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Does Originality Matter?

Before answering the question, we need to define what being original means.  Many argue that true originality is extremely rare and even non-existent, since every work can be traced back to some previous work either because it builds upon some style or solely because of the artist's inspirations or influences.  What is a lot more common in games is innovating by introducing some unique mechanic to familiar gameplay or new takes (through visuals or gameplay) on existing genres.  If a particular innovation is interesting enough, it can make an otherwise derivative game original in the eyes of players and critics.  My definition is closer to this than the almost fatalistic "originality doesn't exist" definition. 

Originality is way overrated. To make, you need to take. All great artists do. -Darby Bannard












This is Infiniminer.  If memory serves me correct, the game was mainly multiplayer and focused on digging through a massive mine made out of these cubes that represented dirt, stone, and other materials.  You looked for certain minerals and brought them to the surface for your team.  At the same time (around mid-2009), Notch was working on an open-ended game in the same vein as Dwarf Fortress with a focus on 3D graphics.  It's well known and cited by Notch himself that Infiniminer was the main influence for Minecraft's visual style and the mining aspect of the game.  However, few will argue that Minecraft was a carbon copy of Infiniminer and furthermore few will disagree if you say that Minecraft is a novel game, and rightfully so.  But is it truly original?  If we accept that nothing is original and use our loosened definition then the answer is yes.  If it wasn't an original and unique experience then it wouldn't have been as successful as it is, no other game provided this experience at the time so if it's something that appealed to you then you HAD to buy Minecraft.


What about this game?  Man, Minecraft got a nice visual upgrade right?  Wrong.  This is a game called FortressCraft that was released on XBLIG mid-April.  While it does have some very nice visuals, avatar support and tries to add new items, it's pretty much a clone of the basic gameplay of Minecraft.  Does this mean that anyone that releases a game with large voxel based dynamic terrain is just ripping off Minecraft?  Absolutely not.  Take a game like Ace of Spades that combines such terrain with Battlefield style gameplay.  I'm not gonna lie, I still think there's a lot of capitalizing on Minecraft's success, but at least this game is doing something fun and different with the game world.

Another example, I'm sure everyone recognizes this game:


But do you recognize this one? 

Obviously the first one is Angry Birds and the second screenshot is from an earlier game called Crush the Castle, the reason I stayed away from Angry Birds for such a long time.  I had played this game and loved it and was devastated when I saw it blatantly ripped off (in my eyes at the time) with the people copying the game getting filthy rich.  If you haven't played it but have played Angry Birds, the people are the pigs and the stones are the different bird types.  Other than that, it's pretty much the exact same game.  It wouldn't have been so bad if I didn't see so many blogs calling it an Angry Birds alternative or even worse, misinformed review comments (for the Android version) saying it was an ugly Angry Birds ripoff.

 "Content is King."

I am not a stubborn person though, so after buying an iPad 2 I finally gave Angry Birds a chance.  I was wrong.  While the core gameplay is still 100% lifted, the game still felt so unique.  How is that even possible?  I still feel dirty playing it but it's a perfect example of the grey area of originality.  The game just oozes character through its polished and playful visuals and sound along with the cutscenes that bring everything to life.  In short, it speaks the language of video games (and I hope Craig Adams doesn't kill me for relating his incredible article to Angry Birds).  Unique presentation as innovation.  It's not one of my favorite games, but now I understood part of why it spoke to so many people and hooked them.  I won't dwell on this example, but a similar case can be made for the hit iPhone game Tiny Wings and the lesser known game that was the obvious inspiration, Wavespark.

Getting back to answering the question posed by the title of this blog entry, there's an easy response if you listen to the cash register: No.  Whether you consider the above avian example an original game or not, the insane amount of money it has raked in makes this answer painfully clear.  FortressCraft made $100k in 4 days, an amount that is widely known as the highest only a handful of XBLIG games have grossed in their lifetime.  Made in one weekend.  Most of these gamers must have heard of Minecraft.  They must have known this game was a carbon copy.  They obviously didn't care, they wanted a Minecraft experience on their Xbox and rewarded the developers for ripping it off.

This is a very grim conclusion but fortunately most indie developers I know, including myself, aren't in it solely for the money.  Despite what most will say though, money is still important especially for full time indies.  However, artistic merit, expression, or just making something fun seem to be the primary motivators for most.  In this case, the answer to our question is a resounding YES.  This was neatly wrapped up and tied with a bow at the GDC 2001 Indie Games Summit rapid-fire talks by one of the speakers (I forget which one, someone remind me and I'll credit him).  The idea is that there is there are two approaches revolving around motivators for making games, a. making something honest or unique or b. making something to cash in on some trend.  With approach b. you will either make a ton of cash or make nothing.  With approach a. you can potentially make SOME money but at the same time will likely earn some recognition.  Whether that recognition is an IGF award or some blog mentions doesn't matter, you will gain some notoriety that will grow your audience for your next game which will also potentially make some more money and/or give you even more recognition.  Of course, the result for the honest approach assumes you succeed in creating an interesting and unique game with some attention to presentation and polish.  To me, that approach seems much less riskier and while it's not as likely to make you rich overnight, at least you keep your dignity and can be proud that your work truly represents you.

As a final answer to "Does originality matter?", it really depends on your motivations and who you ask.  The customer doesn't care for the most part.  The money-hungry-games-are-a-business-get-rich-quick guys will say no.  The game maker that truly cares about their legacy and their work will likely answer yes.  This response is more likely for the designer that sees games as an artistic medium, it'd be difficult to see that person settle for the game equivalent of landscape paintings that end up on hotel walls.  But with originality being so subjective, maybe it's more reasonable to strive for honesty.  Even while heavily inspired by other games or a specific type of game, some truly great things come out of developers that are just plain honest in their work.  It'd difficult to be completely unoriginal when you love your work and take pride in it.

I invent nothing. I rediscover. -Auguste Rodin

 Please share your opinion on this subject with me in the comments section or on Twitter (@chrisz).

References (13)

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Reader Comments (1)

Well done. I totally agree.

It's curious why first person shooters or real time strategy games, don't evoke this same response in people. It seems to be a more recent phenomenon. Any newer style of game play is somehow claimed by the first widely popular game to use it. Perhaps with time, these new types of game play will join the ranks of styles of play that people expect.

Anyway, thanks for the interesting read.

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterByte56

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