Once upon a time, an italian plumber lived in a faraway land known as the Mushroom Kingdom with his beloved fiancee, the Princess. Everything was at peace in the Kingdom, until…One grim day, the villainous King Koopa invaded and abducted the Princess, leaving our heroic plumber to save her, no matter how many castles he had to storm.
Italian Plumber…Princess…King Koopa…and a very distinctive mustache? Seems familiar…
Of course it sounds familiar. Pretty much everyone in the world knows the face of the Mario video game franchise. If you ask any gamer who Mario is, they’ll be able to tell you in no time that he is a plumber in love with Princess Peach with either an overrated or underappreciated (depends on your view) brother, Luigi, whose favorite lady keeps getting abducted by Bowser. Right when he always thinks he’s found her, Toad saunters in, tells Mario that his Princess is in another castle, and you have to start back at square one. For those of us born in the 80’s or 90’s, the early Super Mario main franchise games were a huge part of our childhood. They set the bar when it came to side-scrolling platformers.
Now let me ask you a question: Based on the summary above, what game was I talking about? I only said I was talking about Mario. But which SPECIFIC game did I mean?
Well, if we’re just talking Super Mario games involving Mario, Peach, and Bowser or the Bowser clan, then that synopsis applies to…
- Super Mario Bros
- Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels
- Super Mario Bros 2
- Super Mario Bros 3
- Super Mario World
- Super Mario 64
- Super Mario Sunshine
- New Super Mario Bros.
- Super Mario Galaxy
- New Super Mario Bros Wii.
- Super Mario Galaxy 2
- Super Mario 3D Land
- New Super Mario Bros 2
- New Super Mario Bros. U
- Super Mario 3D World
- (And coming out in 2017) Super Mario Odyssey
All of these titles involve Mario and a cast of other characters saving a Princess from a member of the Bowser family. All, whether 2D or 3D, play out in the style of a platformer. All of the titles include the words “Super” and “Mario”, “Bros” is used in eight of the titles, “New” is used in four, two are set in space, and three, rather than having separate titles, are named after the consoles they were created for (N64/Wii/WiiU). Most have 8-10 levels/worlds to explore, although some give or take from this number for the sake of gameplay time extensions. And this isn’t even including the offshoot games including these characters such as Mario Kart, Super Mario Strikers, Super Mario Baseball, Smash Brothers, Mario Tennis, Paper Mario, Mario Party, Super Mario Maker…I could go on.
Nintendo has been doing this for decades, not just with their beloved red-capped handyman, but in series such as Animal Crossing, Kirby, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Star Fox, Pikmin, and more. People have been throwing their money at Nintendo for years to get their hands on these titles. The big-name companies have made hundreds of millions from the demand of their merch, tattoos, clothes, accessories, and more, all showcasing the characters and symbols from these games. And Nintendo isn’t even the only big-name company doing this. Think about Call of Duty, Kingdom Hearts, Little Big Planet, Tekken, Assassin’s Creed, Mortal Kombat, and Halo – all huge franchises in no way associated with Nintendo that are also guilty of this. I’m sure most of you have heard these titles before. So show of hands from the class, who can tell me one thing that all of these franchises have in common? Anyone? Aaaaaaanyone?
Answer: Within each series, their titles are all basically the same game.
I may have just enraged the entire gaming community, but it’s true. In all of these series, most, if not all the elements from their franchises are copied and pasted to recreate extremely similar games (sometimes even the same game) over…and over…and over again. In reality, it’s not like you’re getting anything all that new from the experience…right? Take the Super Mario Series. With the exception of a few slight plot changes, additions of some new characters, monsters, and abilities, the villain occasionally switching to Wario or Donkey Kong in some of the offshoot Mario titles, and maybe the use of Luigi alongside Mario, the base story always stays the same: Bowser/Bowser Jr. abducts Princess. Mario storms levels. Mario saves princess. And usually, cake is somehow involved. The end.
Don’t believe me? Let me prove my point.
What about Pokemon? What is EVERY SINGLE GAME in that series about?
