Editorial: Derivative Gaming

Hello dear LusiSlaves. I just purchased Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3. This purchase was made for two reasons. The first is that I like class-based 2D turn-based comedy RPGs. The second reason is that I am making a class-based 2D turn-based comedy RPG. While I have had the idea for Lusipurr’s Fountain of Perpetual Disappointment and unusual class names for a while, the fact is that Zeboyd is faster at making RPGs than any other company on the planet. The team certainly cannot be faulted for that.

War will end you.
Derivative AND awesome.

At the same time, I find myself a little frustrated that if I do not compare that game with my own to weed out things that are too similar, it is likely that my game would be faulted for being “derivative” of Zeboyd’s. This is not a frustration with the existence of the Penny Arcade game, but rather an ongoing frustration with criticism in general. Friends, I believe that the term “derivative” in and of itself is not a criticism.

It has been said many times and in many forms, but it is perhaps phrased best in Ecclesiastes 1:9 which states that “there is nothing new under the sun”. I truly do not understand why pointing out similarities between games is so often taken as an automatic negative. Of course, that does not exclude the negative possibility. Using an idea from another game can stem from a lack of creativity or an excess of laziness. But it can also stem from inspiration to improve an idea, significantly or marginally.

I can understand the circumstance in which a gamer may be fatigued of certain premises, gameplay or art styles, or genres, but that gamer’s legitimate fatigue should not factor into the assessment of a game’s quality.

The original Final Fantasy is derivative of Dragon Quest and thank goodness. It took good ideas and – in my opinion – made them better. Final Fantasy VI is derivative of all previous Final Fantasy games and it was the best one at the time. The entire premise of Final Fantasy IX was that it was derivative and it is the best one in my opinion. Final Fantasy XIII‘s art style is derivative of VIII‘s art style, but is the better for it. XIII improved the art style and placed it in a better game.

A fantastic non-Final Fantasy example of this is Darksiders. This Penny-Arcade comic touches on a few of my points. Darksiders is very obviously similar to the God of War and Zelda series’, but in doing so creates an experience that is not replicated in any other game. The inspiration is obvious, but the result is very fun and good groundwork for a new series. It is a very derivative game, but I do not see that as a negative in the least.

It is exciting and novel to try new experiences – just look at my heavily mocked love affair with Flower – but the new experiences will eventually become old and will need to be (and should be) retread to be perfected and to help us find new ways to express old ideas.


  1. Borrowing ideas from other games does not make a new game bad. Yes it’s lazy and unimaginative, but it’s only through bad implementation that a game can take a good idea and wind up being poorly received.

  2. It is incredibly odd that you should write this given that yesterday, I spoke to Blitzmage about this very topic, at great length, including the full discussion of Ecclesiastes chapter 1 (which is, incidentally, my favourite section of the entire Bible). I had the same conclusion.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a new idea and turning it to one’s own purposes. This is not plagiarism in any sense, which is the wholesale theft of someone else’s work, followed by the claim that it is one’s own. Copying someone else’s dissertation and putting one’s own name in it is an act of theft; taking the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, changing the setting, and writing a new script around it is not theft but a work of genius. The former is the act of a lazy dolt, the latter is the work of Shakespeare.

    As I told Blitzmage, what you are experiencing is something which the sagacious critic Harold Bloom refers to as The Anxiety of Infuence. In his book of the same title, he examines the ways in which the of the artist comes into contact with the writer’s experience of the pre-existing works and the culture of those works (amongst other things, for this is a very brief summary of a huge topic). I recommend reading it–it is available on Amazin rather cheaply in paperback. (Two other useful works are The Anatomy of Influence and The Western Canon.)

    Ultimately, the point I am getting at is that what you are experiencing is not new. You are in the company of all the great creators whose names we now revere. They went on to become Milton, Coleridge, and Eliot; Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven; Raphael, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh. So, be of good cheer. :)

  3. Indeed, it’s nothing new that you’re coming to grips with the idea that there’s nothing new out there!

  4. And since you mentioned that Penny Arcade game, Ethos, perhaps you already know this but that game’s battle system is lifted directly from the Grandia series.

  5. @Lusi – That IS strange! Thanks for the reading recommendations and encouragement!

    @Mel – And LFoPD’s battle system is an unholy mashup of Skies of Arcadia, Final Fantasy X-2, and Final Fantasy VI.

  6. Derivative influences are of absolutely no detriment to a game provided that it brings something of its own to the table. So long as your game has its own identity, then everything will be fine – but lose sight of that and you’ll be in trouble.

    If you want examples of how to get it wrong though, then just look at the grey-brown mush of Dead Space 3, or the horrendously bad retelling of the Star Wars prequels as relayed by Birth by Sleep – that is how you rob your product of an identity of its own (or at the very least render it laughable).

  7. I don’t think it’s a problem if a game is almost completely unoriginal. Chrono Trigger hit every branch of the JRPG Cliche Tree when it fell from Heaven and that’s one of my top games of all time.

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