Rise of the Clones: Why it Pays (Sometimes) to Be a Copycat Mobile Game

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Throughout history, artists have copied each other’s work. Now it’s happening with mobile games.

We’re not talking about plagiarism here. But if you take a ride through the crowded mobile app stores you’ll find tons of games that ape the style, gameplay and even the names of other, usually more successful, titles. And just occasionally—like with puzzlers 2048 and Threes—the copycat goes on to find even greater success than the original.

So why do some developers choose to borrow in order to get ahead? Well, for one thing, using those same keywords is a great way to pick up users who were searching for something else. And if you’re doing things right, you can even make those them stick around.

Built-in user acquisition

Abhishek Rai makes games under a number of studio names—Game Wallet, Playbit and Newb—and he says that copycatting is a great tactic because it significantly cuts down on development time.

Rai’s Crossy Blocks borrows heavily from the smash-hit Crossy Road, which allowed him to create the whole thing in just 15 days. Leveraging the look, features and particularly the key-word “Crossy” from the original game makes gettings downloads a whole lot easier, says Rai, removing the need for any paid user acquisition.

Image via Google Play

Image via Google Play

He didn’t share any specifics on how well the game is monetizing, but he says that profit is his key motive in making copycats—like some of his other titles, such as Candy Quest and Bug Climbing: Hill Climb Race—and these games, he says vaguely, “make money as others do.”

The downside to being a copycat? Well, it’s just not cool to talk about your work, says Rai. And you’re almost bound to get negative reviews from users comparing your game to the original.

But the really big problem is that it’s kind of dull. “No game developer wants to copy things,” says Rai, “as we are fun-loving human beings, and it’s typically very boring.”

Clone wars: the double-edged sword of copycatting

At first glance, Flappy Crush looks an awful lot like the breakout hit Flappy Bird. But when you start playing, you’ll find it’s very different. Instead of flying a suicidal bird between fixed pipes, you have to squash whole flocks of the things, their bones piling up at the bottom of the screen.

Egyptian developer Tarek Mongy planned to leverage Flappy Bird’s success to get initial traction and downloads. And smart SEO helped him do just that. Since then, though, Flappy Crush has taken on a life of its own thanks to positive user reviews: It’s now been downloaded over 3 million times.

“If the game was low quality or just not fun, it wouldn’t have been as successful as it has been,” says Mongy. “The reason it kept climbing the search rankings was because of all the positive user reviews.”

Image via Tarek Mongy

Image via Tarek Mongy

Mongy says that copying Flappy Bird has been a double-edged sword, though. Initially, it helped out immensely, but the “clone” label meant that media outlets just wouldn’t give Flappy Crush any coverage. Luckily, Mongy says the time he spent in developing an original idea—albeit one based on an existing hit—means that players get a pleasant surprise when they fire it up, and they keep playing (and recommending) it.

Ironically, Mongy’s first mobile game—Stars Savior —is a totally original idea, and it didn’t find anything like the success of Flappy Crush. “[Flappy Crush] has been much more successful than anything I attempted before,” says Mongy. He’s happy with how it’s monetizing through ads and rewarded videos, but says that he’s always tweaking his monetization strategies.

The clone that didn’t pay off

Not everyone has as much luck with clone games, though. Brazil-based Niobium Studios spent a month of development time with a team of three people making Crossy Town, another Crossy Road clone. But player reviews were really bad, and even spending money on user acquisition couldn’t turn it into a financial success.

“We used a Chinese publisher to achieve 50,000 installs in one month, but eventually players uninstalled or quit playing,” says Niobium’s Guilherme Nunes Barbosa. “I made $50 on ads the first month, and not a single player purchased an IAP character—I can say the project was a failure.”

Images via Niobium Studios

Images via Niobium Studios

Niobium is hoping to find more success with its latest effort Feed the Spider. It’s an original game with a unique look, but it borrows something from the mechanics of the popular aa. “It was launched two weeks ago by the same publisher as Crossy Town,” says Barbosa. “I still don’t have enough statistics to say if it was a hit, but as far as I can see on the Leaderboard, people are playing it a lot!”

It’s a lesson that, while copying something wholesale can sometimes be worthwhile, it’s often best to add a bit of your own magic to the mix.