Being original, copy-catting, or reinventing the wheel?

Several years ago, I was part of a group of amateur writers. It used to be pretty organised by then — there were many RL meetings with discussions, newsletters, published books and so forth — but one topic was the favourite of many: should a writer strive always for originality, coming up with new ideas that nobody has thought of before? Or would it be fine to get someone else’s idea, write about it, and come up with a different ending and/or twist to the plot?

The discussions were pretty much endless. One faction was always very eager to claim that authors should always be completely and absolutely original. “Even if the idea is worthless for a story?” Well, yes, so they argued: readers would demand to read something they never read before. And, so they said in public, nothing is more boring for a “pro reader” (i.e. someone who basically reads everything that gets published out there…) to see an idea that has already been covered on an obscure magazine from 30 or 40 years ago…

By contrast, the opposing faction claimed that absolute originality could be overrated. Between reading an original, bad idea, and reading something with a good idea that has been exploited before, they argued that the latter would be better. There are always different ways to present the same idea over and over again. Fairy tales are a good example, they can be repeated with different settings and scenarios, and there will be always something “new” in them.

The originals-only faction was adamant, though. They claimed that it’s commercial authors who do the same story over and over again, copying each other, writing according to “current trends” which sell more. Artists, by contrast, do unique stories. This obviously is not limited to literature: movies and computer games — even software applications! — move through trends. Someone starts a new trend, becomes successful, and copycatters just go back to the same formula, improving it slightly, but never creating something dramatically new. Why? Because there is a higher risk. This is mostly the reason why all bestsellers sold on airports and tourist traps are always pretty much the same. There are several methods to “write bestsellers” — you just get a few templates (sometimes from the editors themselves!) and fill in the characters. Well, not quite, but you know how it is. Just take a look at Dan Brown and how many variants of the Da Vinci Code have been written since then. Or just look at movies. Blockbusters use all the same stereotyped characters, add lots of special effects, go easy on the plot (too complex and the audience will be bored), and you have an immediate box hit.

Computer games are not very different. Just look at the kind of Triple-A games that have been launched in, say, the past decade. You can quickly see that once Doom came out (uh, was it in 1995?) the market was set for first-person shooters, and game developers have released a gazillion FPS since then. Sure, we have nicer graphics, better physics, and so forth, but it’s pretty much the same thing as we had 15 years ago. Of course there are different kinds of games. But when you move up into the stratospheric costs of developing a new game, software houses play it safe: games require dozens of millions of dollars in investment, and they have to pay off — just like blockbuster movies. Or music from girl bands or rappers. The investment is too big to “risk” into something new.

It’s the tiny houses that come often up with novel ideas. The Angry Birds group sprouted out of nowhere, launched a cool game which nobody had seen before, and turned it into a sales record breaker — but among the thousands of games based on “new ideas”, how many have been that successful? Anedoctal evidence — a single example which went well — is not enough for big game companies, who have to be successful every time. Spore is perhaps a good example: the world had high hopes about Will Wright’s last game, but, at the end, it was not so original as it promised to be. In spite of everything, since it was launched to become a “bestseller” game, it did pay off. Not much of a profit, but… it covered the costs and made a bit on top. It was not the big success everybody expected it to be.

What am I getting at? Well, Second Life is one of those examples: something coming from a tiny start-up that actually went quite well. Sure, we had ActiveWorlds before Second Life: so it was not completely original. It is the complex combination of interaction between users, the environment, the economy, the society that makes Second Life unique. And it’s hard to replicate.

Not that people aren’t trying to do that all the time. Cloud Party, of course, is one of the latest attempts in replicating SL. The idea is simple: if SL, as a business model, works out fine, then copying the model should allow Cloud Party’s owners to get as rich as Linden Lab, too.

Well, we’ll see. Blue Mars thought the same, and clearly weren’t successful. Others attempted different variations on the theme of virtual worlds, and also went bust — from Lively to Kaneva (even though Kaneva still works; and There.com has made a comeback!). There seems to be an oddity about Second Life. Can people develop a virtual world that does not compete with SL and is definitely not inspired by it and still be successful? Well, Will Wright’s Spore was supposed to be that, but it didn’t quite work out. On the other hand, can someone copy the idea, tweak it, make it better, and launch a successful competitor?

So far, the answer has consistently been “no”.

Last week I started to see ads for a new virtual world called wet.fm. I tried it out: it seemed a “copy” of something I had already seen a few years ago but can’t recall its name. Basically, these are people who have taken a good look at what SL has to offer, and — at least after gambling has been outlawed in SL — the music scene seemed to be a good place to start. People love music in SL. DJs and live musicians abound. DJs are popular in RL clubs as well. So the wet.fm guys had a clever idea: what about a virtual world for DJing?

The interesting bit is that they made it a contest, not unlike the many “singer contests” that we get on TV all the time. You participate either as audience or as a contestant. DJ wannabes jump on stage, play their music for a while, and get voted by the audience. With enough votes, you qualify for the next stage. Getting voted also gives you virtual money, so you can buy clothes, dances, personalise your avatar, get more DJ equipment and so forth. If you just enjoy the music, well, you can vote for free — but will have to buy virtual currency from wet.fm to be able to buy clothes and also be able to personalise your avatar.

