Recently Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford, in an interview with Gamesutra, expressed his surprise that the Borderlands formula had yet to be copied in an industry rife with plagiarism.
While it’s true that the story, setting, and characters of Borderlands have their own unique style, it’s hard to deny that the fundamental gameplay evolved from traditional loot RPGS like Diablo and Titan Quest.
Some would give Gearbox credit for taking the genre into the FPS realm, but Hellgate: London (made by a team consisting of former Diablo developers) touched on that concept exactly two years before the release of Borderlands.
Pitchford’s comments falls in line with one of my personal rants concerning ingenuity in gaming. I’ve noticed a couple trends in gaming over the last ten years that has me worried that it’s not cost effective to have an original idea. Is the industry really full of thieves, or do gamers simply want more of the same?
If you look at the significant gaming releases over the last two console generations, it’s easy to see how they inspired future releases. A great example can be found in the Halo series. Halo: Combat Evolved was a landmark game that not only defined the console FPS genre but redefined the PC FPS genre as well. Before Halo, console FPS releases struggled to provide the same gameplay and control as their PC brethren. Halo provided a quality gaming experience by limiting your capabilities. Remember how the nameless Marine in Doom was a walking arsenal with 7 different weapons at his disposal? I do. Then along came Master Chief with his ability to only carry two weapons at a time. While adding to the realism, the concept of a weapon limit resulted as a means to encourage strategy and to address the difference in the amount of buttons on a controller versus a keyboard. That concept has lasted since the original Halo and has been adapted to other games like Call of Duty, and even Borderlands, with it’s four weapon limit, pays homage.
Game developers have been adapting and refining the concepts put forward by their predecessors since the invention of gaming. This includes the platforming action of Mario to the grenade button introduced by Halo. Let’s also not forget the perk leveling system of Call of Duty that has started to become the standard in multiplayer gaming. No genre is safe as proven by the recent Amazing Spider-Man game release, which owes a huge part of it’s success to emulating the gameplay found in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City. While Pitchford says the goal with Borderlands was to avoid all competition, I question if he truly recognizes the roots that the game owes to Halo, Diablo, and even the Grand Theft Auto series via the concept of open-world gameplay.
I’m forced to wonder if imitation is fast becoming the standard in gaming as fewer new intellectual properties are released yearly. Publishers continue to crank out a new Call of Duty or Madden annually, while original IPs like Mirror’s Edge languish into obscurity. I can’t say that the fault lays completely with the developers, as they are in the business of making money. When each new annual Madden release continues to outsell the combined sales for Mirror’s Edge, can Electronic Arts be looked down upon for shelving the potential future series?
We gamers tend to forget that via our purchases and fandom we influence continued gaming development. The problem lies in that we are our own worse enemy. We moan about how bored we are with existing games, but then when presented with something new and different, we prefer to critique it based on the status of its peers and question the developer for not adopting tried and true principles. This is seen greatly in the MMO genre where the reigning king, World of Warcraft, is the template that all new MMOs are based off. I can not even begin to detail how tired I am of hearing my WoW friends complain about the game and how whatever is considered the next WoW-killer is going to make gaming fun again for them. It never fails, they get caught up in the anticipation and upon release they express their desire for the game to be more like WoW. When Rift came out there was a mass exodus due to the similarities with WoW which resulted in many gamers coming back to the game claiming “it’s so much like WoW that I figured I would just play WoW!” I have to say that we gamers are insatiable with our desire for fresh and new experiences, but truly do not want to step out of our comfort zones.
There is a line between imitation and the evolution of gaming, and with every year that passes that line blurs a little more. With an industry that does not wholly push innovation and gamers that do not willingly accept it, the future of gaming might contain more of the “plagiarism” Randy Picthford speaks of.
Randy Pitchford/Borderlands Image Courtesy of Arstechnica.com