Under the Sun

Under the Sun

The saying goes that there’s nothing new under the sun (and maybe there isn’t). That’s why a truly original idea is worth it’s weight in gold. Why everyone and their brother will hurry to snap it up and why everyone who discovers it will instantly try to duplicate it.

As a writer, originality is something I struggle with on a daily basis. Every writer, every artist, anyone who creates anything is inspired in one way or another by works they love. We see something another artist or author has done and it sparks something inside us, the imagination and desire to create something similar of our own. And that’s where it’s easy to get tripped up; how similar can something be before it’s a rip off? How much inspiration can you draw from something before you’re duplicating it? It’s a grey area each person has to feel out for themselves. Most people seem to agree that taking an old idea is alright as long as you do something to make it your own.

Yet more and more it seems originality has fallen by the wayside in popular media. You can see evidence of it in the super hero movie franchises re-launching less than a decade after their last successful incarnations (EG: Spiderman 3 2007/ The Amazing Spiderman 2012 (and even if you want to go back to the original Spiderman, it was made in 2002, exactly a decade before it’s new incarnation)). It’s highly evident when a US company decides to make a modern day Sherlock Holmes TV series to follow on the coattails of a highly successful British adaptation of the same. And you can see it best in the highly repetitive iterations of video game franchises such as Call of Duty and pretty much every MMO out there.

There doesn’t seem to be a branch of entertainment untouched by this phenomena. Re-makes became all the rage in movies when we discovered the digital technology to bring the true visions of every imaginative director to life. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy any re-makes. Star Trek breathed new life into a dying franchise without diminishing the original (at least with the first movie). And however you feel about the new Star Wars movies, the visual effects are stunning (especially for their time).

But visual effects can’t be entirely to blame for the trend. Otherwise why make five and six iterations of the same video game? Most gamers can agree there’s very little innovation in the sequels to most modern-day shooters. You pretty much get the same game with updates to graphics, perhaps a new mechanic and some new guns. The same can be said of MMOs. No matter how you dress up the quest progress (as a quest log or a status bar), it’s still the same old game mechanics.

And every time someone publishes a new best seller, the industry is flooded with tons of books on the same topic (until they get sick of them and start crying for it to stop). Off the top of my head there’s vampires and dystopias which have come and gone over the past few years.

Gamers have made it clear that they want something new, but I don’t think they’re the only ones. I, for one, would like to see a movie that’s not based on some other movie however old or new. There have to be plenty of stories out there to tell, so why won’t anyone give us something new?

The Escapist released an interesting video recently regarding focus groups, in which he points out that many video game companies use focus groups to make their game appealing to the largest market possible. The problem, he goes on to point out, is that what most people say they want is vastly different from what most people actually want. When we get in groups we give up our right to individuality in an attempt to fit in. In fact there have been studies proving that people do this. People will even go so far as to knowingly give the wrong answer because they want to fit in with the rest of the group. He ends the video by asking; why do we want cookie-cutter games that appeal to everyone anyway?

The thing is, you can’t please everyone all the time. Enjoyment is too subjective for that. While many people can generally agree that playing a game or watching a movie is more fun than banging your head against a wall, what movie or game they will chose to watch or play probably differs greatly depending on preference and sometimes even mood. There comes a point when you’ve repeated the same type of story or game so many times, you start to wonder the point. I, personally, can’t understand why people are so excited about Superman. What are we on, the twentieth iteration of this origin story?

But the Escapist hit the nail on the head (as always). The issue is that gaming companies, movie makers and even publishers all have the same issue; they want to be assured a return on their investment. Entertainment isn’t about entertainment, it’s about making money. We get the same movies and the same video games and the same books thrown at us over and over because people know for sure they’ll sell. And if they can’t make money off of something, why take the risk?

Into all this chaos comes the indie market. There have always been people trying to do it on their own, without a big publisher or movie studio to back them, and there have always been a few people who achieved success. But in many ways the indie market seems to be booming. Take the video game industry, for example. However you feel about Minecraft, it would be hard to argue the game wasn’t a success, considering it sold over 10 million copies (many before the game was ever officially ‘finished’). Steam has recently introduced its Green Light program to make indie titles of quality more readily available and noticeable. Even now the publishing industry is struggling to find a business model that can compete with indie publishers, whose prices tend to be much cheaper. And several indie authors have used self-publishing to get their feet in the door of the publishing industry.

Thanks to the power of the internet and crowd-sourcing, things that seemed laughable five or ten years ago have become perfectly viable. There are plenty of people who make good money in a niche market. Perhaps they never get famous, but do they need to? If they’re happy and their fans are happy… win/win, right?

And why is it that the indie market is so successful? Because people can take risks when they don’t have CEOs and investors breathing down their necks demanding unreasonable marks for success (Tomb Raider sold 3.4 million units but still failed to meet sales quota and was thus branded a failure… how does that work?).

Unfortunately, big businesses are unlikely to take risks as long as people keep buying their safe investments. Not everyone is comfortable with the indie market, however (and let’s be honest, not all indie creations are gems). Even so, it’s my hope to see some of the bright innovation and fresh ideas ideas permeating the indie market seep back into mainstream media. Not every new idea is going to take off, but most of them probably won’t sink either.

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