Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 February, 2011

What’s new and what’s not
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:09 AM

Jessica Mulligan, a person I admire greatly, said that she stopped writing regular columns when it felt like she was just repeating the same thing over and over again. (With the unwritten lament, and still nobody is listening!) That’s kind of how I feel about one of my pet topics: innovation. I keep posting, but little seems to come from it.

Not that it’s necessarily going to stop me, of course. Allow me to ruminate a bit more on originality and how it applies to game design.

You can blame Over00 for this post. At the end of that post, he linked to the “Everything is a Remix” videos (part 1 and part 2) as an attempt to explain why he’s not just a dirty rip-off artist. I can’t say I agree with the videos 100%, even if we ignore the hyperbole of the title, but they are interesting and entertaining to watch. So, let’s dig a bit more into these.

I made an homage, you were inspired by source material, he’s ripping off the original

The first problem is how we measure what’s copied. If you dig down far enough and want to be pedantic enough, nothing is original. This post uses words that have been used before in similar contexts, one could argue, therefore it’s not original. But, I don’t think that’s a particularly useful way to look at things.

So, how much of this post is original to me? How much is based on the work of others? The “Everything is a Remix” videos obviously prompted me to write this post, but is this the same as Led Zeppelin taking the words of an obscure song, or a musician sampling a bass line from an older work? I don’t think so. Perhaps this makes my post more original than some of the classic Zeppelin songs (but likely nowhere near as popular).

In game development we see the same thing. The videos go on about how many of the top hit movies in the last few years are sequels or remakes, and the remaining ones are “genre” movies. I suspect that games would be largely the same, especially given how more rigid our genre classifications tend to be. The games that don’t fit this profile, such as The Sims games, have gone on to spawn their own entire genres. I suspect that we don’t see this quite so much in movies and other traditional media because there has been a lot more time to explore the possibility space of genres. It’s easier to define a new sub-genre than to pioneer a whole new one when the boundaries are so well defined.

Did you mean to steal that?

The next factor to consider is intention. In short, did the person realize they were borrowing from an earlier work? Was that the intention? Going back to the Led Zeppelin songs, one might imagine the group knew what they were doing, especially in cases where the lyrics were fairly similar. But, one problem with music is that it doesn’t always work on a conscious level for us. Especially in the case of a bass line that’s been sampled a lot, a musician sitting at an instrument might bang out the same bass line just because he or she had heard it multiple times before. To the musician, copying a specific bass line might be similar to deciding to use 4/4 meter in a song; something that they’ve heard many times.

Movies are interesting in this regard in that intention can be murky. It’s been said that while Star Wars happens to follow the Monomyth fairly closely, it was not Lucas’ original intent to do so. He was just following the structure of movies he liked before, and only really embraced Campbell’s teachings after the fact as a way to be seen as more legitimate. The “Everything is a Remix” videos say that Lucas was an avid film watcher before he became a film maker, a torch that has been passed on to Quentin Tarantino these days. Tarantino is a lot more blatant about how heavily inspired by older movies he is.

I think this is an even bigger issue in games. Most game developers are avid game players. I’ve mentioned before that a lot of game design seems to happen on autopilot: an RPG includes classes and levels because, well, that’s what almost all the other RPGs have done. The more informed might make arguments about how games without classes and levels do worse in the market, or are just harder to design right. Ultimately, it leads to most designers following a small handful of designs.

How much new will someone tolerate?

The reality is that most people really don’t like something that is completely new. We want some sort of familiarity, something that bridges the new experience from what we’re used to. This is the big problem facing a lot of novel games; something that is highly original might end up just alienating the potential audience.

In the case of The Fae’s Wyrd, the game design introduces one rather novel experience with a lot of design that has largely been seen in other games. Trying to add too much new would obscure the part that I really wanted to focus on, the elemental advancement. Perhaps even that was too much? We’ll see how people react to the game and if it ever gets a sponsor.

