Successful freemium games will always be plagiarism targets in an industry gripped by player data, writes Rob Crossley

Game cloning in the age of social metrics and deregulated platforms

Vanilla Ice was ridiculed for many things, but nothing moreso than his imaginative explanation of why Ice Ice Baby had a “completely different” bassline than Queen’s Under Pressure by virtue of including a single additional note.

In an industry where being “for real” is deemed so vital that such a statement has been carved into arms with razor blades, Robert Van Winkle’s defence for melody mimicking was a reputational kamikaze dive. The once-bequiffed artist, who fought for credibility as a legitimate white rapper, lost his audience the moment he denied sampling others’ work.

Games studios don’t usually work under the same pressures of being “for real”. Drop 7 is Tetris meets Sudoku and more often than not people will – quite rightly, I would say – see it as a clever cross-pollination of distinctive ideas.

But in the age of social and mobile game networks, plagiarism is less about creativity and more about mathematics. Zynga’s [ALLEGED!] game concept kleptomania is the copying of successful social formulas rather than the content itself.

On Facebook, on the App Store and on any platform where free-to-play has a chance, player retention is king. Companies invest millions of dollars and man-hours to analyse player metrics within social games. Zynga will know exactly where its millions of players venture within an online world and will add services in areas that are popular, and close barren zones entirely. The idea is to build something that loses as few people as possible.

And who can blame them? Our attention spans shrink to the size of gnats when browsing online. I’m surprised you made it this far into the article, frankly, and I was certain you wouldn’t have done so unless I quickly offered something funny like a YouTube video of a ridiculous ‘90s rapper with corrugated hair.

To give you a idea of how delicate a player’s attention span is when browsing the web, David Perry recently claimed that Gaikai increased player retention by about 10 per cent when the loading screen phrase “checking your bandwidth” was replaced by “loading your game”.

It is in this jumpy market that successes like Tiny Tower, Bingo Blitz and Mob Wars are given so much attention from rival firms. It’s not the idea, the art or the vibe of the game that is sought after, but its unique recipe for increasingly important acronyms such as MAUs and DAUs.

Zynga has been plagiarising from the start. Castleville is Cityville is Farmville. The-formula-reskinned-ville.

In a market where metrics have become vital, you can expect theft to become rampant.

It’s not likely the landlords will step in either. Apple doesn’t want a farm of fart apps, as the company once famously said, but a tower of socially sticky games appears to be another matter entirely. As Iwata said, quantity of games is how Apple and Facebook profit.

If you’re a social games developer, the only thing that can save you – at least for now – is innovation and disruption.

Zynga, Playfish, Nimblebit and just about every freemium games company in the world have become historians. They look back on metrics to conjure their next hit. Perhaps you’re the person who can build something not born through numbers and looks forwards instead.

I really didn’t want to end this opinion piece about games with a Nietzsche quote – god no – but it’s too appropriate, and I would dare say a bit more relevant than Ice Ice Baby.

“The historian looks backward. In the end he also believes backward.”

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