Thomas Warfield blogs that ‘Safe is Risky‘ when it comes to software development, especially for smaller would-be shareware authors and shareware game developers (otherwise known as ‘indie’ and/or ‘casual’ developers). He argues that developers should be more original, and not just go after whatever’s selling best at the moment.
He may be right for shareware applications (i.e. icon editors, utilities, productivity tools, etc). Unless you’re going to substantially differentiate yourself, either with a better product, a different product, or a cheaper product, it’s difficult and probably foolish to go after an established market leader.
However, I think he’s wrong for the games sub-sector, and that far more first-time game developers fail by being too different from the market leaders rather than too similar. For an app, I only want the best one on the market (that I can afford). So, rarely is there a category with more than 2 viable contenders at a given price point (the market leader, and sometimes, an also ran). But even a good game is only fun for most of us for a while. If we enjoyed that game, we’ll go looking for something similar (in play mechanic), but a bit different in presentation/story/theme, so that we can recreate the fun we had with the original.
At the moment, of the vast universe of possible game genres and game mechanics, only about a half dozen are consistently successful in the ‘mass market’ for casual games. These include the market leaders (Zuma, Bejewelled, Ricochet) and their clones. The past year in particular has demonstrated that a close clone of a hit game, albeit with a new theme, can sell quite well indeed (see the string of successful Zuma clones – Luxor, Tumblebugs, Atlantis, Beetle Bomp). None of these game were much better than Zuma, though Luxor introduced a new gameplay style (move along the bottom rather than in the middle), and Tumblebugs used 3D graphics to nice effect. There were only a couple of Zuma clones that failed, and those were markedly inferior in execution to the original Zuma and it’s clones. So basically, if you released a Zuma clone in 2005 of roughly equal quality to the original Zuma, your chances of at least moderate success were right around 100%.
On the other hand, many other developers released very high quality and quite innovative casual games, such as the pseudo-strategy game Oasis. But Oasis failed in the marketplace, as did perhaps 80% of the other games that strayed too far off the proven success path.
I think your best bet is to take a successful game, come up with a new theme for it, and add some significant new twists and other incremental improvements. You may not hit a grand slam this way, but if your execution is good and you’ve chosen the right game to imitate, you’re quite likely to hit at least a double.
And no, I don’t think making Zuma clones is a sure-fire approach for 2006. Another lesson to draw is that the market does have some limits on it’s fascination with certain game types. Bubble poppers burned out about 2 years ago. Bejeweled clones seem to have reached the saturation point last year. Zuma clones will likely reach the saturation point very soon. But if you can follow up a hit game with an innovative variation within 12 months, you’re usually in pretty good shape. And since casual games only take about 6 months to develop, this is a realistic strategy if you’re a good developer.