There are no new ideas. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet is Pyramus and Thisbe. Arthurian legends have been told and retold hundreds of times. The same thing for classic fairy tales. There’s a whole classification system for character archetypes we see over and over and over again.
And that’s fine.
These stories and characters keep coming back around because we love hearing them. There’s something fundamentally appealing about them to us as humans. This also applies to the way we consume those stories.
The creation of new mediums and platforms doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s a long, cascading process of iteration and innovation. So you might come up with a noteworthy idea, only to find that it’s less novel than you thought.
And again…that’s fine. In fact, we can use this to our advantage.
Research the History of Your Medium/Genre/Storyseed
A funny thing happened when Bandersnatch streamed on Netflix. Pop journalists were quick to pat the creators on the back for this “cool, new thing.” Here’s the fun part. The first recorded piece of interactive cinema is from 1967. Interactive FMV movie games appeared in arcades in the 70’s. At-home LaserDisc games had a start in the 80’s that ran well into the 90’s. The Sega Saturn, Sega CD, and Playstation all had games with interactive movie elements. I was playing DVD games at the turn of the millenium. Every time a new Quantic Dream/David Cage game comes out, I morbidly enjoy scrolling through a timeline of hardcore gamer bros who either don’t know or totally forgot that “press A to story” has been around since Dragon’s Lair and that small developers and writers are putting out incredible interactive fiction experiences all the time.
Now that’s not necessarily their fault. It shouldn’t be expected of the casual consumer to have an encyclopedic knowledge of a genre or medium. If you’re going to be working in it as a creator, though, having that knowledge does you more good than harm.
It doesn’t have to be deep or academic. You don’t have to be such an expert that you could teach a university lecture on it. But if you’re making a metroidvania…play some metroidvanias. Understand why it’s evolved into its own subgenre. Listen to old audio dramas and radio shows. Consume sci-fi from different genres and eras. Look especially hard at things that do the same things you want to do or cover the same narrative elements you want to play with.
Learn from Previous Mistakes
You want to do these deep dives because it’s the only way you’ll learn all the ways in which your area of creation has totally fallen apart in the past. Perhaps you conceive of an RPG that relies on a quirky mechanic that you’ve never seen in a modern game. That doesn’t mean it’s never been tried at some point in the history of RPG’s, and there very well may be a reason you haven’t seen it in any modern games.
Every time a Kickstarter falls apart, a book doesn’t sell, or a product gets slammed with bad reviews, there’s a reason behind it. It may not be a good reason or a reason that immediately makes sense upon initial review, but if you dig deep enough you’ll find the points of failure for any given production. Being able to see where things went wrong helps keep you from following that same path.
Learn from Previous Successes, Too
While learning from mistakes will usually do you ten times more good than learning from successes, any postmortem that lets you glean even a fraction of insight as to why something did well is another tool in the toolbox.
It’s harder to lean on successes. Many times, a creator doesn’t know why something blew up. Virality can be hard to pin down to an exact granularity. However, a combination of data, anecdotal evidence, and general knowledge can help you suss out those broad patterns of consumption and apply them to whatever you’re doing.
Just Come to Terms with the Fact that You’re Not as Original as You Think
I see this all the time in the forums and chats I’m part of. A game comes out with this interesting little something or other. A gimmick or an aesthetic. And someone will lament that they had that idea, and now they can’t do it because it’s been done. More on this in a follow-up, but so what? By the sheer nature of creativity, the idea will likely morph into something new just because someone else is doing it.
“Oh, this idea is too close to Harry Potter.”
People loved Harry Potter. Like…it’s creepy how many grown-ass adults are still way into Harry Potter.
That’s not to say that you should purposefully attempt to be a copycat. People see right through that sort of thing. But if someone “got to your idea” first, you can’t really change that. What you can do, though, is turn it into a litmus test for the idea. How well does it play? What audience does it appeal to? This is all valuable information you get to watch in realtime before you launch your own version out into the world.
And there’s going to be that moment of disappointment when you realize you’re not as clever as you think you are. Get over it. More importantly, though, see the silver lining. If someone else was inspired to come up with the idea, then they probably thought it was pretty cool, too. If at least one other person thought it was pretty cool, then how many others did, as well? That potential audience may be bigger than you think.