The past month must have been frenetic for developer Spry Fox, especially regarding its hit puzzle game, Triple Town. From partnering with Playdom on Facebook to initiating legal proceedings against 6waves Lolapps for cloning it, and also releasing smartphone versions, this tiny indie studio has repeatedly been making big waves.
In the middle of it all, before heading to the lawyers but after launching on mobile, we spoke with CEO David Edery about his studio's fortunes. Today we present the first part of our discussion, about the pernicious effects of cloning on indie creativity and the development of Triple Town's Android and iOS versions.
Read the second part here, covering Spry Fox's Playdom deal, why indies are crucial to gaming on social networks, and why Spry Fox won't be developing for consoles any time soon.
How did you develop the mobile versions?
We hired a guy local to Seattle and it took about three months.
How have you fitted the mobile versions into continued development of the web versions?
They’re totally separate development teams. We have several people working on the web version, which is the more advanced version; we basically wanted to get the core game out on the mobile because so many people were asking for it. We figured we’d get it out as fast as we can and figure out, if we want to, how to connect them later. I’m not actually sure than connecting them is necessarily the best idea, but there’s certainly a lot of reasons why it’d be cool. We just have to figure that out in the long term.
Why not connect them? It seems surprising you don't get your Facebook leaderboard in the mobile versions.
There’s a few different reasons. The major reason is just that it’d have taken us a lot longer. There are already quite a few clones of Triple Town on the market, so we didn’t want to wait any longer than we had to. The second reason is that one thing we’ve heard repeatedly from other developers is that if you require someone to sign into another service, even one as popular as Facebook, it tends to have a pretty big negative impact on your game’s uptake. We’re not interested in adding any barriers to entry.
Given the clones, did you feel rushed into making these mobile versions?
No, we took our time. We wanted to release something that was reasonably good. Even with a game as simple as Triple Town making sure every last little detail is the way it should be takes some time. We spent more time working on the mobile version than we did the original Flash version. And still we didn’t get it perfect, but some days I wonder if we took too much time.
That you should have rapidly iterated the mobile version?
Yes, but what can you do? It’s out now, hopefully people will love it.
Was there any point that you considered having the same version running on all platforms?
Honestly, it was just a matter of timing. Initially we thought we’d fully connect the mobile version to the existing online game’s back end and have it essentially the same game. And then we looked at how much longer that would take and that become a major concern. The thing that pushed us over the edge was other developers telling us that logins would lose us users. Really that was the clincher. We were getting emails and FB messages every day from fans, and on top of that the clones started coming out. And so far most people seem to be thrilled, even though it’s just a simple classic version of TT. I haven’t heard anyone asking why everything isn’t on there.
Where do you stand on the line between cloning and iterative development?
It’s really hard to say – it’s one of those you know it when you see it things. Here’s the thing – we don’t throw around the word ‘clone’ loosely. We’re talking about games that, at least when they’re launched had identical gameplay mechanics, the same store with the same items, sold for the same prices in the same quantities. You know what I mean? When you get a hint system that looks the same, appears in the same place on the board, the same animations in some cases, for example the way items pulse before they combine. When you see copying at that level it’s very hard not to feel it’s a clone. I don’t know if there’s an accepted definition out there, but let’s put it this way: for me, there’s one case in particular I don’t have to say it’s a clone or not. I’ll just point you towards four or five articles written by other people saying it’s Triple Town with snow.
You’re talking about Yeti Town, right?
In this case, yes. You don’t have to take my word for it. I tell people, I think it’s very similar but don’t ask me, go to the Gamezebo article on it, the games.com article and so on. They have some pretty choice quotes on it.
Triple Town is an easy game to clone because its rules and assets are simple. Does cloning make it dangerous for you as a developer to make such simple games?
Yeah. Let’s be blunt. Cloning has always been an issue but today it seems to happen faster than it’s ever happened before. There seem to be companies that have risen in the industry with cloning at the core of their business model as opposed to it being something that unfortunately happens sometimes.
Simple games like Triple Town? Yeah, you’re absolutely putting yourself at risk of being cloned if your game gets successful. This is something that’s happened to Spry Fox multiple times. It’s not hard to find clones of Steambirds, Triple Town – this is going to keep happening to us for as long as we keep making games of this complexity. But we love games of this complexity level, so we’re not going to stop making them. But the pressure means we may need to slow down – instead of releasing on one platform and six months or a year later on others, we should shoot straight for cross-platform. The copycats don’t give us time.
Cross-platform development from the off is a hard proposition for an indie.
Yup. It demands initial investment which means it’s that much harder to innovate, which means that many more developers are going to make the safe choice of being iterative instead of totally original. That’s really sad. It’s one of the things Danc [Spry Fox co-founder and designer Daniel Cook] and I really struggle with – on one hand when there’s a really egregious example of cloning everyone yells and shouts, and that’s great.
But that said, every time Danc and I bring up with subject with friends or in public, people are quick to start to equivocate, like, ‘Oh well, we’re all building on the shoulders of giants, and this is how things get done in this industry,’ and it makes me sad. It’s precisely that attitude that leads to the more egregious examples that we’re seeing. No one needs encouragement to copy. We don’t need to be encouraging that behaviour. And it’s not like it’s a given. If you look at the board game space, there’s not a hundred clones of Dominion floating around, even though it’s a fantastic and successful game. I don’t know if it’s simply because there’s a lot less money to be made in board games, or whether people in the industry simply have a different perspective and don’t go around apologising for copying. For whatever reason, they don’t have that problem and we do, and it is a serious problem and it is going to stop people from making original games.
We'll publish the second part, covering the Playdom deal and why Spry Fox's natural home is on the web, tomorrow.