Being original, copy-catting, or reinventing the wheel?

The originals-only faction was adamant, though. They claimed that it’s commercial authors who do the same story over and over again, copying each other, writing according to “current trends” which sell more. Artists, by contrast, do unique stories. This obviously is not limited to literature: movies and computer games — even software applications! — move through trends. Someone starts a new trend, becomes successful, and copycatters just go back to the same formula, improving it slightly, but never creating something dramatically new. Why? Because there is a higher risk. This is mostly the reason why all bestsellers sold on airports and tourist traps are always pretty much the same. There are several methods to “write bestsellers” — you just get a few templates (sometimes from the editors themselves!) and fill in the characters. Well, not quite, but you know how it is. Just take a look at Dan Brown and how many variants of the Da Vinci Code have been written since then. Or just look at movies. Blockbusters use all the same stereotyped characters, add lots of special effects, go easy on the plot (too complex and the audience will be bored), and you have an immediate box hit.

Computer games are not very different. Just look at the kind of Triple-A games that have been launched in, say, the past decade. You can quickly see that once Doom came out (uh, was it in 1995?) the market was set for first-person shooters, and game developers have released a gazillion FPS since then. Sure, we have nicer graphics, better physics, and so forth, but it’s pretty much the same thing as we had 15 years ago. Of course there are different kinds of games. But when you move up into the stratospheric costs of developing a new game, software houses play it safe: games require dozens of millions of dollars in investment, and they have to pay off — just like blockbuster movies. Or music from girl bands or rappers. The investment is too big to “risk” into something new.

It’s the tiny houses that come often up with novel ideas. The Angry Birds group sprouted out of nowhere, launched a cool game which nobody had seen before, and turned it into a sales record breaker — but among the thousands of games based on “new ideas”, how many have been that successful? Anedoctal evidence — a single example which went well — is not enough for big game companies, who have to be successful every time. Spore is perhaps a good example: the world had high hopes about Will Wright’s last game, but, at the end, it was not so original as it promised to be. In spite of everything, since it was launched to become a “bestseller” game, it did pay off. Not much of a profit, but… it covered the costs and made a bit on top. It was not the big success everybody expected it to be.

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