Cargo Cults and Clones

Refering to something as a cargo cult means that it is repeating the external appearances but ignoring what makes it work. It is a form of magical thinking, that the ritual is what is important. The mental image you should get is someone on a Pacific island after WWII, trying to summon an airplane full of supplies by stamping out a “runway” in the dirt and wearing a “headset” made from coconuts, phonetically reciting landing orders and hoping the planes arrive. The important notion here is not copying but going through the motions and seriously expecting it to work. (See also cargo cult science, Feynman’s popularization of the meme.)

Copying works if you copy the right things. Your cheap knock-off may be missing some features or polish, but there is a market for cheap knock-offs. A taco or t-shirt is still a taco or t-shirt. In gaming, we often politely refer to them as genres, although some are still “Diablo clones.” (MOBAs recently made the transition to genre from “another DotA”.) Other games “borrow” motifs or characters, so we have fads of zombie games, brown “realism,” and a smaller number of snarky, passive-aggressive robots. “WoW with lightsabers” actually sounded like an extremely lucrative idea.

We get into gaming cargo cults when developers or producers have no idea why they are copying things. The market leader has X in the game, so put X in the game. And they seriously expect to make a lot of money, not to make a cheap knock-off. See the infamous keyring. See anytime an executive gives an interview that boils down to “you have to copy WoW to win.” (Those seem to have tapered off.)

Funny thing is, copying can lead to improvement. While there is a first mover advantage, seeing where the first mover tripped can help you get further. (This is where Blizzard has been known to excel.) Maybe the essential feature is not what the original developers thought, and the game works well in spite of, not because of, some core aspect. Are forced downtime, forced grouping, or unrestricted PvP assets or mistakes? We have games gambling on each side of that. Is the economy the heart of the game or an unfortunate distraction? How good is the gameplay when you strip it to its core? The real meta-game is seeing what works in making games.

: Zubon

5 thoughts on “Cargo Cults and Clones”

  1. I think the cargo cults are more rampant amongst players than developers (although there are plenty of developers out there wearing coconut headphones). For example, go take a look at ESO’s forums and see all the threads from people insisting that the game MUST have arenas and instanced battlegrounds for PvP…

  2. I suspect that “WoW with lightsabres” did indeed turn out to be an extremely lucrative idea once they got the payment model right. It keeps turning up at or near the top of various guess-lists of what MMOs are doing business and lots and lots of people I read are still writing about it and/or playing it at least some of the time, when other games that once had a lot of attention never get a mention.

    Unfortunately, the entire mini-industry based around telling us how well any given MMO might be doing has itself been a cargo cult since SOE stopped showing real-time log-in numbers at server select back in about 2003.

  3. I think the economy of the game is both at the core of the game and can also definitely be a distraction, even dictating the success of the game. Of course the developers have to be paid. However, they can have the best game in the world and will not be paid unless the business model is successful, hence the cloning of successful models. I think a developer too would be foolish not to at least recognize what large parts of a player base desire the game also. Yet, freshness and originality is a big draw.

    From what I gather, many players will reject games with a “pay to win” business model without much further thought. The stores in f2p games have quite a challenge to provide items that are desirable, affordable, yet are not required to progress in the game. I think some of your experiences you have shared fall along these lines Zubon.

    One example in my experience of a unique take on the PvP aspect of gaming would be in LotRO. They call their model player vs. monster player because a player takes a monster character with entirely different skills and mechanics to fight against the characters which the players use in the rest of the game. While I found the whole thing very enjoyable, I know many players were/are completely turned off by the idea and refused to participate. In contrast, the PvP aspect of GW2 draws a significant number of players to the game. Many players do almost nothing else.

    In essence, I believe players are looking at the balance and the emphasis a game places on the different aspects they offer because there is rarely anything new or revolutionary. Certainly the quality cannot be overstated. While any one thing may not kill a game, like the store, clothing fashion, housing, dyes, pve options, pvp options, character story line, world story line, keychains, banks, or whatever, there has to be enough tried and true elements in there, cloned if you will, for a game to be a success. By success I mean it is ongoing, still in business if you will. As you alluded more recently, Bonnie McKee and others have to pay the rent to be able to support their more creative side. Hopefully many understand that, will support that, and are eager to see that side of her again.

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