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Independent Minds: The Originality Factor

Independent Minds aims to take various aspects of indie gaming and present them to you each week. From game round-ups to design elements to interviews with prominent members of the scene, it's an exploration of what makes indie gaming great as well as what makes someone an indie.

If you ask any respectable indie developer about making your own game, the very first thing they are likely to tell you is to be original. However, for the budding developer, being truly original is quite hard. Abstracts of design haven't yet fallen into place in that designer's brain, and the influence of the games one plays will likely be seen heavily duplicated in the end result of the game they are working on. It's easy to copy those that have done it before, and it's relatively safe. However, to forge new ground and be original, risks must be taken. People don't really like risks all the much.

The first step to coming up with an original design is to take a look at the story behind the game. A careful look must be taken, as what is there must be picked apart to find the nuggets of individuality in a sea of inspiration and downright plagiarism. These three kinds of nuggets are very distinct in what they look like within the confines of the design, and each can play a role in the upcoming game.

  • The original concept is what your game needs to shine. It's the part of your game that people will latch on to, and should be made as cool as possible. This can be a cast of interesting, believable, and just plain awesome characters, an engaging story element that nobody has done before, or a plot that weaves an intricate narrative in an immersive way. In any case, it's the most important part.
  • The inspired details are the parts of your game that reference other games or media, either in a parodical fashion or in a serious one. This can be from elements about aliens or monsters that creep through vents, a character that talks like Mr. T, or a narrative about finding a forbidden item and destroying it. The big difference between being inspired and being unoriginal is how far you take it. You have to make the concept your own, not just relentlessly steal from other developers that have done it before you.
  • I said plagiarism, but that's putting it a little harshly. The worst of these three kinds of elements is the unoriginal element. Either through plagiarism, inspiration, or just plain laziness, you've taken something from another piece of media and tried to pass it off as your own. This can be something like a character that looks, talks, and acts like Mr. T and is called "Mr. Tea" or a plot about space marines going to a decrepit colony only to find that weird aliens have taken over. The line between inspiration and unoriginality is a fine one, however. The rule of thumb for it is that if every consumer can readily identify what you are using as inspiration, you've probably gone a little too far.
  • Outside of these three designations is the parody, which is mentioned with the inspiration type. Basically, you can be as unoriginal as you want as long as you are using it as a parody. A parody can be intentionally ridiculous or have a more subtle humor to it, but it's the one exception either way you do it.

As a kicker to all of this, there is using licensed intellectual property. Don't do this. Ever. First of all, you aren't a big-name game developer and shouldn't be tackling a project that has trembling fans waiting to see you do their beloved franchise justice. Here's a tip: you can never do the original franchise justice. So make your own stories and go with them. Craft your own intellectual property. It may seem like a great way to come up with concepts easily and quickly, but it's more hassle than it's worth. In the long run, it'll make you better at crafting awesome unique games for all to enjoy.

Now that story has been tackled, there's the premise of gameplay. There's a fuzzy line in originality in gameplay, because most games are essentially derived from other games. First-person shooters have been reading the textbook that Wolfenstein 3D and Doom wrote and will continue to follow this standard far into the future. Ever wonder about the progression of weapon strength that is common in each first-person shooter you play? Simply look at Doom and you have your answer. The same goes for most other genres. That's why it is a genre. The games inside it are interconnected by specific gameplay elements to form certain conventions.

Originality in gameplay isn't finding the newest genre, but rather taking genre conventions and making them interesting. A good example of this is Cave Story. It features pretty simple run-and-gun Metroidvania gameplay. However, the inventory system, puzzles, and weapons system help distinguish it from the crowd of lookalikes in the realm of gameplay. Another great example is rRootage. While the four different types of gameplay are all relentlessly taken from other games, the randomized bosses and bullet patterns help take it from being unoriginal to excellent in a single step.

For every great indie game out there, there's 10 asteroids clones made by some guy in his mom's basement looking for a quick buck. It's a simple fact of the indie game development scene. By taking a careful evaluation of your game's story and gameplay elements, you can discern the originality with in and learn to bring it out. By evaluating, you avoid the pitfalls that countless others have fallen into before you and make a game that many people, both in the indie game community and outside it, can enjoy. And isn't that the real reason one makes indie games?

For more coverage on indie games and the scene, keep an eye out for Indie Showcase at the same bat time, same bat channel. Also check out Freeware Friday and our indie category for some excellent freeware games and indie news, respectively.


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