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Games have been around for long enough that clearly defined game genres and mechanics have emerged. Most new games belong to one or more of these genres, and are composed of some combination of these mechanics. New genres and mechanics do occasionally arise and surprise the world, but they are rare exceptions. With so many games using the same mechanics and genres, we often see games that look alike, or play similarly—so much so, that we now sometimes use the term "clone" to describe a game, meaning an exact or near replica of an existing game. But then, what is a clone, and what is considered acceptable building on a proven game or genre?
The Smaller Elements
In order to begin answering this question, we need to first recognize a simple fact: every game can be broken down into a list of basic elements, or simple game mechanics. Whether we're talking about the original Asteroids, or the unreleased Halo 5, both games can be broken down into much smaller, simpler pieces. Halo 5 will obviously be more complex, and contain more elements than Asteroids, but the end result of either is still a pile (albeit varied in size) of basic game mechanics.
Creating New Compounds
The most noticeable difference when breaking down a more complex game is how it breaks down. A simple game like Asteroids might be no more than a small pile of basic mechanics, which can just be sorted into a list. A more complex game, however, will have mechanics that break down multiple times. Some mechanics will be composed of multiple smaller mechanics, which are in turn composed of a few lowest level base mechanics.
An analogy to all of this can be found in chemistry. At a microscopic level, one could argue that water (H2O) is a blatant clone or ripoff of hydrogen (H), since water is two-thirds an exact replica, as it contains two hydrogen molecules. Sure, it got a bit original and added an oxygen molecule (the O), but does that really make it original?
Well, in fact, it does. Without that extra O, we wouldn't have the most essential compound known to mankind: water. By simply taking two simple things, in varying quantities, the universe has created something completely unique and amazing, that in almost no way resembles the unique pieces as far as functionality goes.
The Rest of the Pie
While we've now covered game mechanics, we've still left out some other key aspects that are essential to any decent game: graphics, audio, and story. All of these, combined with the mechanics, can create some larger, more unique characteristics, such as atmosphere or emotional impact.
These characteristics are extremely important in this discussion, because they feel new to the industry. There are a lot of recent games that focus almost entirely on atmosphere or emotional impact (especially in the indie scene), such as Slender: The Arrival, or Amensia: The Dark Descent. Most of these games are unique at the moment, but they won't be for long.
What's happening now is the same thing that happened when rhythm games first hit the industry. A new formula was found (or at least executed so well), that it essentially turned into a new genre, or main mechanic. There weren't many rhythm games just a little while ago, but now you can find tons: Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Beatmania, and Rocksmith, just to name a few. The surge in atmospheric and emotional games is essentially the same thing, and we can all expect many more of them in the coming years as developers perfect their approach to creating these games.
Example: Tetris vs Dr. Mario
- Genre: Puzzle
- Game Over Mechanic: Pieces reaching the top of the playing field means game over.
- Clearing Mechanic: Completing a row of blocks deletes the row.
- Scoring Mechanic: Clear pieces for points, larger clears give more points.
- Objectives(s): Complete levels by clearing a set number of rows; try to earn the highest score possible.
- Genre: Puzzle
- Game Over Mechanic: Pieces reaching the top of the playing field means game over.
- Clearing Mechanic: Clumping four or greater of the same color pieces horizontally or vertically deletes those blocks.
- Scoring Mechanic: Clear pieces for points; larger clears give more points.
- Objectives(s): Complete levels by clearing all virus blocks on the board; try to earn the highest score possible.
As we can see, both Tetris and Dr. Mario are very similar games—so similar, in fact, that Nintendo found it suitable to bundle them together on a single cartridge for the SNES.
Judging by our breakdown, the games are almost identical as far as mechanics go, yet there are slight, key differences. The core difference in how pieces are erased in each game, and the more apparent level progression of Dr. Mario, makes each game play very differently. While nobody can deny the two games are similar, it's clear that neither game is a clone of the other, and that each is its own unique creation.
What Exactly Is a Clone?
