The End of Cloning

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History, in which he boldly proclaimed that with the end of the Cold War, the historical struggle between competing ideologies is over and liberal democracy has emerged as the victor.

The unfortunate events of the past few years have proven otherwise. But, I will proclaim my own bold statement: 2007 may not mark The End of History, but it shall mark the End of Cloning in Casual Games.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Joel, are you nuts? You’ve posted so many reviews of hidden object games in the past two months, you should call your site HiddenObjectZebo. How about all those time management Diner Dash-style games (Miss Management, Wedding Dash, Delicious 2 Deluxe, Fever Frenzy) you’ve reviewed in the past 2 weeks? And let’s not forget, 1000 Zuma Nights?

OK, so perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say all clones shall die. There will probably always be "cloning" in casual games, a term I use not as derogatory but as a badge of honor. All successful forms of content — TV, movies, books, web sites, video games — are driven by so-called "clones." Developers create clones because gamers demand them. Once gamers get sick of a game genre of clones, they stop buying and lo and behind, developers stop making them. It’s called free market capitalism. If cloning did not exist in casual games, we’d all still be living in our parents basement, creating games no one plays and starving for food and attention. In the words of Joel "Gordan Gekko" Brodie, "Cloning is Good."

What is changing now is the type of casual game being cloned. Here’s a list of all casual game genres that have been cloned over the past 4 years with examples of each:

  • Word jumble style games: Boggle, Text Twist, Word Whomp
  • 3-in-a-row puzzle games: Bejeweled 1 & 2, Jewel Quest 1 & 2, 7 Wonders 1 & 2, Mariposa, Cradle of Rome, Burger Rush
  • Marble shooter games: Zuma, Luxor 1 & 2, Tumblebugs, Atlantis, Bengal, Pirate Poppers, Sweetopia
  • Time management games: Diner Dash, Cake Mania, Delicious Deluxe, Fever Frenzy, Wedding Dash, Turbo Pizza
  • Hidden object games: Mystery Case Files series, Hidden Expedition series, Mysteryville 1 & 2, Mystery Solitaire, Paparazzi, Mystery PI, Private Eye, Interpol

What you should notice is that the genre of games being cloned today is much more difficult to develop than the type of games being cloned 4 years ago.

Any developer can create a word jumble game or 3-in-a-row puzzle. I think if I took a class or two in flash I could whip one out in a month. But not everyone can create a time management or hidden object game. These games take time, money, and talent. You need artists who can render an entire background of realistic objects instead of just 6 gems. You need designers who can figure out the proper amount of customers a waitress can handle in level one versus level thirty. And you need focus groups, beta tests, and money. Lots and lots of money which the majority of developers (especially small ones) do not have.

As casual games enter the mainstream market and gamers expect and demand more sophisticated games, the pool of developers who can create such games diminishes. Publishers help fill in this void by investing in talent but the one complaint I keep hearing is that publishers can not find developers to create the high quality games that sell in today’s market.

If I was to look into a crystal ball, I would predict that Adventure is going to be the next big casual game genre to clone. It’s the natural evolution of hidden object games and recent hits Azada, Mortimer Beckett and the Secrets of Spooky Manor, and Dreams Chronicles all have adventure style story-lines. Adventure games, however, are even harder to clone than hidden object games. Not only do you need to create great art, now you need to be a good story-teller (and by story, I do not mean the typical "here’s 4 comic book panels, I want to open a bagel shop" type of story you see in casual games today).

If thousands can create 3-in-a-row games and hundreds can develop hidden object games, than only a handle of casual game developers can create a good adventure game.

To illustrate my point further, let’s look at the hit casual game that has never been cloned at all — Virtual Villagers. Last Day of Work’s real-time strategy games such as Fish Tycoon and Virtual Villagers 1 & 2 are among most popular and best-selling casual games in recent history. Yet, aside from Escape from Paradise (which is more influenced by the look of Virtual Villagers than the actual game play), there are no real Virtual Villagers clones. Why? Not because of lack of demand; rather, it’s much more difficult to create a game engine that runs in real-time as Virtual Villagers does than to develop a Mystery Case Files or Diner Dash knock-off.

In effect, cloning is becoming a less effective strategy as a result of the growing success and maturity of the casual games industry. What does this mean to you, the casual gamer? Hopefully, not much. There are trends that ensure that we’ll continue to see better casual games to play in the future. Casual game development is a global business, so whereby the pool of developers who can create more sophisticated games grow smaller, the pool at least now spans the entire globe. Video game publishers are jumping into the casual games space, and with them are coming along some very talented game developers. And successful casual game veterans continue to re-invest their earnings back into creating new high quality games for you to play and Gamezebo to review.

The future is a bit bleaker for the average independent small developer, much like the mom-and-pop shop when Walmart opens up next door (ironic, since it is independent developers who have been most vocal in the debate that cloning is bad). The developer dream has always been to be able to develop, fund, and sell their own games independently without any publisher influence. The economics behind this dream makes sense in a world where Bejeweled is the game to clone, not as much so in a world dominated by games like Myst or The Sims.

Much like the former Soviet Union in Fukuyama’s treatise, the cloners of yesterday cannot win the battle of art, design and technology. They lose the cold war of imitation because production values and technologies are quickly out-pacing their abilities.

There still is the opportunity for a small developer to come out with the next big thing in casual games, as PopCap Games founder John Vechey predicted a year ago at Casual Connect in Seattle. It is just not as likely to happen in the casual games world of tomorrow.

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