Video games have always been a remarkably insular field; that’s the nature of development. Someone produces Super Mario Bros, and a few years later Sonic the Hedgehog sounds like a really good idea for some reason. But then you have games like The Great Giana Sisters, games that don’t try to just copy parts of what made the inspiration good but just copy the whole thing with one or two changes.
For normal video games, this can work out decently; a game that just doesn’t get much traction still sells some copies, hopefully. Just because Croc wasn’t Spyro didn’t mean that no one bought the former. But for online games, these trend-chasing games are almost always dramatic failures that litter the landscape. Why is that? Well, there are pretty good reasons, and today seems like a good time to talk about that.
1. The game misses second-move advantage
“The early bird gets the worm,” you’ve been told. You have probably not been told the second part of that expression; in full, it reads, “the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” And this is a well-known element of game theory, that moving second can actually give you distinct advantages in terms of knowing what went wrong the first time.
However, when you’re producing a game that’s specifically riffing on a well-known title that’s become a big hit, you’re missing that second-move advantage, too. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds had lots of second-move advantages based off of games like H1Z1, while Fortnite had a fair number of advantages as a second moves building off of the prior game’s success. Yet any subsequent battle royale game has already missed those chances. Why? Well…
2. It also misses critical mass
By the time Warhammer Online came out, it was competing with World of Warcraft. It did so by being almost exactly like World of Warcraft, but with some slight tweaks to entice players from World of Warcraft. Except that when you’re dealing with a game that’s so heavily reliant upon other players, trying to draw people away from the game that’s already running and established is a dangerous ploy to begin with.
That’s always the problem with these types of titles. They’re not chasing customers who might want to play this game; they’re chasing customers who already play another game and might want to swap. Which is probably why…
3. The design is backwards
Good game design is about trying to accomplish certain things based on overall design goals. If you can figure out how to do something based on existing designs that work well, so much the better. Sometimes they even just overlap; City of Heroes and Guild Wars both leaned heavily on questing for progression, but that wasn’t stolen from WoW – it was just convergent evolution, especially for games that came out in 2004 and 2005.
But then you get games where the goal isn’t “have players do X” but “do game Y, but better.” Instead of adding and changing elements based on the needs of the gameplay, you’re starting from the point of just copying another game and then tacking things on to it. Which is one of the reasons that…
4. Any innovation is response, not organic
In order to get people to play League of Legends, all Riot had to do was sell people on the merits of the game itself. In order to get people to play Infinite Crisis, the team could market it as “like LoL but with a bunch of superheroes.” Similarly, Master x Master basically sold itself as “like LoL but with PvE, and also some superheroes that will make people pretty angry for reasons that should be immediately obvious.”
Remove LoL from the equation, and you don’t have a game any more. Defining yourself as a mirror of something else rarely provides a clear picture. And part of the reason for this is…
5. There’s no additional insight
If you play Alganon for some reason, you will have plenty of quests, and you will start out in a forest with lightly rolling hills as a human character. Why? Because that’s what WoW did, so it must be the right thing to do. By contrast, even in the earliest days of RIFT, you started out in wildly different zones in the middle of a hideous battle to give you a sense of the stakes in play. One is being made with an understanding of why WoW was designed a certain way and what it hoped to accomplish. The other was not built around insight, but around duplication.
Of course, duplication is an easier trick to pull off, which is important for these because…
6. Turnaround time is a problem
When something comes out of nowhere to become a huge success, the key element there is “out of nowhere.” No one could necessarily predict this. We were all surprised when everyone decided that pretending to be a farmer on Facebook was not just profitable but insanely so. Which meant that tons of people rushed to produce the exact same thing in short order.
Except that, you know, game development is slow and difficult to do. It’s very easy to throw all of your resources behind building this new title and still have it take the better part of a year… at which point the trend has moved on. Because, you see…
7. Players are already burned
After that year of development, people have tried that game, either liked it or didn’t like it, and moved on or continued playing. This is where we’re getting into that issue mentioned above about courting someone else’s players, but it’s also important to note that when you don’t have much time in the first place, it’s much less likely that you’re going to have a game that can address the problems of all the people who left. Heck, that even takes for granted that people who left before all left for the same reason.
But even if you assume that doesn’t matter, you’ve got another monster waiting in the wings. Because…
8. Short development has some pretty big issues
Star Trek Online was not produced as a clone of anything (well, internally it used tons of the architecture from elsewhere, but it wasn’t trying to duplicate another game). It also was produced on an insanely short timetable, and the game is still trying to recover from the fact that it was hacked together in barely more than a year. When it launched, it was worse. It’s a testament to the game that it isn’t a buggy, unplayable, unfun mess, and some people might even argue that.
A quick development doesn’t just mean bugs, it means that you don’t have time to try a system, iterate on it, and come up with a better way of doing things. Your first take on a system is your last take on a system, and the lack of iterative processes means you’ll be stuck with any bad ideas for a very long time.
And it gets worse. Because, you see…
9. The company itself can catch the fallout
One of the things I remember seeing about Infinite Crisis was disbelief and horror that Turbine – Turbine, one of the greatest innovators in MMORPGs! – was turning into a company that just pumped out clones of existing games. It was a mark against the company as a whole and something that greatly distressed lots of fans. I wouldn’t say that it helped usher the fall of the company, but it sure as heck didn’t make the company more robust.
Combine that with the fact that a lot of your staff probably isn’t on-board with the game and is just doing it because they have to, and you can find yourself in a place where even a short-term success with the clone has poisoned the well. But far more often it’s worse even than that…
10. Online games are a marathon, not a sprint
This is something that gets pulled out a lot, but I don’t think a lot of companies necessarily internalize what that means. It doesn’t mean “you can start off hideously unsuccessful and then succeed later” with a title like, say, LawBreakers. It means that even a big success can’t stop there. You have to keep chasing something new, producing more, innovating, and so forth.
Even if your clone can break into the big time by luck, the game itself wasn’t your idea. You don’t have any follow-up because it wasn’t your idea in the first place. So even if there’s a flash of success, you find yourself unsure of where else to go, chasing a trend straight off of a cliff.
But sure, make another battle royale game. That’s going to work out great.