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In Defense of the Clones: The benefits of learning through imitation.

Confessions and lessons learned from a Flappy Bird Cloner

I have a bit of an embarrassing secret to get off my chest. Something I have been putting off telling the world, that may be considered tacky, lazy or just plain wrong.

I helped create a clone. A Flappy Bird clone to be exact. I mentioned this at dinner the other night to a friend of mine, who also works in games, and the response was a look of unsurprised disgust. “Yeah, you and everyone else” he said. I was pretty proud of my work on this particular game, I’d spent a lot of time on the art and felt that while it wasn’t a masterpiece, I had no reason to feel ashamed of my work. I was doing it to learn a new engine, and what better way than to reproduce something you already know well? And sure, it is not the most original idea in the world, but what exactly is so wrong with making a clone anyway?

There were 60 Flappy Birds clones published to the app store between Feb 28th and March 3rd. That is a pretty crazy number. I’ve played a lot of them, as part of my daily work week involves reviewing content on the store, for both research and inspiration. I can say, a lot of those clones are pretty terrible. Sloppy execution, poor art and uninspired themes which indicate a quick cash grab, trying to ride the tails of the original’s success.

Many of my fellow game creators give the same response as my friend when I bring up Flappy Bird. “Ugh,  I could have made that in like 5 minutes” they say. Or, “I can’t believe there’s ANOTHER one, how unoriginal”. And the ever popular, “Thats not a real game!”, as if the simplicity of the original game somehow voids it of being legitimate.  And sure, when I look at the sheer number of Flappy Miley themed games out there, I can see their point.

My argument though, is that there is essentially nothing wrong with a clone, so long as it adds a little something extra to the original concept. There are very few new ideas in this world, and some of my favourite games and IP’s are derived from something else. Probably my favorite game of all time,American McGee’s Alice (both the original and Madness Returns) is a refreshing and twisted take on Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. My new TV obsession, The Cartoon Network’s Rick and Morty, is clearly a clever parody of Back to the Future. And of course Flappy Bird itself paid homage to Super Mario with its art style, an element that I believe had a lot to do with the game’s success. Basically, we wouldn’t have any of these things if it weren’t for what came before it.

True artistic expression comes from honest interpretation. We don’t get all up in arms when a musician covers a song and releases it as a single. Some of the most popular hits are cover songs and in a lot of cases, the cover far surpasses the original in quality. When learning an instrument, we learn to play songs that have already been written. Why should it be any different for games? New designers need to start somewhere and by recreating a favorite, they hone their skills while also hopefully adding their own flare. These designers still deserve to try and profit from their work, and I see no harm in rewarding them for learning. After all, The Beatles couldn’t have produced Abbey Road without first imitating the sounds of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

But how to distinguish between what is homage and what is outright theft? I think most people agree when a large company takes an idea for a large amount of profit with no concern for the original creator, that is theft, especially when that same large company uses its power to stop clones being made of itself. But, if an IP Is smart, they’ll will view a clone as an opportunity. The recent return of Game of Thrones has shown that intelligent parody and homage can create value for an IP. I can’t even count how many GoT related fan works I have come across in the last few days (Game of Goatsbeing a personal favourite). HBO seems to turn a blind eye to the piracy of its show as they know it only increases awareness, making this season’s premiere the most watched show since 2007.

And sure, the majority of the Flappy clones out there were probably created as a way to make a quick buck. But so what? A select few might but it isn’t that easy. The App and Google Play stores both put in measures to protect against outright benefiting from other popular apps and IPs by limiting keywords in descriptions (as I learnt the hard way) but they do not seem to mind about the actual content of the games. In this way, game creators are free to express themselves and build upon successes from those before them, but they can’t easily profit from leveraging another property’s popularity with SEO. This seems like a fair deal to me.

The Flappy Bird phenomenon is pretty amazing when you think about it. That within such a short space of time, such a simple game can a) become so in popular and b) spawn an ever expanding army of similar games, each with their own twist. Ten years ago the general public did not have the tools to easily make their own games, music or even digital art. Now, anyone with a decent computer and a willingness to try can make some pretty cool stuff in no time at all.

Mobile games, and games in general really, are still in their infancy as a medium. As more people get the opportunity to learn and create, more quality content will be produced. If that means we have to sit through a barrage of Flappy games to get to that point, so be it.

So I say, bring on more Flappy clones. Or more number matching games. Or whatever the current fad is at the time. But lets just try and be creative about it. We need to come up with a new twist, feature or maybe just some really cool art if we plan to replicate a game. Let’s do it to learn how to make games, to make a game better or just to pay tribute to our favorite things. Let’s try and add quality to the game space, not just clutter. Who knows, the creator of this year’s Flappy Miley clone could go on to be next year’s game design rock star, lets not hold them back.

A little about my work in games: At Grantoo we concentrate on bringing happiness to the world through games. We provide multiplayer and social solutions for mobile games. We focus on great user experiences and high levels of customer service.

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