will generate network effects and when all is said and done 2048 will see a number of users that is magnitudes greater than Threes.
Is this fair? It's an irrelevant question. This pattern has been repeating itself on the App Store for years now. Scramble with Friends, while free, gates gameplays with an energy system. Competitor game Ruzzle lets players play as many games as they want as long as they sit through some ads. Guess who's on top now? Oh, and both games are a clone of the Boggle board game. This is the way the market is and the smart business man will adapt. If you design a game and through your own internal analysis deem that it feels like a commodity, you should at least release it for free. But surely we can do better than that, right?
How to win with a commodity game design
The main problem with commodity game designs is the player has no investment in them. I could play Threes for a year straight and decide on day 366 that I'd like to play 2048. Maybe Threes released a bad update that crashes every time I launch it, so I download 2048 to get my daily dose. It feels to me as if I picked up right where I left off, because I've made no recorded progress in my year of playing Threes. All my built up skill is instantly transferable to 2048.
Compare this to the literal king of commodity game designs, King. The whole point of the saga-style structure seen in Candy Crush Saga, Bubble Witch Saga, and many others is that King has taken a commodity game design (in this case match-3) and added a meta-game element to it that forces players to invest in their version of the commodity. Play Candy Crush Saga for a year straight and you might have reached level 132. If you left Candy Crush for some other clone you would have to start back at level 1.
Clone-protection advice, courtesy of King!
(As an aside, it's important to note that even though the saga concept has gone on to be cloned by many other games it does not mean that it will ever become commoditized. The player investment prevents that from ever happening. While commoditization is one explanation for cloning there are also a myriad of other reasons why someone might clone a game that are not covered in this article.)
Casino apps are another example of protecting a commodity game with player investment. In their case, the investment comes naturally when they keep track of your winnings and total bank roll. Casino apps can also cash in on their players being used to casino style rewards programs whose purpose is to keep them pulling the slot machine handle over at GSN's slot app instead of the functionally equivalent slot machine handle at Slotomania.
If you design a commodity game, don't release it! At least, not until you've added some meta-game that lets players invest in your game. And also release it for free unless you think you have a meta-game people are willing to pay for (chances are you do not.)
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[Article originally written for my personal blog, yayitsandrew.com]