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Originality Isn’t Dead, It Just Isn’t Necessary
With the official reveal of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, many of the early criticisms centered around a lack of originality. After all, any gamer worth his salt is well aware of the three Super Smash Brothers games and how they play, and it’s not hard to see the similarities. It also didn’t help that one of the official pictures on developer SuperBot Entertainment’s web site clearly shows a Wii sitting next to a TV. The terms “copy,” “unoriginal” and even “copyright infrigement lawsuit” have all been directed at this game, yet none of them are truly deserved.
Let’s start with “copy”: While PASBR (pronounced “pass-burr,” for those wondering) looks a lot like Nintendo’s mascot free-for-all, it is definitely not a carbon copy. The meter-based battle system is different, there is no percentage-based damage counter anywhere on that screen, and the idea of hybrid stages is completely original (I particularly like the LittleBigPlanet blank slate that turns into a Buzz quiz show. Genius.). That doesn’t include the obvious differences in roster.
Next is “copyright infringement lawsuit,” a laughable idea to say the least. Nintendo does own the rights to the Super Smash Brothers name, all of the characters in the game (save Snake and Sonic), and all of the other parts of the game that make it fun. They do NOT, however, own the copyright to the 4-player fighting game genre, it merely popularlized it. There’s even legal precedent on Sony’s side: back in 1994 Capcom failed to stop Data East from distributing Fighter’s History, a game Capcom said infringed on Street Fighter II. Nintendo would have no shot at stopping PASBR, making even the suggestion of legal action absurd.
The final term is “unoriginal,” and this is the most interesting. Yes, PASBR is not exactly an original idea. Sony is taking it to Nintendo by creating competition for a game that until now went virtually uncontested. They’re not the first to try and do this either, both in trying to replicate Smash Brothers (as Leviathyn co-founder Ron’s recent article clearly shows) and in taking an original idea and creating their own spin on it. This has been happening in video games since their inception, suggesting that originality is appreciated, but not always necessary for success.
Let’s look at the year 2011 in gaming. The best video games of the year, according to Metacritic’s user survey, were:
1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
2. Batman: Arkham City
3. Portal 2
4. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
5. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
6. Battlefield 3
7. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
8. Dark Souls
9. L.A. Noire
10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
How many of those games are original, never-before-seen intellectual properties? One, L.A. Noire there at #9. That’s it. Nine out of ten of those games are based on pre-existing ideas or IPs. Don’t tell me that sequels don’t count, either: while each sequel might have been a new story or introduced a new game mechanic, unoriginality is unoriginality. Saying that a game like PASBR (a new take on an existing idea) and a sequel aren’t equally unoriginal isn’t fair.
Unfortunately, the most profitable games are those based on already-established ideas. Call of Duty sells millions of copies every single year despite being virtually the same game in different settings. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, while a revival of a classic franchise, is still based on the old Deus Ex games (even directly referring to them in the secret movie after the credits). Hell, Nintendo is guilty of the same offense; need I even mention Pokemon Black 2 and White 2? Gamers have proven time and time again that familiarity will lead to success. They grow attached to the characters and settings of the games they play and they want to see the stories continue, so they’ll be more excited about what they’re familiar with than something they’ve never seen before.
However, that’s not to say originality is dead and gone. A lot of original ideas can be found in the online marketplaces. Bastion, widely considered the best downloadable game of 2011, was a completely original idea. Journey is one of the best games on the PlayStation Network, yet it’s unlike anything anyone’s ever played before. Skullgirls, the first original fighting game in years, is making huge waves in that community. There are more to come as well, like Papo Y Yo, a fantastic-looking PSN puzzle platformer that doubles as an allegory of the trials of addiction.
Even top publishers are still accepting the risk of original IPs in the hope that they’ll become big time franchises. EA launched Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning this year to decent reviews. Capcom, notorious for their sequel-happy nature, are pushing two original ideas in 2012 alone: Asura’s Wrath (released in February) and Dragon’s Dogma (May 22). Bethesda just released a trailer for their brand new IP Dishonored, which was received quite well.
There is plenty of originality to be found, however it’s no secret that the most successful games are normally those that are based on other things. Sony can’t be faulted for trying to compete in new ways, even if the ideas are similar. This could even be a blessing in disguise for Smash fans; if the “competition breeds success” mantra is indeed true, PASBR may cause Nintendo to mix things up in their own franchise’s next game, creating an improved and unique Smash Bros experience.
While the idea of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale may be an affront to Nintendo fans everywhere, it is not something worth being angry about. A company making a similar-but-different-enough product has happened before, it will happen again, and it could end up being the best thing to happen to either company. No matter which way things play out, I can’t wait to experience it for myself.