Monday, September 8, 2014

Copycat Culture, part 1...

Thanks to my long-time readers for putting up with my long tangent on cars and space shooters. I think I got it out of my system, at least for another week. Right now the pendulum is swinging back to fighting games, I know, big surprise! I wanted to preface the news on the fighting game front with a bigger theme. Every form of entertainment is synthesized from the human experience. The collective culture, interests and life lessons that every creator had was part of the creative cycle. You might remember hearing that there were Seven Basic Plots to every great or even not-so-great story. The ways in which that story were presented were also remixed in infinite ways. Perhaps the story was told in a poem or through a song. Perhaps the story was on a stage, a television set or a movie screen. For our generation the video game was the biggest medium for exploration in each of those seven basic plots. For the first time in the history the audience got a chance to take an active role in the plot. They no longer had to imagine what it would be like to be a part of the story when they were instead the central figure. A well assembled team of designers, programmers and artists could point audiences in the right direction, give them tools to succeed and provide just enough challenge to make the players think that they did everything themselves. It was the invisible hand of a producer that made sure all of the pieces worked well together so that audiences never felt disconnected from the action on screen. These game creators could not separate their own influences from seeping into the games they designed. The stories, comics, cartoons, music and movies that they grew up with and continued to enjoy colored the games they produced. In turn the games they released influenced their peers and the next generation of artists, designers, programmers and composers as well. It was a circle of storytelling dating back to the dawn of civilization. The only thing that changed was the format in which it was consumed.

Several of the most successful franchises were influenced by many sources. Some of these influences were subtle and others were very overt. The earliest video games mirrored the content of popular movies, comics and cartoons. Back in the early days the developers sometimes did not try hard to cover up these influences, especially where the Japanese designers were concerned. International copyright law was a different beast in the '70s and '80s. Characters, levels, in-game art and even box art in early arcade, console and PC titles were often poached. The developers and publishers knew they could often get away with it because they changed enough elements as to define an entirely new work of art. Of course for sharp-eyed audiences could pick out what the developers took from other sources. Hardcore Gaming 101's big writeup on gaming "influences" was a perfect site to see these game comparisons. The site displayed a bunch of art that was pretty much stolen and featured in Japanese, US and European games. Audiences tended to overlook the poached content so long as the game itself was well done. Many of the small companies that relied on outside inspiration for their first console hits eventually turned into publishing giants. Konami, Namco, Capcom and Sega were just a few of the companies that managed to grow exponentially during the '80s and '90s despite some poached art and designs. The entire library that each company produced was still very original and completely surpassed the few instances of stolen art that they got away with. The only reason that I bring this up is because poached art and design was at the heart of the Chinese gaming boom. The fastest growing economy in the world would soon be telling the developers and publishers from Japan and the US what they wanted to see in mainstream media. Since the entertainment companies seemed more focused on a profit rather than original content they would probably acquiesce to the Chinese demands. Yet what the Chinese gaming consumer wanted was at the core not much different than what the Japanese, US, UK or Europeans wanted. They longed for a great experience that was original and memorable. What they got instead were often rehashes of a popular genre.

 

Valve's Team Fortress 2 was a runaway hit with PC gamers. It was only a matter of time before imitators came out of the woodwork to poach the art style, character classes and gameplay of the first person shooter. None were as blatant as Final Combat. The Chinese title did very little to distinguish itself from its US inspiration. The studio went so far as to release trailers for each class of character as Valve had been doing over the past few years. Certainly the Chinese PC gaming market was starved for a quality FPS but was this really the way to go? The country had put a ban on console systems and arcade games in 2000 and did not lift that ban until 2014. This meant that a generation missed out on the formative years for both the Playstation 2, Playstation 3 and Xbox and Xbox 360. Audiences could still purchase modified consoles sold as home computers rather than gaming consoles. These hybrid PS2/3 and Xbox systems often came with Linux and a few dozen games pre-installed on the internal hard drive. Of course these modifications were done without the approval of Sony or Microsoft, the respective manufacturers of the consoles. Those that played PC titles could find a way to download the hottest games from the West but were always eager to play comparable experiences created at home. Games that reflected Chinese culture and tastes instead of being force-fed a diet of what was hot according to the west. Rather than invest in new technology, experiment with new formats or trust the designers to come up with an original idea the publishers often chose to copy what worked. The developers did an exceptional job of copying and running with it. It was good for a quick profit. It explained Final Combat and a number of other copycat titles that China developed. To be fair the idea of poaching popular games was something that the neighboring nations of Taiwan and Korea also had a hand in. Those other countries mixed and matched popular western culture to suit their needs.

The fighting game genre was no different than any other. As one of the more popular formats of gaming the Chinese were starved for an original fighting game that spoke to the community. What they got was a game that was as innovative as any fighting game released in the US or Japan in the past decade. The reason for that was because it also took tremendous influences from the characters, mechanics and balance from numerous different franchises. I had talked about Xuan Dou Zhi Wang aka the King of Combat on my 1UP and Capcom-Unity blogs previously. The game was worth revisiting because it continued to grow and evolve. It certainly was not the same game now as it was a year ago and would be a different experience next year. Every few months the publisher Tencent would roll out a patch that fixed the online gameplay, balanced the roster and introduced entirely new characters into the mix. One of the more recent was a Movin' In Circles from Ridge Racer Type 4. I sincerely doubt that Namco was paid for the use of the song.



Players would have a relatively short learning curve with Andrei because they could use many of the earlier set-ups and tactics from Street Fighter. Yet Andrei and the other fighters in the game were unique because they did not only borrow attacks from the Street Fighter series, they also borrowed elements from the King of Fighters, Tekken, Virtua Fighter and Guilty Gear. To be completely honest there were even elements of Blaze Blue, Capoeira Fighter 3, Sengoku Basara X and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure in the series as well. The addition of moves and attacks that were previously only seen in 3D fighting games and sword-fighting games was a welcome change of pace. Although King of Combat was rendered in 3D it followed the mechanics of 2D fighting games very closely. This blending of formats was handled very well, although some in the community could not get behind the game because of how blatantly it had copied the characters from other titles.

It wasn't enough to dissect the way that Andrei played. Audiences were looking for some originality in his design. A light-skinned playable boxer hadn't been seen in a 2D fighting game for some time. Most had been black characters, which was only fair since they reflected the legacy of actual boxing champions. Yet to say all of the great heavyweight champs were only black would be a slap in the face to some of the more recent champs. Ukranian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitscho were light skinned as well. Between the two they held every heavyweight title through most of the turn of the millennium.


In 3D fighting games the black boxer was not the trend. Steve Fox from Namco's Tekken series was a fair skinned British boxing champ. He had some devastating attacks but what really set him apart from his contemporaries was his lighting-fast defense. He was designed to take advantage of some unique dodges that left opponents wide open for a counter-attack. Andrei did have a touch of Steve in his design but also the other British boxing champ Aleron from Capoeira Fighter 3. Even the non-playable Joe from the original Street Fighter could have been an inspiration to Andrei. The original arcade boxing hero was Little Mac from Nintendo's Punch-Out series was the one that started it all. There was a hint of the baby face and haircut of Little Mac in Andrei's appearance as well.

The studio has actually gotten a lot better about masking the influences from other fighting games with the debut of Andrei. The previous character that Tencent had introduced was so blatantly stolen from another IP that many in the community were wondering if the company had any shame at all. The next blog would look at this character and what he meant for the series.

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