In my most recent article I made an effort to give people some perspective on just what it takes to make a video game. One of the points that I wanted to drive home with that piece was that many ideas for new games are created by drawing a connection between two concepts that already exist. Some people even theorize that this is basis of any artistic act (how else would we come up with things like folk metal or avant metal or jazz metal). Since we all work with the confines of the language we’re taught and the symbols we know, it makes enough sense that an artist simply shows us connections that we weren’t previously aware of. These connections can sometimes be as basic as allowing players to manipulate the flow of time in a platforming game or as revolutionary as adding scopes and silencers to a popular FPS franchise. Even though they can often seem like bold steps in the genre, every constituent element existed in some form before and its evolution can easily be traced. After all, nihil novi sub sole.
This is all well and good but the world of publishing and intellectual property don’t take too kindly to such a relativistic conception of creativity. Beyond the wondrous experiences we’ve come to love on the consumer side, the business of video games is a complicated one to say the least. While many games (trying to be vague here because it’s something that’s debated endlessly) are born from some creative spark, people’s jobs are often at stake and the payoff for launching a profitable franchise is very tempting to anyone trying to turn a profit on the medium. In a world where upstarts made available for a pittance can outsell games who’s publishers poured tens of millions of dollars into, it’s no surprise that many publishers tend to err on the side of caution. It’s easier and much less risky to make a game that players can easily enjoy. There are certain niche titles that break this convention and are often lauded for doing so but overall many publishers are fine with a “safety first” ethos.
This is where things get murky though. Somewhere along the line the corporate interest in videogames led to medium being artistically compromised. It’s very difficult to point out exactly when this happened as nearly every art form has seen a degree of monetary influence. There are many terms for this trend: ripoff, derivative, clone, mockbuster (usually used in reference to film). It can be difficult to tell these days what constitutes an idea that is simply uninspired as opposed to one that is flat out stolen. I know one when I see it though.
The Minecraft Clones
At first glance this might seem like an open and shut case. You can talk all you want about how Notch simply ripped off Infiniminer because to an extent you’d be correct. Both Minecraft and Infiniminer are voxel based building/digging games that have a retro aesthetic. That’s about the only similarity though. Sure Notch isn’t the most beloved figure in the world of gaming but he’s hardly someone who simply took an idea and marketed it differently. While at a base level it may be similar to its predecessors, Minecraft expanded on the gameplay greatly and with the inclusion of The End, has become a robust action-adventure game. You could easily compare this expansion of a core concept to the evolution of Aeon of Strife into Dota. Then there were the clones.
While the creators of Fortresscraft have been adamant about how their product is utterly distinct from Minecraft, the simple timing of the game’s release says everything. With Minecraft becoming a breakout international hit but only having loose plans for a console release. Fortresscraft’s creator has hardly been subtle on this topic either. “Minecraft has been squeezed out of its own market.” Adam Sawkins told IGN. He went on to state: “It might do well on the name alone, but if you want sexy graphics and shaders and the creative aspect, you have FortressCraft. If you want to fight monsters and share stuff with your friends, you have Total Miner. Nobody will pay for Minecraft when they can pay $3.00 for Total Miner or FortressCraft.” Notice how he referred to it as Minecraft’s market. Sure Adam you may be right in the matter that Fortresscraft has different gameplay elements and cheap shaders, but don’t kid your self. While Notch doesn’t own a copyright on all voxel based building games, the timing of Fortresscraft’s release was just a little to convenient.
Modern Battlefieldfare 42
Talk about market saturation. There are plenty of clones that have been trying to capitalize on the gritty realistic modern combat FPS craze, but what I want to talk about here is the horrendous vacuum of ideas that exist between these two giants. Yes the games are very pretty and the multiplayer has been refined to a ridiculous degree (in spite of what some youtubers will say), but what has really changed between the numerous sequels? A few different types of weapons? New maps along with classic map DLC? A new arbitrary unlock system for multiplayer? Thankfully we have a resurgence in the indie game market to remind us that there’s such a thing as innovation.
You know it wasn’t too long ago that people were growing tired of games set during World War 2. Most of the games had nearly identical arsenals (admittedly not a lot of room to get creative given the setting) and reused many of the same historical territory. The original Call of Duty and Battlefield 1942 were hardly revolutionary for their time. While the former focused on creating the tight cinematic experience that has come to define singleplayer experiences for the general market, the latter seemed more focused on expanding the WW2 formula by incorporating class-based multiplayer. These games weren’t the first games to use the setting of WW2 or any of the other features I just mentioned but they represented a crystallization of the positive elements of the genre. Sadly there has been little innovation since then. With the jump to Modern Warfare, Call of Duty has been increasing its focus on 4 hour campaigns and accessible multiplayer while Battlefield has been working to further refine its over-the-top approach to gameplay in general. What we see here is almost a worse crime than plagiarism itself. Two entertainment titans have been holding some of the more talented developers in the industry hostage for several years now and have made them release slight permutations of the same, familiar formula. What we have here are top-selling culture makers who are doing little more than going through the motions. They’re like the Steven Spielbergs of gaming.
Perchance to DOTA?
You may already be aware of my views on League of Legends, so I’ll try to be brief. Unless you’ve lived the last few years without internet and are somehow reading this on a flash-drive, you’ve probably played some form of Defense of the Ancients. While the original game grew organically from the Aeon of Strife Starcraft (which at the time were really only slightly upgraded Zergling Madness maps), the difference between DOTA and its predecessor is undeniable. As the game continually updated itself, it developed one of the largest multiplayer communities of all time. Like with Minecraft and Call of Duty/Battlefield clones, developers saw a brilliant/popular concept that could be easily capitalized on by making the jump from mod to full-fledged game.
But I didn’t want Duplo Blocks for Christmas mom! I wanted Legos! While there are a few exceptions that have tried to push the limits of the genre (I’m looking at you Blo0dline: Champions) the vast majority of MOBAs suffer all the symptoms of an industry trying to cash in on a craze. To take you back to the beginning of this article, one of purest artistic acts is drawing a connection that others aren’t aware of. There are certainly elements that inspired the creators of DOTA to make it what it was, but never had the idea of a 5v5, intensely balanced, teamwork focused, 60 minute micro RPG (though when compared to modern RPGs it’s still fairly deep) been so truly realized. All of the borrowed elements from other games work in harmony to create something new. Now tell me, is there one example in the MOBA genre that has taken the same creative leap? Didn’t think so. Every new variation on Dota’s formula has followed logical steps such as matchmaking, skins, a second level of RPG mechanics tied to your account, going from top-down to over-the-shoulder, and making the game more accessible. What I’ve been trying to say is that the obvious logic of any of these decisions is exactly the problem. There is no creativity involved in implementing an idea that makes perfect sense. It’s the bane of any art form. Anyone looking for a buck can stand on the shoulders of someone else but it’s as cheap a trick now as it’s always been. One has but to look at the entire MMO genre to see the havoc that this mode of development can wreak on a medium.