On the Shoulders of Giants

in Tutorials

Someone, though it is argued exactly who, once said, that stealing from one person is plagiarism, while stealing from many is research, and though we should strive to do better than steal, it is true that as designers, we are indeed dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

Just as Sakaguchi stood on the shoulders of Horii, or Horii stood on the shoulders of Greenberg and Woodhead, or they in turn stood on the shoulders of Arneson and Gygax, we too stand atop a plethora of designers who came before us.

For those of you following along at home (and yes, I know there are tons of intermediate steps and other inspirations)

For those of you following along at home (and yes, I know there are tons of intermediate steps and other inspirations)

So its easy to see something in a game and immediately think “Wow, I want to do that!” But where do we cross the line from paying our respects to their brilliance, to outright theft of their ideas.

And with that drawn out intro, I lead you into the topic of this article: Taking inspiration from a mechanic in a game, but making it something of your own, rather than just a pale copy.

Step 1: Knowing Why?

The first thing you should be aware of is WHY. Why are you taking a mechanic from another game. And try not to answer with “because that is the way its done.”

Let’s say that I really really love the Materia system from Final Fantasy VII and want to use it in my upcoming game: The Village of Cakes.


So now the question: Why? Let’s take a look at the mechanic and I’ll list what I liked about it:

  • Strong Customization
  • No “Messing Up” with bad builds
  • Can craft unique skillsets for characters
  • Can alter spells and abilities with modifiers

With this knowledge in hand, we know what to try to replicate at when we design our own system.

Step 2: Identifying What You DIDN’T Like

Next, try to think about what parts of the mechanic you didn’t like. I’ll do a list again for the Materia system:

  • Every character could feel “samey”, as all Materia could be used on any character
  • Link system required tons of slots to pull off mediocre combos with regular spells
  • Summon Materia tended to give too much “bang for your buck”, even with limited castings per combat

Now that we know what we DIDN’T like, we know what to try to avoid when making the mechanic our own.

Step 3: Rebuilding

So let’s take the mechanic, and rebuild it, keep the parts we like, but toss the parts we don’t. In the end, the mechanic will still probably resemble the mechanic that inspired it, but it won’t be identical.

So we start with the base system. Equipping cool magic stones to weapons and armor to give us spells and abilities. But first, let’s see if we can deal with some of the problems we had. What if certain magic stones took up more than one slot? This would solve the problem of Summon Materia and the bang for the buck problem.

But let’s take it further! What if different stones took up different amounts of slots depending on WHICH character was equipping it. Maybe the healer type can equip healing magic for less, your strong man can equip big physical swipes for less. You can still pop a weak healing spell on your big guy for an emergency, so it keeps a lot of the customization, but the characters have more individuality.

And now that we have multiple slots for one piece, we’ll need to change from links of 2 slots, to clusters of slots. Now a weak spell can have tons of modifying pieces attached to it, and as a side benefit strong spells can have LESS. So what is better, that HP/MP absorbing doublecasted Fireball, or that MP absorbing Raging Inferno!?

Step 4: Reskinning

Now that you’ve rebuilt the mechanics, you need to reskin them. Keeping the same skin can work sometimes, but really, with things as specific as Materia for instance, it feels very very derivative. So think about how you can make it fit into your world aesthetically that will also change how the mechanic is viewed by the player. The Skin is important for feel.

With my Materia inspired system, I think I’ll go with Runes. I’ve always thought Runic magic was a cool idea, and the idea of mystic runes being scrawled on the weapons and armor of the heroes to be called forth to execute special moves and attacks is a great visual.


When reskinning, keep your game world in mind. Think about how the mechanic will integrate with the story you are telling. Why does X mechanic work in Y way?


So as you can see, even though when I say that it was inspired by the Materia system its obvious, would you really see scrawling runes on your equipment with variable size based on character with possible modifiers based on the area available for scrawling and think: Man what a ripoff. Would you have even recognized it had I not said where the idea came from?

Don’t rip things off. Examine, adapt, create, and make it your own. Your mechanic should play and feel different. And never, ever forget the giants whose shoulders you are standing on.

Have a mechanic that is inspired from another game? Want to see if people can identify where its from just from a description? Just want to tell us your thoughts on design inspiration? Join us in the comments section below.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • There is a thin line between inspiration and plagarism. It is all about balance. Innovation is as much about the changes you make to things that exist. Very few things are actually entirely new. Entire genres are based on clones and similar mechanics – if this was frowned upon, then you’d only ever be able to have a single game in each genre. Most of the games made by RPG Maker are Final Fantasy clones (as an iconic game, rather than an original one). If it was frowned upon to do things vaguely similar to FF then there wouldn’t be any point in RPG Maker.

