Many online game “communities” feel like those housing subdivisions spreading around every American city like carcinomas on a pancreas.

I live in one such suburban wasteland in northwestern Austin, Texas. Milwood has no mill and few trees. After five years here, I know the names of the couple next door, but nothing about anyone else on this street. No one knows anybody. There’s nowhere to meet, and no reason; the nearest market/bar/bus stop/anything is two miles away. The streets are twisty mazes, the houses endless reshufflings of a dozen bland elements, their plans generated randomly in some nameless architect’s CAD/CAM program. A Texas subdivision looks like Connecticut, which looks like Idaho and Georgia. Built by developers without taste or imagination, these soul-dead burbclaves ignore the human-centered design principles in Christopher Alexander’s landmark A Pattern Language. Such ugly, sterile, crass 1950s Chamber of Commerce concrete-asphalt provincial whitebread booboisie burgs count as “communities” only if you believe their marketing literature.

You get the same vibe off the most popular gaming sites in the English- speaking world, the casual game portals: EA’s Pogo, Miniclip, Yahoo! Games, Microsoft’s MSN Games, RealNetworks’ GameHouse, Big Fish Games and many more. These lookalike sites are “portals” because they aggregate dozens or hundreds of casual games from many indie designers. Some big portals are mere front ends for faceless distributors like Oberon Media or Boonty.

The portal formula can work like crazy. On the big portals, at any hour, day or night, tens or hundreds of thousands of players gather to play Hearts, Spades, Canasta, chess, backgammon and a zillion shareware match-three games. No one knows how big the casual downloadable market is, but it’s growing. RealNetworks just announced record fourth quarter and 2005 results, including year-on-year games revenue growth in Q4 of 52%, to $15.7 million; annual games revenue was $56.3 million, a 63% increase over 2004. Miniclip claims 27 million unique users each month. Club Pogo has 780,000 paying members. Some other companies are growing the same way, like all those housing sprawls. Phil Steinmeyer [a href=”http://www.philsteinmeyer.com/50/top-10-top-9/” target=”_blank” title=”Top 10 -] Top 9″>estimates[/a] today’s market at around $200 million annually.

Leaving aside the unadorned shopping sites, a few portals make cosmetic attempts at community building: chat, buddy lists, forums, profiles and avatars. Sometimes, these use off-the-shelf middleware like GameFrame. Grab.com does better, with player blogs and pages of kid and dog pictures. But portal social scenes are, at best, low-key. You can’t tell one community from another.

And increasingly, you can’t distinguish the games they sell.

Volume, Volume, Volume!
Casual games look alike, not just because all the portals carry the same games (though they do), but because the portals encourage straight knockoffs of current hits.

Of course, every new game builds, to greater or lesser degree, on earlier designs. And of course, category leaders inevitably spawn imitations. Everyone recognizes the virtues of studying precursors, fixing their mistakes, and making a clone to try out new wrinkles on established ideas. But more and more casual look-alikes zoom beyond “imitation as sincere flattery” and screech to a halt just inches short of plagiarism. They’re not clones but parasites. The portals love them.

Last summer, an upstart three-person French company, FunPause EURL, made an attention-getting business case for parasitism. FunPause scored two quick successes with exceptionally blatant clones: first, Atlantis, a copy of MumboJumbo’s mega-selling Luxor (itself a close imitation of Zuma, which derives from Midway’s 1998 Puzz Loop); next, Fairies, an unashamed point-for-point re-skinning of Raptisoft’s successful Chuzzle. Each copy took FunPause about two months to engineer, start to finish. (Saves time when you don’t have to playtest.) For Fairies, they even lifted their fairy model straight from a free-software rendering app, DAZ|Studio. Both games show considerable polish, though saying so is, as Comics Journal writer R. Fiore remarked in another context, like complimenting a shoplifter for her taste in clothes.

Atlantis and Fairies each hit the portal bestseller lists. This in itself was a big payoff for four months’ work; a bestselling casual game can earn many thousands of dollars a month for years, though the portals typically pass on only 20% to developers. But FunPause really struck it rich last month, when it was acquired by the fastest-growing portal, Big Fish Games.

The BFG website’s tagline is “A New Game Every Day”; they must not have liked “Quantity Over Quality.” The FunPause acquisition helps sate this ravenous and indiscriminate appetite. In a Gamecloud interview after the purchase, Big Fish Marketing VP Ken Wells was asked, “How hard is it to create and publish casual games that are different than what has been previously released?” He answered without a trace of irony:

This is a difficult task because our audience loves established formats such as match-three games. So, the goal is to look at all sorts of games that have been released on all platforms, not just PC and consoles, and come up with ways to make game mechanics that are innovative in the space while still being accessible to the audience. We always try to create a new and unique experience, even if the development is initially costly. So far, the risk has paid off.

