No One's Better than Cloning - GDC 2012 Diary

Prompted by a conversation at GDC, this post reacts to a designer's lament that "all her studio does is clone" and "she is better than that". In no way endorsing cloning, this post calls for perspective and explains why no one is better than cloning.

On the first day of GDC, I was introduced to a designer from a venture funded, Bay Area mobile/social start-up interested in BioWare Social.  I recognized the studio name from one of the dueling sets of recruiting billboards adorning the 101-N, and its top performing iPhone App.  When I asked why she wanted to change companies, she said “All we do is make clones, and I’m better than that.”

“No one’s better than cloning,” I replied, eliciting an amused chortle from former colleague and master designer Soren Johnson, who I had been catching up with.

“Wow, Ethan’s so grizzled,” Soren observed.

Cloning has been a contentious topic in the development community lately, from Zynga’s “homage” to iOS game of the year Tiny Tower, and the questionable business practice of 6Waves regarding Spry Fox’s innovative Triple Town.  In no way do I endorse shameless cloning of other developers’ games.  But, I did have a visceral reaction to the idea that a designer was “better than” cloning.

Working on beloved franchises like BioWare’s Dragon Age is a luxury, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to produce 3 Dragon Age browser-based games.  But, before I was lucky enough to make games at BioWare, I was lucky enough to make games at casual game publishers PlayFirst and iWin.  I was lucky to have a job that was interesting, creative, intellectually stimulating and fulfilling.

I was lucky to work my dream job.

Think about your average day and think about all the people you pass getting coffee, shopping for groceries, running trivial errands.  Ask yourself, how many of these incidental people are living their dream?

Just as game development can be fulfilling it can be frustrating; just as game design can be invigorating it can be enraging.   Sometimes, it is worthwhile to cultivate some perspective and recognize how lucky you are to be living a dream.

I have cloned plenty of games while working in Casual.  I have cloned competitors’ hits.  I have cloned my own company’s hits.  Unless you are privileged enough to fund your own development, I doubt you are working on a wholly original title.  I doubt you have creative control of your destiny.

In my experience, the people who control the money, the ones demanding all these clones of successful games, are not ever vigilant watchdogs reviewing each line of design documentation.  If you are working on a clone, you have a responsibility as a designer to be subversive and innovate within your constraints.  You may not be able to design a game that is 80% original, but you can sneak a new mechanic in, improve a standard UI element, innovate on story or design a novel tutorial.  Pick something outside of your comfort zone as a designer and improve on the games you are cloning in a meaningful way.

You may not be better than cloning, but you are better than blindly doing what you are told without designing a corner of the game to call your own.

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