What happens when another game steals your pitch? Donut County developer Ben Esposito faced this question back in June, when a friend showed him a familiar-looking mobile game: ‘Hole.io’. The problem was, Donut County was still months from release, while this clone had seemingly replicated the central mechanic – in which your ever-burgeoning hole (cheeky) attempts to consume larger buildings to grow – and was already climbing on the App Store.
Here’s some good news: after releasing on August 28th, Donut County then rose on the App Store to become the 4th most downloaded app in the US, and the 10th most downloaded in the UK. Don’t forget that the game also released on PC and PS4, platforms for which reliable sales figures are yet to be published, so Esposito’s audience far outnumbers that of the Hole.io market.
This helps to showcase the saving grace behind Donut County’s survival: a publisher. As Esposito summarised on a Gamasutra stream earlier this week, the game’s success was largely dependent on reaching an audience that he felt he couldn’t reach by himself.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make a splash in the way that I think the game needed to succeed,” Esposito said, “I could’ve put it on Steam only by myself… I think the game had more potential than that.”
Esposito continued to discuss how Annapurna Interactive, the publisher of Donut County, gave him access to their existing relationships with Sony and the App Store, and granted his game the marketing it had sorely needed. Without it, Esposito remarked that the game’s success would’ve depended on it going viral on Twitter. Of course, Annapurna Interactive were involved in the project long before Hole.io became a problem for Esposito, but the publisher’s support was integral to the game’s survival.
Giving a publisher control over your game – especially one you’ve worked tirelessly on for more than six years – is no easy decision. In another interview, Esposito commented that this transition was made much more acquiescent by the publisher’s willingness to leave him “running the show”, after he had previously worked on a number of projects with Annapurna.
Esposito later concluded that the threat of someone else cloning your game is “the reality of making a small game and being an independent developer”. Certainly, with Voodoo.io (the publisher of Hole.io) recently receiving an investment of $200 million, the clone problem isn’t just going to disappear down a hole in the desert. In the case of Donut County, supported by a publisher and a holesome story, this wasn’t a death sentence – but other indie devs might not be so lucky in future.
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