Every year I meet with my friends to watch the E3 keynotes live. Sadly, this year hasn’t been any better than the previous one in matters of new product unveilments. Those of you who followed the event will know what I mean.
Nintendo announced their new home console: the Wii U. This has seen a huge acclaim from many fans, though others might have felt dissapointed. Maybe I’m a bit biased on my opinion about this new system, because they haven’t been able to surprise me ever since the SNES died, but their new system doesn’t really look very attractive to me. As far as we know it provides slightly dated hardware and a ridiculously expensive controller; I guess third-party support will be key on the success of the platform. Anyways, the purpose of this post isn’t the product itself, but its concept design.
Shortly after seeing the new control pad for the Wii U I recalled Gamepark’s GP32, a handheld console made by a defunct Korean company which met huge success among the amateur developers scene. Not only that, taking a look at the system box I immediately thought it looked similar to Apple’s Mac Mini. Perhaps many will disagree with this, this is just a personal view, but my intuition tells me that the industrial designers went a little bit on the lazy side this time.
Apparently I’m not the only one who found design similarities between Nintendo’s Wii U and other products. Minutes after finishing their keynote, you could find many comparative images like this one that shows Wii U and its controller next to Sony’s PS3 and PSVita.
I don’t know who created the concept design for the Wii U and I’m not saying they did a bad job. This kind of things happen more often than not without bad blood. I only want to express my letdown after seeing a new product that is visually very similar to others I’ve seen before.
This post should serve as an advice for future professional designers. Always take into account Goethe’s words: “If I paint my dog exactly as it is, of course I have two dogs, but that won’t be art”.
Using references when starting a creative endeavor is inevitable. Illustrators analyze pictures and drawings, dressmakers study patterns, musicians listen to music from other composers and those who work in films or in the game industry use other works as models for their creations. It’s not something bad, but something necessary in the learning process, everybody must do it. However an artist has to be able to adapt those references in order to create something new and never lift them directly. The key message is that references are good, but they must not eclipse your creativity.
That said, it’s easy to find clichés without expecting it. Axis of Awesome are very clear about this with their 4 Chord Song sketch. Throughout the video we will listen to several dozens of songs that share the same harmonic progression. It might be that some of these songs were influenced by others from the same video, but by adapting that harmony pattern we can obtain many different quality compositions which are very different between themselves.
As we develop more complex works, the probability of two different works being very similar becomes smaller. Natural clichés are not found anymore and we find clear cases of excessive inspiration, such as Viva la Vida – Coldplay and If I Could Fly – Joe Satriani.
The following two are other examples worth mentioning:
- The Day I Die – Graveworm and Mind Storm – Joe Satriani
- He’s a Pirate – PotC and The Reign of the Septims – TES IV: Oblivion
One can find many examples of works that have been “too inspired” by others in films, books and video games. The height of illegal intellectual property appropiation in the game industry is Limbo of the Lost, a graphic adventure that literally stole graphic assets from TES IV: Oblivion, Thief: Deadly Shadows and World of Warcraft, among others.
Using copyrighted material without permission is a crime, and professional artists must take that into account. In the PV of the Korean singer Ivy, Sonata of Temptation, we can see a tribute to the fight scene between Tifa and Loz from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which was recorded without Square Enix’s consent. The matter was settled with a small fine ($17,000), but depending on the legislation of a country, the sentence could have been worse.
Many think that these issues in the videogame industry are a thing of the past, which is true to some extent. You can tell the issue is much smaller today than it was before taking a look at the enormous amount of existing Super Mario Bros., Pac-Mac or Frogger clones, or for example, compare Data East’s Fighter’s History with Capcom’s Street Fighter II.
Nevertheless, nowadays we can find similar cases. A recent example involves Capcom’s MaXplosion and Twisted Pixel Games ‘Splosion Man. It’s sad when such a big and experienced company rips off the ideas of an indie developer.
Another company that has grown us accostumed to this practice is Gameloft, which develops iOS games based on PC and console hit games, i.e. StarFront: Collision (Starcraft), Shadow Guardian (Uncharted) or NOVA (Halo).
This is another clear example. Left: Puzz Loop by Mitchell Corporation (1998). Right: Zuma Deluxe by PopCap Games (2003).
As I said, shameless appropiation of someone else’s ideas or assets is a very serious issue, while identifying what really shines in a product and trying to learn from it in order to create your own product is something completely different.
Gears of War comes to mind as a good example of this. This third person shooter was not the first at providing an interactive cover system, I believe this honor belongs to kill.switch, which was released some years before. What Gears of War did right was implementing a similar cover system in a more efficient and intuitive way, providing a better game experience than kill.switch.
We can also learn many things from Puzzle Quest. Even though it features practically the same gameplay mechanics than Bejeweled, the inclusion of RPG elements turns it into a completely new experience, which is even more addictive than the original.
Last but not least, I’d like to remind every artist about the use of copyrighted material as a reference. If you ever decide to use it, try to make sure it doesn’t look as obvious as the following examples. If you need a stock image, there are several online resources that provide royalty-free pictures for free or for a very low cost.
- Ada Wong (Resident Evil 4) vs La Femme Nikita
- Navy Moves vs Commando
- True Crime: Streets of LA vs The Replacement Killers
- Metal Gear vs Terminator
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