Consider two nearly identical games:
- One is called Timberman. It has had hundreds of thousands of downloads to date.
- The other is called Timber Mania ( Google Play link and iTunes link ) , and does *not* have even hundreds of downloads to date.
Timber Mania was made by me – in roughly 14 working hours earlier this week. It has the potential to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not because it’s any good, mind you…
…but because it’s a clone.
Many of you may remember Flappy Bird, the highly addictive, tapping game that took the mobile game scene by storm earlier this year ( to the tune of some $50,000 a day in ad revenue ). When it was released, it languished in obscurity for some months before suddenly having a meteoric and perplexing rise to fame. Within a day, clones followed. Dozens of games appeared on the app stores with almost identical gameplay, and in many cases identical graphics. Most are shameless ripoffs, some are more inventive in their approach.
Here’s some news that surprised me. I knew there were a lot of clones of Flappy Birds – but did you know at one point earlier this year 60 clones of Flappy Birds appeared on the App Store EVERY DAY?
Flappy Bird wasn’t the first game to be cloned – as far back as Space Invaders, companies were cloning popular games and game mechanics. However, the rise of the App Store and the ease of which it is to get games uploaded ( in some cases literally the very same day as a popular release ) sees cloning a much more common, even anticipated event these days. Much to the developer’s chagrin, the popular game Threes was cloned as 1024, which in itself became a clone called 2048 – a game which became orders of magnitude more popular than Threes and 1024. Interestingly enough, it could be argued that it was 2048’s huge popularity that actually resulted in a spike in game downloads for Threes itself.
So, as a result of these “insta-hit” games, game developers are always watching for the latest craze to clone. Two days ago I was made aware of a game called Timberman by Polish developer Digital Melody. It’s a simple, tap-tap-tap style woodchopping game with the same fast replayability and addictive quality of Flappy Bird. Both feature pixel art and a chiptunes soundtrack. Both are free and supported by advertising, though in this case, Timberman has a pretty high number of banner ads, interstitials ( those annoying full-screen ads) and prompts to “Sign in to Google Play”. I understand why he has done it – there’s a prominent “Remove Ads” button – it’s the equivalent of William Wallace in Braveheart being asked by the executioner “Say the word and it can all be over.”
By the time I read an article on Tech Crunch proclaiming it as “The Next Flappy Bird” , I was struck by a thought. “I bet there are already a dozen clones of this game on Google Play.” – and I was right. As of Wednesday morning there were games like “Timber Ninja”, “Timberman Girl”, “Timber Man” ( as in the same game title, with a space between timber and man…genius! ) , “Timberman Beaver” , the list goes on. It got me thinking. All of my original games so far this year have absolutely struggled for traffic. When I used to work for another game development studio, I created a game series Swords and Sandals that easily got thousands of downloads a week on mobile and many times more than that on the web.
However since I have started up my own independent games studio ( Whiskeybarrel Studios, and thank you for asking! ) my games get next to no traffic. We’re talking single figures a day. Or less. You can check this retrospective on Captain Fishblock if you’re interested in pure numbers. I’m running at a not insignificant loss when you take into account hardware and software costs, not even taking into account the money I spend on game development which could be otherwise , much more lucratively, I might add, building something more mundane like apps or websites for clients.
Game development is fatiguing, it requires great energy and it is usually very time consuming. Captain Fishblock and Monkey Mountain, whilst relatively quick games to build, still took me at least 3 weeks to build each. Monkey Mountain took over a month. It got me thinking – how quickly could I clone this Timberman game? “I could probably build that in 24 hours”, I thought, the cogs in my mind ticking. Games like 2048, Flappy Bird, and Timberman are the perfect games to clone. They’re simple, instantly understandable and very easy to replicate. Huge companies from from Epic to Apple have cloned it. This kid made Splashy Fish and got 250 million downloads. Maybe Timberman might have the same success? Wouldn’t it be good to get in on the ground floor?
So two days ago, I set out to clone Timberman and release it on Google Play, and see if I could cynically cash in on the wave of traffic.
In my last blog post I extolled the virtues of Unity3D and explained why I was making the shift from Flash. I’m battling my way through Unity ( I’ll blog about this soon ) but for rapid development – in my mind anyway – nothing, nothing beats Flash and AIR. I set out to build this game at about 11am on Wednesday morning. The game was launched on Google Play at 4.30pm Thursday afternoon, and submitted to Apple’s App store by 6pm that same day.
Now, I’m a pretty seasoned game developer – I’ve built over 200 Flash games and about 10 mobile games in my career so far. I’ve got the process down now, I know how to deal with certificates, provisioning profiles and a lot of the headaches that can hamstring developers trying to build a game rapidly. The game itself was easy to clone. In a nutshell, it’s just this:
- Create a character and make him swipe an axe when the screen is pressed. If the screen is tapped to the LEFT, he appears on the LEFT, etc.
- Create your logo, background art. Source some music.
- Add a timer. Start counting down from a number and assign to it a bar that shrinks every time the counter goes down
- Create a tree and divide it into four parts. Stump, log, log with left branch, log with right branch
- Create an array of branches and stack them above each other. When the player swings, remove one of these logs from the array.
