Clever Indie Game Doughnut County Isn't Even Out Yet And Already Has A Clone

Earlier this month, a buddy sent game developer Ben Esposito a surprising screenshot: an Instagram ad for a game that looked a lot like the one he'd been working on for five years. Esposito is nearly finished toiling away on an indie game called Doughnut County, which will be released later this year by publisher Annapurna Interactive. At the tail end of this labour of love, now a copycat game called Hole.io is number one on the iOS store, and Esposito feels the need to say something.

"I went into this endeavour to make something meaningful to people and spent a long time trying to figure out what that looks like. I had to make all the little details myself. I wanted it to matter," Esposito told me over Skype today. "They just took the elevator pitch, the unique selling point ... It's the message that content doesn't matter. The message is, if you can find the content for free, take it."

Doughnut County is a game about a hole in the ground. It's also about a trolly gamer raccoon, Los Angeles, doughnut holes, gentrification, and cleaning. The main mechanic is manoeuvring a hole in the ground to swallow things up. In Katamari Damacy fashion, the hole grows larger the more it consumes, and becomes able to fit larger and larger items until everything is gone. It's a little puzzle-ish, since players have to consider in what order they want to consume things.

Mostly, it's got a lot of heart, I learned when I played it at E3 this month, and its world is a joy to spend time in. According to Esposito, Doughnut County wasn't an easy pitch, either. In a tweet, he wrote, "It stings a little after 5+ years of convincing people a game about a hole in the ground is a good idea, lol."

MasterOV's Hole.io walkthrough

Hole.io, released earlier this month, is also about manoeuvring a hole in the ground. "Control your black hole, eating up everything on your way," reads its description. "The bigger you get, the larger structures you are able to suck in." The player drags a hole across a cluster of Unity assets resembling a city.

This is not the first time that Hole.io's developer, Voodoo.io, has produced a free mobile game that apes the unique gameplay mechanics of a beloved indie. Its library of copycats includes Infinite Golf, similar to Desert Golfing, an Impossible Road takeoff called Twisty Road, and The Fish Master, which aped the Vlambeer game Ridiculous Fishing.

In 2017, Voodoo games were downloaded 300 million times, and the company expects one billion downloads in 2018. Late May, Voodoo received a $US200 ($270) million investment from Goldman Sachs. Voodoo did not return a request for comment by press time.

"It almost killed the company right there and then," Vlambeer's Rami Ismail said over email about another clone of Ridiculous Fishing released by a different publisher, which was called Ninja Fishing. Like Hole.io, it was actually released prior to the original game.

As a premium mobile game, Ridiulous Fishing was a big risk for the 3-year-old studio, and the presence of a clone game threatened their success. For months after the clone's release, Ismail and his colleagues would just stare at their computers "without any spark or enthusiasm."

"Independent creators come from a place of passion," Ismail said, "and nothing will destroy that passion like feeling like you've been taken advantage of — and nothing will kill the drive to be creative faster than seeing someone else treat it as a cynical cash-grab."

Ben Esposito hopes that the care he put into Doughnut County will win out. "I think a game about a hole in the ground is interesting when the things you put it in are interesting," said Esposito. At E3, Esposito had told me that he wrote descriptions, in the voice of a raccoon, for an index of every item the hole consumes. "That's why I spent so long making this game. I wanted to make a game where the world matters, what you put into the hole matters."

"I put so much effort into the details," he said. Of Voodoo.io, he said: "There's a company where the elevator pitch was good enough. The minimum possible product was good enough. The secret sauce was making sure there's enough retention and putting money in Instagram ads."

There isn't much an indie developer can do when another company publishes a skeleton of their game. In general, U.S. copyright laws don't apply to pure game mechanics, only the graphics, music, and story. Laws might not be the answer, said Ismail, adding that he doesn't want a situation in games where, say, jumping is patented.

But when it comes to platforms like Apple or Google Play, a little more curation could go a long way, Ismail said. "If a clone like this does well on a platform, I feel the platform owes it to the original creator to make the inspirations' launch as loud as possible.".

