For every successful, critically-acclaimed commercial product release, scores of “copycat” items quickly make their way to market. Such is an undeniable, inescapable reality of any thriving, consumer-driven economical ecosystem, regardless of the medium. In the technical realm — namely the App Store — most users and critics bemoan the existence of these lifeless and unoriginal “homage” applications.
And, until recently, I did, too.
Then, three or four days ago, I found myself poring over the latest iOS app releases on my iPad. Sleepy and lying in bed, I came across something called Crazy Tiny Skier HD, made by NextGen Entertainment, Inc. It looked mechanically identical to the smash-hit Tiny Wings, so I grabbed it and launched the inevitable comparison.
I was, of course, disgusted. The game’s visuals are pitiable, uninspired, and repetitive, while the simple, single-tap controller mechanism is jumpy and too abrupt. The physics beneath it all is weirdly inconsistent, and the game pales in every aspect of comparison to the title it copies. I just didn’t understand how or why such an app could ever get made.
Then, I realized something: These apps aren’t about apps at all. They’re spam! They’re about selling ads and promoting accidental in-app purchases. The game part of these games is mere filler! For example, beyond being ostentatiously ad-promoted, Crazy Tiny Skier HD contains up to $10 of in-app “upgrades.” The only viable upgrade, though, would be one that turns it into a different game altogether; and Tiny Wings costs only $0.99.
Indeed, there seems to be an entire subculture of the app industry based on cheap or free production mimicry. Granted, a small number of these products are well-meaning, designed by first-timers and students assembling their requisite design skills; but most are just churned-out platforms for advertising income. And even as we laud Apple and tout the merits of its nearly-400,000 app marketplace, the company no doubt recognizes and dislikes the rip-off nature of its App Store’s innumerable, shoddy replicas. But — as we all must imagine — it’s a necessary evil.
Or is it evil at all?
I don’t have the numbers to back up my assumptions (nor do I see how I could get such numbers), but it seems to me that these carbon copies make the App Store better. Certainly, it does for Apple (as the company gets tremendous amounts of revenue out of these developers and their wares), but I’m talking about better for us.
Using Crazy Tiny Skier HD again as my example, I reckon nearly everyone who doesn’t yet own Tiny Wings and plays this game will purchase the latter within a day, provided they approve of (or see any potential in) the game-play mechanics of the former. For the bigger hits, it’s easy for users to find out who’s aping whom; and Tiny Wings does better with the release of each lesser clone. (Even bigger companies like Gameloft can drive up sales of better independent products in some gaming categories, though their approach is quite different in nature than the one I’m discussing here. I will share my thoughts on Gameloft in a future Op-ed.)
But you must also exercise caution when comparing cloned apps to the originals. Sometimes, the game you think is a clone is the actual concept originator (or, at least, a moderately noteworthy go-between). This is kind of the situation for Angry Birds. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’ve got nothing but admiration for the style, polish, tight code, vast updates, and addictive gameplay that app offers; but seven months before its release, Armor Games put out the flash version of their excellent Crush the Castle; and the ported iOS version, though much smaller in scope and replayability, remains my favorite game of the genre. It may not have been first to market, but, for me, it’s a fantastic game with tighter controls. That said, I’d bet it sees increased sales because of Angry Birds‘ success, as users who want more of the same (with a bit of a twist) come calling.
Some apps even seem like overt copies, but really aren’t. Canabalt, which is a great, moody adventure, is highly-touted for its unique approach. I Must Run! is a similar “endless running” app, sure, but it adds new elements to the gameplay while altering its settings, palette, and design. In these cases, most people (myself included) just buy both.
Overall, it’s my impression that clones and their legitimate counterparts operate in an unexpected sort of synergistic flux. The user will always find the better app and realize the bargain of a buck or two against some terrible free. Copycat games are like bait for the curious, ironically serving to reel people in to the better, real deal. And good, small-budget apps that inspire bigger and better things eventually get their comeuppance, too.
What clones have you come across in the App Store, and how do they stack up to the original productions?