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Spry Fox, Triple Town and the Clone Wars

Spry Fox, Triple Town and the Clone Wars

Wed 18 Apr 2012 1:10pm GMT / 9:10am EDT / 6:10am PDT
LegalDevelopment

Spry Fox co-founder David Edery discusses the harsh reality of copycat design, and what developers can do to protect their creativity

David Edery, co-founder of Spry Fox, claims that the speed with which clones of its popular casual games appear has been a chastening experience, softening the freewheeling spirit with which the company was founded.

In an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry International, Edery detailed the fallout from its experiences with copycat designers cloning successful Spry Fox games like Triple Town and Steam Birds.

"We're much less care-free than we used to be," he admitted. "We've learned some valuable lessons."

Ultimately, the company's founding principle of developing original games for digital platforms still stands, but key aspects of its approach to design have been changed by necessity.

"We want to make original games, and the only way to do that is to release early and release often, because otherwise you're just taking on way too much risk. Unless you're PopCap you can't afford to work on an original game for 5 years before you release it - if it fails that's just too much effort."

1

When Triple Town launched on Facebook and Google+, the company deliberately left out a number of key social features. Edery wanted to first see how popular the core gameplay mechanic would be with users, before introducing new features gradually.

As a creative strategy it makes sense, but Edery's experiences suggest that the increasingly cut-throat world of casual game design has made such a considered approach impossible.

"We purposely released the game early to see if people would think it was fun on Facebook and then add the social stuff in later," he says, "but then the clones just started to come out of nowhere really fast. We thought we'd have six months before the clones started knocking on the door, but it happened way faster than that.

"If you're going to release a social game make sure you have the viral stuff baked. Don't test the gameplay mechanic and add the social stuff later. Don't fix the ARPU later - no, make sure you have a decent ARPU right out of the gate."

"For a game like Triple Town our attitude is to assume that it will be cloned within two months"

Most importantly, an independent developer working on digital platforms needs to be able to roll-out a new game across as many devices as possible, as quickly as possible. Once a game starts to show commercial promise, the countdown to the first clones appearing is already well under way.

"That comes with a lot of technical constraints, but if I can release my original game and realise over the course of a month that it has potential, then a month later blast it out on mobile, blast it out on Steam, blast it out everywhere, great, I can stay ahead of my competitors. Gone are the days when I had the luxury of a year before someone tried to copy me.

"A game like [Spry Fox free-to-play MMO shooter] Realm Of The Mad God is so technically complicated that nobody can clone it very quickly, but for a game like Triple Town our attitude is to assume that it will be cloned within two months.

"If we're going to release a game, we're damn sure we can blow it up big within two months if we need to."

For Edery, that's is the key difference between the culture of cloning in the early days of the arcade and today: it's not a problem of quantity; it's a problem of time.

"It has never happened this fast. There were clones of Steam Birds within months. The first Triple Town clone was within weeks - super fast. That one wasn't very successful, but nevertheless: weeks."

He rolls the word around in his mouth. "Weeks."

2

Spry Fox accused 6waves Lolapps of copying its game, Triple Town

Edery remains surprisingly amicable and composed throughout our interview, but there are moments where the sheer frustration of those moments that he discovered phantom products based on Spry Fox's work peek through his calm demeanour. He offers one such example that captures just how "bald-faced" the cloners can be.

"The night we launched Triple Town on Android market - literally the same night - kind of on a lark I decided to type 'Triple Town' into Android Market to see what came up - people will often use the title of another game as a keyword for their game, even if it's not all that similar - and Triple Town comes up.

"We had been working with Google so I wondered if they had done something that pre-prepared the market or something like that. It's my art, it's my everything; it's the game, but it's by some Chinese guy. He had literally uploaded our game.

"It has never happened this fast. There were clones of Steam Birds within months. The first Triple Town clone was within weeks"

"There you go. I mean, what the hell? I haven't talked to every game designer who was making arcade games 20 years ago, but I don't think anyone would have done that. Literally, my game, with my name, and my art."

Spry Fox was founded by Edery and Daniel Cook in September 2010. Edery was formerly worldwide games portfolio manager for Xbox Live, and Cook was a game designer at Microsoft Game Studios.

The intention was to build a creative company that functioned like a modern film studio, where teams are built and disbanded based on the specific requirements of each project. "We work together on what we love, and we part ways when our interests diverge," Edery said at the time.

Spry Fox filed suit against the social publisher and developer 6waves Lolapps in January this year, citing similarities between Triple Town and 6waves' subsequent iOS title, Yeti Town.

In a post on the Spry Fox website, Edery revealed that the company had talked to 6waves Lolapps about publishing Triple Town on Facebook, giving it access to the game's closed beta and sensitive information regarding its business and monetisation strategies.

Spry Fox ultimately chose Playdom as Triple Town's Facebook publisher, but by that time Yeti Town had already been released on iOS.

"What most people don't know is that 6waves was in confidential (under NDA) negotiations with us to publish Triple Town at the exact same time that they were actively copying Triple Town," Edery wrote in a blog post.

3

6waves Lolapps has denied that Yeti Town is a clone of Spry Fox's work

"We gave 6waves private access to Triple Town when it was still in closed beta, months before the public was exposed to the game. We believed those negotiations were ongoing, and we continued to give private information to 6waves, until 6waves' executive director of business development sent us a message via Facebook on the day Yeti Town was published in which he suddenly broke off negotiations and apologised for the nasty situation."

6waves Lolapps subsequently denied breaching the NDA, and expressed "disappointment" in Edery's decision to take legal action. However, Edery insists - as he did at the time - that the choice was not taken lightly.

