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.

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