You capture pokemon, try to catch ‘em all, earn gym badges, use your street smarts at age 10 to take down an entire gang (Team Rocket/Aqua/Magma/Galactic/Plasma/Flare/Skull), defeat the elite four, and become the best (like no one ever was).
You beat the crap out of your opponents. (A few tried incorporating story modes, but let’s be honest – no one plays Tekken for the story mode.)
Call of Duty?
You shoot things during wars. Sometimes zombies are involved.
Note that in each of these questions I’m posing, the question was never about a specific game. I didn’t ask about the plot of Pokemon Sun or campaign mode in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. I asked about the name of the series and I’ll bet that, with every one of those titles I mentioned, you immediately pictured the main traits of each series. Sure, each game in these franchises have their own variations – the look of Link’s Awakening vs Breath of the Wild or classic Metroid vs Metroid Prime is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Still, there are so many similarities, character wise and plot wise, that most of the game feel like a complete copy and paste of another one that has already been made. Games like this are KILLING creativity and throwing it to the wayside, instead preferring to give Sackboy a new fabric and calling it a day.
With so little original work being sent down the pipeline, the general public often finds itself screaming for new ideas, but instead, we are more often than not given remakes, reboots, and crappy sequels to movies and games that we once loved. Yet for the sake of sticking to the old and reliable, it is so much harder for original work to be produced – why is that?
Well, experiencing a new game takes extra effort both on the part of the audience and the development team. For the audience, playing new games requires extra effort because they’re NOT characters you know, nor is it a story you are familiar with. New experiences have to present something engaging enough to actually capture the audience’s attention long enough for them to keep playing. Otherwise, they may as well go play the classic Kirby games again. For the developers, creating new games can be especially challenging because if any of the story elements or gameplay mechanics match one of these bigger titles, they’ll constantly be compared to what the general public considers “the original”. This forces indie developers into steering away from the classical styles in fear of being swallowed and overshadowed by the big guys. Games that truly give something new to the world are absolutely beautiful, but in the end, there’s only so much time we have with these stories before their companies have to move on to something else. Not every series can get away with rehashing the same plot like Super Mario can, because the players EXPECT and, in fact, DEMAND a different experience every time from everywhere else.
On top of that, when it comes to making original games, there is a lot of competition that already exists out there. Games like Limbo, Superhot, Catherine, Journey, Beyond Good and Evil, Okami, No More Heroes, and Alan Wake have earned gaming “cult classic” status because in our world, NOTHING else exists quite like them, making them truly spectacular experiences to play and watch. These games encompass originality, but if you were ever to try to reproduce them aside from maybe adding one or two sequels, you would just diminish the wonderful experience the original gave you. With more and more games like these being created, the pool of entirely original ideas is slowly running dry, making it much harder to produce another truly individual story. Hence, more often than not, the big guys win the day.
So here’s my follow-up, and I am going to pull at the heartstrings a bit with my example. If you joke about this game’s eventual realization, you hold the power to make a room of adult gamers weep. Let’s say that one of the most highly anticipated games of all time was finally set for release. In this hypothetical, Valve has announced the official release date of Half-Life 3.
The world goes insane. Gamers pull out their Black Mesa backpacks and Gordon Freeman jackets. Men and women pull out their cosplay and crossplay to wear to conventions as marks of pride. Friends gather in packs to replay the first and second games in the series, mentally and spiritually preparing themselves for the journey they have been waiting for Valve to take them on all of these years.
The game finally comes out…
The graphics are beautiful. The game boots up and you can’t help but marvel at the new soundtrack and look of the world. When the plot kicks in, you see Gordon Freeman going to work at a research center. As he walks inside, he finds that the entire facility has been taken over by horrible, other-worldly creatures, and it is up to you to…
Wait a second…
As you play further and further into the game, you realize that the dialogue is slightly different, but you fight alongside the same companions and the game essentially has the same plot. There are a few new weapons to toy with, like a marshmallow launcher, dubstep gun, and a large potted plant that shoots air in different directions, but other than that, it’s all identical. With the release of the new Half-Life game, Valve also announces a full PC release title called “Aperture Corporate League Lacrosse”, set to sell for 50 bucks on steam.
