9 February, 2011
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?