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Adaptation in Gaming: The Unoriginal Sin

There’s a lot to be said against the mobile market right now- and let’s be honest, I’ve done my fair share of saying. If I had to combine all of these minor issues into one giant mecha-problem, however, I’d probably have to say this; no one is making games for mobile. No, I don’t mean that in the smug, smirking manner people usually reserve for the Wii U. I mean that you rarely see a game released onto Google Play or the App Store that’s meant to be a game first and a money making device later. The majority of these games aren’t ideas dreamed up by a team of developers with the hopes that people will like them, thus earning them a profit. They are instead simple clones of an already successful blueprint, put forth in the hopes that people are still interested in the idea.

Money is tight everywhere right now, the gaming industry included. Established studios are beginning to disappear, there’s major restructuring in some of the biggest companies out there, and the mobile industry may well be feeling the pinch worst of all. As a segment of the gaming industry that traditionally sees smaller budgets and humble returns, financial constraints have polarized the mobile market. On one end of the scale, we see mainstay companies, such as King, continue to do as they always do. These are usually joined by publishers looking to stretch an intellectual property they own, as EA did with Dungeon Keeper, or tie-in games to newly released movies or AAA games. At the other end of the scale, we see the smaller development teams desperately trying to stay afloat. Some of these at least set out with the noble goal of creating a decent and interesting game, but many fall into the trap of copying successful templates, monetizing it, and hoping it brings in a return. I couldn’t possibly comment more on that particular topic.

Whether it’s a publisher with tight purse-strings or a team with no wallet to begin with, it’s tricky to create a game when there’s nothing to support the creation process. When each stage of development present s real costs, it’s tempting to cut a few corners- and understandably so. Something’s got to give, but right now the wrong thing is giving. Right now, we see a prevalence of clones flooding the market place, because it’s easier to simply copy a pre-existing game than to come up with an original idea. They become tiresome and repetitive simply because the same thing is being done in the same way time and time again. However, I believe a way to get original games on the App Store follows a slightly crooked path. I think in order to be new, you need to adapt.

There’s no shortage of mobile games that act as adaptations of other franchises or stories, but the number of those that faithfully or even logically adapt their source material is ludicrously small. For all of its faults, Adventure Time’s Card Wars was a game that got it right. There were enough vestiges of the show’s original tone in the game, combined with the logical adaptation of the fictional card game to make it a decent portrayal as opposed to a flimsy tie-in. It takes an episode of Adventure Time where Finn and Jake play a game, and recreates that same game for you to play. It follows a much better path than, say, Doctor Who Legacy, in which the Doctor must save the universe by matching coloured gems. Or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in which you help Dorothy find her way home by matching three coloured gems. In fact, unless your game is about a jeweller providing for an exclusively obsessive compulsive clientele, there’s very little reason at all for it to be about matching three coloured gems.

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My point is simply that adaptation does part of the work for you. It provides you with a story, a pre-existing name that people may or may not be familiar with, and it establishes the tone of your game. Yes, the most sought-after franchises can cost a lot to get hold of- but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other stories to consider. Discworld and I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream were both fantastic literary adaptations in the 1990’s, which simply took their respective sources and made them into interactive point and click adventures. With the current resurgence in the popularity of such games, thanks in no small part to Telltale and Double Fine, I can’t help but think that it’s a fruitful avenue to explore. Taking cues from a pre-existing narrative can also provide you interesting quirks to your game mechanics which further set you apart from the crowd. The flash game Don’t Look Back serves as a good example. It’s based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the hero of the tale travels through the underworld to rescue his love. On his way out, however, he can’t look back to make sure he is following lest he doom them both. The game interprets this quite literally, and a series of fairly simple platforming challenges on the first trip through the game become challenging with the added twist on the return.

I’m not naive enough to make some grandiose claim that adopting adaptation will change the course of mobile gaming. I’m simply suggesting that an interesting and original game needn’t come from a wholly original source, and that such games are more likely to garner more positivity and respect than, say, a saturation of Candy Crush clones. Adaptation in gaming isn’t the only way to achieve this goal, of course, and developers who genuinely try for new and innovative ways to entertain and tell stories are always welcome. But Jim Sterling once described innovation as the snake-oil of gaming, and I’m inclined to agree. An original game is secondary to an interesting and, frankly, a fun one. When there’s a wealth of stories already out there, why not draw from that pool of culture and tell the tale to a different audience? Because it’s a damn site better than producing even more of the same four or five apps that find themselves endlessly cloned and re-skinned for release on the App Store. Either way the mobile market needs to adapt, because the environment it’s in is changing fast.