"If Angry Birds was released for the first time today by a studio without much marketing, would it succeed? Who the hell knows? Who knows"

As an enemy of creativity, cloning will have a more profound impact on independent companies, particularly in the more competitive landscape of contemporary mobile and social development. The gold-rush that defined the early days of iOS and Facebook development has long since finished, and there are now huge, entrenched players in both markets with the sort of resources to make each new release a success, if only for a brief time.

But for smaller studios desperately trying to get their products noticed every hit counts, and a single failure can be the difference between survival and collapse. For Edery, developing a breakout hit has become exponentially more difficult in the last few years, and looking to the more successful companies can be misleading. Very often, they benefited from a healthy does of pure good fortune.

"Zynga is what Zynga is today due to a combination of factors, but the most important factor is right place, right time," he says. "They just happened to be on Facebook at a time when you were able to spam and get a lot of users that way.

"Halfbrick and Rovio, when they made Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds, mobile was more of a meritocracy; if you made a good enough game and you got featured, there was a great chance that you could stay on the top of the charts for a period of time without spending a dime on marketing.

"If they hadn't made good games they wouldn't be where they are today, but at the same time it's viable to ask: if Angry Birds was released for the first time today by a studio without much marketing, would it succeed? And the answer is, 'Who the hell knows? Who knows.'"

2 Comments

Angry Birds was a clone though. Of course clones don't get as much press, but something of exceptional quality can still be picked up by the press and users even if it's not seen as new, and even then there will always be an unlimited supply of new people to be exposed to new things even if they are not original - to those people it will be. Minecraft was a clone, but it was superior, and supported much longer by the developer. Infiniminer may be the first game of that type known to some people, but any brick type game is called a Minecraft clone now by many people who just don't know better, and even Infiniminer has obvious roots in other games. Does Markus not deserve his success because his game is derivative? What's the % of innovation from Infiniminer to his game? Does it matter if the game is unoriginal because it's better, and more people enjoy it more than the original? What are your thoughts on this?

But nothing is original. Everything is a remix. 1to1 clones suck, where developers even copy the words exactly from your game or even go so far as to use your assets directly (I've had both happen to me, and I really don't care), but even games which look similar most likely still have innovation and that is still valuable to the industry. Innovating, even if it's "just 10%" is expensive, and I believe games which are not superior in any way, which don't innovate just won't cut it for the users. Marketing budgets can only do so much. So, not getting to market first with an "innovative" idea sucks, but there's more to it than that. What about future games which come out after your innovative game which improve on the concepts and offer a better experience? Don't those have value? Shouldn't you be glad that those developers showed you how to make a better game, so that you can learn and make better games yourself?

Take a game like Triple Town and I can see the games which influenced it. There have been many games which have had variations of "groups of objects combine together to form a higher quality object" though they were presented differently. So what % of invention is a game like Triple Town if all of the individual parts have already been done before? Of course the example of Yeti Town is abhorrent. But the "original idea do not steal" idea disgusts me as well, but I know nothing is original. I've already seen an old flash game released in 2003 being accused of being a Triple Town clone, but even that older game has clear progression from previous games such as the first generations of match-3s. :)

I wish it were possible to be really original, but that's a fantasy. Some creative types seclude themselves because they are afraid of copying, and they never make anything good. Good creative people know that a strong visual library is the most important thing to making great things. The genius of invention is how old things and ideas are put together to form new wholes. That's why it's so important for game designers who want to be good to play many games, and to not be afraid of using the best ideas from the games they play in their own projects. Like how memes spread the best game design innovations, even if they are only 10% better than something previous, still compound little by little so that after a generation we go back to many games of the past and they become unplayable.

There's a lot of competition right now, but it is also the best time to be making games. Life is unfair. Life is short, and people are cruel. Spend your time and money wisely. Make better games. Interesting games deserve success, but they don't have to be original, and not all interesting games even though deserving do not always get attention. Originality is not so important as people think, but of course some will argue to the end that it is important. If you don't believe me then spend some time on the tvtropes and find some of your favorite works of fiction and then look to see which tropes the fiction uses. Harry Potter wasn't original, but it was superior. I believe it's the same with game design. Some games come out which are genre defining, but that doesn't stop a better game from ever coming out and redefining it. I love Dwarf Fortress to death, but the second someone releases an even slight clone of that game commercially with superior user friendliness I know it will probably do well and I will probably happily play and enjoy it too, and I'd hope the developers of Dwarf Fortress would cheer on the developer of this other game too and not curse them for doing what they should have done long ago.

Is Tiny Wings just Tribes without guns?

That money did not matter. That everyone built on the best of things to make them better. That everything was openly shared and in common ownership for the good of all people. If only life were so easy.

I know from past experiences that my opinions are not popular. I don't meant to offend anyone or start a flame war. Only offering my own perspective on things.

Edit123: I want to also add that sometimes game design is the vehicle for other more important things. The game design is only secondary to something else, only serves something else which is wholly more important. Like the countless beautiful variations of the mechanics of a clock, but still not seen and only the vehicle for the visual design and feeling of unique objects. Like adventure games. The core mechanics mostly stay the same from game to game, and are the vehicle for everything else.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Brian Kramer on 18th April 2012 6:45pm

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ

203 72 0.4
Good article. Thanks for sharing, David Edery. :)

Some tough competition out there, and not everyone playing by the rules!


Murray
Indie Game Developer
http://www.muzboz.com

Posted:2 years ago

#2

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