Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Art of Imitative Design

Why does one game succeed brilliantly while another game vanishes into obscurity? Why is one game an absolute blast to play while another, very similar game, simply isn't that much fun? It is often easy to understand why a game fails, but it is usually more difficult to ascertain why one game becomes a hit when another does not, epecially when the hit does not feature better features, prettier art, faster performance, or a most distinctive brand than other games in the same genre.

In most cases, success comes down to superior game design, by which I mean the use of game concepts and mechanics that provide the player with a more enjoyable gameplay experience. Game design should never be confused with game development or with production, as it is the aspect of game development that consists of conceiving and articulating ideas that are subsequently turned into functional reality through the process of production.

There are four types of game design.

  • Original
  • Evolutionary
  • Synthetic
  • Imitative

While most discussion of game design revolves around its highest form, original design, the fact is that very few game designers will ever rise to the level of a Sid Meier, a Will Wright, or a Peter Molyneux. Most successful games – and most good games – involve either evolutionary or synthetic design. And the reality is that most games that are developed and released are best characterized as the lowest form of game design, imitative design.

There are several reasons for this to be the case. First, imitative designs are easier to conceive, for both the novice game designer as well as the experienced professional. Most of us possess considerably less creative originality than we would like to imagine, and even in the game industry, true originality is as likely to be greeted with skepticism and dismissal as with enthusiasm and support. Second, imitative design is easier to articulate, as it takes considerably less time and effort to write a game design document that can be largely cribbed from another game's manual, or from notes taken while playing another game, than it does to start from scratch with original research, algorithms, and arbitrary values.

Third, imitative design is easier to sell to the development team, to the investors, to the publisher, and often, to the public. Fourth, imitative design is safer. The imitative designer is able to have confidence in the game's mechanics because he has already seen them work.

And yet, even when two or more games are designed in imitation of a successful game, and developed with a reasonably equivalent level of production competence and resources, they often meet with widely varying results. So, in light of the uncomfortable fact that most game developers will, sooner or later, find themselves working on an imitative game, what separates a successful imitation from an unsuccessful one?

Consider the case of the various imitations of one of the most widely imitated games in computer game history, Doom. Doom was revolutionary for its time, is considered to be one of the ten greatest games in computer game history, which sold 2 million copies, distributed another 20 million, and spawned a host of “Doom clones” between 1993 and 1997, including Duke Nukem 3D, Dark Forces, Heretic, Rebel Moon Rising, Rise of the Triad, and CyClones.(1)

All of these games were 2.5D shooters that were, more or less, functionally identical to Doom. Yet the most commercially successful, Duke Nukem 3D, sold 3.5 million copies; considerably more than the 50,000 copies sold by the least successful, CyClones. To understand why these very similar games had such dissimilar results requires understanding the challenges of imitative design.

The primary problem with designing an imitation is that there is often no intrinsic need for the imitation to exist in the first place. Unless the imitation reaches a platform the original cannot reach, or the imitated game cannot fulfill the existing demand it has created, there is no market for the imitator. Why should a gamer play the imitation when the original is available? Space Armada sold one million copies on Intellivision because Atari refused to port Space Invaders to its competitor; would Sonic the Hedgehog have sold as well as it did on the Sega Genesis if Nintendo had made Super Mario World available on the Genesis rather than keeping it exclusive to the SNES?

Exacerbating this problem today is the ability to retroactively add more content to existing games through DLC and updates, which now makes success by imitation even more difficult. After Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning came out, it was not long before Blizzard added an achievements system to World of Warcraft, thereby rendering moot one of the few distinctions between WAR and WoW.

The secondary problem with imitative design is that the imitator seldom understands either the internal game mechanics involved or the necessary tradeoffs that were required in deciding upon them. Even fairly small alterations, made in ignorance, can disrupt the well-honed flow of the original gameplay and make the game feel less fun than the original.

That being said, imitative design can succeed if:

  1. the imitator is able to take advantage of a brand that creates independent appeal or creates a market for the game. Example: Dark Forces. Who didn't want to see what Doom-style action in the Star Wars universe would be like?
  2. the imitator fully understands the internal workings of the design imitated and is careful to only change superficial elements that don't disrupt or otherwise interfere with the internal mechanics. Consider how different the superficial elements were in Duke Nukem 3D  in comparison with Doom.(2)


  • Character: colorful personality
  • Dialogue: sardonic vulgarity
  • Genre: cheesy science fiction
  • Mood: silly and cocksure
  • Environment: Earth and familiar


  • Character: nameless Doom guy
  • Dialogue: shrieking and wailing
  • Genre: eldritch horror
  • Mood: dark and frightening
  • Environment: Hell and alien

The same was not true of the less successful Doom clones; despite having new features like an independent reticule and the ability to look up and down, the generic nature of CyClones meant that, unlike Duke Nukem 3D, first-person shooter fans had little interest in playing it.

