How to copy
Does anyone know where I can get my hands on a new first person horror game? Or a roguelike? Oh, or a zombie survival game.. I’ve been after one for aaaaaaggggeees.
We talk about the creativity and innovation of indies a lot, and yeah, a lot of much better designers than me are doing incredible work to push boundaries and make new things. They rock, and should be celebrated and elevated.
The rest of us? Well, we work in genres. TWA was a pretentious indie platformer with minimalist graphics, Volume is a retro 3D stealth game that nods to a genre I adored growing up. Originality (hopefully) comes in the tweaks I make, the nuance with which I adjust the genre rules, the small changes which make Volume achieve my design and narrative objectives.
Working in genres is fun, I’m a big fan of adaptation and iteration, so it suits me fine. But there’s one important lesson I think a lot of folks miss.
Copy, steal, rob and pillage, but do it with intent.
At an earlier point in my career I was called into a meeting room. I was asked a simple question, “How do we make a minecraft?” I didn’t realise that the person in question actually wanted me to explain how we could technically achieve a cube based building game, so I made a list of some of the cool things that (imho) made Minecraft a hit:
- Itterative and responsive updates
- A very likeable and charismatic ‘auteur’ at the heart of it
- Creative play, with extrinsic threat providing a loose set of rules
- Deliberately obtuse mechanics, which force player to seek out wikis and communities, and find a broader culture of sharing info
- Runs in a window, which encourages and facilitates video and screen capture, along with web chat and communication.
- Simple core loops and interaction
The actual list was several pages long. None of the points were ‘it’s, like, made of cubes and stuff’. My boss wanted to copy the game verbatim, I wanted to copy some of its objectives and their solutions. He wasn’t alone, there were many flopped minecraft clones in the years following that game’s release, just as there have been for every breakout hit.
Not because it’s ethically dubious (it is) but because it is by and large bad business, unless you have the budget to market your game at the expense of the original, or you make it free (don’t).
Look at the game you are thinking of copying, the one that got all those youtube views, and look at why it worked, the decisions and choices, the objectives. How the surface of the game achieved the outcome, and then come up with something different that may duplicate some of that success.
So don’t make a horror FPS. Make a different game that facilitates youtube personalities looking foolish, doing dramatic reactions. Don’t make a roguelike, work out a way to make a game that can provide an interesting base of single player content for 100 videos. Don’t make a sim game where you clumsily interact with the world, work out a way to allow players to tell jokes through interaction.
Go one level down on any design. Work out how something ticks, and you may find yourself producing something special. And if you do want to clone something more directly, at least take the time to work out why the designers made each choice. Duplicate intent as well as outcome.
Make awesome games, and think :)