But, this is also one reason why we see so much evolution and why new games can be a good thing. Infiniminer was inspired by games like Motherlode and in turn inspired Minecraft. It’s hard to imagine that without the success of Minecraft that we’d see other open-ended games like A Valley Without Wind. So, sometimes we get new stuff in a rather roundabout way.

The constant cry for innovation

As Over00 points out in his post, originality is a lot rarer than we might first think. A lot of creative people will copy bits and pieces of other works, intentionally or not. The most stable financial works tend be those that largely copy from existing works. The big earners tend to be the “surprise hits” that define a new genre; but for every The Sims you have dozens if not hundreds (if not thousands) of stillborn concepts and bold works that go nowhere. And, sometimes, the audience doesn’t want really original stuff no matter how hard it cries. (I suspect part of the problem is that the people crying for “innovation” don’t share the same definition a developer working on a game does.)

But, if we can dig into the old “art vs. commerce” argument again, this isn’t necessarily a problem with a specific group. Audiences tend to favor what they know more than they reward the project trying to blaze new paths. Look at the discussion of the hype around the RIFT MMO: originally the feedback was positive as people described it as “WoW, only better!” But, we see now that some people are tiring of that. It’s hard to blame the developers who want to buy food and keep rent/mortgage paid just like everyone else.

For a savvy game developer, it can be a great situation to be in when the audience continuously wants new stuff, at least for traditional games. People want more of the same, but get bored easily, so you keep giving them more of the same with slightly different flavors or colors. MMOs seemed to typify this for a while, where small patches changed the game enough to keep people occupied, and large patches came along to create major shifts and renewed interest; this is what I think explains WoW’s longevity, even though it was obviously “inspired by” other MMOs before it. It also explains why a game merely trying to copy WoW is going to have problems attracting and retaining players, because the familiarity that draws people to the game then repels them when they get bored; the experience audience is getting past the shiny exterior faster these days.

What do you think? Is nothing truly original because everything is a remix? Does originality get overlooked in favor of more comfortable familiarity? Or is real originality just not that common, and often misguided when it is realized?


  1. Brian, top marks for mentioning Led Zeppelin my favorite band! The Zeppelin case is very interesting. I believe they figured that nobody really owned the blues as that music was very derivative art form with people borrowing heavily from each other. Given today’s intellectual property hysteria and litigation mania I can see where those blues artists might have a case and want a big piece of the Led Zeppelin pie.

    What Led Zeppelin did is what most seminal musicians do is that they caused a paradigm shift. They took delta blues and modernized it and took it to a completely new level far beyond what other bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream.

    The same kind of shift occurred with the advent of punk and then again with grunge music killing off the metal hair bands.

    So you have a familiar pattern: a revolutionary artist comes out. Then everybody plays it safe and copies it with minor innovations and cosmetic changes then another revolution occurs and the process starts all over again.

    It the same with video games and of course MMOs. EverQuest was one such game changing MMO, which was dethroned by another game changer called WoW. The strange thing about WoW is that for some reason (probably due to Blizzard’s rare industry position and production values) it has not been replaced yet. Also that fact that WoW been so utterly dominant without any new paradigm shifting MMO is what is causing the unrest and malaise out there.

    The MMO revolution is long over due.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 9 February, 2011 @ 2:21 AM

  2. Originality is overrated.

    Comment by Nevermind — 9 February, 2011 @ 4:16 AM

  3. There’s a difference between being inspired by and sampling or remixing. Sampling uses direct snippets of other works to add to your own one, while remixing uses the existing work and retools it. But being inspired by is you only using skeletons or hints of things often unconsciously. There may be nothing new under the sun at a ground level, but current creative content is too direct and conscious of what it uses from other works.

    I think it could also be argued that the type of procedurally minded person who can design good game systems and write good code is probably the worst person you would expect to find creativity from. It’s a symptom of our entire age. Too procedurally and materistically oriented to find creative as opposed to incremental solutions.