- Check the first item in the array to see if its branch matches the location of the player. If so, *crunch* , player dead. If not, add 1 to the score and add some time to the timer
- For the log recently moved, add a bit of gravity and spin to hurl it off into the distance
- Move the rest of the logs down on their Y axis until the bottom log hits the stump
- Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam
And, Timber Mania is born.
It really was as simple as that. I spent more trying trying to repurpose some artwork from my platform game Monkey Mountain than on actual code in order to save time. The end result is a playable, fairly faithful clone of Timberman. The branches are slightly taller and it’s a little less forgiving in what it determines as a collision, in my opinion – but it has most of the hallmarks of the original. It even has characters to unlock ( I had this code in Monkey Mountain and decided to throw it in there – not a bad way to encourage repeat plays. Collect enough coins, unlock a character.)
Here is a screenshot of both games side by side. Timber Mania on the left, Timberman on the right. I told you it was shameless, right down to the similarities in title.
For all intents and purposes, it’s about as clone-y as a game can be. I added some little skulls to the game to represent each time your player dies in the game, but that’s about it. So what now? The game’s been up overnight, I’ve posted no links to it until now and it is only just working its way through Google’s system to become visible on Google Play. Best case scenario, the similarities in game style, game title and game artwork mean it will appear in a list when people search for Timberman and I’ll get some traffic and momentum. Worst case scenario, it disappears into the galaxy of other apps out there that are played less than twice and forgotten – a harrowing stat indeed.
Why am I doing this? I must admit, as soon as I pushed “Publish” on the game, I felt kind of dirty. Timber Mania is not a game I’m proud of. It’s a cheap clone of a game that I’m not particularly fond of in the first place. It has no distinguishing features to make it stand out from the crowd. I’ve put banner ads and interstitial ads in it – I’m no saint. It’s ‘free’ but you won’t enjoy accidentally clicking on an interstitial ad when you just wanted to hit ‘play again’. I haven’t added a REMOVE ADS button yet, but this is mainly because I didn’t get time to implement it. It’s essentially an In App Purchase ( bring out your crucifix, it’s the devil’s work! ) – I guess if the game gets any kind of traction I’ll add it in.
Does cloning hurt anyone? Yes and no, but probably yes depending on the circumstances. The original developer can rightly claim their work is being cashed in on – because that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s a dog-eat-dog industry and the harsh reality is good ideas are going to be lifted and repurposed. It happens a great deal in the music industry. Consider Katy Perry’s song Roar – it’s similarities to Sara Bareilles’ Brave was unmistakable. It was, in essence a clone. However, when it was discovered, it resulted in an 80% increase in sales for Brave. Generally, when your work is cloned, it means you’re onto a good thing. The ethical dilemma behind whether you should do so or not kind of goes with out saying. You probably shouldn’t – but if you don’t, someone will. This kind of logic is an unfortunate truism of the entertainment industries at the moment. Why make Edge of Tomorrow ( a wonderful film with a poor box office intake ) when you can make Transformers 4 ( the exact opposite ) and guarantee your studio’s success ?
I’ve long been an advocate for originality in game design. I’ve made games where you try and reform a prisoner on death row, ‘roll the dice Dungeons and Dragons style’ boardgames, even a game where you had to feed a fat kid junk food and dodge broccoli. I’ve always been very reluctant to make straight up clones of games. The fact is, however – originality on the App Store is pretty much dead. You’re just as likely to spend 6 months working on a totally unique and beautiful, original game and have no traffic as you are to spend a few days on a rubbish clone and have thousands of downloads.
Having said that, I’m genuinely curious to see how the game will go. If it gets me a bit of traffic and publicity, and some ad revenue – that would be great. I’m going back to making original games from here on in – cloning is a practice that is easy to do but is also a pretty hollow experience. I want to make it pretty clear that Timber Mania is a social experiment for me. There’s every possibility that Timber Mania will tank, and so it should. But if it has any degree of success, and it allows me the freedom to create the original games I so crave to build? Isn’t it better to “do a little evil for the greater good?” – a somewhat melodramatic statement, no doubt, but the heart of the matter.
In my perfect world I could build the games I want to build and have people enjoy them enough that it supports me financially. I made a bucketload of money with Swords and Sandals – but none of it was for me, as I was an employee of another company at the time. I’m an advocate for originality. Sure, borrow elements from established hits, but put your own spin on it. Save the cloning for the soulless corporations of the world, the King.coms and the Zyngas. Let them have their millions of Match Three clones. I feel a bit sick whenever I see these massive studios taking the well trodden road. Beautiful – yet highly generic – art pasted over generic, cookie cutter game engines.
Perhaps one day we as mobile game developers will operate in an arena where games are measured on their originality and their merit and given the exposure and press they deserve. It’s already happening to a limited degree. Beautiful, original games like Monument Valley and Machinarium remain as pillars of what can be achieved. And the best part about them?
They are so unique, so beautiful and so transcendant they just can’t be cloned.
And that’s something we can all aspire to.
Cheers, Oliver Joyce.
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