Commodity Game Design – Avoiding Clones

Why is game cloning seemingly on the rise? Combine F2P’s focus on simple-yet-addictive gameplay with a lowered barrier on releasing games, and you get the perfect market forces for the commoditization of game designs. More people can bring the same game to market in less time than ever before. In this article we’ll talk about what it means to be a commodity game design and what to do if you’ve made one.

What is a commodity game design?

In business terminology, commoditization happens when products that were once uniquely identifiable become indistinguishable from one another in the eyes of the consumer. When products are commodities the only difference between them is their price. Flash drives are an example of a commodity relevant to our lives today.

The same argument can be made about game designs. The match-3 mechanic, popularized by Tetris Attack, Bejeweled, and Candy Crush Saga, is an example of a commodity game design. If you wanted to play a different match-3 game every day for a year, you could. You might discover that they all have subtle differences in their animations or scoring systems but at the core of their design they are all the exact same game.

Many people talk about the mobile market’s race to the bottom on game pricing and the emergence of F2P practices as a result. Because games want to be free there is an interesting observation to be made: if you create a new commodity game design and attempt to sell it, someone else will give it away for free. Customers are going to prefer paying nothing to whatever it is you’re charging and the free version will become more popular. Let’s see it in action.

Here is Threes, a popular new puzzle game that is a paid download. You probably have heard about it if you closely follow the games industry and frequently visit gaming news sites.
threes_ranking
Last couple weeks of Threes rankings

Threes is doing quite well for itself! It was even the #1 paid download during its launch week one month earlier. Now let’s look at its clone, a game called 2048 released only a month after Threes.
2048_ranking
Last couple weeks of 2048 rankings

Up and away! 2048 is the #1 free download in the App Store. It’s compared to Flappy Bird. It’s written about by newspapers and covered by mainstream media outlets. It’s also suspiciously similar to Threes.

These games share a commodity game design. It just so happens that Threes invented this game design, but consumers don’t care about that. Since it’s a commodity they just do price comparisons. One of them costs $1.99 and the other is Free. The free version, for no reason other than it’s the free version of an excellent commodity design, will get lots of media attention and pop culture relevance. This will generate network effects and when all is said and done 2048 will see a number of users that is magnitudes greater than Threes.

Is this fair? It’s an irrelevant question. This pattern has been repeating itself on the App Store for years now. Scramble with Friends, while free, gates gameplays with an energy system. Competitor game Ruzzle lets players play as many games as they want as long as they sit through some ads. Guess who’s on top now? Oh, and both games are a clone of the Boggle board game. This is the way the market is and the smart business man will adapt. If you design a game and through your own internal analysis deem that it feels like a commodity, you should at least release it for free. But surely we can do better than that, right?

How to win with a commodity game design

The main problem with commodity game designs is the player has no investment in them. I could play Threes for a year straight and decide on day 366 that I’d like to play 2048. Maybe Threes released a bad update that crashes every time I launch it, so I download 2048 to get my daily dose. It feels to me as if I picked up right where I left off, because I’ve made no recorded progress in my year of playing Threes. All my built up skill is instantly transferable to 2048.

Compare this to the literal king of commodity game designs, King. The whole point of the saga-style structure seen in Candy Crush Saga, Bubble Witch Saga, and many others is that King has taken a commodity game design (in this case match-3) and added a meta-game element to it that forces players to invest in their version of the commodity. Play Candy Crush Saga for a year straight and you might have reached level 132. If you left Candy Crush for some other clone you would have to start back at level 1.

ccs_progress
Clone-protection advice, courtesy of King!

(As an aside, it’s important to note that even though the saga concept has gone on to be cloned by many other games it does not mean that it will ever become commoditized. The player investment prevents that from ever happening. While commoditization is one explanation for cloning there are also a myriad of other reasons why someone might clone a game that are not covered in this article.)

Casino apps are another example of protecting a commodity game with player investment. In their case, the investment comes naturally when they keep track of your winnings and total bank roll. Casino apps can also cash in on their players being used to casino style rewards programs whose purpose is to keep them pulling the slot machine handle over at GSN’s slot app instead of the functionally equivalent slot machine handle at Slotomania.

tl;dr

If you design a commodity game, don’t release it! At least, not until you’ve added some meta-game that lets players invest in your game. And also release it for free unless you think you have a meta-game people are willing to pay for (chances are you do not.)

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3 thoughts on “Commodity Game Design – Avoiding Clones

  1. Brad

    Great article! Love the point on building a meta game/investment (something we’ve actually talked about before) as being key.

    Maybe it’s just the pm in me, but I feel you kind of gloss over the price and business side of this. The obvious reason 2048 did so much better for free is the price barrier – even if the same number (say 10M) saw the game in the app store and had to decide to DL it, the free game collects a small % of those (say 10%, or 1M) while the paid game gets an even smaller amount (say 1% or 100k). This point is rather obvious and you mention it, but I still feel some people may not get it unless you call it out more explicitly – we’re talking huge factors of drop off here! On a related note, I think the business model is interesting – three’s selling for $1.99 vs. 2048 which I assume is ad supported. They could actually end up making the same amount of money depending on the traffic and ad value of those users. And, as you mention, If you can get a meta game that people would actually pay for in game, then you’re able to get the best of both worlds – access to a lot more users and higher revenue from those users. For an indie game designer it’s something interesting to consider when you’re thinking about why you’re making a game. Certainly making it free gives you the ability to reach more users overall allows the chance for a breakaway hit which is just not a possibility these days for paid mobile games.

    Reply
    1. EZ

      Brad, I think it’s probably your human nature, not your PM training, that’s getting in the way. Seems like you came to this conclusion by other means, and you are letting yourself get in the way of coming at it from another perspective.

      The entire premise is set up by illustrating the value of free as a price point. I think “#1 in the app store” and “newspaper coverage” and graphs of real game comparisons is quite clear on the business side of things. Whereas, theoretical numbers simply raise more questions (e.g. where did those numbers come from, where did those percentages come from, how well does this performance recoup development costs and allow for future development?) which are going to vary based on the game being made.

      Those are great questions, but they seem to be more address how to successfully clone a game (or why to go free) instead of addressing how to protect your game from being toppled by a clone sniper, which is more of the point of the article. Sirvo might be perfectly happy with the performance of their game, and so might many other game creators, despite having been caught off guard and upset by a clone sniper.

      Reply
  2. Gustavo

    Hi,
    I do not think is possible to protect your games from being clone. Beside, why would you want such a thing? If your game is truly the best option for the entertainment that it provides, people will tend to avoid the clones regardless the price (of course, price sensitive has a limit).

    Reply

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