    Comment by Dblade — 9 February, 2011 @ 4:41 AM

  4. I remember my mum telling me once (she studied English Literature when I was growing up) that some people believed that there were only a pre-defined number of different types of stories and essentially every new story, every new book, was just a remix of one of those original plots. It’s an interesting point and, possibly, very true.

    For me I reckon there’s two types of innovation in games. There’s the innovation of taking a familiar concept but altering it to make it slightly better, evolving it somewhat as a genre (what I think WoW did) and then there’s the far more rare situation of coming up with a truly new style of game (what The Sims did). However, I’m sure that one could argue that even in that case, games like The Sims are still based on ideas that already existed and are essentially a rework, to some degree, of games like Populous or whatever.

    It’s an interesting topic for sure :D And I think it actually deeply involves the way our minds work and human’s behave. The idea that we can spontaneously create absolutely new concepts is maybe not even possible. I suppose that’s what artists etc devote their lives too though :)

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 9 February, 2011 @ 4:48 AM

  5. I don’t think that every creative idea is simply a rehash of previous ideas. Some are quite clearly new (like public quests), some are sufficiently distinctive that they are effectively new (like Rift’s rift system), some are repeating conventions (like class and level) and some are plagiaristic.

    There seems to be a limit on how much newness a person can tolerate in their entertainment. Sturgeon’s Law applies heavily to game innovation and a bad innovation can really hurt a game.

    It’s also interesting how much non-design innovation there has been recently in MMOs. Free-to-play, EQ2′s bizarre ghetto server F2P variant, innovations in hype delivery and community management are changing players’ experiences quite significantly.

    Comment by Stabs — 9 February, 2011 @ 6:01 AM

  6. I do agree with what is said in the videos 100%, personally. But I really only take them as a counterargument to the idea that creativity stems from divine inspiration. As such, they work for me, and I accept that they are pretty one-sided in their depiction of the creative process.

    I’ve met quite a few “creative types” who would be offended by having their work called remixes because the term seems to imply that it does not take a lot of effort to come up with something that appears innovative, or in fact that the whole concept of creativity is a question of appearance, and not one of substance.

    Actually, that’s not quite right. Most of them, if pressured, admit that creativity is remixing, but insist that “true” creativity requires that the remix contains an element that the creators don’t quite understand the origins of, that they feel is new or coming from themselves.

    I think that’s actually at the crux of any discussions about creativity or innovation: if you fully understand everything that’s referenced in a creative work, it appears obvious to you. If you don’t, it appears creative.

    The thing is, that this “new” bit that you don’t quite understand just happens, from the creator’s perspective. After so much time spent on a subject matter, the subconscious sees a pattern that it flushes up to the conscious mind. This discovery of something new is tremendously exciting, especially so if it happens after a lot of tedious work. Nobody likes to have that experience trivialized by someone calling your achievement obvious.

    I do agree with Psychochild that the intention in remixing plays an important part in whether or not the derived work can be called creative. I think, though, that this is not so much so because intention is intrinsically linked to creativity, but because it’s your perspective that makes a work appear more or less creative.

    So… if perspective mattes that much, we don’t really have a truly objective measure of creativity. If we want a definite answer to the question of whether stuff is ever truly original, we need to find a good approximation for an objective measure, though.

    Comment by unwesen — 9 February, 2011 @ 6:17 AM

  7. What do you think? Is nothing truly original because everything is a remix? Does originality get overlooked in favor of more comfortable familiarity? Or is real originality just not that common, and often misguided when it is realized?

    I don’t believe originality is a matter of creating something entirely new. As you and Wolfshead show (via Led Zeppelin), it is more a matter of offering/revealing a new perspective. In the case of games, offering new puzzles, and new methods of achieving success, is where “originality” actually counts, IMO. (As opposed to “Our orcs have _tusks_!”, at least…)

    As for familiarity… obviously, the “Audience” is not monolithic. Each individual has different tastes, different amounts of experience and interests, etc. Familiarity, Originality… whether to pursue one or the other is almost besides the point… the goal of Both is to engage a player’s interest (preferably for _many_ players). Those of us for whom the draw of “familiarity” has paled to near nothingness can easily lose sight of the true goal as a result, I think.

