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Swing Copters, clones and the dismal failure of the 'open' app store

This morning I went to install Swing Copters, Dong Nguyen's latest iOS game, and the follow-up to Flappy Bird. I put the words "swing copters" into the search field on my iPhone, and the first hit was Tube Revenge - Swing Copters.

This is how quickly individuals and companies now jump on games they want to clone. The idea is to get their version of the game out as soon as possible, and then try to piggyback on the success of the "real" game. They just need to backwards engineer something that looks a tiny bit like it, get the name close, and then release their product. If enough people are confused, the revenue from ads or even in-app purchases apparently makes it worth it.

It's worse on other platforms.

The issue with cloning has only gotten worse since the high-profile cases of games like Ridiculous Fishing and Threes. In the case of 2048, the ultra-successful Threes clone, mainstream media reported that its creator made the game over the course of "a weekend," while leaving out the fact that the game he was copying was already a clone, and the source game took a year of iteration and play testing to get right.

It's also worth pointing out that this culture of rapid, opportunistic cloning has pushed the entire mobile industry towards a free-to-play model. If you release a simple, high-concept but polished game and offer it as a premium game for even a dollar? You're opening the door for the inevitable free-to-play clone to come along and knock the legs out from under you.


"The developer believed, rightly so, that [Threes] would be at its best in the form of a premium product. Part of what makes Threes so great is the simplicity in the gameplay. Blocks combine to create larger blocks, swiping the screen combines these blocks but also adds another block. That’s it, that’s the core of the game," developer Rod Green wrote in a Polygon op-ed.

"Threes is a premium paid game, however it’s also quite simple to clone, so everyone did. The free-to-play clones are now choking app stores, and even gaining mainstream coverage in the media.

The simpler a game, the easier it will be for someone to steal the concepts behind it and turn your ideas into a free-to-play product, whether that was your intention or not," he continued.

Let's leave all this aside for now, even though we're dealing with a market that makes the creation of easy, fun and simple premium games a near death sentence if you don't go free-to-play. The lack of policing in app stores and marketplaces in general has gotten intolerable.

Here's a fun trick: Jump into the Windows App store and try to download VLC, one of the best free media players on the market. This is what you see, courtesy of the site howtogeek:


"Microsoft trumpeted reaching 100,000 apps, then 200,000 apps, and then finally 400,000 apps in April, 2014 (This is for the Windows Store and Windows Phone Store combined). They want a large number of apps so they can talk about how big the Windows Store is," the site reported. "If they actually removed all these scam apps, their store would be smaller."

The result is a useless app store filled with bullshit scams that use the official images and styling of well-known products and games to try to rip people off. Microsoft has done little to curb the problem, which is also familiar to anyone who has tried to buy a popular game on any of the Android marketplaces.

This is also how we end up with games like Combat Trigger: Call of the Modern Shooter Dead Duty 3D. I'm not one to shy away from optimizing for search, you can check out this story's URL for yourself, but there has to be a line somewhere. This isn't the title of a game that anyone took seriously as anything other than a honeypot.

This isn't one problem, it's a series of problems. It's not localized in one place, but literally everywhere apps are sold. There's not a ton of incentive for platform holders to kick ass and clean things up, because they get paid regardless, and asking for refunds is often a long, tedious process that likely isn't worth the buck or two you may have lost.

Which is, of course, part of the reason clones, scam apps and SEO releases are so attractive. It's all about scale.

There's no easy solution, and fighting back is impossible without Apple, Google or Microsoft onboard. But games are being strangled, customers are losing money and no one is happy. Something has to give.

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