The Death of Originality

Discussion in 'Engineering & Reverse Engineering' started by Selbi, Jan 16, 2021.

  1. Selbi

    Selbi

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    Sonic ERaZor
    This topic has been on the backside of my mind for years, but I wasn't able to find the balls to kick down that door and just talk about it. Lengthy read incoming. tl;dr is basically me being sad about the exhaustion of ideas for Sonic hacks. I'm not trying to piss into anyone's shoes here, but I'd be glad if this starts a discussion.

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    It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m a huge fan of Sonic hacks. I’ve been involved in this community since 2008, so I think it’s fair to say I’ve had my fair share of seeing people come and go, discovering more and more about our beloved 90’s games and eventually turning them into products that could easily pass as official games SEGA created themselves.

    However, what tends to be forgotten is that we’re only talking about the tip of the iceberg here. For every masterpiece Sonic hack you come along, I can guarantee you, there will be dozens of projects that failed for a multitude of reasons. And this is something that gets overlooked a lot. We’ve reached a point where pretty much everything to be done in a standard Genesis-era Sonic game was conceived, implemented, and released at some point. We started with the bare minimum, but through community research and people in general becoming more proficient at understanding the underlying engine and the architecture of the console itself, we pushed the boundaries to the utmost limit.

    Which might seem like a good thing, and in a way it is. But it also comes with a problem. Suddenly concepts that seemed revolutionary a decade ago are so standard that the mere idea of including them in a new project is considered lame. Or worse, idea stealing. This picture is as relevant now as it was back then:

    [​IMG]

    Which is why I want to discuss this topic a bit today, since it’s something that doesn’t really get addressed very often. And to start, we need to go back in time, to see what made us arrive at this point.

    The year is 2005 when the now-legendary Hivebrain disassembly hit the scene. While not the first attempt to provide an accessible way to modify Sonic 1, its resonance can be felt to this day, with many people still calling it the best toolkit to make your own hacks. Debates about this continue to this day, but that’s a different topic. Also I’m talking about Sonic 1 to have a sample, but you could extend that argument to anything.

    What’s important to understand here is that without this breakthrough, we probably wouldn’t have arrived at this point we are right now. Suddenly, everyone who wanted to burn some time was able to create marvellous games. The only limitations were programming skills and, to an extent, artistic and musical skills as well.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t impossible to create novel hacks before 2005 and there are plenty of examples out there to prove that. But with such a huge barrier being shattered, hacks were rising in quality faster than ever. The nature of having everything ready at hand in dedicated files also resulted in a surge of really powerful tools to appear. With these, editing level layouts, or designing your own sprites was made so intuitive that suddenly you barely needed anything beyond MS Paint and some talent to create truly amazing things.


    Why do I bring all of this up? Isn’t this great?

    Well, yeah. It is. But due to this rise in accessibility, and the subsequent boundary-pushing I mentioned earlier, I want you to fast-forward to today. More than 15 years have passed since the release of the disassembly. Some of you were probably not even alive back then. And in the meantime we saw hacks that made you go, yeah, this is it. We’ve peaked, pack your bags, everyone. With the death of most of the technical limitations, it was only a matter of time since we explored every idea possible. And, well, I think we’ve reached that point now.

    While we still see a lot of people joining the community and creating beautiful things, there are just SO MANY HACKS out there that it becomes nearly impossible to create anything that stands out anymore.

    Long gone are the days in which doing a complete overhaul was a huge feat, like Sonic Megamix was. Entire Sonic games that feel like a spiritual sequel to the original titles are still impressive and require a lot of work and dedication, but at the end of the day, they register as barely anything more than another DLC to the huge pile of Sonic-inspired games.


    And I mean, how could you even blame these people? There’s only so much you can do in a Sonic game. At its core, it’s a speed-based 2D platformer. You can add levels ad-nauseum or extend the moveset, but it won’t change the fact that you’re still playing a Sonic game.

    On the other hand, trying to innovate the formula too much will actually be a fast way to alienate the player, since now you have something with Sonic on the title, but replaced most of the core gameplay with something very much completely unrelated. It’s only steps away from creating an original game and copy-pasting the sprites.


