Great Designers Steal

Posted: September 5, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts

Good designers borrow; Great designers steal. 

It’s an old saying I’ve heard hundreds of times over the years to apply to everything from software coding to web design.  Taken literally, it’s not a very pleasant thought, but the underlying concept fueling this clever little mantra is still fairly apt – and quite relevant to MMO’s today.

A good idea is a good idea is a good idea.  Just because so-and-so came up with the idea first doesn’t mean the idea won’t necessarily work in other settings.  Not all ideas or concepts can or should be locked down as proprietary, never to be touched or improved upon again.

And yet, so many players seem to really hate the idea. 

You see this all the time on pretty much any forum or blog about pretty much any game out there.  A new idea gets introduced to Game X, and before you can type “first!”, someone’s already talking about how the idea already exists in Game Y. 

Apparently, it’s just not enough to build a good game these days, but you have to somehow design the game with ideas that no one has ever thought of before…ever!

With due respect, that idea is ridiculous. 

Good designers borrow; Great designers steal.  What does this statement really mean, anyway?  Does it mean gaming studios should start up Watergate style break-ins or hack into their competitors’ servers?  Should studios start headhunting designers from each other, offering massive bonuses to those who violate their contracts and spill all the beans? 

No.  It just means that when you see a good idea, it’s sometimes ok to recycle that idea.  In fact, in the right circumstances, it’s not just “ok”, but a really, really good idea. 

As players, we shouldn’t automatically poo-poo this when it happens, by the way.  It shouldn’t be our first reaction to shoot down ideas for Game X just because it can be found already in Game Y.  And yet, that’s exactly what happens all the time right now.  New update notes are posted for this or that idea, and suddenly the forums erupt with “smart” posters trying to “explain” to the rest of us unwashed masses that the only reason we’re seeing this or that idea in our game is because the developers saw the idea in that other game and they just couldn’t think of a better idea. 

If you had trouble keeping up with that sentence, here’s the quick version:  My dad can beat up your dad.

That’s really what the majority of these arguments come down to.  It’s a way to indirectly attack the developers for coming up with an idea we’ve already seen before.  It doesn’t matter if the idea is done better or even if the idea just makes sense for this game.  If the idea’s been used, it’s somehow been “sullied”. 

And yet, from a design standpoint, that’s just silly.  It’s silly to write-off an idea because it came from “that other game”.  From a business standpoint, there may be some sense in adopting an attitude that competing companies are the “enemy”, but ignoring the product they put out is just ridiculous.

Even so, it’s happened throughout history.  Radio station moguls who thought TV was just a passing fad.  Railroad barons who thought airplanes would never catch on as a viable form of transportation.  Typewriter company executives who didn’t buy into the idea of personal computers. 

Obviously this is not to say that all good ideas should come from elsewhere.  However, to say that no good can come from the products of competitors is just insular thinking – it’s not just in-the-box but in-the-sand!

Some of the best ideas in Everquest II first existed in other games.  Of course, some great ideas in those other games also first existed in Everquest II.  And why is this bad?  Why is the very idea of recycled ideas a bad concept unto itself?

Good designers borrow; Great designers steal.  A good idea is a good idea is a good idea. 

Obviously not every idea works in every setting.  Just cherry picking this idea or that won’t necessarily work that well.  You can’t just start grabbing huge chunks of gameplay either, as the different systems from Game Y may not work within the overall system for Game X. 

But does this mean that ideas such as the quest icons we see in pretty much every game now should be removed – because World of Warcraft had them first?  Does this mean that no games should include quest journals?  Ultima Online had player housing first, so should such an idea be removed from every other game since? 

Of course not.  Some design concepts are just THAT good.  And when you have access to a design concept that’s really THAT good, it’s damn near irresponsible not to use it. 

If an idea is bad, or even if a good idea for Game Y isn’t necessarily a good idea in Game X, point that out.  Explain why you don’t think the idea’s a good one here and now.  But if the best explanation any of us can come up with for not using an idea is because it isn’t original…we need to recognize that that argument itself isn’t exactly new, either.

  1. ogrebears says:

    I hate when people say so and so game stole this from that game. I’ve seen some people saying EQ2 stole a feature from WOW, course eq1 had the feature.. So did SOE steal it back..

    But using the logic that being used… EVery single car game has stolen the idea from the first one. So has every single FPS, and every MMO… and every other game.

  2. Gdub says:

    I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily stealing anyhow, it’s more like building upon original ideas. EQ1 gets credit for most MMO design ideas, mainly because it was the most popular and brought MMOs to the mainstream. But UO was around long before that. And people were playing MUDs before that. Building upon ideas is what humans as a whole have been doing since cavemen figured out how to make fire. The creative pool of ideas is shared by everyone as soon as those ideas are made public, and the pool is pretty dry when it comes to originality. But builiding upon these original ideas is what makes things better, be it MMOs, health care, warfare, whatever.

  3. Of course, if you’re going to steal it, steal it well.

    I think players have more of a problem with stealing a design idea when it’s implemented poorly or not integrated well with the new game (stealing for the sake of stealing). Then the argument becomes: “Game Y stole this from Game X! It’s clearly just a rip-off.” Players seem happier with designers when you take a good game idea, throw out the things that suck, and make it fit fluidly into your design.

  4. kendricke says:

    Let’s talk griffins. Everquest has a long history of griffins. So does Warcraft. During beta for World of Warcraft, they have griffins. Then SOE does as well. SOE is still, to this day, ripped on for using griffins.

    Are the griffins used badly? No, not really.
    Are the griffins out of place in the lore? No, not really.
    Are the towers inconsistent with the game world? No, not really.

    And yet, players still discuss how much of a rip off it is.

    I can make the same basic point for the “dressing room” idea, the use of armor sets, the use of adornments, and so forth. Oftentimes the players don’t need to see a bad implementation. Just seeing the implementation as a “rip off” is enough to skew perception to show only the worst in an idea, sometimes. And to players, perception is reality.

  5. Prrasha says:

    I always got a laugh out of people in EQ2 playing the “WoW had it first” card for item set bonuses… and then reminding them that the original pen-and-paper D&D game had them back in the 70s with the “Regalia of (Alignment)” items.

    “Game X stole from Game Y” arguments might make sense if the concept originated in Game Y… but Game Y (at least in the MMORPG corner of the gaming world) almost certainly heisted the idea from fantasy/sci-fi literature or pen-and-paper gaming. There’s nothing new under the sun.

    “Game X stole from Game Y” loses a bit of its luster when its really “Game X stole from Game Z 21 years after Game Z did it, Game Y stole from Game Z only 20 years later. Clearly Game Y rocks and Game X doesn’t.”

  6. AverageJoe says:

    So agree with that statement Prrash. You get these bashing statements about WoW did this first and that first, it’s all fine and dandy, but it actually could be considered a disadvantage as others catch the idea, tweak it and revise it and then profit from it. Sometime’s being the initiator of a concept or product is not always a good thing. Look at old school Gates and Jobs 🙂

  7. tcsgamer says:

    You’re right on the money here Kendricke…but I also agree with Cameron as well. Take a good idea, but make it better than the original. Japan is a perfect example of this, they don’t really come up with original ideas themselves, but man, can they ever take the idea of the cell phone an run with it.

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