Sorry, I know I have been really remiss in posting lately: I’ve been dealing with a lot of crap from my kid’s school district and their inability/unwillingness to provide my high-functioning autistic daughter with a free and appropriate public education. That’s not what this blog is for, though, so I’ve been blogging about it elsewhere. That said— all the furor about social games and copying, and the difference between theft and inspiration has lead to me wanting to say something. This is more of a very polite rant than a well-reasoned, well-constructed post with a powerful point, so be aware.
I’ve heard from seasoned veteran designers that a lot of new designers who are working on their first game want to remake their favorite Final Fantasy game. It’s not surprising; we all have the games that made us sit up and take notice of the medium, the things that made us fall in love. Taking apart and putting back together a game you love can be another way of appreciating it— not just in knowing that you love the game because it’s fun, but deliberately breaking it down and learning about the design decisions that MAKE it fun, the elegance of the code base that makes it run so quickly, and all the other tiny things that equal “fun.” It’s a rich tradition, like taking apart and putting back together a toaster to see how it works.
Thing is, you don’t then commercially release the toaster as your own design.
I think that’s the thing that bothers me the most about the most egregious copies in games: I don’t get the impression that the designers learned anything fundamental about WHY the games they copied were worth copying, other than their popularity. It’s like copying off of a friend in a French exam: you might get a passing score, but you’re not going to be able to find the restroom if you ever go to Paris. If you’re going to rip something apart and put it back together— if you’re a real designer, you’re going to want to think about those decisions and evaluate them, figure out what makes the game go ’round. The exact decisions NimbleBit pointed out in their response to Zynga about Tiny Tower— “Why are there 5 different business types like Tiny Tower? Why do 5 people fit in an apartment instead of 4 or 6?” Those are major decisions with huge gameplay ramifications. A game designer wanting to learn from those decisions would pore over them.
And a game designer who loved what they do would be itching to put their mark on it— to make their own decisions and see what happens.
I think that’s the essence of creativity, and the difference between emulation and inspiration. People who have the urge to create don’t have the urge to remake something wholecloth and call it theirs. My favorite musical artist, Mike Doughty, said a smart thing in an interview recently when the interviewer asked him why there aren’t more stories about “the creative process” in his new autobiography:
Most of them would be like, “So I heard this Mary J. Blige song, and there was something I wanted to rip off from it. But I didn’t want to be too obvious about it, so I changed it a little bit. And then I thought about it and messed with it some more and then thought about it some more, and then I sang it to the bass player.” It’s that story over and over and over again.
And I think that’s it. When I sat down to write Blowback I wasn’t trying to rewrite five seasons of Burn Notice word for word— I took the hook of something I loved, and messed around with it until I got the same feeling through procedural rhetoric as I got through watching my favorite episodes. Creatives are inspired by everything, and anyone who says they aren’t is lying to you. But the thing that separates the artists from the tradesmen is the urge to make something yours.
So it’s hard for me to respect people as creators when they non-critically rip off a whole design belonging to someone else— not just because of the moral repugnancy of that action, but because it says volumes about who they are, or aren’t, as a designer. I’m not saying I’m an AMAAAAZING game designer; I am saying I would rather design a shitty game of my own than painstakingly copy the most brilliant game in the world and pass it off as my own.