    Because I don’t want to point any fingers, I’m actually gonna use my own hacks as examples of where I think we’ve exhausted all possibilities.

    When I started working on Sonic ERaZor I was still new to not only hacking itself, but obviously game design as well. Needless to say, I learned a lot over those years and by the end I created something I can still be proud of. But if I’m honest, from a gameplay perspective it wasn’t original then and it most certainly isn’t now. It was your typical run-of-the-mill complete overhaul that just needed a checklist of changes to be ticked off, like a lot of hacks did. Gotta have that spindash, gotta have that peel-out, gotta have that homing attack, gotta overhaul every level of the original game, gotta replace every music track, gotta do wacky stuff with objects.

    And even now, a decade later, it feels like that checklist hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s so rare to see a concept that couldn’t be compared to something that’s already been done before. And when it is, it’s usually a hack with a single gimmick that gets old in less than five minutes.

    I was guilty of this myself when I thought I was very clever with Hedgehog Abuse Simulator, a Sonic 2 hack released in 2015 as a concept demo. And let me tell you, if there was any more apparent case of scraping the bottom of the barrel, feel free to tell me what it is. To give you a short summary, it’s an unfinished hack in which the main gameplay aspect was to use a modified debug mode to place various spikes to navigate through obstacle courses you couldn’t traverse through with your normal movement options.

    You see, I thought I was really clever at the time and tried to make an avant-garde hack, so to speak. But let’s be real here, what are we left with? Even if we disregard how unfinished the hack is, what it would have become is apparent to anyone who spends a couple minutes playing it. It would’ve been a puzzle platformer within the Sonic engine... that removes everything that makes a Sonic game, well, a Sonic game. All the speed is brought to a halt, all the tension and sense of adrenaline is gone out the window. Suddenly you’re forced to stand still and think about placing some silly object to cross a gap you only couldn’t cross because it’s slightly too wide?

    What I thought to be a cool concept that could get some laughs is actually an incredibly terrible idea from a gameplay perspective. It’s less of a game to be played, and more of a game to be reacted to.

    And that hit me recently. And it got me to think.


    There are multiple reasons why people pursue this hobby. Some do it to learn, others do it because they’re genuinely just having fun. And some do it because they want to get a reaction from people. Whether that’s to make them have a good time or to mess with them, we’re talking about games here, a medium which, at its core, has always been about entertainment. You can have your Call of Duty and FIFA being delivered to you every year like bags of potato chips, or you try to innovate. But when nothing’s left to innovate, do we even have any options?

    I don’t think the problem will go away, but perhaps there are aspects I’m missing. Maybe I’ve just played so many hacks over these years that I’m one of the few people to have seen it all, and perhaps that doesn’t apply to you. But as it stands, it feels like we reached a dead end.

    To wrap this up, I want to explain why I even wrote this essay. I love this scene, it shaped who I am, and as it stands I don’t see why I would ever leave. But it’s depressing to know that no matter what people come up with anymore, nothing lands. Either it’s been-there-done-that, or the concept is so specific that it doesn’t work as a Sonic game.

    What I’m really trying to entice you to do here is you proving the opposite. Showing that I’ve merely hit a brick wall and we still got so much more to explore. Bringing back that sense of adventure, the giddiness of discovery, and the joy of creation for something that makes people have a good time. Show me why I’m a moron with his nostalgia goggles strapped on too tight.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2021
  2. JaxTH

    JaxTH

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    Jack shit.
    I still think there is some creativity. Look at something like Sonic Black & White.

    However, it is a bit true however. These days I'm more impressed about the lesser done stuff, like Sonic R hacks.
     
  3. Paphvul

    Paphvul

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    I feel like this conundrum lies mainly in focusing on the wrong thing.

    Instead of worrying about originality of concept, focus on execution. How well does a hack's level design flow? Sonic 1 Alt's entire claim to fame is only changing the level layouts and nothing else. Far less than what most hacks attempt, but it did what it set out to do really, really well.

