#143: Fast follow

Last week I noticed a sudden buzz around a new mobile game called Survivor.io. It’s the latest from Habby, the Chinese developer of the 2019 dungeon-crawling smartphone Roguelike Archero, which I played a fair bit of during the first lockdown. I first became aware of Survivor.io in a newsletter from research and consulting bods Naavik (dev pals, there’s some pretty thought-provoking stuff in there about user acquisition on TikTok). Then, on Friday, mobilegamer.biz brought word of the game having stormed the App Store and Google Play charts, particularly in the US, where it was the most-downloaded game of the week. Little wonder that Naavik reckons the game is making about $1.5m a day at the moment from IAP and ad revenue. Nice work if you can get it.

All that was motivation enough for me to look briefly past Survivor.io’s terrible, terrible name and see how it felt to play. Archero put a cheery approachable spin on a traditionally niche genre, and had been a big hit: it had brought in $64m by 2021. So, how would Habby approach the knotty subject of its difficult second album? How would it leverage the knowledge and experience, and tens of million dollars, it had gained from its first game in the making of its follow-up?

By cloning Vampire Survivors.

I don’t just mean it has been inspired by one of the year’s breakout games, made by a solo developer in his spare time and released in Early Access for a couple of quid. This really is a straight lift. Sure, weapons and skills have been redesigned and renamed (and rather prosaically: VS’s Runetracer is now a drill). Some of the evolution pairings have been swapped around. It’s been wrapped in a persistent progression system and about a billion different monetisation hooks, all brought over pretty much wholesale from Archero. It’s played in portrait mode on a smartphone, instead of a desktop window. You can watch an ad when you die and revive at half health (sigh). But in every other respect this is Vampire Survivors to a tee.

I’m quite cross about this — and not just because I had to find out about it for myself, when I’d have expected one of the outlets talking about the game to have alerted me to it. Vampire Survivors, if you didn’t know, was knocked together by a web developer called Luca Galante in his evenings and weekends, and became one of the breakout sensations of the year. For it to be ripped off wholesale by a much bigger and more successful studio, then slathered in all the usual monetisation guff before conquering the app store charts worldwide within weeks of release is not surprising, particularly, but that does not make it any less disappointing.

Once again I find myself thinking about power dynamics. About the way that money and success too often fuel not innovation, but arrogance. About how big established companies are comfortable ripping off little innovators because they know they are too powerful to take down, and that game-design copyright isn’t really a thing anyway. This is also a rotten reminder about the often sorry state of mobile gaming, where faster development times make for even faster follows; where audiences tend to be less plugged into the scene, either not realising or not caring that their new downtime obsession has ripped off a game they’ve never heard of, on a platform they don’t own.

Sure, Vampire Survivors is not an original concept. It was originally modelled on an Android game called Magic Survival. Galante liked it, figured he’d try and make a version of it for fun, and the rest is history. Great artists steal, and all that. I suppose we can think of it as the Minecraft to Magic Survival’s Infiniminer; not the game that proved the concept, perhaps, but certainly the one that popularised it.

And yes, we should probably consider the fact that Survivor.io technically predates Vampire Survivors. It launched in selected markets in 2020, over a year before Galante’s game hit itch.io and Steam. But I do not think this counts for much. The games are simply too similar for this to be a magical coincidence, and the notion of Galante having scurrilously cloned a soft-launch mobile game and rushed it out at an ultra-low price point is clearly the stuff of fantasy, brilliant though it would be.

No, it seems to me far more likely that Survivor.io began life as something very different — perhaps, my potent inner cynic suggests, as a fast-follow clone of the suspiciously monikered 2017 browser-based battle royale Surviv.io. I assume soft launch didn’t go that well, and Habby quietly chucked it in a drawer with all its other KPI-whiffing prototypes until Vampire Survivors blew up and it sensed an opportunity. I cannot prove any of that, sadly, though I have of course written it anyway. If any lawyers are reading, I am merely asking questions in the marketplace of ideas! Let the people draw their own conclusions.

What really gets me about this, though, is that the Vampire Survivors template — or the Magic Survival template, I suppose, for accuracy’s sake — is clearly very flexible. And as Galante himself has shown, it does not take all that long for even a single developer to make. Production values are modest; likewise asset requirements and level-design work. The core loop is pretty simple — kill monsters, pick up XP, get weapons and skills when you level up — and balance is sort of thrown out of the window, letting both player and enemy grow implausibly powerful and seeing who triumphs. This does not seem to me to be something you need to clone, because the core idea itself is so full of potential, so ripe for experimenting with. There is a certain magic baked into it, and therefore, it occurs to me, plenty of fresh magic to be found in the tinkering with it. It turns out I am right about that! Yesterday evening I spent a thoroughly pleasant few hours flitting through a handful of games that, within a matter of months of Vampire Survivors’ arrival, have taken its concept in new, fascinating directions.

I played 20 Minutes Till Dawn, a darkly foreboding sort of thing that has some pretty intriguing synergies going on but requires you to manually fire, which I found was one thing too many for me to think about. I moved on to A Clumsy Flight, which in addition to manual fire has some pretty idiosyncratic flying controls and an off-puttingly steep difficulty curve (in hindsight I should have taken Derek Yu’s approval as a warning, rather than an endorsement). I loved HoloCure, though, a fan-made game based on the apparently popular Vtuber thing HoloLive (I am afraid to even google it) with some terrifically outlandish weaponry.

Then I tried Boneraiser Minions, and that was my evening done. What a treat this is! You are a necromancer in a graveyard, raising the dead to fight for you, as the denizens of the local village go to ever-greater lengths to exorcise your evil. There’s a gentle base-management layer that lets you kit out the mausoleum with spike traps, healing plants and other doodads; there’s even a strategy card game powered by loot drops you can play in between runs. It got its hooks into me immediately, and just writing about it is giving me the urge to fire it up again.

I am sure there are many other games of this type out there already; games that have not only borrowed the Vampire Survivors design template but also its distribution model, launching in early access at an impulse-buy purchase price (or completely free, in HoloCure’s case). I may only have played a handful of them but I think my point is already proved. I quite like Survivor.io, if I’m honest. I mean it’s basically Vampire Survivors, so I suppose I would, but it’s certainly got something. It’s just that it could — and should, given the pedigree of the developer behind it and the resources it had at its disposal — been so much more. Instead all we’re left with is another cautionary tale, another brutal expression of capitalism; another reminder that what counts on the app stores isn’t the purity of your design or the freshness of your concept, but how cunningly your IAP are structured, how irresistibly your ads are implemented, and how novel your UA strategy is. $1.5m a day! Give me strength.

There we go. I’m still getting back into the swing of things after my hiatus, and the youngest is only doing a couple of hours a day at school while they settle him in, so MAILBAG and MORE are still on holiday. Quite jealous, if I’m honest. Have a grand few days, go play Boneraiser Minions, and I’ll see you all on Friday.