Copying vs Inspiration in MMOs
Welcome to Player Versus Player, the column where we take PvP out of the arena and into your feed reader. This week’s column focuses on an all too common case in all of videogame design: when is a game merely “inspired” by one of its forebears, and when is it just outright copying another’s design? Today, we’ll try to make sense of the common practice in so many aspects of media and art, and come to terms with it if we can. Let’s get into it.
The Issue: Is it “copying” or “inspiration” when one MMO or game uses features from another?
Bill “Freedom to Tinker” Murphy: Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG and believes the slow but steady evolution of the genre makes it okay for one developer to ape another.
Chris “Thieves Should Be Punished” Coke: Chris is a columnist and podcast host and is sick of games copying each other, chasing the white rabbit down the rabbit hole.
1, 2, 3... FIGHT!
BILL: Let’s acknowledge the point of this week’s topic, to start: I get the ire that Trove caused last week, to a point. People look at Trion as some massive corporation that’s taking the ideas of a game like Minecraft or Cube World and looking to steal them to make a profit. That’s the “evil” way to put it. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Instead, I look at Trove as any other game: it’s a sign that developers and suits at Trion alike recognize and appreciate the draw of a voxel-based game and are making their own take on it.
I know Cube World looks like David against Goliath here, but Trion’s just trying to make their own RPG, using a similar visual and mechanic style (the voxel). It’s like, say... Killer Instinct or Mortal Kombat. They’re in the same genre as Street Fighter, but they’re their own games with their own designs, ideals, and goals. Trove is not going to do the things Cube World does, or Minecraft. It’s doing its own thing, with its own goals. All three games just share the same rendering style.
CHRIS: I see your point, but I think we might be being a little bit generous here. Look at those two screenshots. They are virtually indistinguishable (and, ironically, it looks like David taking on Goliath in Cube World). It’s easy to say that companies like Trion are inspired, but isn’t it a little convenient that all of this inspiration happens when the dollars start to fly? If your motivation begins with an opportunistic buck, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. I’m not saying that’s Trion -- I love those guys -- but this is a big issue facing MMOs and gaming in general.
BILL: Art imitates art. And games imitate games, especially those that come before. I really don’t see an issue with someone at a dev studio liking a game so much that they want to make something inspired by it. If we didn’t get behind this thinking, we’d never have received the new Tomb Raider based on the successes of Uncharted, which was originally inspired by the old Tomb Raider. And while I’m sure a fair amount of you would be OK with WoW never existing, I love that it was so taken by EverQuest, Blizzard couldn’t help but ape it, improve it, and crack this genre wide open. The MMOs we play today, and the slew of exciting new games in development, wouldn’t be possible without this industry-wide trend of iteration on ideas.
CHRIS: But Bill, the WoW clones! You’re forgetting the WoW clones! Seriously though, I don’t think anyone can deny that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery -- up to a point. We have all benefitted from World of Warcraft even if we don’t want to admit it. On the other hand, all of that imitation has arguably stalled this industry out for the last nine years. It is only now that companies are realizing the “WoW money” isn’t something they can tap into with phoned-in designs. If there were less imitation, might there also be more innovation? More risk taking?
BILL: I’m trying to think an example of outright “copying”, and the first thing that comes to mind is when The War Z basically faked their way into making millions off of the Day Z name by creating a pale and barely playable fake, selling it quickly while hype was high, and using League of Legends’ EULA to cut corners. Hell, we all fell for it while the game (now called Infestation: Survivor Stories) was in early stages and telling tall tales about their goals. That’s a good example of copying, I’d say, in merely the name of caching in on a trend. There’s a fine line between trying to cash in on a trend, and being genuinely fond enough of something that you want to make your own “version” of it. The Platformer Age of the 80s and 90s is a good example. Lots of “also-rans”, but plenty of solid games inspired by Mario that stood on their own.
CHRIS: It’s a refinement process, I think. The issue is with tastefulness. There are mechanics, like questing for example, that people expect to see copied. But when games actually look like their inspirations, as with the terrible, scam-boat that was The War Z, things get a little murky. Frankly, I think UI skins were the biggest reason people starting using the term “WoW clone” in the first place. Not so much anymore, with so many games playing it safe and “inspired,” but the beginning was there.
BILL: I certainly think one game can copy or steal from another. Looking at the MOBA genre, we’re bound to see it a lot here in the next few years given the massive success of DOTA2 and League of Legends. But I think what needs to be kept in mind is that more often than not, like a good band references older material, a good game will build upon the successes of its forebears.
CHRIS: You’re right. Video gaming as a whole would be nowhere without companies taking good ideas and adding to them. There is nothing wrong with inspiration but there is something wrong with blatant me-tooism. Good games rise to the forefront, even if they wear their inspirations on their sleeve. What makes them stand out, however, is their own stock of good ideas and solid execution.
That’s all from us, folks. Time to sound off with your opinions in the comments!
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player for years. He believes in the potential of MMOs and is excited to see virtual worlds evolve and grow. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.