    Meanwhile, there are now two hacks dedicated to adding Shadow to Sonic 1. Why two? Because the second one knew it could do this idea better than the first.

    Why are there so many "Sonic 2, but with more levels" hacks? Because everyone has their own interpretation of what the scrapped level concepts could be like, and because even their treatment of existing levels can vary. Sonic Delta 40mb reinstates scrapped concepts within the final levels. One hack places its Hidden Palace Zone in a secret entrance in MCZ like in the mobile remake.

    Or how about Sonic 1's myriad "beta remakes" that we had before last year's actual Sonic 1 prototype? Some set out to recreate particular builds, including ones both earlier and later than the one we have. Hell, Sonic 1 Delta has set out to just be a parallel universe version of the game that reinstates every scrapped concept it can get its hands on.

    "Ideas" aren't necessary for a hack to be good. Things like solid coding, game design, graphical and musical prowess can make any idea work, no matter how many times it's been done before.
     
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  4. Mr. Fox

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    Sonic hacking died years ago. This subforum is barely alive, as it stands. Which is a shame, considering how Mario hacking is still so prominent and popular to this day. Maybe it has something to do with Sonic the Hedgehog on the whole being a quite mixed franchise with many less than stellar games. Every new Mario release brings some new blood into the fanbase, while Sonic games come and go with little fanfare and no lasting appeal. Mania was cool, but that was too little, too late.
     
  5. SuperSnoopy

    SuperSnoopy

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    ...that would be a fair point if it wasn't for the fact that both SAGE and SHC are getting bigger and bigger each year.
    The community is fine. Maybe more focused on fangaming than hacking, but I'd consider it a positive.
     
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  6. I can sympathize with this. I too feel like sonic hacks/mods/fangames are beginning the dying process. When I was younger, some of these hacks like Sonic Classic Heroes, Sonic Megamix, and even mods like beta windy valley and stuff were the makings of dreams.
    But now virtually everything has been done, and what hasn't will be, cause it's part of an obligatory modding concept, like "port every character into every Sonic game ever".

    You bring up, Selbi, that people seem to be running dry on ideas. I tried to start a thread ages ago for new users to share ideas and discuss projects together, but in hindsight it was unnecessary (and I'm glad they took it down. I've had people send me what are essentially fan fictions as ideas for my Super Mario Sunshine mod I'm working on (heresy, I know), so I understand the pain of trying to deal with those kinds of crowds), and most people can already do this in other places anyway. However, I do still believe that this community needs a good creative jumpstart.

    I've almost completely lost interest in the modding/hacking scene due to unoriginality, not to mention a failed attempt at modding sonic 1 (I still have my custom GHZ 1 on my everdrive, go figure), so when you say that you want people to impress you and prove that this part of the community is still alive, I'm right there in the boat with you.
     
  7. JaxTH

    JaxTH

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    Jack shit.
    Mario hacking has never been prominent. They are still aren't at the level of the Sonic Hacking Community.

    This could simply be because Sonic hacking started in the mid-90s but the point is they had the same tools as we did back then and they've done basically nothing in terms of what we have accomplished.
     
  8. I thought Super Mario World hacking was pretty prominent back in the early 2000's. I've always loved Sonic more than Mario, but SMW hacking is where I began my journey into the world of emulation and modding. It was from some forum back in those days, I can't place the name but I am fairly certain it began with an A, that directed me to Sonic-CulT and then from there to here. It doesn't really seem like the SMW hacking scene is very active anymore, as all the tools we had back then such as Lunar Magic haven't been updated in ages and I haven't stumbled upon any new hacks in a long time. Unlike with Sonic, I don't actively seek them out anymore though so idk.
     
  9. Mr. Fox

    Mr. Fox

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    They made a native port of Super Mario 64, in case you haven't heard.

    Anyhow, my point was this hacking subforum used to be the beating heart of the website about 10 years ago, and now it barely gets a few dozen posts a month. It's a graveyard of old threads and abandoned projects, more than anything.
     
  10. Ravenfreak

    Ravenfreak

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    Hacks take time to make, I bet many of them are still being worked on in private. There's still plenty of potential, heck there's only a few of us who touches the 8 bit titles. I get they're not as popular as the 16 bit titles but they exist.
     
