The art of imitative design

The art of imitative design

By The Alpenwolf

February 1st 2016 at 2:59PM

Former Develop columnist The Alpenwolf returns to discuss how to take your game from imitation to innovation

Why does one game succeed brilliantly while another game vanishes into obscurity? Why is one game an absolute blast to play while another, very similar game, simply isn't that much fun?

It is often easy to understand why a game fails, but it is usually more difficult to ascertain why one game becomes a hit when another does not, epecially when the hit does not feature better features, prettier art, faster performance, or a more distinctive brand than other games in the same genre.

In most cases, success comes down to superior game design, by which I mean the use of game concepts and mechanics that provide the player with a more enjoyable gameplay experience. Game design should never be confused with game development or with production, as it is the aspect of game development that consists of conceiving and articulating ideas that are subsequently turned into functional reality through the process of production.

There are four types of game design:

  • Original
  • Evolutionary
  • Synthetic
  • Imitative

While most discussion of game design revolves around its highest form – original design – the fact is that very few game designers will ever rise to the level of a Sid Meier, a Will Wright, or a Peter Molyneux. Most successful games – and most good games – involve either evolutionary or synthetic design. And the reality is that most games that are developed and released are best characterised as the lowest form of game design, imitative design.

There are several reasons for this to be the case. First, imitative designs are easier to conceive, for both the novice game designer as well as the experienced professional. Most of us possess considerably less creative originality than we would like to imagine, and even in the game industry, true originality is as likely to be greeted with skepticism and dismissal as with enthusiasm and support.

Second, imitative design is easier to articulate, as it takes considerably less time and effort to write a game design document that can be largely cribbed from another game's manual, or from notes taken while playing another game, than it does to start from scratch with original research, algorithms, and arbitrary values.

Third, imitative design is easier to sell to the development team, to the investors, to the publisher, and often, to the public.

Fourth, imitative design is safer. The imitative designer is able to have confidence in the game's mechanics because he has already seen them work.

Very few game designers will ever rise to the level of a Sid Meier, a Will Wright, or a Peter Molyneux. Most successful games – and most good games – involve either evolutionary or synthetic design.

And yet, even when two or more games are designed in imitation of a successful game, and developed with a reasonably equivalent level of production competence and resources, they often meet with widely varying results. So, in light of the uncomfortable fact that most game developers will, sooner or later, find themselves working on an imitative game, what separates a successful imitation from an unsuccessful one?

Consider the case of the various imitations of one of the most widely imitated games in computer game history, Doom. Doom was revolutionary for its time, is considered to be one of the ten greatest games in computer game history, sold 2m copies, distributed another 20m, and spawned a host of “Doom clones” between 1993 and 1997, including Duke Nukem 3D, Dark Forces, Heretic, Rebel Moon Rising, Rise of the Triad, and CyClones.

(Disclosure: I had personal involvement with three of these games. I designed and co-produced Rebel Moon Rising, my company Power of Seven did the music and sound effects for CyClones, and I reviewed Heretic for Computer Gaming World in 1994.) 

All of these games were 2.5D shooters that were, more or less, functionally identical to Doom. Yet the most commercially successful, Duke Nukem 3D, sold 3.5m copies; considerably more than the 50,000 copies sold by the least successful, CyClones. To understand why these very similar games had such dissimilar results requires understanding the challenges of imitative design.

The primary problem with designing an imitation is that there is often no intrinsic need for the imitation to exist in the first place. Unless the imitation reaches a platform the original cannot reach, or the imitated game cannot fulfill the existing demand it has created, there is no market for the imitator.

Why should a gamer play the imitation when the original is available? Space Armada sold one million copies on Intellivision because Atari refused to port Space Invaders to its competitor; would Sonic the Hedgehog have sold as well as it did on the Sega Genesis if Nintendo had made Super Mario World available on the Genesis rather than keeping it exclusive to the SNES?

Unless the imitation reaches a platform the original cannot reach, or the imitated game cannot fulfill the existing demand it has created, there is no market for the imitator.

Exacerbating this problem today is the ability to retroactively add more content to existing games through DLC and updates, which now makes success by imitation even more difficult. After Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning came out, it was not long before Blizzard added an achievements system to World of Warcraft, thereby rendering moot one of the few distinctions between WAR and WoW.

The secondary problem with imitative design is that the imitator seldom understands either the internal game mechanics involved or the necessary tradeoffs that were required in deciding upon them. Even fairly small alterations, made in ignorance, can disrupt the well-honed flow of the original gameplay and make the game feel less fun than the original.

That being said, imitative design can succeed if:

a) the imitator is able to take advantage of a brand that creates independent appeal or creates a market for the game. Example: Dark Forces. Who didn't want to see what Doom-style action in the Star Wars universe would be like?

b) the imitator fully understands the internal workings of the design imitated and is careful to only change superficial elements that don't disrupt or otherwise interfere with the internal mechanics. Consider how different the superficial elements were in Duke Nukem 3D in comparison with Doom.

It has been argued that the addition of features such as swimming and flying permit Duke Nukem 3D to be considered an evolutionary design, but all of the various Doom clones had a number of minor new features that did not fundamentally change the core gameplay mechanics. The fact that the developer was unable to build on the huge success of the game after the technological shift to true 3D graphics also tends to argue against the idea that it was evolutionary.

Let's look at the differences between the two titles.

Duke Nukem 3D

Character: colorful personality
Dialogue: sardonic vulgarity
Genre: cheesy science fiction
Mood: silly and cocksure
Environment: Earth and familiar

Doom

Character: nameless Doom guy
Dialogue: shrieking and wailing
Genre: eldritch horror
Mood: dark and frightening
Environment: Hell and alien

The same was not true of the less successful Doom clones; despite having new features like an independent reticule and the ability to look up and down, the generic nature of CyClones meant that, unlike Duke Nukem 3D, first-person shooter fans had little interest in playing it.

I asked John Romero what he considered to be the best DOOM imitations, and he said:

"To me, the best DOOM clones were: 

  • Dark Forces – the developer actually used Doom's map data format to figure out how to reverse-engineer the renderer
  • Duke Nukem 3D
  • Heretic and Hexen – they use the Doom engine and I designed them, but they were developed by Raven Software
  • Blood
  • Outlaws

"These games distinguish themselves from other Doom clones by their high production value and design quality, and their sales back up that opinion."

Imitative design may not be glamorous of game development, but it has its place in the industry. And if you're going to imitate a successful game, don't settle for a lame and lazy ripoff. Take the trouble to think it through, do it right, and with a little luck, your efforts will be rewarded. 

Theodore Beale is the lead designer of Alpenwolf, a Finnish game developer. His games have sold over five million copies. He also teaches an online game development course called DevGame. The next 10-session course begins in May. Find out more at devgame.alpenwolf.com