    Which leads to the final point. Originality “for the sake of being original” is usually trash, I think. It has no real goal except to be “new”, and as such, usually leaves others wondering why you bothered. On the other hand, originality intended to solve a problem or reveal new perspectives has meaning and value. As such, it is likely to be “derivative” in some way, since it is meaningful mainly in an existing context. If the definition of “original” excludes what I would describe as “innovation”, then I suppose the answer to the question of “originality: uncommon or misguided” would have to be the latter. I would disagree.

    Comment by DamianoV — 9 February, 2011 @ 7:06 AM

  8. The “Everything is a remix” videos creates an interesting case by itself.

    Can anything really be original with thousands/millions of people having access to a huge database of media and observing your work?

    For example can anyone really do another space movie without having someone somewhere finding a “remix” of Star Trek or Star Wars (or include here any space movie those two have been “remixing” themselves) in it?

    The mind works in a way that even your earliest memories as a child might have some kind of influence in your creativity. So is the answer to lock our future artists somewhere in a cave with no access to any TV, radio and computer?

    Back to times where information was travelling a lot much slower I guess there was a lot less people able to create “new” things too as starting from scratch requires more effort or talent than starting from some previous work. So having access to more base material started to increase the number of people able to create. That doesn’t mean those people were creating work of lesser quality. Just that it allowed humanity to explore more branches of multiple existing concept and iterate on them.

    The rest is business. It’s just much easier to make money with something that people can easily relate to so the “more original” ideas are simply drowned by the huge wave of more familiar ideas.

    So not everything is a remix but it’s so much easier to see the remix as those are most likely to have more exposure than truly original work simply because there are more people able to “remix” than people able to come up with truly original ideas. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Scientists have been working like that for centuries often basing their whole carreer on someone’s else hypothesis or discovery.

    And in the end a “remixed” idea can be better than a truly original one that is just plain bad.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 9 February, 2011 @ 7:49 AM

  9. I saw this at work so I can’t view the videos, but regarding the OP and comments I agree with Dblade. I personally dislike music, for example, that directly samples another song. I feel that it isn’t creative. You’re relying on the popularity of that particular riff/lyric to draw attention to your song. Its a ripoff.

    Regarding games, I think its a matter of hitting on the right mix of old and new as well as whether the new is something the audience wants at the moment. I think that’s one of the reasons (besides money and the popularity of Blizzard) why WoW became as popular as it is. It hit the golden formula of familiar and innovation. I think it also followed the trend of games becoming more “casual-friendly” so all those millions of subscribers they have could enjoy what they made instead of just the “hardcore” gamers that came from EQ.

    Yes, there are many MMOs that do something different. Its a question of whether that something is what people want and the game is released while they still want it.

    Another factor that stumps me with “new” MMOs is while I would like to enjoy the new stuff they bring, I can’t because they also include things that I hate, such as open world PvP. So while I would love to play a sandbox MMO, I find myself stymied. There are a couple that don’t have persistent PvP, but they are pretty far out on the edge. I may end up trying them though for lack of alternative.

    Comment by Djinn — 9 February, 2011 @ 9:58 AM

  10. I choose to believe that originality is possible.

    Comment by Alex Pizzini — 9 February, 2011 @ 3:22 PM

  11. Off-topic (but only somewhat):

    An interesting write-up would be a discussion of the deliberations you underwent in the design and implementation of The Fae’s Wyrd. How did you define and fine-tune the effects of the 4 elements in the 4 abilities? What considerations went into the design of the interfaces (character creation, exploration, combat) in terms of what information was offered and how much control and input was allowed?

