Monday, July 15, 2019

The Clone Wars: Why Clones In Video Games Matter

I've always hated the word 'clone' when it comes to video games.

We are very quick to use the word 'clone' to describe something that appears vaguely similar to something we recognize before. When the initial trailers for Marvel's Spiderman were released around 2016, a lot of people hastily wrote it off as a clone of Arkham Asylum, solely after seeing the combat system. Based off of that singular feature, it was given 'clone' status. Not because the overall game copied a majority of elements. But because the game had something they had seen before.

That 'clone' sold nine million copies in four months.

The term 'clone' when applied to video games is largely disingenuous. We are very prone to defend the IP we enjoy. Clones are seen as threats, so we treat them as things that should be vilified, to avoid them harming the things we enjoy. This is, overall, a flawed way of thinking.

It's worth noting an important fact left out of most clone debates: No one owns concepts or general ideas. Anyone can make a story about a wizard who goes to wizard school- it doesn't begin to slide into copyright territory until that wizard is named Barry Potter and fights the evil Derangors. People frequently consider The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins as a clone- or more commonly, a ripoff- of the Japanese film Battle Royale; But HG shared concepts, not plagiarised ideas. Because people think that IPs = Concepts, when we see them in other games, such as two characters from Overwatch and Paladins who can make ice walls and heal themselves, the default reaction is to think one copied the other.

When games are not made to be competitive in their genre, they get a power that most other developers- especially those of multiplayer games- would kill to have: total control of how that genre is perceived, because they literally decide what happens in it. And what happens when the community grows tired of that experience and the game grows stale? They drop it entirely, because the experience has become stale and dull. That unique experience that fledging genre brought to the industry? Dead in the water. Variety keeps games alive more than people know.

The majority of clone debates stem from games that are very popular and have large fan bases, such as PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Overwatch(Which is technically a clone of TF2, though don't tell anyone lest they scream at you) and Grand Theft Auto. The excitement that came from a new way to play video games was what ultimately led to others following suit in their own way- PUBG was followed by Fortnite, Overwatch was followed by Paladins, and GTA was followed by Saint's Row. Let's talk about all three and the unique changes they made that shook up the formula.

                                                         Fortnite: Battle Royale

People truly don't give Fortnite the credit it deserves for flipping the Battle Royale spectrum on its head. PUBG was in its own zone for a while, cruising merrily as the king of Battle Royale while games like H1Z1 shriveled. Fortnite was a massive shock to the esocsystem, changing what we perceived initially as a quick cash-in on the genre. It had an animated aesthetic that was both easy on and attractive to the eyes, a simple loot system that did away with obnoxious weapon mods and other complications, and encouraged a uniquely aggressive defense playstyle by letting you build defenses on the fly. It was everything that PUBG was not.

The biggest reason that Fortnite changed the game, however, was that it was accessible to everyone- anyone from minor to adult could jump into fortnite's cartoony visuals without drowning in the drab war aesthetic that plagues most shooters. The crutches of 'realism' were thrown away; there was no blood, there was no swearing, and the violence was silly- the teen rating on top of a free price tag put Fortnite head and shoulders ahead of pack.

It's easy to forget what Fortnite does good when it's the de facto game to hate if you want to fish for easy clout. Nine seasons of a game that is still in beta has not been slowed down by any detractor or imitator. Fortnite is still, as it stands, one of the most popular video games out right now. PUBG, the game that it copied, has dropped in popularity in comparison. As of this article, Fortnite currently has five times the viewer count on Twitch of PUBG, and will be gearing up for Season 10 in the coming weeks. Fortnite is, like it or a not, a smash hit.

As long as you ignore its esports scene.

                                                   Paladins: Champions of the Realm

Paladins is a curious case of a game that was almost dead on arrival.

Consider Battleborn by Gearbox Software. Battleborn was a charming action game with 30 unique characters(And I don't mean unique as in stealthy copy pastes, I mean every character played differently), bottomless humor that always hit the mark, and a funky opening cinematic that I still run in the background while doing other things. It had a campaign with four-player co-op, multiplayer that was a cross between Team Fortress and League of Legends, and even some loot mechanics that didn't involve microtransactions.

To this day, I have no idea why people compared it to Overwatch, other than the unfortunate circumstance of them releasing in close proximity. I played both games extensively, and they couldn't have been further apart from each other. Paladins detractors at least makes arguments on the character designs; no one in Battleborn played like anyone in Overwatch. But if you asked anyone about BB, it always came back to being an OW clone, when it wasn't in any way. None of these people played Battleborn, but they knew it was a clone, and that was all that mattered. This is why overuse of the word 'clone' where it does not apply is dangerous- it can kill games before they get a chance to begin.

