Vague Patch Notes: Copies, blatant copies, and plagiarism in MMOs

    
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hooooooboy

So… this was honestly not the story that I had expected to have wound up coming out of Eternal Magic. I’d been expecting that “beauty contest for the ladies” would be the big thing that people wound up remembering about the title, not the part where players level a whole lot of credible allegations of outright asset theft at the game. That’s just a depressing element of the story, and it’s one of those petty bits of malfeasance that feels like it deserves a column all to itself.

Of course, we actually have a column for that. And I am not a lawyer (not even a little bit), and frankly my interest in this stuff is always less on the legal side and more on the ethical side. It also dovetails nicely with the change to City of Heroes’ rogue Homecoming server putting the kibosh on characters that infringe upon copyright. All of it winds up in the same territory of discussing ripoffs, copies, and outright asset theft in MMOs particularly.

Let’s make something clear: Despite what you might think, outright theft in video games is pretty rare. It’s not nonexistent, obviously, but transparent theft kind of opens people up for obvious legal action and thus is… well, frowned upon. What you get more often fall into the nebulous realms of ripoffs and copies, things that are harder to nail down in any sort of legal terms but are still relevant.

And let’s be real here, if you know who Harrison Jones is in World of Warcraft, you’re familiar with this practice. Jones is a very clear expy of Indiana Jones to the point where that’s the entire conception of the character. Heck, Cataclysm had to invent some Nazis for him to fight so that the zone could turn into an extended riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark, since Blizzard just wanted to turn all of the game’s zones into some extended riff or another on well-known pop culture properties for that expansion.

For that matter, let’s not pretend that the fantasy world of EverQuest wasn’t already a pastiche of ideas from Dungeons & Dragons, which itself was stuff layered onto a pretty clear copy of the work Tolkien had done within Lord of the Rings. Star Wars: The Old Republic is based on a property that started because George Lucas couldn’t make an actual film based on the old serials he loved. You get the idea.

Less than radical, really.

if you think that any of this is accusatory, it’s not. It seems pretty clear to me that the original Warcraft was heavily inspired by Warhammer Fantasy (there’s a persistent rumor that I’ve never seen verified that the game was “meant” to be an officially licensed title), which itself was taking a lot of stuff from Mr. Tolkien again, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist now as a distinct entity unto itself. Inspiration and source material does not weaken the final development.

For that matter, the source material frequently provides a useful foothold for new people entering into the media. You might not have an intimate familiarity with all of the worldbuilding details going on in CoH when you first launch the game, but if you have more than passing familiarity with comic books, you can get an idea of how Scrappers work just because the Claws powerset is there. The fact that it’s easy to make a copy of Wolverine is a feature, not a bug.

Human beings are good at seeing connections. Allowing people to make connections quickly is a good thing – and that even extends to game mechanics. I’ve talked before about the idea of trend-chasing in games and why it doesn’t tend to work in the online space, but there’s a reason why certain standards are, well, standard. WASD for movement is pretty commonly understood and universal among games, for example, even if it’s not inherently better than ESDF (moving one space over with the same layout). You can generally count on those controls and only need a tutorial when that’s not how things work.

In other words, all of this tends to exist in a fuzzy mire of concepts. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you want to make a new game, you don’t need to figure out what a control scheme ought to look like for your MMO, and you don’t need to spend time explaining what an elf is and can instead spend time making your elves different from the “stock” elf type. Or you can just lean in on the “stock” elf type and hoping that you can produce a sufficiently interesting story that no one cares. Or, you know, because everyone just wants elves and it’s enough to just have elves. Everyone picks a different hill to die on.

The weird thing is that this can also make a place wherein theft starts to look… well, not acceptable, but not really egregious in the right balance. I mean, look at you, hypothetical game designer. You’re not inventing the concept of a PvP battleground, you didn’t really invent a lot of the legwork of the setting, and you didn’t invent your classes (which are almost certainly the traditional Dungeons & Dragons “big four” plus one or two oddballs): You’re trafficking on familiar mechanics. Why not just copy this bit of level design? It’s useful and it does what you want it to do.

Yes, there’s an obvious reason not to because that’s when you cross the line into outright theft. But it at least feels convincingly muddy when so much else is already being nudged around and doesn’t feel like it’s totally original work. It’s a natural outgrowth of using so much connected design, understood shared resources, and so forth. How can one little outcropping be seen as significant?