    This may be a part of the wiki already (if so, I’d like to up my contribution to gain access) but some targeted “post-mortem” commentary could be illustrative of the difficulties of being truly “original” in the most fanatical sense of the word, which is why I bring it up. Just a thought…

    Comment by DamianoV — 10 February, 2011 @ 6:35 AM

  12. Originality is wherever you personally saw something first.

    The Led Zeppelin case is an interesting one because they clearly took existing material (or exceptionally close to it) and then profited immensely from it. But their songs were the first time that a lot of people heard that style, so it wasn’t rip off to them – it was new material. If an artist who was actually still alive tried to come forward to say that Led Zeppelin took his work, there would be a huge backlash AGAINST that artist, for daring to insult the much more popular Led Zeppelin. (To my knowledge no-one has launched legal action against them, although some artists have written letters asking for acknowledgement.)

    As noted, a big difference today is that we have access to a lot more information, so it is harder and harder to copy something obscure and call it an original. This is particularly true of MMOs, since the majority of them occupy the same small evolutionary niche.

    Also, let’s not forget that originality starts off by attracting the very small innovation-chasing group of purchasers, who 1) may not be big enough to hit critical mass and 2) may abandon that innovation as soon as something shinier comes along. And the rare innovation that succeeds can often be quickly co-opted by competitors once shown to work, which is sometimes called the ‘innovator’s tax’.

    Oh, and was The Sims actually a new idea? Or just a natural progression from god games like Populous? :-)

    Comment by UnSub — 14 February, 2011 @ 12:32 AM

  13. Excellent discussion you have going here, Brian.

    I don’t know anything about games, so I can’t speak to that specifically. To give a little preview of what my full argument will be in my series, I don’t believe everyone is just rehashing the works of others. I think *most* people are. :) I think most creators and audiences like it that way, and I’m not judging that. I love plenty of that stuff.

    My argument will be that innovation is a more sophisticated (way more sophisticated) version of the very same process of copying, combining and transforming. Ideas are created from other ideas and I’ll be demonstrating that in Part 3.

    Thanks for getting in touch!


    Comment by kirbyferguson — 14 February, 2011 @ 2:31 PM

  14. What went into the design of The Fae’s Wyrd?

    [...] commenter DamianoV wanted a better glimpse into the sausage factory: An interesting write-up would be a discussion of the deliberations you underwent in the design and [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 18 February, 2011 @ 6:57 PM

  15. kirbyferguson wrote:
    To give a little preview of what my full argument will be in my series, I don’t believe everyone is just rehashing the works of others. I think *most* people are. :)

    Fair enough. In games, a lot of people do just rehash works. The real trendsetters seem few and far between. But, I think that we need more of the trendsetters since games are such a relatively younger medium. I’d love to see someone push elements that give us new avenues to develop games; things like true interactive storytelling and astounding artificial intelligence. For too long, our only advancements have been in graphics. With that seemingly reaching a plateau, I hope we get some fervor in other areas.

    Ideas are created from other ideas and I’ll be demonstrating that in Part 3.

    I’ll save my arguments until then. :) Definitely looking forward to the next part, and chipped in a bit of cash to help make it a reality.

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 February, 2011 @ 7:02 PM

  16. A related point: a study that looks at how creative people may also be those most likely to conduct themselves unethically:

    The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest

    Comment by UnSub — 25 February, 2011 @ 1:48 AM

  17. Interesting, and not that surprising. I always had the best excuses for my teachers when I had forgotten to do my homework. ;) I like to think I’m (now, at least) a much more honest person. Much easier to go through life honestly than to remember your excuses and keep your grandmothers from dying multiple times as the excuses pile up. ;)

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 February, 2011 @ 7:09 PM

  18. Why Do Hummingbirds Hum?

    [...] Anyway, going back to games and Gnomeageddon, he notes that writing about World of Warcraft tends to meander in pretty similar, well-repeated circles, with authors (myself included) rehashing the same old arguments, just phrased in new ways.  Perhaps the same could be said of writing or game design in general, what with that theory that there are only a handful of “original” stories, and everything is really just a remix. [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 11 April, 2011 @ 5:33 AM

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