Why Copying Hit Games Usually Fails and What to Do Instead

There’s an epidemic of cloned mobile games on the App Store or Google Play right now. Any successful game will see a handful (or more) of copycats appear over time, each trying to wrestle away a little market share.

Even if they don’t intentionally attempt to clone another game, a lot of game developers make the mistake of building something that’s too similar to what already exists. I hear this kind of thing all the time: “If we can take 10% of the users from [insert a top-of-category game], we’ll do really well.”

The ethics of cloning aside, it’s an economically poor practice that misunderstands the fundamental mechanics of free-to-play games. In this article, I’d like to explain why copying other games doesn’t work and how you can innovate to produce a successful game.

Why Copying Doesn’t Work

We’re in the post-consumer era now, which means people don’t want to buy goods. They want to engage with platforms and networks. They want services - including games - they can use as long as they like, or abandon any time.

Admittedly, this games-as-a-service model is only about 15 years old. Before that, players would play a game to the end and then seek the next. It didn’t matter if your level-based side scroller was similar to someone else’s because eventually those players will finish that game and look for another.

In addition, live operated games have an absolutely critical competitive advantage over copycats due to network effects. A network effect is a phenomenon where more resources (data, cash, participants, etc.) increase the value of a game. For instance, more players in a cooperative game means a better experience for everyone.

The current “Category King” in any gaming category is holding all the cards. They have the player data, split tested mechanics, and revenue to spend on user acquisition. Copycats jump into the niche without any of these advantages, and unless they are formidably backed, end up like lambs to the slaughter.

Think of it in the context of another industry: Search engines. Google’s powerful network effects make it basically impossible for other search engines to compete. It has the platform, the users, and the data that make customers stick with it. Bing has invested a lot of money, but it’s only managed to squeak out a fraction of the market. Being just as good as or even better than the competition, isn’t enough, in the world of live operated services.

Ultimately, clones rarely make lasting money. They might make some money for a little while, but eventually the market will collapse for everyone but the biggest products and players. Save yourself from being another flash in the plan by creating something that scratches a new or forgotten itch.

How to Succeed without Copying

A new game from a small publisher or developer is well served targeting the #1 or #2 spot in a small, underserved, or brand new category. These are the only positions that really matter. You can be Fortnite or PUBG, World of Warcraft or Everquest II, Uber or Lyft, or Pepsi or Coke. The vast majority of the other players in the category will struggle or fail.

Your goal is to get yourself into a defensible market position. You want to own a category, even if it is smaller, and dominate it so thoroughly that you get to take advantage of those network effects. You don’t want to get into the practice of attacking competitors, unless they’re vulnerable.

That isn’t to say this is easy, of course. Like I said before, some games are so entrenched in their categories that there’s no way you can compete with them, regardless of your resources.

So how do you own a category? In one of two ways.

1. Invent a New Category

One way is to forge your own niche by inventing a category. Your new category could be as big as an industry-changing genre, like MOBAs, battle royales, or RPGs. Or it could be as simple as finding a new way to express an existing concept.

Glu Mobile didn’t invent the casual RPG when they built Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, but they found a way to serve that concept to a completely new audience. There have been plenty of copycats since the original was released, but they’ve never really competed.

Image: Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Image: Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

(However you feel about Kim Kardashian’s game, there’s no denying that it’s been an exceptional success.)

Clash Royale is another example of a game that forged its own category. Its small-scale card-based combat carved out its own niche in the MOBA scene.

Creating a category doesn’t mean you have to invent something absolutely unheard of. Golf Clash, Trivia Crack, and CSR Racing all created new categories by combining pre-existing ideas.
We’ll talk more about the kinds of “macro” innovations that create new categories in just a moment. But first, let’s look at the second way to “own a category”

2. Find a Vulnerable Category and Conquer It

Another way to dominate a category is to find a vulnerable one and produce a better product.

PUBG was the top battle royale game until Fortnite came around. Fortnite is a much more accessible game in terms of art style, price, target audience, and gameplay. So now it owns the category.

When I worked with LBC studio to create Hempire, they saw an opportunity to create a better product than Weed Firm, a game that had great download and revenue numbers in spite of it’s modest design. Hempire was able to own the category by overwhelming the generally low-quality competition in that space.

Image: Hempire

Image: Hempire

When looking for vulnerable categories to dominate, either take something that works to a much wider audience or create something with a much higher level of polish.

Blizzard has always been the king of this strategy. They succeeded EverQuest with World of Warcraft. In doing so, they made MMORPGs more accessible and produced a superior overall product. The original Warcraft real time strategy game was created in response to the success of Doom II. And so forth.

But be careful, if you choose a category that isn’t vulnerable, or if you can’t meet the high improvement bar, this strategy will lead to a painful and expensive product failure.

Originality Through Macro Innovation

In many cases, developers take an existing concept, tweak a feature, and expect new players to flock to it. But small improvements are rarely enough to pry players from their current games.

Remember: Players need big incentives to change to a new game. They won’t abandon the things that already give them entertainment unless you can provide a unique experience that adds new value to their lives.

Besides, the current category king can simply adopt your micro-improvements in their game. Considering their data and monetary resources, they can probably iterate on those improvements faster than you, too.

Whether you decide to invent your own category or find a vulnerable one, your next step is to climb into a defensible position. In the age of games-as-a-service, it’s a winner-take-most world, so get to the top of that mountain quickly and defend your spot.

The best way to dominate the category is by focusing on macro innovation..

Your goal is to provide a unique or dramatically better experience for your users. Note that those are the two options: unique or dramatically better. And usually, it’s easier to be unique than dramatically better.

Whichever way you go, note that this is the exact opposite of what developers typically want to do. The natural inclination is to make small improvements everywhere. They copy Clash of Clans and spend months building a deeper guild system. This path is incredibly treacherous! These improvements produce little player excitement, don’t work because they are done without the advantage of split testing, and in the rare cases they do work are simply absorbed by the current leading games.

Instead, create something that’s fundamentally superior. Something that they can’t get anywhere else. If you get the big innovations right, you don’t have to innovate on every little thing. This actually makes development easier and let’s you focus design and development on just a few big things.

In fact, familiarity is important in games, even the innovative ones. You don’t want to create an experience that’s entirely foreign to players. So don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, reinvent the car!

Think of it like designing a TV show. You don’t need to reinvent the fundamentals of story structure, the format of a half hour show, or where to place the commercials. You can use what works. Instead, television creators focus on big changes, like creating great characters, scenarios, and plot lines.

A nice example of macro innovation done right is Golf Clash, the highest grossing golf game on iOS. They focused on dominating a category (PVP golf) with smart innovations, but then relied on a tested UX and monetization system inspired by Clash Royale and Miniclip. This mentality of focusing on the big stuff is what lets a game dominate a category.

Unique > Better

Copycat games are usually unsuccessful because they fail to create enough appeal to woo players who are content with their current games. They also lack the network effects that drive growth.

Now, it’s worth noting that there are exception to the principles we’ve discussed here. There are some kinds of mobile or live operated games where players want to play several at one time. Slots and Match 3 are two clear examples of this. In these kinds of categories there are typically many more winners and it’s easier to penetrate without macro innovation.

However, for the majority of genres, these precepts hold. Choose or create a category where you can be competitive and innovate at the macro level and your chances of success will skyrocket.