We're now ready to answer our first question: in game development, what is a clone? A clone, by definition, is more or less an exact replica of something else. When it comes to the games industry, we're a bit less strict on that definition, and like to accuse games left and right of being ripoffs or clones. While there are indeed a lot of clones out there, the truth is, people are far too quick to judge, and are way too lenient with the term.
As we covered earlier, a single element in chemistry can create a world of difference (like in our water analogy); the same goes for game development. No matter how alike two games are, most have unique elements that change them enough to create an entirely unique experience. These unique elements can vary from game mechanics, to story and atmosphere, and everything between. The market is currently flooded with FPS (first person shooter) games, but can anyone really say that any two commercially released FPS games are too alike? Almost every game brings something unique to the table, and those that don't are easy to spot.
When it comes to actual clones, they're almost always quite obvious. Clones are usually so similar, that even the tiniest details will be copied over. Two very similar games can be created without either developer knowing of the other, but if it's truly a unique idea of their own, the small details will inevitably stay unique and create something original.
An example of an actual clone, and one that's had its fair share of press as of late, would be Pac Avoid. Pac Avoid is a blatant clone of Scamper Ghost. I know this, because I was contracted by King.com to create it back in 2009.
This game is a great example of how a real clone stands out, because it's been pointed out by the press and public twice now. The first time was by the developer of the clone's game, back in 2009, and the second more recently with the Candy Crush Saga scandal (over King.com trademarking the word "Candy"). A true, undeniable clone of anything remotely successful never slips through the cracks, and is always spotted.
Building Off of Others
Perhaps the most complicated portion of the debate, is when it is acceptable to build off of another proven game or genre. While it may be perceived as the most complicated portion of the debate, I'm here to say that it's not.
The truth is, there's a pretty fine line between what is a clone, and what isn't. I don't think any developer has ever created a similar game, and legitimately wondered whether that game was too close to their inspiration or not, without having a pretty good idea of that answer beforehand. Games have been piggybacking off of other games since the birth of the industry—and that's a good thing. One of the best way to create a quality game, is to improve upon an already working formula. By adding a few new mechanics to an already proven concept, you can create something new, yet refined. This doesn't mean you should straight up copy a game and improve upon the physics, or fix a few bugs, as that would be blatant thievery.
When I first decided I wanted to be a game developer, it was partially because I got frustrated at what game developers weren't doing. I would play a great game, be flooded with ideas on how to make the game even better, and go mad wondering how and why the developers hadn't added them. The only practical way to see those ideas come to life was for me to become a game developer myself. Just like the rest of the game industry, most of the games I've made are heavily inspired by other games, and simply add something to the mix to improve upon an already proven idea. Tower of Greed was originally designed around Icy Tower, Pixel Purge around Cell Warfare and Geometry Wars, and so on.
With all the above in mind, I feel that few games are actual clones, and that most of these games help the industry grow. Rock Band was an evolution of Guitar Hero with its added instruments, and Rocksmith adds the genius inclusion of helping the player learn a real instrument. Slender: The Arrival was excellent fun, and now the upcoming horror game "Daylight" is apparently allowing Twitch users to control some of the game's scare mechanics—likely stemming from the growing Salty Bet and Twitch Plays Pokemon live input mechanic; who can argue that isn't cool?
First person shooter games have been around for a long time, but if anyone here has gone back and played Goldeneye for the N64 lately, they'll see that it's a mess. The continued development of similar games is undeniably responsible for the near-perfection of our current genres, and it's games that we label with our broad use of "cloning" that have made this possible.
All in all, I think we as players need to be a bit more strict with our definition of what a clone is. Clones do undeniably exist, but few hurt us as players, or the industry as a whole. It may be easy to jump on the bandwagon and accuse Game A of being a clone of Game B, but it's far more valuable to the industry, and us as individuals, for us to realize how each game is unique in its own right.
Few things in history are ever mastered the first time around, and game development is no exception. It's this simple fact that should remind us that it's not only not bad to build off of a proven concept, but that it is, in fact, what makes many of our successful games today so great.