  11. MainMemory

    MainMemory

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    I still make hacks.
     
  12. MarkeyJester

    MarkeyJester

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    There are a plentiful number of original ideas, and many are still compatible, suitable for the Sonic engine, and are not too ridiculous at all. I would argue the lack of originality does not eminate from a lack of ideas, and I believe there are other hurdles preventing them from blooming.

    Many of the more experienced hackers capable of thinking and implementing these are getting older, survival is more important and so playtime hacking takes a back seat, many of us are taking a more relaxed role so to speak. Newer members have the time but not the wisdom nor the patience, they lack the necessities and thinking capacities to generate sensible ideas and to execute them, they have yet to grow up.

    If you are smart enough to think outside the box, implement, and advertise originality, then you are smart enough likely to focus on more pressing, meaningful, and perhaps career driven elements involving it instead.

    The only way to prove to you is to share our ideas, I suspect many of those with good ideas would rather keep them quiet until they have the time to implement them, perhaps that's why the hacks with really great ideas are at rare distances apart.
     
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  13. MainMemory

    MainMemory

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    To be fair, most of my ideas are just "Sonic 2 crossed with X", but at least one of those (KEH) was good enough to win second place in SHC, for whatever that's worth.

    If the MD games just aren't doing it for you, maybe it's time you learned some new tricks. There's plenty of games on SMS/GG, PC, and other consoles that have hardly been touched.
     
  14. Rrose80149

    Rrose80149

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    I'm new to hacking. When I started making my hack the first time in the past I don't know what I was doing to change the sprites of Sonic. But later in 2020 I know how to and made help with a friend. Seeing as it is sad to say that Selbi is that We're not mad, We're just here for your support.
     
  15. As I mentioned, I tried that idea. Not a good one. Do not follow in my ignorant footsteps.

    There's nothing wrong with sharing ideas imo, or even having an ideas pool to pull from (as we have in the SMS community), but in a fanbase this large, virtually anyone will come in and say anything they want, which is what I was unintentionally going to open the floodgates to.

    I'm full of ideas for Sonic hacks and mods. I'd love to make an open ended SA2 mod with large levels and the trick system from rush, but would any of you think for a second that I might have the time or ability to craft that? Of course not, cause no one expects that. I think there are people out there who are coming up with great game ideas that could feasibly be put into their favorite sonic games, but because this particular modding scene is extremely pro-"if you want it, make it yourself", most people with busy lives and no help just can't be bothered. I know I can't anymore, I've moved on.

    As I said before, I think we need a creative jumpstart. Newcomers to the fandom just can't be bothered to try to create something themselves, especially when they can already play virtually anything they can think of. Wanna play as Jet in Sonic 3? Got you covered. Wish you could have tag team forces gameplay in Heroes stages? Now you can. There's no reason anymore for people to try to do what hasn't been done before, cause everything's already been done. I myself, decided to use what I had learned on building a new boat, instead of trying to set sail on the ship that had already sunk. However, that's not to say I don't think the ship could be patched and floating once again.

    Continuing with the boat analogy, this community is in a doldrum right now. Nothing is moving, and no progress is being made. Each time we get a new sonic game, a light breeze pushes us a bit, but it quickly dissipates into dry silence again. We need a good strong gale to get us going again, but just like on the sea, we have no idea when it's coming. So all we can do is grab our oars and slowly row along until we get that push.
     
  16. MainMemory

    MainMemory

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    I don't know you. I have no concept of whether you would be capable of such a thing. What I do know is that making that is entirely possible, and may not even be as difficult as you think it is.
     
  17. Nice to know you have more faith in me than I do lol. Self deprecation aside, I can do 3d modeling (in blender, no idea what else I'd need for that), but I can't do a lick of programming, so that's out of the question. I'd love to try to mod SA2 someday, being that it's my favorite sonic game, but I have no clue how to go about that. Everything seems pretty hush hush on that front
     
  18. Scarred Sun

    Scarred Sun

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    Welp, this.
    I think there's some things to keep in mind when looking at this phenomenon:

    1. Sonic hacking, as a rule, is largely done by individuals between 15 and 25 years old. Are there exceptions--people who continue working on a project later in their life or younger kids who pick up an assembler earlier? Of course. However, to really be able to excel at making a fan game or hack or what have you, there's really two things you need:

    Time and Technical Experience.

