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 Donut County, which will be released later this year by publisher Annapurna Interactive. At the tail end of this labor 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 endeavor 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.”
Donut County is a game about a hole in the ground. It’s also about a trolly gamer raccoon, Los Angeles, donut holes, gentrification, and cleaning. The main mechanic is maneuvering 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, Donut 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.”
Hole.io, released earlier this month, is also about maneuvering 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 $200 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 e-mail 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 Donut 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 assholes off of it.”
When it’s released this year, Donut 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 $20. Anyone can download it and make their own version of Hole.io if they want.”
“Just putting it out there,” he said, laughing.