Imitative design may not be glamorous of game development, but it has its place in the industry. And if you're going to imitate a successful game, don't settle for a lame and lazy ripoff. Take the trouble to think it through, do it right, and with a little luck, your efforts will be rewarded.

(1) Full Disclosure: I had personal involvement with three of these games. I designed and co-produced Rebel Moon Rising, my company Power of Seven did the music and sound effects for CyClones, and I reviewed Heretic for Computer Gaming World in 1994. 

(2) It has been argued that the addition of features such as swimming and flying permit Duke Nukem 3D to be considered an evolutionary design, but all of the various Doom clones had a number of minor new features that did not fundamentally change the core gameplay mechanics. The fact that the developer was unable to build on the huge success of the game after the technological shift to true 3D graphics also tends to argue against the idea that it was evolutionary.


  1. For a more recent example, consider the tale of Harvest Moon. The title is owned by Natsume, who have translated the game for the US since the 90's, while the games were made by Marvelous.

    The two companies split once Marvelous built up their own localization team, which left Natsume with the widely recognized farming sim brand. Unfortunately, they failed to understand the core mechanics of the franchise and produced shoddy products.

    At the same time, Marvelous had to build a new brand, but had the core mechanics down pat.

  2. I think the newest Doom games, that came out in 2016 and 2020 are synthetic; they're essentially a crossover between Halo and Mortal Kombat.

  3. Some years ago, our studio had a plan (never executed, alas) for an evolutionary game followed up - once we'd validated and dialed in the fundamental design, game loop and mechanics - by several iterative games that gave that fundamental design a "flavor facelift" similar to how Vox describes the difference between Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. Barbarian raiders in one version, Space Pirates in another, fantasy races in a third, etc.

    Our vision was amortizing the development costs of that initial game design over multiple offerings targeting different audiences. The goal was to make it easy to appeal to different tastes. Some people would be drawn more to a Sci-Fi theme, others to cartoon barbarians, still others to WWII soldiers, etc. To do that, we needed the "cheapness" of imitative design to keep the time and cost of the follow-ons within reason. But we were very clear about the reason for each of the follow-ons, and planned to alter all those superficial elements in deliberate fashion to appeal to an aesthetic, otherwise it wouldn't be worth doing.

  4. Sid Meier's biggest creation? The Tech Tree. Mechanically, Civilization and all its descendants are clones of Empire, a public domain game available on the DEC PDP series of minicomputers, and ported to the PC 5 years before Civ was released. Adding the Tech Tree made the game much deeper, and the brought the strategic decisions to a much higher level. I still play Civ I (the best of the lot as far as I'm concerned) I haven't touched Empire in 20 years.

    1. I think the true genius of Civ is what I've called the rotating reward cycle, and the tech tree is a huge part of that. The player is always presented with an upcoming reward in a few turns, but the type changes so you don't get bored with it. You're waiting for a new technology to finish, so you keep playing to get there. Then when you get the tech, suddenly you're only a few turns from finishing a new unit, so you keep going to get the unit. Then you get the unit, and you're a few turns away from finishing a wonder, so you keep going...

      Then you look up at the clock and realize it's 4:30 am and you have to leave for work in two hours.

    2. I’m a huge fan of Alpha Centauri.
      The leaders feel very different from one another, and the ability to create your own custom units adds a further level of depth never before seen.
      If you find a distant island you want to colonise, create a colony pod on a jet to get there.
      Are you being hurt by air attacks from a neighbouring island? Create AA boats and station them in the waters.
      Does your opponent have AA ships? Create some submarine units to stealth around and attack their flanks, or design ships with a navy attachment to have a chance to capture defeated ships instead of destroying them. The use of spies is also well implemented.

      I still regularly play that game, it’s just a shame that it crashes so frequently now. I wish I knew how to fix it so it was as stable on modern systems as it was when it was released...

  5. That evolutionary framework sounds interesting. It was always my intention to iterate the First Sword "radio action" design into various sports and combat games. But you have to finish the first design before you can iterate it....

    1. We were unfortunately collateral damage from Disney accidentally crushing another studio. Lessons learned all the way around. Funny you mention sports games. While reading your interview with Brad Wardell, when you were discussing early game, wargame vs rpg, I was thinking about my own early board game experiences, and though I had a bunch of AH and Task Force Game wargames, I also had all the Statis Pro sports games, and played those extensively all the way through college. And I remembered that the very first computer program I ever wrote was a database to track stats for the Statis Pro Basketball league I played with several Middle School friends.

      I'm very glad you started this back up. Thank you.

  6. ... The player is always presented with an upcoming reward in a few turns, but the type changes so you don't get bored with it...

    Correct. The turn/reward loop is perfect.

    Original is hard. there is always only ever gonna be the first Diablo, Age of Empire, World of Warcraft, Doom, tower-defense, etc.