Justin Smith, whose game Desert Golfing is echoed by Voodoo's Infinite Golf, said: that if he "was Apple or Google and I built a wonderful thing like an app store, or built anything, if I built a raft in the ocean, I would keep the arseholes off of it."

When it's released this year, Doughnut County will rely on its charm to lure in players. It's not a free charm, but it's one Esposito has been pouring himself into for half a decade. The fact that a company like Voodoo can take part of what makes his game special, push it out for free, advertise it massively, and earn the coveted number one spot on the iOS store, he says, is "discouraging."

"I looked on the Unity assets store and found exactly the Unity art asset pack they used," he said. "It's $US20 ($27). Anyone can download it and make their own version of Hole.io if they want."

"Just putting it out there," he said, laughing.


Comments

    is a clone a clone if the original game doesn't exist yet?

      Clone
      [klohn]
      noun
      3. to produce a copy or imitation of.

      The game existed, it just hadn't been finished, and this new game is clearly imitating it. So... yes.

    I played it at Pax Aus last year and really enjoyed it. Reminded me so much of We Love Katamari. I'm actually pretty pissed that someone has stolen it, but now I wanna buy Doughnut County even more.

    This really sucks, my heart goes out to Ben and his crew.
    I'm a bit confused looking at Voodoo.io's webpage though. It looks like they are publishers promoting a UI platform. Did they develop the copycat games, or simply publish them?
    Ultimately though, this is unsurprising. As indie games rise in popularity, cheaper imitation is inevitable. For some people, being able to feed their family is more important than respecting someone else's IP - integrity just doesn't enter into it. But indie games rely heavily on community appreciation and curation. Imitators like this will only be able to get so far and will be unable to imitate the fine detail of the original. The passion of the original creators will shine through, and it's this passion that is the true draw for fans of the indie game scene. If people are imitating him already, it just means that Ben is doing something right. Stay the course.

      For some people, being able to feed their family is more important than respecting someone else's IP
      I feel like this goes a bit beyond feeding the family...
      In 2017, Voodoo games were downloaded 300 million times, and the company expects one billion downloads in 2018. Late May, Voodoo received a $US200 ($270) million investment from Goldman Sachs.
      It's just standard corporate laziness.

        It's a bit subjective, isn't it? I mean, I'm sure they're doing well, but 300 million downloads of fremium games, which seems to be most of their fare, does not equal 300 million dollars. It's not like they have Clash of Clans in their stable. Even factoring in profit margins and the $200 mill from Goldman Sachs, which was only last month, at best we can assume they have several hundred million at their disposal now. But what are their overheads? Servers, staff, office space, hardware? What size is the company? Their projection for expansion must be good, that's why Goldman Sachs invested, but where are they at now? Was this company just started by one guy in his basement, and now he's rolling in cash? And, as I mentioned before, I'm still not sure this company develops the games - they appear to have a stable of developers that they sell their platform to?
        The point is, I don't know this company or the people that run it. It does look like it began as a start-up in the last 5-10 years. Maybe the guy that started it did do it to feed his family. Yes, that's probably not an issue anymore. ;p
        Imitating something with artistic integrity lacks integrity. It's like selling Monet ripoffs to hotels for a buck. But it was low-hanging fruit, someone was bound to do it, and ultimately I do believe that it will only serve to elevate the original. I hope the original devs take it that way.

    I hope the quirky character of Doughnut County wins out over the clone.
    I played it at PAX and while the hole mechanic was fun, the thing I enjoyed most and want to see more of was that jerk raccoon.

    Last edited 27/06/18 9:03 am

      Oh yeah, characters definitely make it

    if you try Hole.io you'll realise how little care was put into it.

    that said if the doughnut county dev believes the best bit was stolen, well he probably should have spent so much time on stuff that wasn't important.

    I know we spell it doughnut here in Australia but the game is called Donut County.

    That sucks a lot, but I'll definitely still buy Donut County. I spotted it months back and it's one of the few indies that caught my eye instantly.

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