The internet has been buzzing lately with the topic of game cloning and I believe the discussion is taking a turn for the worse.
Game cloning is the practice of taking an existing game, copying it and applying minimal changes to be able to sell it as separate entity.
The three glaring examples in the mobile gaming world of this scummy practice are; every single game developed by King, flappy things(remakes of flappy bird) and 2048 (clone of threes). Sadly, cloning is a widespread practice, for many titles in the app store with moderate success you can find a clone with a slightly different name and icon.
You might disagree that the examples mentioned are not exact clones but then again what is? As an independent developer that comes up with an original idea after many months of development, you don't care if the company that cloned your idea added a different button or a whole multiplayer module. You will still feel robbed.
However cloning is here to stay and it is not something new, it is applicable to every business domain and there is no easy way to stop it without severely reducing our freedoms in other areas.
In order to have legal protection from someone cloning your game a set of very ugly laws would have to be put in place. I use the term ugly because these laws in the wrong hands would give insane amount of legal power to the big players and would leave any independent developer out in the cold. The reality is that having your game cloned is far better than having it removed because of a copyright claim.
The big question here is what are the motivations behind these developers that base a business around stealing, if they are competent enough to develop a clone, are they not competent enough to develop an original concept?
I believe most of the blame lies on the marketplace and not on the developers.
The app stores have been dictating the current trends in mobile development and it is not by accident that developers are having to resort to these type of practices. I have first hand experience of the struggle it is to publish a mobile game, it feels a lot like gambling.
The consumers are hungry and the money is there, no question about that. I won't list the well documented problematics of the app stores, I will just summarize it with a number that people like to throw around “The top 20% of apps make 97% of the revenues” How then am I supposed to make a living off of my work? How do I get to that coveted 20%? Is it only hard work? Is it only quality?
No. Other strategies can help get you there, other strategies that are not always very ethical or consumer friendly. Some developers noticed that when there is a viral hit, it will guarantee the spotlight for some keywords. Have been trying to sell a financing app for years, no problem call it “flappy bird budget” and watch the users pour in.
The responsibility for a better ecosystem lies in the hands of the app stores, but since the market keeps growing and there is little competition, a big change is unlikely to come. The latest changes to the app store have reduced the discovery possibilities by only showing a single item instead of 5.
The solution will eventually come in the form of community shaming and independent reviewers, they will protect the customer from bad games and also protect the developers from blatant ripoffs. Communities of burned players that have been abused just enough to not buy a game again without knowing full well what they are investing their time into.
In the meantime make sure you market your game to small communities first. Look for ways to create social capital with them and foster that relationship as much as possible before trying to conquer the world with your game. Loyalty goes a long way.
My advice for the independent developer is; embrace the cloning as an event that is unavoidable, plan for it, and keep in mind that they can clone your game but they can't clone your community.