The Trouble with “Clone”

Pong wasn’t the first video game, or even the first arcade video game. It was the first commercially successful one, and the resulting popularity led to the most predictable consequence ever: it was copied. By everyone. In fact, this was so widespread that most people with only a passing interest in games who were around during the time assume Atari sold a lot more units than they actually did. Often, the competitors just straight-up directly copied every aspect of Pong component-for-component and slapped a generic name on the machine. Pong had no title screen and if you’d only heard of a newfangled electronic tennis TV game that cost a quarter to play, you wouldn’t know that Midway’s “Winner” wasn’t the original arcade video tennis machine. By the end of Pong’s market viability, there were over 25,000 “Pongs” installed in locations across the United States. But, around two-thirds of those were knock-offs with names like “Rally” or “Electronic Tennis” or “TV Ping Pong” made by companies besides Atari. Only about 8,000 actual Pong machines were built. The rest were eventually given the name “clones.”

Imagine living in a world before video games were everywhere and hearing about this “electronic tennis game you play on TV.” If you stumbled upon Rally, a Pong clone by Bally, would you have guessed or even cared that they had completely ripped-off Pong?

So it’s no surprise that the word “clone” is a major part of the gaming lexicon. The industry’s initial meteoric rise was built on a foundation of cloning. Unfortunately, we’ve stretched the definition of what is and isn’t a clone a little too thin. The word always has negative associations, yet we use it as a catch-all description for games similar to others. We do this even games we like. I’ve heard gamers call Axiom Verge a “Metroid clone” or Bloodstained a “Castlevania clone.” That seems like a slap in the face to such games, which strive to replicate the look and feel of classics but in a way that feels new and fresh. These are not clones.

They’re tributes.

The word “tribute” doesn’t come with the baggage that “clone” has. Well, unless you’re a child about to be forced into combat for the sake of somehow repressing rebellion among overworked and underpaid civilians in a dystopian society. I’ve never understood how that was supposed to work. It seems like that’s actually the exact sort of thing that would eventually cause such a rebellion. I mean, I would understand it if it was used as a threat. “Rise up against us one more time and we’ll force your kids to battle to the death for our amusement.”

“Okay, now remember: in the event that these adorable, photogenic children from your district are the ones that die screaming in agony, absolutely no rioting and/or rebelling. If you do.. um.. I’m not entirely sure actually. Really, we’re already killing your offspring for our entertainment. That’s about as horrific as it gets, it would seem. You know, I need to bring this up during the next cabinet meeting and ask President Snow if we’ve really thought this whole thing through. I mean, I can see some of you are not on-board with our plans. I don’t know what people itching for an uprising look like, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d guess they look something like you people. You have that ‘overthrow the tyrannical government’ look about you. But don’t.”

Where was I?

Tributes. It just makes more sense to me to call a modern indie title inspired by the hits of gaming’s past a “tribute.” Because that’s what they are. And the word works whether the game is fun or not. Calling Yooka-Laylee a failed tribute to Banjo-Kazooie is more accurate than describing it as a clone. It’s not a clone. It does try to somewhat modernize Banjo’s concept with things like a physics engine that closely resembles games of the 21st century. The way they implemented the idea completely missed the mark to such a degree that the mark shot itself in despair, but that doesn’t change the fact that the intent was to pay tribute.

I’m not saying actual clones don’t exist in the modern-day. Anyone who searched the mobile market during the Summer of 2013 will remember endless copy-cats of Flappy Bird, which itself wasn’t exactly the high-mark of game design. But it was popular, and it got knocked off. But there’s a big difference between that and being inspired by a 1988 game in 2018. And it’s especially irksome because gaming is the only medium where such things are called “clones.” Nobody called Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad or Big Bad Beetleborgs a clone of Power Rangers. Hell, nobody even called the uber-cheap, so bad that it caused organ failure across the country Rangers knock-off Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills a “clone.” What about Cloverfield? By the standards of the usage of “clone” in gaming, is it not a “clone” of Godzilla? If every mining game is essentially a clone of Minecraft, surely every disaster movie must be a clone of the Towering Inferno?

So why do people say Shovel Knight is essentially a clone of DuckTales? Or even Terraria being essentially a clone of Minecraft? Clone is such a dismissive term. There’s no positivity to it at all. And maybe this message sounds weird coming from someone who regularly boils games in oil, but y’all need to be more positive. It’s such a disservice to these games to simply brush them off and lazily describe them as clones. Tribute is much more versatile. It can apply to games not out yet (“attempts to pay tribute”), good games (“wonderful tribute!”) or bad games. (“tried to pay tribute”). No matter what modifier you use on clone, it still sounds bad. Even “good clone” makes a game sound derivative and uninspired. And what happens when something does get cloned? In the event you run into an actual knock-off that deserves the title of clone, the proper meaning of the word has less weight when people say, completely seriously, that Dead Cells is, more or less, a 2D “clone” of Dark Souls.

That wasn’t a joke. I spent about a month tweeting media from my Dead Cells play sessions and had multiple people shrug their shoulders and call it a 2D Dark Souls clone. If I could strike one word from the gaming lexicon, it’d be clone. Well, actually I’d like to strike the pejorative “gay” from it too, which would remove about 75% of your average Xbox Live player’s vocabulary.

The indie community struggles enough with finding and maintaining an audience. Writing-off every neo-retro game as a clone of some classic title isn’t helping with that. The real shame is the work that goes into the games is the part of the equation that is lost most when someone casually dismisses a new release as a clone of some all-time great. “Cloning” suggests a lack of effort. Yooka-Laylee was terrible, but actual effort was made regardless of its failure. If they had set out to simply copy it, that could have been done with a lot less effort and a much smaller budget. Cloning is easy. It’s simple reverse-engineering. Building a new game from the ground-up that aspires to invoke the spirit of a legendary classic takes work. Win or lose, the effort should be worthy of the title “tribute.” And maybe we owe developers that kind of consideration. Let’s pay tribute to their work and ditch “clone” for good.

And if you don’t, I’ll force your kids to battle to the death for my amusement. See, that’s how you make it work!

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