The idea is perhaps not tremendously original, but it’s an interesting idea. My first reaction was, “why didn’t anyone do the same thing in Second Life?” Or perhaps there is: I’ve just never noticed it. In fact, I remember a few music contests a few years ago — they might still be around. There used to be a lot of contests in SL — mostly beauty pageants, but I think that music is a good kind of contest too.

Wet.fm runs on a browser, and, like Cloud Party, you can connect your Facebook account to it. Unlike Cloud Party, it’s not the only choice (just like IMVU). Unlike Cloud Party, it doesn’t use WebGL, but Unity3D. So the first experience you get is downloading the Unity3D web plugin. Then you need to download “something” which interfaces between Unity3D and wet.fm itself. That takes several minutes — total downloading time is about the same as downloading and installing Second Life, even though wet.fm does run from a browser!

Then the nightmare starts.

Well, of course, I might just be handicapped with my old hardware. Old hardware that runs SL flawlessly with 25 FPS on the HTTP Project Viewer — and 8 FPS with shadows — so it’s old but not worthless 🙂 Wet.fm is… I don’t know how to describe it. A catastrophe?

The interface is more cluttered than SL’s. Aye, that’s true. I’m used to “SL clones” which have minimalistic, uncluttered interfaces. Wet.fm is a nightmare. It pops open more windows than SL, and they’re larger, with BIG type, and not always easy to get rid of. And since it runs so slowly, it’s often minutes until you close an unwanted window.

What seems to be the problem is a match of conflicting technologies. Unity3D is great for games with static content. But apparently it’s not trivial to get it to work with dynamically loading content — at least, the Wet.fm developers seem not to be able to handle it efficiently. A simple region — a club with a dancing stage, with some 30+ avatars around — took me about an hour to download. At minimum settings — which gives a quality not unlike SL in 2005 — I got a handful of FPS. Probably not because of my hardware, but because Wet.fm is constantly downloading things. As soon as an avatar logs in, it suspends everything it was downloading, and trues to download that avatar — which takes several minutes. Then it gets back to what it was doing — whatever it was.

Inventory has a nice “improvement” over SL’s inventory. It’s categorised, so in theory you just select a few categories and it shows pictures of the outfits, not just their name and type. But each pictures takes… a few minutes to download. Yes, minutes; not seconds! So even filtering down to see a handful of outfits means waiting a lot of time.

Avatars can be personalised to an extent similar to SL’s. With the lowest settings, though, they look much worse, but still have the same approach of multiple sliders to change everything. The problem is that it’s not obvious if you’re changing something you have to pay for. Yes, Wet.fm is all about paying, paying, paying. You get the ugliest possible combination of clothes — one single outfit — for your avatar, and all else is paid for. And it’s not exactly cheap. Even makeup is paid for — and if you touch the “wrong” slider and apply makeup instead of changing the shape of your eyes, Wet.fm will demand payment! And not let you save your settings until you pay. So it means starting from scratch again and avoid touching the paid sliders. Sadly, they’re not labeled, so you have no idea which is which…

There is some user-generated content. Like on Blue Mars and There.com, you have to sign up as “developer”. If your content gets approved, it becomes available for users to buy. There is not a “marketplace” — it’s more like an “universal inventory”, where you see every outfit for sale, and can try them on before you buy. While using filters for categories is not a bad idea, I can imagine this will quickly become unbearable with a few thousands of outfits. Wet.fm, even though it seems to be “released” (and not merely a Beta), just has a few hundreds of outfits and dances. Hairstyles, for instance, are less than a dozen. I would have expected something “released” to have far, far more — since it’s clear the developers put a lot of effort in avatar personalisation, correctly identifying that as a priority for social virtual worlds.

Anyway, I persisted for about an hour, then gave up. It’s simply not for me.

Afterwards, I talked about Wet.fm to some SL residents, who hadn’t tried it. We sort of wondered why anyone would get venture capital to do something so simple from scratch, when they could just do it in SL itself. After all, all you need is a HUD and a panel, and a PR person signing up musical venues to participate in the contest, choosing them according to a hierarchy, where players participate on qualification rounds and tournaments on the higher levels. Spare some money for advertising, get interviews by Hamlet Au, and you’re set. I would do it in a month if I had time — and a PR person willing to hop from venue to venue to get them signed to the game. If I were the Wet.fm guys, I would have done exactly that, saved tons of development hours, and had a finished product which would actually work.

And I would have avatars with ten billion items to choose from — not just a few hundreds 🙂

Reinventing the wheel and making it square is normally not a good idea. If you’re copying and improving on existing ideas, it makes little sense to develop something worse, just with the pretext that it’s your thing. But, sadly, developers love to reinvent the wheel.

Not so at Linden Lab.

By now I guess half the planet knows about LL’s new games, CreatorVerse and Patterns. I personally wish LL all the best in selling those in the extremely competitive market for low-end games. They might have some success, though. And here is why: they are copying established ideas, adding their own twist, and showing off something they’re good at. This sounds like a recipe for success.

