Homage or Plagiarism?

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Published by Jim Sterling 7 years ago , last updated 1 month ago

There’s been a lot of talk recently about rip-offs. No, not the potential price of the PSP2, but rip-offs of a more intellectual nature. From iPhone games that copy or outright steal, to retail software that takes “inspiration” from its interactive peers, the game industry does quite a bit to justify the old adage that there’s no such thing as a new idea. In some cases, it’s considered acceptable to lift ideas for your game, whereas in other cases, it’s a cardinal sin. The trouble is, there seems to be no hard and fast rule for what constitutes honest inspiration or nefarious theft, and unfortunately it seems to stem from one thing — how much you like the game.

Penny Arcade lampooned this last year with a comic strip about Darksiders versus Dante’s Inferno, where the former was considered an homage and the latter written off as derivative. Penny Arcade’s Gabriel claimed to have arrived at his judgment based upon which game he liked. While an amusing parody, it is an unfortunate truth that gamers pick and choose, often arbitrarily, which games are allowed to steal and which games are not, similar to how a celebrity can get away with a litany of offenses based on how famous they are.

Darksiders is a good place to start. This game shamelessly pinched most of its structure from The Legend of Zelda, and threw in a few nods to other titles such as God of War and even Portal. When it came to gameplay, Vigil’s 2010 action game had not one original idea to its name. What it did have was oodles of style and polish, with a fun implementation of its stolen ideas and a terrific set of characters which, while not particularly original themselves, oozed charm and did a rather fantastic job of distracting us from all the intellectual burglary going on.

Contrast this to Dante’s Inferno. This game was actually more original in many ways, but it is Visceral’s Hellish title that is nowadays looked down upon by gamers for being what one colleague of mine called “A wholesale rip-off of God of War.” Never mind that God of War did not invent the action genre and is, itself, somewhat derivative. Never mind that Dante’s Inferno did quite a lot with its combat and narrative style to stand out, or at the very least was no more of a “rip-off” than any other third-person action game on the market. The fact is, Dante’s Inferno just wasn’t liked as much as Darksiders. Hence, it was accused of plagiarism and is now disregarded by many.

In my opinion, however, neither game should be raked over the coals for any ideas they may have copied. I think the games industry is unique in that it’s generally alright to copy other games, provided the result is a fun game that implements the ideas well. Similar to how evolution works, the games industry discards ideas that prove detrimental and propagates ideas that are beneficial, providing an artificial form of the “survival of the fittest” dynamic. It is true that when one studio has a unique and successful idea, a dozen other studios rush to copy it, but that’s how the industry as a whole improves. Nobody can be unique 100% of the time, and so long as you’re copying the good ideas, it stands to reason that quality overall will go up.

But where do we draw the line? One of the more recent examples of theft was Capcom Mobile taking the idea of ‘Splosion Man to create a new iPhone title, MaXplosion. Both games were platformers featuring a character who could generate explosions with their own body to solve a variety of environmental puzzles. Capcom took the aping further, however, by also creating a protagonist that looked suspiciously similar to the titular ‘Splosion Man, and levels that appeared to mirror the laboratory setting of Twisted Pixel’s popular Xbox Live Arcade game. Gamers, as well as Twisted Pixel itself, were utterly incensed at Capcom Mobile, with quite a few pundits believing that lawsuits were in order.

I do not think that what Capcom Mobile did was right, but I ponder this question — if ‘Splosion Man had been created by Bungie or Naughty Dog, or any other major developer with a huge publisher backing, would we have been so quick to attack?

A curious aspect of the “homage vs. plagiarism” debate subtly revolves around the size and celebrity of the game being ripped off. Take what Capcom Mobile did and then apply it to another mobile game developer, Gameloft. Gameloft has made its name by copying established console titles and putting them on the iPhone and Android platforms. They have thus far created their own versions of Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Uncharted, Call of Duty and more, but on the whole, Gameloft’s always been allowed to get away with it. Why?

Well, the major reason we excuse Gameloft is because it creates titles that “would never have made it to the iPhone anyway.” Obviously we won’t get Halo or Uncharted on an iPhone, because Microsoft and Sony own those properties, and it’ll be a cold day in Hell before either of those help out a platform distributed by rivals such as Apple and Google. This justification, however, does not excuse games like Gangstar and Guitar Pro, which copy games that have definitely found their way to the mobile sector (GTA: Chinatown Wars and Guitar Hero, respectively).

I think part of the reason Gameloft gets a free pass (one I give them myself) is the total transparency with which these games are stolen, helped in no small part to the fame of the authentic products. Capcom copying ‘Splosion Man is bad, because ‘Splosion Man is an indie game from a small studio. Gameloft copying Halo is fine, because everybody knows what Halo is, and Bungie isn’t going to suffer in the slightest.

Gameloft isn’t without its critics, and I’ve actually defended the studio in the past from those that claim Bungie should sue. However, I sometimes ask myself if it’s hypocritical to defend Gameloft while criticizing Capcom Mobile. For the aforementioned reasons, I think I can retain my stance without compromising my moral consistency. It all comes down to harm, when deciding whether or not we forgive a game its trespasses. Is it a small studio that will suffer because a larger company took its ideas? Is it a huge studio that stands to lose nothing if a forgery appears on a platform it doesn’t even support? I think that’s how we gauge whether or not an “inspired” game is a case of straight-up criminal injustice.

But this does not answer the question, what do we define as an homage and what do we define as plagiarism? Opinion is all over the place on this matter, and I think we’ve gone overboard with it. Dante’s Inferno “copied” a game that was, itself, not wholly original. Darksiders was merely “inspired” by a far more unique franchise. These claims seem to be the wrong way round, logically. As much as I like Darksiders (and I utterly love it), if I had to call one the bigger rip-off, I’m afraid I’d have to give the trophy to Vigil. So how do we solve the problem of these ludicrous, preferential definitions?

I think I have the answer to this conundrum. The problem lies in attempting to split these games into two factions when really, we only need one name for the lot of it. It’s all a big rip-off, at the end of the day. Even some of our most original games are derivative in some way or another. Twisted Pixel actually had the strength of character to admit that we’d have had no ‘Splosion Man without Capcom’s own Mega Man helping to define the genre of action-platforming. We call the games we like homages because we like them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not derivative or straight-up thieving. Honestly, homage is just a fancier, nicer, more PR way of calling something a rip-off.

And while I don’t think developers should ever stop trying to think up fresh ideas and innovative new designs, nor do I think there should be any shame in admitting when you’ve just blatantly copied something. If there’s one thing that pisses me off, it’s when a developer hides behind the word “homage” when defending an unoriginal game. Just grow some stones and admit that you saw a clever idea and decided to help yourself. Pretentiously hiding behind words like “inspiration” and “homage” compound your theft with dishonesty, and I like my thieves honest.

If it harms none, do as you will. Words I live by, and words that I think gamers should remember when they idly write a game off for being a copy of something else. You know what? Chances are good that you’re absolutely right. But does it matter? Not if the game is good, and the studio being copied hasn’t been hurt in any way. In fact, the studio being copied has more than likely cloned a few ideas of its own from elsewhere. There aren’t really any homages in the game industry, there are only rip-offs. There is only plagiarism and recycling for the most part, with the tiny nucleus of a totally fresh approach sparking intermittently — a nucleus that will be consumed and spread by the surrounding creatures as quickly as it was born.

Stop defending your favorite games with flowery terms while criticizing others for doing the same thing. So long as nobody’s being hurt, it’s all good. The irony here, of course, is that I’m not telling you anything new.

Or at least, I shouldn’t be.

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