Paladins was so painfully close to experiencing the same fate. It was a class-based shooter where you earned eliminations and won by moving a payload to a destination. It had a tank with a rectangular shield, an undead man with large revolver, and a woman whose sniper transformed into a machine gun.  During the closed beta, an update added a turtle who could throw out a hook and pull enemies close. The writing was on the wall, and nearly everyone was weighing in.

For the first few months, it was rough. Paladins added a Bow user who drew Hanzo comparisons, and then a black man who dual wields pistols that reminded MOBA players of Lucian from League of Legends. The subreddit was a mess- Developer Hi-Rez had to make a statement that shared that many of the concepts were in place before Overwatch came out. It changed nothing. Every comment on the game linked back to Overwatch somehow. If there was ever a game that was looking to follow in Battleborn's footsteps, it was Paladins.

But something strange happened.  The game went into open beta, and people played it. As it turned out, Paladins had critical differences that separated it from the game it was thought to have 'stolen' from, which is very common when you actually play games derided as clones. It was five versus five where you earned credits that you could spend on various buffs to help yourself or your team. It was based on a point system where one team pushing the payload didn't result in the end of the game. It added a witch doctor who fired acid from a snake, a small critter riding a two headed dragon, and an angel with a gunblade among others. Each character had their own personal reasons for engaging in a war between two factions, and personalities they expressed during battle. It was so unique that it became bigger than the controversy that enveloped it. Now, Paladins is currently one of the top-downloaded free-to-play games on steam. It's would be the ultimate clone success story. If not for one more that blew everyone out of the water.

                                                                  Saint's Row

Saint's Row is the Cinderella story of clone games.

The original game released for the Xbox 360 in 2006. At this point, GTA San Andreas was two years old, and GTA IV wouldn't be in the market until 2008. Despite some features that GTA IV would ultimately use in its release, like a more versatile cell phone, the original Saint's Row was probably the biggest 'clone' out of everything mentioned in this article. It was an open world game with a sprawling city where you took missions from various personalities. You had a variety of armaments and if you caused too much chaos, the police would hunt you down. Despite various activities that you did to progress and undertake each mission, Saint's Row definitely brought up strong GTA vibes. Again, Grand Theft Auto did not own those concepts; however, because Saint's Row didn't add much to differentiate the formula, it felt close- sometimes, uncomfortably close- to the Grand Theft Auto series. The sequel was where Saint's Row began to come into its own, but the 'clone' comparisons were still as strong as ever.

When rumors about the third game began to swirl, Deep Silver teased that the next game would be something entirely different. Most people were nonplussed, or at most curiously optimistic. Then we got the E3 trailer that opened everyone's eyes.

The personality that the series had been missing woke up to punch you in the face and throw you off a building. It was everything the series needed, and then some. People who hadn't given a single shit about Saint's Row games were now gushing in anticipation. And the game delivered on that anticipation. Saint's Row 3 was one of the first games I reviewed when I was a fresh-faced journalist out of high school, and that review was glowing. It was an endless party that bounced between zany, serious, and flat-out hilarious without missing a beat. What could have ended with a whisper was now a fourth of July fireworks show of middle fingers in the direction of everyone who doubted.

And then the 4th game happened, and did it again. If anyone could have predicted that Saint's Row would, at one point, make you the president of the United States,  give you superpowers, and let you weaponize dubstep as the assault on the ears it is, they would be buying lottery numbers for the rest of their lives. It was now such a unique experience that the most common criticism of the franchise now is that it's too different from the franchise it's thought to copy from, which I staunchly disagree with. Saint's Row is a comeback tale for any floundering video game series to take note of.


All of these games share a common theme: They were 'clones' of more popular games that were able to escape the clone label and become their own unique experience. But they could not have done these things without using familiar concepts from other games. These games are why I hate when people use clones in a negative light; without clones, Fortnite would have never busted the Battle Royale genre wide open, and Saint's Row would be one of a thousand series languishing in obscurity. The treading of familiar ground can still lead to unfamiliar terrain, and the familiar concepts can lead to new stories, new art, new experiences that should be celebrated. Clones are very, very good things, when they are given room to shine.

Well, unless that clone is PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. No one wanted that horror to go anywhere.


When not cursing the world for putting Battleborn into an early grave, Noelle 'Lyneriaa' Raine can be found gushing over Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on twitter @Lyneriaa. Spoilers: It's a great game.

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