I enjoy these portal marketing guys. They’re charmingly brazen, like Baghdad Bob during the Iraqi invasion. Gamecloud just interviewed Kenny Dinkin, VP of PlayFirst, a new casual publisher. Dinkin praised PlayFirst’s successful game Diner Dash, developed by gameLab:

What I love about Diner Dash is its innovation – it’s the platonic ideal of what we were shooting for – a game that had none of the presumed necessary trappings of a gamer’s game: It has an everyday metaphor, a female hero who’s a regular gal, 2-D graphics, humor and even a job where you work a shift!

“Innovation”! That’s so cute! Diner Dash is, in all these respects, a straightforward imitation of Betty’s Beer Bar by Mystery Studio. (Mystery is a two-man team based in, believe it or not, Uruguay.)

Later in the same interview, Baghdad Kenny continues:

It’s tempting to be conservative and copy stuff. But trying new things is what drives us. We’re really enjoying incubating the unique vision of each of our developers. And for me personally, it’s exhilarating to oversee a growing portfolio of new ideas.

Once More Round the Track
History is repeating itself in casual games. In the 1990s, in the wake of Magic: The Gathering, dozens of imitators rushed out trading card games. In the ’80s, the boom was in black-and-white comic books; in the ’70s, roleplaying games. Obscure creator achieves novel success; hordes of opportunists glut the market; the bubble bursts; four or five survivors dominate the field; lots of naive latecomers lose their shirts.

This time, the cycle is interesting for the debate it provokes in developer circles. Many casual games are made by solo entrepreneurs or small teams, who are a diverse bunch. Some are in it for love of the games, others are indies (independents) in pursuit of freedom from company restrictions, still others seek the quick hit and speedy exit. It’s your basic cross-section of humanity. The obvious success of FunPause and other cloners has highlighted a lack of total overlap between “casual” and “indie,” and the disjuncture has prompted sharp argument on the Indie Gamer forums.

Chuzzle creator John Raptis wrote of Fairies, “Look, we all clone. The issue here is that you clone because you play a game, and you say, ‘Man, this is fun, but it’s missing giant tarantulas that shoot laser beams, and that changes the gameplay.’ Then you write that new version.” And in a later post: “I don’t really feel that miffed – my attitude was more along the lines of, ‘There’s all this stuff I didn’t put in Chuzzle, why didn’t you put some of it in?'”

Jason Kapalka, Creative Director of PopCap Games, saw more dire ramifications: “There is a big difference between a game that adds vital, new, interesting elements to a base idea – such as JewelQuest or Big Kahuna Reef did with Bejeweled – and games where the only changes are cosmetic tweaks to dodge legal ramifications. […] For the ‘indie’ game community, supposedly united by a desire to make the kinds of games the big mainstream developers aren’t willing or able to do, it’s kind of depressing to see such blatant unoriginality; more depressing still to see it being lauded as a good thing.

“What the current thinking is going to do, if it continues, is annihilate any nascent sense of community in this field. Ask yourself this: If you had a good original game idea right now, mocked up in a prototype form but not completed, how comfortable would you be posting it in the Indie Gamer forums? Would you suspect – rightly – that rather than getting constructive feedback and criticism, you’d instead be giving a bunch of people a head start in ripping you off?” Kapalka warned that the community could become “increasingly paranoid, cut-throat, and suspicious. You’re right that there are lots of other industries where this is already the case… but is it really inevitable for such a young and promising field as casual games to follow suit?”

Paul Timson responded, “Maybe the smaller guys just saw an opportunity to get some income built up too, so they could continue making games at all. It is all very well and good wishing devs would create those strange/interesting indie games that you obviously look forward to, but like you, they have realized for the most part there is no market for them […M]aybe PopCap could help those devs taking risks and trying new things by starting to publish them too! There’s an idea.”

The controversy continues to simmer. One Indie Games forum member has started a blog, 1 Good Game, specifically to call out and publicly shame cloners. It looks like the indie gaming community, if there ever was one, may go the way of “communities” like my soulless subdivision, Milwood.

Still, there is hope for individual creators. Thomas Warfield’s Pretty Good Solitaire is a leading indie success story. In a 2004 blog entry, “The Portal Bubble,” Warfield discusses the indies’ fear that “the portals will become just like retail publishers. Royalty rates will continue to drop and eventually independent game companies will become totally dependent on the portals to survive […] However, as long as game developers do not put themselves into a position of dependence on the portals, this simply cannot happen.

“[T]here is a fundamental difference between retail publishers and the online portals. Retail publishers (and their distributors) control access to the space in retail stores. […] Online portals, on the other hand, only control space on their own websites. This space is not limited and it is not expensive to create your own website and compete with them. All they really have, when you come right down to it, is Internet traffic. [But] the portals only have traffic and customers as long as people are finding interesting games there.”

Warfield articulates the portals’ inevitable fate: “Things are going to look great and the market will look like it will expand forever, and then suddenly it won’t. The weak companies will get hit first and a lot of the portals will fail. The market for these games will crash, and when it is finally over only those who have the best games and the best business strategy will survive. Those developers who are dependent on the portals alone for their income will find themselves in a world of hurt.”

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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