Game talkWhen is a Clone

 Posted by (Visited 4982 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Jul 232014

Just some relatively incoherent notes here, originally written in an email… this post may serve as useful background as it expresses many of the same thoughts in a more coherent form. This was written in part in response to all the discussion around cloning going on in the game industry these days. As it happens, today I read this Gamasutra blog post:

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

- Svyatoslav Torick

Which prompted me to post this here.

“Game” here used in a strict formal sense, to save me from typing “ludic artifact” over and over again.

taflMost games can be described as rules (e.g., processes that are largely based on conditionals, limits, and actions) and sets of numeric values (number of an asset type, values for things, etc). You also have a variety of metaphors and presentation elements that are used to convey these: visuals, sounds, etc.

In general, if we see a game that has all the same rules and all the same scalars, but uses different presentation, we can consider that “a reskin.” It is exactly the same as a Lord of the Rings chess set or the like.

If a game has the same rules but different scalars, we can think of it as the same game simply presenting alternate problem spaces. For example, changing levels is changing scalars. Changing jump distance, etc. This is generally also a “clone” or “reskin.”



Note, a scalar going to zero, or a new scalar that therefore comes with a new rule (limit, mechanic, input and contingent rule) effectively creates what I would call a “variant.” Many games include variants within their rules, others are sometimes considered new games. Look at Poker.

Variant trees can get pretty complex, and pretty soon we end up referring to a “family” of games.

If it gets large enough, we call it “a genre.” A genre shares a common core set of mathematical problems but the rules around them can be so diverse that any given pairing of two members of the tree will find little commonality. Genres are really best seen through cluster analysis because they can bleed into one another.

So: new unique rule combinations create new games, which by definition create the original “variant” though there is nothing to vary from yet, which makes them the first member of a new family, and potentially the founder of a genre. But usually games are not invented ex nihilo.

You have do have some numeric rules that are almost like “global variables” – one of these is a scalar for “turn time.” Changing this one can very much create a “new game.” The same game construct with turns, phases, or real time will get called “a new game,” because turn time is a rule.

The easiest way to “invent a new game” as opposed to simply cloning something is to take a ludic artifact and change one significant rule.

Miner 2049er

Miner 2049er

Not all rules are created equal. Some rules are very much peripheral – for example, an in-built exploration system (such as finding secrets) is effectively a braided-in minigame that happens in parallel to the “main game.” This is where atomic analysis is useful. Usually, you can see where minigames exist in parallel to a core game, and it’s usually obvious which is the core and which is the minigame, based on where resources flow.

Sometimes, rule changes like this (as in Poker) feed back into the core structure, and become a scalar instead, creating that sense of family. So adding a wild card is unquestionably a rule change, but these days “number of wild cards” or “face up cards” are actually scalars from 0 to n. Similarly, FPSes have developed variants like this (instagib, for example).

The commonest way to find a major variant is to add a dimension. Move from 1d to 2d to 3d to 4d, or back. This has been the evolution of shooters, of racers, etc. Adding time as a dimension is also a common tactic.

New graph types is a very common way to do it as well. Going from Bejeweled to Hexic introduces a new kind of mathematical relationship and topology, which results in new rules to handle it, which means a new game.

Flip & Flop

Flip & Flop

So, the recipe for inventing a truly new game:

  • Identify a new mathematical model. This is often done by finding a new kind of scenario to model: human relationships (The Sims), gardening (Farm Town), etc.
  • Proffer a dimensional change on an existing ruleset, such as Tetris modifying the classic game of pentominoes by adding time and movement vector. Pac-Man and Miner 2049er and Flip & Flop are almost the same game (traverse every node on the graph). But the rule changes are major.
  • Explore alternate sorts of graph structures, such as Blokus to Blokus Trigon or Gemblo. Jumpman vs Miner 2049er is a good example here, or indeed any other “gather things” platformer; changing the graph of points that require visiting alters much.
  • Offer a replacement goal within an extant rule structure, which can force a major variant. A racing game versus a demolition derby sort of racing game is an example here.

That said, the folk process virtually demands that games be cloned, experimented on, reskinned, and otherwise evolved as machines. Look at the tafl family of games, for example, or Nine Men’s Morris. Arguably a game that does not get cloned can never become a family or genre.

On top of that, there are expressive qualities in the metaphor that afford enormous artistic scope. They don’t fall into the realm of “ludic artifact design” but rather into “experience design” (both subsets of “game design”), but they still advance the overall field. Half-Life is perhaps the quintessential example here.

Anyway, where that leaves us with clones… first off, they’re normal. Second, we as (ludic artifact) designers work in rulesets, and rulesets are conventionally not protected except by patents – so we could protect these constructs, we just usually don’t bother. Third, without a good way to talk about rulesets, we use rules of thumb to point at stuff and say “that’s a clone,” so it’s a great place where formal game analysis methods help our thinking.

  27 Responses to “When is a Clone”

  1. The very reason we’re here, Raph, is due to the persistence of the most unoriginal of acts that nonetheless continues to preoccupy the human mind as both a functional and primary entertainment activity.

    Seriously, thoughtful analysis as always.

  2. If you ever fully form this idea, I’d be interested in knowing the current state of the legal climate for game developers. What types of re-skins or variants are clearly allowed, which are questionable, and which are not allowed?

    Clearly if my 9 year old wants to release his re-skinned “chess” game with his own original art, that should be legal. Chess with Mario and Luigi, and I’m sure he’s stepping on someone’s IP.

    For the rulesets however, I’m less clear. If he re-skins his favorite tower defense game and writes it from scratch with his own art, where is it likely to stand from a legal perspective? What is the current legal framework for small time game devs looking to create a one-man product family of simple games?


  3. Wasn’t the term “clone” originally adopted to refer to games that were practically indistinguishable from the original? They not only had the same rules and mechanics, they had the same skin, too. It was when we started talking about games that “cloned the gameplay” of other games that we got into the habit of calling games with the same gameplay but different dressing “clones”.

  4. “Most games can be described as rules (e.g., processes that are largely based on conditionals, limits, and actions) and sets of numeric values (number of an asset type, values for things, etc). You also have a variety of metaphors and presentation elements that are used to convey these: visuals, sounds, etc.”

    A while ago, I wrote a brief article that captures the relationship between rules, sets of numeric values and presentation elements in linguistic terms. This also helped me to develop a classification of rules. I think it may be useful to understand in more detail how a game can be “altered” into something different.

    If you are interested, here is the link:


  5. True, Richard. Like Dolly the sheep. Now people toss the term around to mean not just games with the same mechanics but even games with similar mechanics….or even games that remind the player of another game.

  6. Altug, that sounds very much like a linguistics-centered view of the same stuff game grammar says, especially some of the stuff here:

    I find it reassuring that different disciplines see very similar patterns.

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