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Are Cloned Video Games the Dangerous New Norm?


The current trend in the app market should be a cautionary tale.

Words With Friends, Scramble With Friends and Hanging With Friends are all Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) creations that have spent a fair share of time atop Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Stores' bestsellers list. People might better recognize these games as Scrabble, Boggle -- both Hasbro (NASDAQ:HAS) products -- and hangman.

Hangman may not belong to anyone in particular, but Zynga's rocket to success, and eventually an IPO, founded itself largely on other people's work. Capitalizing on the shortened attention span of the mobile generation, Zynga allowed people to play their version of Scrabble and Boggle whenever they found themselves with a free minute or two.

As a fan of word games, and someone who was on the slow boat in buying a smartphone, it blew my mind as I watched people, who likely would've looked at me like I had three heads if I asked them to play Scrabble, obsessively play, argue, and brag about Words With Friends.

Zynga's Mafia Wars, Restaurant City, and Dream Heights are just three of the company's other games that have been accused of being mere copies of already successful games.

While other game developers may hate Zynga, consumers have made it the darling of the reproduction market. Its stock may be struggling now, but for it to go public when a huge number of its products were retooled versions of previously created games proved how valuable this strategy could be.

Consumers will always see potential for improvement when it comes to games. If a company has the means to accurately recreate said game and then provide the desired improvements, it's no surprise that consumers would jump at the opportunity to acquire the company's product.

Zynga may be the go-to example, but reproduction is rampant when it comes to apps.

Red Velvet Art's A Beautiful Mess currently holds the second position on Apple's list of top paid apps. Igor Kalicinski's Survivalcraft is sixth. The first is a revamped version of Instagram, which was acquired by Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and the second mimics Minecraft, a game by Mojang that allows users to explore an open world and build structures using square blocks.

A Beautiful Mess features alternative ways to spice up photos from Instagram, and in itself is not an exact rip-off of the photo-editing app that took the world by storm. Its icon, however, features the same two-toned square with a camera lens at the center and a set of colored stripes.

Homage, or otherwise, this logo, and many others like it, signal a time when the fact that one product is largely based on another isn't a dirty secret for a business, but an openly embraced strategy.

Consumers are more than aware of the similarity between products, and while some people implore others to consider what's really going on, other users acknowledge the reproduction and embrace it.

Here's what one user who gave Survivalcraft a five-star review on iTunes had to say:

Meanwhile, Survivalcraft sells for $3.99, while Minecraft - Pocket Edition, the actual mobile iteration of Minecraft, sells for $6.99. MCPE currently stands fourth in the top 10 paid apps category, just two spots above its very successful doppleganger.

A Sign of Things to Come in Other Markets?

The counterfeit goods market has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with illegal copyright infringement providing the key to its growth. The app market, however, suggests that the very concept of infringement could become a thing of the past, and that it may one day be commercially acceptable to work off a company's established template, implementing only a few improvements and changes.

Such a shift -- if extended across markets -- could be truly disruptive.

Keeps Apps Market Volatile

This new norm for apps could also be the driving force behind the transitivity of the app marketplace. Certain apps will dominate for extended periods of time, but it seems that within months there will always be a changing of the guard.

The instability of the app market might explain Zynga's struggles as a public company. Apps, especially games, largely lack durability because there will always be a more entertaining or effective app, even if it looks a lot like one that came before it.

While constant swings in the App Store have come to be expected, these brief bouts of huge success followed by a steady decline would wreak havoc in the public space. Small companies with financial backing could, in theory, overtake market share in a sector by replicating an already successful company's product, only to have the same thing done to them a few years down the road.

For now, companies can still thrive in the presence of knock-offs and clones, but this trend in gaming should serve as a red flag.
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