That didn't quite work out.

We fundamentally have understood this as part of creativity for basically half of forever. Things are not made in sealed rooms with no cross-pollination, and nobody is going to argue that Undertale doesn’t deserve its success because of how much its creator was inspired to make a game by Earthbound. (Or at least nobody credible; this is the internet, so somebody certainly has a forum devoted to that particular bad take.)

But then, that’s kind of the tipping point, isn’t it? When these things work, they’re not taking things but ideas. The world of Azeroth does not look like Middle-Earth, but it bears that shared concept of being a similar-but-different version of the real world with extra fantasy races. What’s been carried over are the concepts, the parts that made that resonant. Yes, there are still elves with a distinctly elvish language and elf customs, but it’s not the same language or the same customs or any of the same stuff, just the ideas.

The main heroic cast of CoH doesn’t follow an exact lineup of the Avengers or the Justice League or any familiar team. The ideas are all there, but they’re combined in different ways. It’s the different between inspiration and just filing off the serial numbers to claim that someone else’s work is your own.

You can’t copy or steal your way into the winner’s circle. Taking inspiration can feel similar to taking, of course; both of them involve lifting something from another source. But the things worth remembering focus on holding that inspiration, not just lifting someone else’s work.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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flying_dutchman

Honestly I’m never sure how blizzard didn’t get sued by Tad Williams. The plot for WC3 and prince arthas is pretty much completely stolen from his series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

The elven nation splits into two groups. The norns or ‘dark-elves’ are banished to the frozen north for using forbidden magics. They get the idea to mess with the humans so they give the human prince the legendary sword “Sorrow”. Which drives him mad and turns him into an undead. He then kills his father and takes over the kingdom turning it into a bastion of evil and dark magic….

I mean common…. That’s not even just “borrowing heavily” That’s pretty much just downright stealing.

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Zero_1_Zerum

Yeah… Creatives, you’re supposed to be standing on the shoulders of Giants…not kicking them in the kneecaps and mugging them. There’s a difference between inspiration and stealing.

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Akagi

I’d much rather have a game like LOTRO or the shut down Korean ASTA, or one of those WoW clones that copy the mechanics, but create their own appearance, art style, lore, etc. But those mechanics are polished to the maximum.

The sad part is when a cheap WoW clone comes to existence, the developers try to make it look and feel like WoW as much as possible while forgetting the gameplay aspects. The two prime examples are 4Story and Runes of Magic where the starting zone is a carbon copy of Elwynn Forest. They didn’t even bother to make it their own. And in 4Story, if you leave the forest and go to the 10-20 zone, it looks like a yellow empty field with few trees that literally screams “Westfall!!!”.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

Copying *concepts* or doing parodies of things is not the same thing as copying design maps and game music. You can’t try to relate them. Well, you are trying, but they don’t really relate.

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Robert Mann

Yeah, there’s taking an idea and making your own details… and then there’s taking everything and changing a few minor details.

Sadly, the second is by far more common overall, and it indicates in general a similar lack of effort throughout the work.

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Toy Clown

We’ve become too globalized to have original ideas anymore – even if the ideas /are/ original. It’s extremely rare to see a true, original idea or story anymore. When they do pop up, they become all the rage and end up on other people’s radars as “things to plagerize”. Or in today’s society, it’s called “drawing inspiration from”.

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JBNL

“Genre is one hit game and its imitators”
— Greg Costikyan.

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JBNL

tbh I find proper execution a much better and more worthy goal than “being original” … there’s only so many ideas you can work out as a game, and given the incredible volumes put out, it’s inevitable you’ll end up being similar to something existing.

I’d much rather play a “properly done” un-original game, than one tryharding to be ‘original’ by twisting existing ideas (and often, nomenclature of ingame things) into Gordian-knot pretzels …

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Hikari Kenzaki

There is a reason why every major trope on TVTropes has 30+ examples. The big ones have hundreds.

You can take inspiration from the past and still make an original work.

Sometimes, you can even remake a thing with the proper licensing and all and still make something your own.

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Schmidt.Capela

You can often remake something without the proper licensing and, as long as you took proper care to remove all trademarks and rework anything that was previously a literal copy, make something your own that you can legally sell and distribute. A lot of games, comics, books, etc, started as some kind of fanfic and evolved into an independent commercial product. Heck, just about anything that the creators label as an “spiritual successor” fits here.