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.
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?
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.