    Generally, before that age you won't feel able to tackle large technical projects and after that age you won't have the amount of dedicated free time to really deliver something.

    2. Hacking and fangames aren't really friendly towards incremental progress. Works in progress are, for a variety of Internet culture reasons, kind of looked down upon, and the very concept of compiled code == needing to do a lot of unseen work for feature development, bugs, QA, etc. means making milestones is much harder. My guess is most folks just go "I release and it's done", but the barrier to get to release discourages people after a while if they can't find the time/get stuck with some gnarly bugs/etc.

    On a side note, if anyone has made any sort of continuous development setup for their hacks I would find this fascinating and encourage you to write about that.

    3. I think you point too much to "all the ideas have been done" as an issue; I'd argue those concepts are just the ones more commonly documented here and elsewhere. As a rule, it's easier to implement something with instructions and teach yourself along the way than come up with a wild new idea--everyone has to start somewhere. Having things with tutorials is a bit of a double-edged sword, because you also see the phenomenon of everyone just treating things like spindash as checklist items for a release rather than weighing its relevance to the hack's design.

    4. As a rule, this community does not put a lot of emphasis on game design theory: what makes a good level, how to make gameplay choices, how player interaction should be guided, etc. There's a lot of pontificating and "I don't like X, you should do Y," but there's nothing really that explains these concepts as building blocks for your fan creation. I truly wish some of the folks with more knowledge under their belts on these ideas would be willing to write some instructional content around it. That lack of foundation and theory contributes to ideas being relatively stale and memetic.

    5. One of the things I've talked about with teams in the past is the kids and tennis rule, which applies here. When you're hanging out with small children before a certain age, they may understand the concept of a game like tennis, but the rules... are a lot more fungible. Because they haven't played a ton of sports and kids are more willing to share their silly ideas, the concept of playing a game like tennis with a kid can get weird. And creative. And fun. As we get more experienced, ideas like "THIS SHOT IS WORTH A MILLION POINTS" and "If the ball ricochets off the net and over that makes you Super Star" and "if you use two rackets for your two hands you're the best tennis player" sound odd. But those ideas play with the concept of "what is tennis" in a way that a Real Tennis Player might not consider.

    You have to somehow embrace the dumbest ideas you have with the expertise to make them happen in a more sound, structural way to get creativity, and there's a weird pressure in this community that "childish ideas" aren't that far removed from "make this game for me" if someone asks about something... well, weird. But most weird things can turn into cool creative concepts.

    6. There's been some generational shifts, because that 15 to 25 group I mentioned at the top are now currently a group who were into the early to mid-2000s games as kids: SA, SA2, Heroes, Unleashed, etc. It's not surprising that we see more folks interested in 3D games and using fan engines as a result, and a waning interest in Sonic's titles for 8 and 16-bit systems. Frankly, Sonic never had the cultural impact Mario did--my wife is nostalgic for Super Mario World, not Sonic 2. Most casual video game fans are similar, and that helps bolster the Mario hacking scene. We don't get that luxury.

    All this to say that the phenomenon you're describing isn't surprising, but there's also a lot of factors that are contributing to the current state of affairs.
     
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  19. MainMemory

    MainMemory

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    I'm sorry that we haven't put out more information in that regard. For what it's worth, there are two Discord communities full of people who would love to help you out: X-Hax tends to focus on the more technical side, and SA2 Realm is more focused on modeling. You might even be able to get someone interested enough to implement that trick system for you.
     
  20. Thanks for the links! Also, I want ask, since you seem to know a lot about that particular scene (I don't really follow people much, but I've seen your work), is Gamecube support in the works at all? Yeah yeah, I know, I'm a console purist, but I can't help but wonder either way lol