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Of Orcs and Robots: Why Originality is Overrated

A look at the relationship between consumer buying habits and originality in games, through the magic of metaphors.

There is no more original ideas no more!

Everything is just a rip off of (WOW/Star Wars/Call of Duty/etc)!!!

I've been hearing this argument for years and honestly, I've said it a couple times myself. Are developers just cashing in or are designers that unoriginal. It just seems that year after year the store shelves are just flooded with games that looks just like last years bunch and I want to know why!

It is no particular secret that consumers like the familiar, billions of dollars are spent every year on products that are really no more than small tweaks to an existing product. I look at Christmas TV specials in particular. We've seen Rudolph and Frosty countless times growing up, as they are played endlessly on multiple networks during the holiday season. We are so familiar with these shows that most of us could probably recite most of them in our sleep, but yet we buy a new “restored”, “remastered”, or “special edition” of these classics every year. First VHS, then DVD, now Bluray; honestly how many copies of these shows do we need?

This same trend is also quite apparent in the game industry as well. Every holiday season we see the game shelves filled with orcs, elves, giant robots, and tricked out street cars. To a non-gamer, these games that come out every year would appear to be no more original than Frosty the Snowman. But why are gamers not sick and tired of these same old trends year in and year out? Why have we been happily slaying goblins over and over again since the 80s?

To myself, there are two trains of thought about this. The first is what I called the Radio Theory.

You may have noticed if you ever listened to any Top 40 radio station for an extended period of time that the same songs tend to get played over and over again. For anyone who keeps the station on all day, this can become an annoyance. Radio stations do this on purpose in order to cater to the majority of listens, people who usually only tune for 10-20 minutes at a time. During this brief time period these listeners expect to hear their favorites, and when they do they tend to keep the station on longer thus more likely to hear advertising.

These short termed listeners can be thought of as your average consumer of video games. It's nice to think that the hardcore make the majority of purchases but it really is the casual gamer who decides to browse the game section at Best Buy or Wal-mart. When they are in that section they expect to see products that are familiar to them. The last game they may have played was Warcraft II so they search for the first box with an ugly green mug on it, assuming that the games are probably similar. To the hardcore though, going thru that same game section might as well be like listening to Britney Spears twice an hour all day long. For them orcs are over done and unoriginal generally speaking.

On the other hand, “LEAVE ORCS ALONE!” screams the RPG enthusiast. He and his ilk have been enjoying those types of games for decades, buying title after title featuring orcs, giant robots, or hyper active animals with attitude. Which brings us back to why people enjoy their Rudolph and World War II games. Perhaps it isn't the games themselves that people are enjoying, perhaps its the memories and feelings that come along with repeated exposure?

In a process that I call extended inference consumers come to connect all their previous experiences of other products thru their new similar products. When grandma sees Frosty put on that old hat she doesn't think about the next song, or how that bastard is gonna lock Frosty in the greenhouse. She remembers holidays passed, seeing the grandkids crowded around the TV, the smell of ham and cookies. Gamers get the same feeling of nostalgia when they grab a plasma rifle and mindlessly blow up robots for a few hours. To them its a familiar feeling that brings back past accomplishments and memories of conquests long gone.

So when developers begin to lay down their plans to make the next best orc and giant robot game, perhaps it isn't an attempt to cash in on a sure seller, but each designer has fond memories for these classics and wish to honor them. Until we stop buying them, we should stop complaining about a lack of origionality, and appreciate what we have now. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to kills some elves with my orc warrior.

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