The Leaderboard: Defense of the Clones

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Diablo III finally came out on May 15, 2012, 12 years after Diablo II. There were only four years between Diablo and Diablo II, far less time for the dungeon-crawler genre to stagnate or for the market to become oversaturated with games attempting to ape Diablo’s success. Ever since Diablo II first arrived at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, many games have tried to rekindle that peculiar Diablo magic. Clones usually don’t have the best reputation, often scorned by critics and players alike for a lack of innovation or a slavish devotion to obvious influences. Do clones deserve that treatment, though?

The many games that have tried to emulate the slick, satisfying gameplay delivered by Blizzard’s beloved franchise have been of varying quality, but the simple fact that they exist is important to the industry as a whole. Games rarely pioneer new genres, and the fact that so many developers and companies strive to achieve the greatness of a game like Diablo can only mean great things for consumers, especially when everyone’s looking for the next big gimmick.

Despite the stigma surrounding them, clones are actually a positive thing — they inspire other developers to imitate greatness. Just as a thousand me-too authors, pop stars, and filmmakers get their big breaks chasing the shadows of their heroes, so too do many of the creators in the videogame industry. It may sound strange, but continually attempting to replicate success can often result in projects that may surpass the original in terms of quality.

A picture-perfect example is Torchlight, erected at a time when Diablo III was more of a myth than reality. Arguably, it was a shining beacon of success in an industry where everything begins to look more than a little derivative. We all knew what blockbuster it was trying to emulate, but somehow it forged its own identity. Runic Games’ 2009 opus was a colorful explosion of loot and colorful illustrations that went tit-for-tat with all the delights of its dungeon-crawling forefathers.

It’s logical that it should have succeded, though, considering its pedigree. Torchlight sprung from Travis Baldree, the creative mind behind the brilliant Fate, and Diablo II co-designers Max and Erich Schaefer. Wrapped up with a budget price and attractive dressing with plenty to do in-game, Torchlight served as a perfectly acceptable adventure to both hold Diablo fans over until their next “real” fix and to win over players who had never played a Diablo before. For all intents and purposes, Torchlight was the Diablo everyone had been waiting for, only with a different name and some unfamiliar mechanics.

But really, that’s the heart of a successful clone — the same game with a different name and a different yet almost identical interface. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one not completely accepted or appreciated by those who benefit from it the most — an entire community of gamers who aggressively demand greatness.

With all that said, it should be simple to discern what makes clones absolutely essential to keeping the industry afloat. In fact, we can break it down into three easy reasons:

It’s essentially free beta testing.

From the “lesser” releases, developers can learn, improve and study what works, making clones and me-too endeavors an extended beta testing phase for elements that players gravitate toward or avoid. For instance, are reviewers praising or shunning a sophisticated new leveling system? Are they enjoying the way experience must be obtained? What are the fans saying? It might be unfair to those without the resources to create triple-A releases, but it’s certainly a tool for other developers to make note of: what are others trying, inspired by us, that we can use or toss out? From there, it’s quite likely that what Developer X has tried and failed will not appear in Developer Y’s hotly-anticipated new release. And it all comes at zero cost to the original’s developer — perhaps a bit less publicity and sales lost to the new IP, but in the long term getting much more favorable results.

It inspires competition.

Say you’ve just released one of the top sellers of 2012. It received high praise from consumers and press alike. You’d hate to be wrenched from your throne, but it’s possible. You’ve found tremendous success, and that success will become a model from which your competitors will draw from. Others will want a piece of what made you famous, driving them to work harder and push themselves further to create a product that can rival or outdo yours. If anyone’s creation could rocket to success with minimal effort, there would be no need for competition.

It works both ways, too, in that the big-budget companies are forced to change their strategies if they want to stay on top. Indie developers and smaller companies will always find ways to carve out new niches with brand new strategies and ways to play, and have to continually innovate to stay ahead of the larger companies that copy their successes. Of course, by the very same logic one could argue this just leads to more soulless shovelware. That may be true, but one has to look at the bigger picture: publishers and designers have to worry about challenges to their established games, and that’s always a good thing.

Consumers get more choices.

What if Grand Theft Auto was the only free-roaming sandbox game available because developers were reluctant to give the formula a new twist? Say goodbye to the historical sci-fi of Assassin’s Creed, and the anarchic absurdity of Saints Row. Consumer choice would be limited and the depth and breadth of experiences offered by videogames would be abbreviated.

Returning to Torchlight, it offers a bit of a lighthearted take on a genre that often takes itself far too seriously, catering to a different set of tastes than those who may be into Diablo. This wouldn’t be possible if Torchlight’s designers were too concerned about negative response from critics or players to effectively clone Diablo.

Where would we be without competition inspiring others to make their move? Speaking only as a writer, the system is in place among all walks of the industry. I make note of other writers finding success when submitting certain types of pieces, and thus I want to do my own, but better, so that I may find my place in the sun as well. It’s the same with clones. If complaints about rip-offs and clones prevented these games from existing, videogames would be a less exciting and dynamic medium. Let the games be made. Let the good ones be celebrated. Even if a million lesser products are obviously inspired by great games, how will developers ever be inspired to make even greater ones?

Brittany Vincent is a freelancer who routinely eviscerates virtual opponents and tempts fate by approaching wayward Zoloms. Her work has run at G4tv.com, Complex Magazine, Kotaku, and others. A connoisseur of all things bloody and bizarre, she’s available to chat via Twitter, and is always ready to take on new projects. You can peruse her archived work at PfhortheWin.com.

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