I won’t deny the fact that plagiarism has led to some very rapid progression of this new video-game genre. Who knows how long it would have taken Guitar Hero to add other instruments if Rock Band, hadn’t done it first? And, perhaps plagiarism is a little harsh a term given the fact that Rock Band, is actually now developed by the team that originally created Guitar Hero. Both are great games, but their popularity is a mixed blessing. Now that the genre is a proven cash cow, every game publisher and his Mom is cranking out a clone—and, crappy ones at that. Besides the Guitar Hero / Rock Band one-two punch, get ready for Rock Revolution and Guitar Praise Solid Rock. Rock Revolution started out as a carbon copy of Rock Band, but development setbacks have forced the game to drop the guitar and microphone, leaving only a drum set and the half-hearted claim that the game is intentionally more focused on drumming. I haven’t played the game yet myself, but it sounds like a stinker. The only thing saving this wretch is the fact that your Guitar Hero and Rock Band peripherals will work with it. Guitar Praise Solid Rock has something a little stronger in its corner: The game is a Christian rock interpretation/homage/ripoff of Guitar Hero.
Why bother a making a sub-par version of a game that already exists? Because there’s a guaranteed audience for it, which isn’t the case when you try to be original.
We’re seeing this exact same thing happening right now with casual games for the Nintendo Wii. The console comes packaged with Wii Sports, a title that also created a brand new genre in and of itself. Now we’ve got Big Beach Sports, Deca Sports, Game Party and Celebrity Sports Showdown all on shelves or on the way. These games offer a little bit of variety and in some cases even a tiny little bit of improvement over Wii Sports, but none is really anything new. They’re all just easy money.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. When Grand Theft Auto III popularized the sandbox style of gameplay in 2001, overnight the entire industry began pumping out clones. In no particular order, we suddenly found ourselves up to our necks in the likes of True Crime, The Simpsons: Hit & Run, Mafia, The Getaway, Driver, The Godfather and Saints Row.
Let’s go back even further. What’s Computer Space but a re-named Spacewar!? What’s Arkanoid but a modified version of Breakout? What’s Super Mario Bros. but a (much much) better Pitfall? In fact, even PONG is a ripoff of a game that already existed on the Magnavox Odyssey home console.
“Most of the ‘me too’ directives definitely come from the publishing/investing side of things,” says Mike Wilson, co-founder of independent publisher Gamecock Media Entertainment. “People see ‘easy money’ games that can sell very well without spending much on development or relying too much on production values or quality in general. Music games, minigame collections, casual games in general. You can compete in these areas with a lot less money, expertise or the need for a big license, and therefore it’s very attractive to those placing the bets.”
Wilson should know. He started his independent label after spending years in a rocky relationship with big-name game publisher, Take Two Interactive. Fed up with producing half-baked sequels instead taking gambles on new IPs, he formed his own publishing house on the belief that creativity and originality should always trump the bottom line. A utopian experiment, if there ever was one. At just a year-and-a-half old, though, it’s too soon to tell if Wilson’s label will be a success or not.
“It’s an uphill battle the whole way to sell something original to the press, retailers and, most importantly, the gaming public,” he says. “We all cry out that we are sick of sequels and licenses and the same old gameplay, but the fact of it is when people vote with their dollars, they shell out for games they are familiar or comfortable with, and for magazines with those games on the cover. It’s so much harder to promote and sell something entirely new that it becomes quite tempting to stop trying.”
Fortunately, Wilson and a few others are still wiling to take a chance every now and then. Some really unique and wonderfully oddball games worth checking out are Echochrome, Spore, Boom Blox, de Blob and Little Big Planet (when it comes out later this year). Echochrome, for one, is a basically a video-game tribute to MC Escher, so you can’t get any further off the reservation than that.
There are also some really exciting things happening on the PS3 and Xbox 360 online networks. “PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade have opened up creativity more than any single development since the PC became a viable gaming platform in the early nineties,” Wilson says. “‘Garage bands’ everywhere are making the games they want to make, with tiny teams and no real need for a publisher/financier relationship in a lot of cases … just like the old days. It’s the perfect proving ground for new paradigms to emerge, which can flourish and rise to the top and then later be refined and taken to the next level as full-blown console games, should the developers (or the copycats) have those ambitions.”
The moral of the story? Try something different. As consumers, the power to have more choice and variety ultimately rests in our wallets. If we keep buying the clones, they’ll keep making them. If we don’t give new, exciting, unproven and original games a chance every once in a while, it becomes less and less likely that these types of games will ever make it off the drawing board.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.