Opinion: A tale of two towns
What distinguishes one game from another? Even within the same genre, graphical style, mechanics, interaction design and audio will all contribute to form a unique player experience. And even though all designers would agree that most games borrow inspiration from others, most games are fundamentally unique. However, sometimes the dividing line is very fine.
Recently there has been a series of incidents in which developers have claimed their games have been cloned by other developers. This raises the question of what actually is a clone – the legal position, defined by the United States Copyright Office is, "Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles". But it goes on to state that, essentially, you can copyright a game's specific content – such as what you can see and hear – but not its intangibles: the game mechanics and interactions.
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to design. The first is the 'eureka!' moment, in which a genuinely new concept seems to emerge from nowhere. The second, and much more common approach, is to understand what currently exists, identify the barriers and issues that people have with it, and then focus innovation in those areas to attempt to produce better products. It's taking the hard line in this second approach that has landed some game developers in legal battles.
In a blog post entitled "Standing up for ourselves", Spry Fox CEO David Edery detailed his company's decision to file a copyright infringement suit against the maker of Yeti Town. It claims that Yeti Town is "a nearly perfect copy of Triple Town, with game mechanics, tutorial language, UI elements and the prices of store items all very similar to Spry Fox's game".
Rather than the well-worn machinations of the legal case, let's look at whether the player experience of these games is the same, because while you can clone the mechanics of a game, it doesn't mean you can clone its feel, too. Pinning down what makes the player experience is not straightforward, but we can divide the factors into internal and external. Internal factors are those which relate to the game: the user interface, mechanics, audio, interaction and so on, while external factors are those such as the platform you're playing on, time of day, mood, or even if are you sharing scores with your friends via online leaderboards. We'll mainly look at the internal factors here, making some effort to keep the comparison objective.
Let's begin by saying this straight away: yes, both games do look and work incredibly similarly. But if we're really trying to understand the similarity in the player experience, we're going to need to look deeper than just the visuals and game mechanics.
We'll start with the tutorial. Triple Town does the better job here, but it's not perfect. It obscures on-screen elements with text which relates to them, so you can't see what it's talking about. Yeti Town is much worse. I couldn't find a way of going through it again, and it fails to initially explain key game concepts to the player, such as its fundamental game type and more significant features of the core design like where an upgraded item appears when you make a match. In addition, it doesn't specifically point out the shop. Yes, it's adorned by a flashing arrow, but the player can ignore it. Surely this is a critical step for freemium games like this?
Moving on to the main game, one of the main differences between Yeti Town and Triple Town is the interaction for placing an item. In Triple Town you do this by either tapping on the screen where you want it to be placed, or dragging it into position and placing it by removing your finger. It's a simple scheme, but it can quickly lead to frustration, being left with a mistakenly dropped item if you touch the screen accidentally or slip.
Yeti Town's designers seem to have thought around this. Its placement interaction works by tapping (or dragging) to identify where you want the item placed, then tapping the item again to confirm that that's really where you want it. It takes one more tap, but it’s less likely to lead to mistakes and potential frustration. As a result, it probably has a direct implication on the perceived difficulty of the game for players – as such I would imagine that Yeti Town might appeal more to 'casual' gamers, while Triple Town might be preferred by players looking for more challenge.
Also affecting the difficulty balancing is when specific items are introduced. In Yeti Town the yetis appear relatively late in a game compared to the bears in Triple Town. A combination of the interaction method plus the difficulty level is likely to lead to players having a preference for one game or the other, depending on their playstyle. A trawl of web forums finds players expressing their preferences for both games, however quite a few have commented that Yeti Town seems to be easier to play.
Although Yeti Town's UI initially started out being incredibly similar to Triple Town's, it's recently been updated. You could argue that the changes are down to 6waves Lolapps wanting to differentiate Yeti Town from Triple Town, but I would say that it's at least also down to usability, as the 'current item' and 'storage item' are now grouped closer together, leading to a more intuitive user interface. Also, by moving the storage area to a more visible location right underneath the current item, it should encourage better use. Conversely, Triple Town has its storage area as a special tile in the main play area, a feature that makes it look almost anonymous. I wonder how many new players quickly forget to use their stored item, overlooking a critical tactic in the game.
There are also numerous other small differences between the two games. Yeti Town has music whereas Triple down is almost silent. Triple Town makes use of a progress bar, which will certainly motivate some players to keep playing, and Yeti Town seems to push the link to Facebook more by sandwiching the game with options to connect before and after gameplay.
Despite starting out being incredibly similar, it seems that Yeti Town's changes are down to 6waves Lolapps identifying issues players were having with the gameplay experience, and then addressing them. The aim has been to improve the player experience. I hope.
So is Yeti Town a clone of Triple Town? Well, it seems the games to an extent go after different styles of player. Yeti Town appears to be the more accessible experience, both in terms of visual style and difficulty balancing. Triple Town has an item placement interaction which would suit the more experienced gamer, and the use of progress bars tends to be preferred by those who aren’t casual gamers.
Ultimately, ethics and legalities aside, it’s not for me, or anyone else, to say which is fundamentally better for you. The player experience is very much about the individual and there are many factors which separate these games; Yeti Town may have taken its mechanics from Triple Town, it's subtly different nonetheless.
Tags: David Edery, Interface, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Lolapps, Puzzle, Spry Fox, Triple Town, Usability, Yeti Town