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Derivative Games Aren’t Necessarily Bad

Long-time reader and friend, Norfen, brought up an interesting point in my Kario Kart 8 Deluxe review. I couldn’t come up with any cons for the game. I pretty much like everything about it. Norfen said, “Wouldn’t a con be that it is derivative?” Brilliant topic for discussion!

I stopped and reflected on that for a few minutes. I have certainly been critical of games in the past when they feel like rehashes of previous games. I think most of you reading this will identify with the ‘wow clone’ era of MMOs, and many shooters these days are all derivatives. Usually the term ‘derivative’ is used in a negative connotation… but I don’t feel that way about a lot of games.

There are many cases where I WANT a derivative work.

I WANT more games like Assassin’s Creed — which is the king of derivative gameplay. [Site note, AC: Origins leaked. Going to Egypt woot!] I want more EverQuest style MMOs. I want developers to flat out copy the sandbox nature of UO (See Legends of Aria). I want more games like Warcraft RTS, and I don’t want them to change much if anything. In the case of Mario Kart, I like that it’s the same.

When developers depart from what works (for me), I’m actually turned off. You’ll note I want to have my cake and eat it too. When it works, I want more. When it doesn’t work, I want innovation.

I just finished (finally) playing through Breath of the Wild. I really enjoyed it, but I have to say the biggest let down for me was how little it actually ended up feeling like a Zelda game. I longed for the familiar formula, despite having just previously played two Zelda games (Twilight Princess and Wind Waker) while awaiting its release.

Whether you enjoy games that rehash the same old gameplay / mechanics / feel / etc. is entirely subjective. There’s no right or wrong answer. But I definitely want to voice that many games are good BECAUSE they are derivative works of their predecessors.

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Bhagpuss - May 10, 2017

I totally agree with this. There’s a ridiculous premium placed on innovation and novelty, not just in gaming but in all forms of popular entertainment. I’m far more interested in whether something is a good or even great example of its type rather than whether its doing anything new.

Yes, someone has to come up with new ideas that move the form forwards, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to do it. Indeed, it should, by definition, be the exception not the norm. Let the few genuinely innovative individuals or teams come up with the new ideas and let everyone else concentrate on doing the things we already understand as well as they can be done.

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Wilhelm Arcturus - May 10, 2017

And just to be “that guy” I would argue that Mario Kart isn’t derivative, as the word implies it is an attempt to copy somebody elses’ work. In this case, Nintendo owns the work and they are just refining it further as their platforms change and technology advances. (Though it is tough to beat Mario Kart 64 on Virtual Console, that was a really, really good iteration of the game.)

Anyway, I also think derivative is something of a pejorative, a word you pull out when not only is something covering the same ground, but also doing so poorly or transparently. A new Mario Kart can be a thing of joy, a fresh look at an old favorite.

Something like Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing though, that is derivative in the most negative sense of the term. Not only is a blatant attempt to copy Mario Kart, it does so without really adding anything to differentiate it aside from a change of graphics. The best I can say about it is that you can play it on multiple platforms. But any platform it runs on has a better alternative unless you’re obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog.

To sum up, Mario Kart is cool with me.

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SynCaine - May 10, 2017

Taking a formula and changing just enough for it to feel better, without it feeling too different, is truly an art, and few have mastered it as well as Nintendo.

I also think nothing makes people angry like expecting a certain game because of its name, and getting something very different, especially if the ‘very different’ is bad. But even when its not outright bad, I don’t want an awesome FPS-style game when I’m expecting another great platformer in a series like Mario.

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Norfen - May 11, 2017

I completely I agree that derivative games aren’t necessarily bad. I guess it comes down to the individual on whether a particular series becomes a little long in the tooth. For example, Pantheon is pretty derivative of Everquest from what I have seen of it. For me personally, this isn’t a bad thing because Everquest has not gotten stale for me yet.

My changing tastes in games maybe contributes to Mario Kart having gotten stale for me, and undoubtedly how I experience games has had a huge impact. I moved away from my hometown over 6 years ago, so couch gaming has become a non-entity these days. My primary gateway for consuming gaming media these days is either singleplayer on console, or singleplayer/multiplayer on PC.

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Audioshaman - May 13, 2017

To state the obvious: people like good games.

That is the most important criteria. I think people generally overestimate the value of innovation. You can innovate all you want, but not all innovation is fun to play. Not all innovative games are well made. They may have bad art, poor controls, frustrating design.

How well a game is executed matters more, in my opinion. Blizzard is a great example of this principle. None of their franchises are particularly “innovative” in the way most people use the term. They took exists formulas and refined them. What they absolutely nail is the execution. They are usually better at execution than the people they were emulating. The result is one of the largest and most successful developers out there.

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