CreatorVerse is something which seems to be designed for a market of younger persons, but I would download it for my iPhone — if it worked on myiPhone (it doesn’t). The concept is simple: do some doodles, connect them, activate a physics engine on them, and see how your doodled creations interact. You set your own goals.

So what are the strong points?

  • First, it leverages on Angry Birds’ success of making a fun game around a physics engine. This was clever from the Angry Birds crowd, who probably saw all those movies on YouTube about people having fun with modding games with good physics engines, just to have fun shooting trashcans and similar things. CreatorVerse is as simple as Angry Birds, or perhaps even simpler…
  • Secondly, LL clearly has a lot of experience with physics engines. So it’s clever of them to leverage on that know-how.
  • Thirdly, CreatorVerse “borrows” the open-endedness of Second Life itself. It’s not really a “game” but something “entertaining”. And, of course, you can share your physics-enabled doodles with others. There might be a Marketplace for CreatorVerser “things” soon. Why not? Some of the examples on the video are quite cleverly constructed, even though if they’re merely… doodles.

So effectively you can create your own version of Angry Birds and share it with your friends. But you don’t need to be an expert developer: everything is built-in, with an interface that a kid can use. And you don’t need any fancy graphics skillz either: doodles work just fine. It’s a game for everybody.

Instant success? Well, I don’t know. The lack of a “gaming” experience means that it’s targeted for people who know how to amuse themselves on their own without the need of an incentive. However, I’m not a gamer, so perhaps this is far more addictive that it seems from the video. I have to admit that I have Angry Birds on both my iPhone and on Google Chrome. Why? Because there are always some odd moments where I’m sitting on a queue or on the train and forgot to get a book to read. Shooting birds against pigs is the perfect pastime for me in those moments 🙂 And even though I might not find CreatorVerse overly addictive, I’d certainly enjoy a few doodle now and then just to see what happens — on those idle moments waiting for someone else.

Patterns is CreatorVerse in 3D. Well, sort of. It’s a bit more sophisticated, and it immediately got the nickname of “Minecraft with triangles and physics”. Again, Linden Lab is not reinventing the wheel, but trying to improve on an original idea. Minecraft was perhaps as successful as Angry Birds — perhaps not in terms of revenue, of course, but in popularity. It has attracted a huge clique of complete fanatics. Patterns just allows slightly more complex shapes than cubes — but not overly more complex, just more fun to build — and adds the physical engine, so you cannot build “impossible” things. If you wish to build a high tower, it needs proper foundations. Of course you can just have fun watching it crumble down 🙂

Similar to Minecraft — or even Second Life! — it seems to be a virtual world. But not a “serious” virtual world like SL, but a silly VW like Minecraft. In fact, it might do pretty much everything that Minecraft does, with the same simplicity, but add the fun of gravity and physics. So, again, Linden Lab has some great points in favour:

  • Clearly builds on Minecraft’s success as a very simple and fun environment
  • Again, builds on LL’s expertise with physics engines
  • It allows immersion in a virtual world with shared content
  • It leverages on Second Life’s original idea of “having fun building things on your own” which so many oldtimers still think that should be SL’s mission

However, it does not compete with SL itself. It’s way too simple for that, and I’m sure it’s not intended to become more complex — it would distract from the overall fun experience. While it’s definitely not my style of game — I’m the oddity that finds Minecraft boring! — I can imagine hordes of Minecraft fans trying it out.

So I think that with these two examples Rod’s LL is entering the gaming market with two ideas that are not very original — meaning that they have good chances of being picked up as being part of trends — but that have unique twists to it. Aye, LL is reinventing the wheel — but it’s definitely Wheel 2.0, with extra tires and more spokes 🙂 CreatorVerse is for all those people without graphic skills who loved Angry Birds and only wished they could design levels for it. Patterns is for all Minecraft fans who want to have fun blowing things up with gravity and physics. Both games fit well into the existing trend, adding a new layer of innovation which might be just enough to make them compelling.

For Rod, all it matters now it to know how much time they have “invested” in each development, and how many copies they’re expecting to sell. If they enter the low-end game market — the kind that is available from Big Fish Games, or, to a degree, on Facebook (but is dying out there) — they need to be able to develop lots of simple, engaging games with their special twist (which leverages on identification with the brand that LL is famous for), do that in little time (to keep costs down), aim for enough revenue to pay for the development costs, rely on the long tail for ongoing revenue, and start quickly on the next two or three games. This is mostly limited by LL’s imagination in coming up with new ideas and by the average revenue they expect to get from each batch.

Will each game sell a million copies? Probably not 🙂 But maybe they can sell a hundred thousand each. That would be a strong incentive for LL to continue to develop new, simple, fun games with similar characteristics. They should definitely bring out Patterns for the mobile/tablet environment — but it would make sense to do that, say, for Christmas, which could mean more sales by then. It’s a realistic business model.

Of course there are risks. But LL seems to be playing it safe. They’re not being too original and following trends. That makes it easier for the gaming community to “accept” their games. Because, after all, the problem with an “unique” game is that only “unique” players will play it — an issue that LL faces with Second Life.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

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