    It’s even worth noting that things have been copied and innovated long before Arneson and Gygax – they took their innovation from a wargame called Chainmail, which in turn takes it’s inspiration from the myriad of minatures wargames that had been on the market. These in turn were innovations based on previous board games, and other games in general, which actually go way back through time.

    For example, Chess has been around for a VERY long time, in one form or another, but it can be argued that many of today’s Turn-Based Strategy games are simply an enhanced version of such games. It all depends upon where the balance is.

    Reskinning is important, but not nearly so much as the innovation. Take the example of the hack ‘n’ slash RPGs known as Diablo-clones. The mechanics are virtually identical in principle – randomisation, skill trees, and so on. Yet, the specifics are what make the games different – Torchlight, for example, may be a Diablo-clone, but it is not Diablo. It is not a remake of the same game.

    Another famous example is the Legend of Zelda series of games. The games and their stories are quite similar, even within the franchise. Yet, it is the specific tweaks that impact these similarities that are most important. Whether it’s the twin world of A Link to the Past, the sailing in the Wind Waker, or the Hourglass Dungeon in the Phantom Hourglass, the smallest differences are important. Take the Oracles series (Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons) – these games have the same engine, and essentially the same story, with cross-referencing due to the Link Secrets system. But there is still a difference between them, based on the differences of the Seed Shooter and Slingshot, or whether or not it is the Power Glove or the Roc Feather that gets upgraded (to the Titan Mitt or the Roc Cape, respectively).

    Ultimately, the key to getting the balance right is based on how a mechanic plays out when it is put into your game. If it is exactly the same as something else – then you may want to think twice about using that mechanic. However, this is highly unlikely should you integrate it with other elements of the game.

    To take your example of reskinning – if you were to switch from Materia to Runes, then you might have it that the characters need to discover the runes, but once they have them, they can use them indefinately. Instead of having the whole “Summon Materia” mechanic, it then becomes a way of making sure that certain runes are available to the party – it doesn’t matter if the entire party has weapons inscribed with Flame runes. Here the balancing factor is both finding the Rune, and the potentially limited slots for runes on each item. This can be considered a new, innovative mechanic (although it has probably been done somewhere before in some game or another).

    However, if you were to simply replace the idea of Materia with Runestones, right down to a Summon Runestones ability, then no amount of reskinning and renaming is going to cover up the fact that you have just copied the mechanic. This is just about as innovative as changing the colour of a slime to red to make it a “lava slime” – without something to help change it mechanically, it is just a recoloured slime! Likewise, without changes to the gameplay, all you really have is a renamed mechanic that someone will no doubt recognise.

    • Krazykidpsx

      I think instead of summoning materia combining rune magic to create a summon+ enhancements would be very interesting. It would change from 10 summons per character to enhancing abilities with the potential added ability of bringing out a summon. Balancing out min/maxing for the mechanic. Wind ability enhancer plus healing ability = summon that partially heals the entire party. Not to mention it can be specific runs that work together in this way as to jot min/max summons. Though some designers do like the over the top epic feeling of summons and cinematics.

      • Thinking about it I would probably drop Summons entirely, mostly because I think that Summons as they exist in FF are just very much a FF thing at this point.

      • amerk

        Pretty much describes Wild Arms, which was in production at the same time or just before Final Fantasy VII, so one of those two games copied off each other to some degree. The difference, though, is that Wild Arms uses a sort of runes like artifact to grant you the summon’s power.

        Where you might be able to take it is if you were to combine two of the runes together to create new powers… or was something similar done in Breath of Fire II?

    • Even left as “runestones” the mechanic is significantly different. The “size” difference and cluster size being different really does come off as a lot more different than the 2 slot max cluster from VII. Or maybe you missed the whole rebuilding step? Having to balance Rune size with the modifiers for the Runes you want to use creates a very different dynamic than just needing multiple of the base to be modified. The intention on the whole was to just have apply-able runes though.

      Also, considering Gygax was one of the creators of Chainmail, I think he was standing on his own shoulders for that step (though Chainmail was just another in a huge collection of wargames, and wargaming as a whole dates back hundreds of years)

  • Kyle

    Thank you for the well thought out post. It’s good for potential developers learn to identify and analyze game systems. Innovation is driven by understanding what a mechanic or system is trying to do, taking the core spirit of that, and adapting it to other worlds and ideas where it will fit appropriately. Even if you don’t want to borrow the core design it is still invaluable to know what a previous system was intended for and how it achieved that when working a new one.

    I would also add that game reviews and internet communities surrounding a game would be good places to look for other opinions on strengths and weaknesses and how to overcome them.

  • I think this was a neat post to read.

  • AstoXx

    “[…] want to use it in my upcoming game: The Village of Cakes.”


    • I might have thrown that line in there just to see if you would see it.

      • AstoXx

        C’mon, Touch. Don’t shatter my dreams, man. You gotta make it legit now! It’s just too GOOOOOD.