A noisy blend of peer-reviewed conference, job/product expo and reunion party, the Game Developers Conference (GDC) showcases the industry’s hottest trends, from its most innovative game-play experiences, to its top-trending peeves and squabbles. I am hereby prepared to ‘call’ the 26th GDC’s Peeve Of The Year.
Last year, GDC saw a series of arguments about gamification, ranging from explicit “rant” sessions, to snarky asides that lent a motif to the 300+ sessions. Proponents attended a full day “summit”, and touted the virtues of using game systems to enhance software for education and health, or for corporate productivity. Critics warned of superficial reductionism, as if the virtues of the surgical profession were marketed in the form of a package of white lab coats and sharp knives.
The previous year’s thematic peeve derived from the rapidly-increasing embrace of metrics and analytics, especially among Facebook-based “social games”, which had rapidly emerged as the industry’s fastest-growing – and most aggressively hiring – sector. Traditional (old-school) game designers resented being driven by data, and warned that a quantitative myopia was hindering creativity, leading to joyless exploitation of players for profit.
This year’s top gripe is best expressed by a spoof badge-ribbon that many attendees have spotted glued onto the bottom edge of a conference badge holder, perhaps underneath an official GDC ribbon that reads “SPEAKER”, or “ADVISORY BOARD”, or “MEDIA.” This one reads “DON’T CLONE MY INDIE GAME BRO.”
For many years, the game development community, and GDC, have shown much love for its independent developers: GDC hosts the Independent Games Festival (IGF), which includes an awards ceremony that seems to draw most of the GDC attendees, an IGF Pavilion showcasing the nominees, and a two-day Indie Games Summit. This year, GDC also featured a special screening and panel presentation of Indie Game: The Movie.
This recognizes that some indie developers have enjoyed commercial success, including the IGF award-winning Minecraft, and the student project that later became Valve’s hugely popular Portal.
Some indie studios grow beyond the usual roomful of developers to a few dozen employees. And not all indies are starved for cash. The indie studio Double Fine set out to raise $400,000 to make an adventure game, using crowd-sourced fundraising on Kickstarter.com. Currently, that project has raised $2.5 million, and still has a few days left. There are others: the Indie Summit at this GDC included a session on how to crowdfund “your kick-ass video game” using Kickstarter.
Unfortunately for indie developers, their innovative games have proven a rich resource for their less scrupulous competitors. Giant game publishers, and some smaller ones, have made a practice of “cloning.” They copy innovative games, while changing artwork, text, and titles just enough to avoid infringing copyright law.
The “DON’T CLONE MY INDIE GAME BRO” badge was printed and distributed by Georgia Tech Professor Ian Bogost, a critic and analyst of the industry, and its unofficial but undisputed Gadfly Laureate. Bogost’s Cow Clicker game was an explicit satire of the reductionist design approach behind many Facebook games. The impact of the game’s unexpected success is detailed in a Wired feature that includes its own weirdly-minimal game.
Like Cow Clicker, Bogost’s faux badge ribbons are simultaneously a spoof and a genuine example of the medium they parody. An explicit homage to the “don’t tase me, bro!” meme, the badges were printed in an intentionally non-combative and humanizing lavender. As for their message, Bogost has specifically cited three recent cloning incidents that inspired him:
- Indie studio Spry Fox, creators of the puzzle game Triple Town, recently sued Hong Kong-based 6waves Lolapps, whose Yeti Town was described by reviewers as “the exact same game, only this time with snow.”
- Tiny indie studio Nimblebit developed Tiny Tower, praised by Apple as the “iPhone game of the year.” After social-game giant Zynga, released the obvious clone Dream Heights, Nimblebits released a widely-quoted open letter to Zynga, applauded widely as “an epic burn.”
- Vlambeer Games’ web-based Radical Fishing was copied by Gamenauts, and released for iOS as Ninja Fishing.
For major studios, such cloning is simply a matter of business strategy. The chief creative director at Electronic Arts, Richard Hilleman, has even suggested that game design teams should include lawyers, because, “So much of social gaming is about designing as close to the legal line as possible. You have to drive close to the line to make the business work.”
Several GDC sessions have explicitly criticized the cloning habit. Daniel Cook of Spry Fox, co-creator of Triple Town, gave an impassioned call for “big invention” in his lecture, “Create New Genres (and Stop Wasting Your Life in the Clone Factories).” Cook laid out his own design process. His sources of inspiration for Triple Town included board games (Go and Reversi), and also the interaction between Peruvian cathedrals and their neighboring villages. And he detailed an invention-friendly production process that supports creativity.
Because making incremental modifications to a hit game is easy, and is a low-risk approach for a game publisher, the cloning approach remains popular. The prevalence of that approach motivates my own definition of game genre: “a hit game and its imitators.”
Ironically, even Zynga, which has been accused of taking excessively literal ‘inspiration’ from indies, has itself been victim of blatant cloning. Zynga sued Vostu, a major Brazilian social network, for copyright infringement after a number of Zynga’s games appeared, re-developed by Vostu, on Vostu’s site. The case was settled in December 2011, with Vostu paying an undisclosed amount. Just three weeks before GDC, Vostu announced major layoffs, widely understood to be a consequence of that settlement.
Dan Scherlis is a consulting executive producer, and an advisor to social media ventures. As CEO of Turbine, Dan produced the MMO “Asheron’s Call,” published by Microsoft. He has also produced mobile and retail-packaged games, as well as other online community-based content.