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Copycatism and Emergent Genres

With the announcement of FortressCraft coming to XBLA, one really has to wonder. Though there are derivations in any artistic medium, it seems to me games get it the worst. Be it the cumulative nature of the medium—bringing sights, sounds, and interactions together—or the industry’s nubile status as a main-stream medium, or the amount of folks working on any one game, or any other differentiator, a highly derivative game can feel particularly offensive. What’s more: copycatism is in games’ very DNA, looking back to the days of Pong and the dozens of competing rip-offs.

But were those rip-offs? In the mid seventies Home Pong was advertised in Sears catalog under the sporting good section. It was a table-tennis simulator—to be sure—and you can’t call one manufacturer of table-tennis a copycat of another. Right?

The biggest riffs that come most recently to mind are MaXplosion (versus original Splosion Man), Quantum Theory (versus Gears of War), and of course now FortressCraft, but these are hardly the only offenders. Mobile platforms are positively plagued with clones, after all (how many fart apps does one really need?). With these and many others, it seems that some developers just have no shame. Or do they?

In an article published awhile back here, Facebook game czar Mark Pincus was accused of no less than commanding his teams away from innovation while injecting cloned games with the fortified financial backing of big business. In such a case the teams themselves can hardly be held accountable for copycatism—they’re just feeding their families. In a world where academic institutions advertise misleading ideals of the video game industry and its job market—with legitimate and illegitimate schools alike pumping both romanticized views and industry hopefuls into an already saturated market—a low-level guy can hardly be put to fault when he’s just doing what he’s told.

Copycatism just isn’t as cut-and-dry as many make it out to be for a whole slew of reasons, not just those pertaining to the uninfluential grunts not wanting to rock the boat. Suppose this FortressCraft releases before Notch is ever finished with his MineCraft, which itself has been subject to complaint for what’s been perceived to be a slower-than-ideal stream of updates. Suppose FortressCraft releases well ahead of what is (if it is ever) Notch’s final product, and innovates in even a single way Notch and the MineCraft community didn’t imagine. Though everything else about the game ranges in a scale from near-identical to identical, will a lone (or two, or three) innovation(s) be enough to keep folks from claiming copycat heresy? At what point does the building-block sandbox sim become its own genre? Surely then people will stop calling foul at the likes of highly derivative works?

Is Saint’s Row a copy of Grand Theft Auto 3? Is Dante’s Inferno a rip-off of God of War? Are they both clones of Devil May Cry? On the topic of genre—and the point at which a creative stand-out’s clones aren’t considered so much copies as they are, importantly, respectable members of an emergent genre—comes another point in defense of the developers of such derivative work. The military or sci-fi shooter, among the most popular genres in North America, has been done and redone year after year after year. At what point can Activision alone be considered a copycat of its own franchises? At what point in a franchise’s lifespan can its sequels be considered too highly derivative of those titles before it in the franchise? It seems to me releasing a game that can be described as a military or sci-fi shooter immediately pegs it as highly derivative. Would one go so far as to say the next Call of Duty is a copycat of those before it?

The point is, it is foolish to dismiss a game for being derivative as a gut reaction. It is hypocrisy to say FortressCraft is a copy of MineCraft when not also admitting Medal of Honor is not a copy of Call of Duty, or vice versa. Games, films, books, and art are all derivative; it is in their very nature to build on what was last new and fresh. Who is to be the one to draw the line where one particular work crosses from derivative to clone? It isn’t so easy. Originals that are thought to be duped, that are good enough to be duped, will stand out from their duplications on their innovative merit alone. Though it may be gut reaction to claim otherwise, building a case is a slippery slope indeed.

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