Imagine the outrage that would spread like wildfire. After waiting all that time, what would happen if the new Half-Life was exactly like the original, save a few changes, and if they tried releasing a knock-off sports game for the same retail price as the new game? The Half-Life series could NEVER get away with trying to pull something like that! The doors of Valve would be rammed down faster than you could promise them that if they cooperate, there will be cake.
All they’d have to do is assume the party escort submission position.
So if Half-Life, one of the most infamous series’ of all time, created by one of the top notch studios in the industry, can’t get away with the plot and character copy/paste, then WHY can Kingdom Hearts create a million games where you go to Olympus Colosseum over and over again? For people begging for something new, we can be pretty hypocritical when it comes to this. So for us who long for originality, why do we still pay for the same thing we’ve seen before?
Because we need something familiar to latch onto. Half-Life was made with the intent of telling a truly original story, so if they suddenly took away the sense of fear and wonder, what would the audience be left with? Nothing that resembles the feeling you get when you first play it, so the replay value of the same mechanics and story falls short. The success of the Half-Life series lies in its singularity by nature. It’s about the story. It’s about the experience. That’s why we love them, and that’s why adding a marshmallow gun would do the series no justice.
With series like The Legend of Zelda, Little Big Planet, Pokemon, and friends, on the other hand, the reason people go back to these games is so that they can revisit the characters they came to know and love all those years ago. It’s not about getting a brand new experience out of it. It’s just about enjoying the experience you have had before. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. It’s pure, digitized nostalgia. When you’ve had a bad day or when things in your life aren’t going your way, everyone needs a home that they can land in to take solace with a character they can see as an ally or a friend. For some, that comfort comes from catching their favorite pokemon across the game generations and finally evolving them to their final forms. For others, getting to play as another assassin that happens to be inserted into different time periods makes their hearts soar. I always know that I can go back to the land of Hyrule and feel accomplished as the bearer of the triforce of courage, and that, in the world of gaming, is my home.
Think of it this way: Everyone has that one favorite movie they always go back to. Sure, there are other movies in theatres they could go see, but if they aren’t feeling as adventurous, they could still rely on their old and faithful flicks. For me, that movie is Moulin Rouge. If I can’t decide what I want to watch, if life is getting me down, or if I need to watch a movie to belt out my lungs to with friends, Moulin Rouge is a movie I can always depend on. I know every bit of the plot, songs, the innuendos and the mistakes in the film like the back of my hand. Even though I’m not getting something out of watching Moulin Rouge that I haven’t gotten before, it still makes me feel comforted in some way every time I watch it, simply because I love it.
The same goes for franchise games like these. Walking into any new Mario Bros. game, I know that Bowser is going to abduct Princess Peach (or some other important tiara-clad political figure). I know that Mario will have to stomp over a million goombas in order to get to her, and I know that there will be 8-10 levels to play before I finally reach King Koopa himself. Still, all that searching and all that repetition doesn’t make it any less satisfying to finally find Princess Peach in another castle.
Yet, as much as I will always love my Legend of Zelda games, there is no feeling more satisfying than browsing games on Steam, finding a high meta-score rated game that I’ve never heard of, playing it, and letting the dive into something entirely new overtake me. We as designers are constantly striving to create and mold altogether singular experiences. The thought of someone finding one of our games blind and letting it transport them away from anything they’d expect excites me beyond belief. Nothing makes me happier than experiencing that feeling of playing a brand new game and taking the dive into somewhere entirely new, and I only hope that’s something I can give back to the rest of the world like those games have done for me. I cannot wait for the day when our stories – Wyvern’s and my own – can reach out, put the power in the player’s hands, and take them onto their next big adventure. I can’t wait to say, “Let me show you something new.”
-Nerissa Hart, Writer and Marketing Admin Assistant for Wyvern Interactive
NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.