What is innovation?
Everyone is talking about innovation when they start thinking about a new game. I would like to take a look at some outstanding mobile games, look at how they innovate and share my personal experience in this field: what have I learned and how does it help me to make a better game today.
I understand innovation simply: something that you haven't seen before or you have but in a different place, probably already forgotten. Truly, there are not many ideas that haven't existed already in some form, but typical player hasn't seen even 1% of all games that are out there. We live in the world that has a horse simulator game and pigeons dating game among many other ideas.
Innovation could be the whole concept for the game or just a new visual representation of familiar information. A simple and brilliant thing such as the node map is one of they key differentiators that made Candy Crush successful. And what is considered an innovation these days in Match3 genre? Lack of the saga map! Take a look at Homescapes, Gardenscapes and Toon Blast. When they were released without saga map, it looked new, fresh, unfamiliar.
I bet you've heard every company (probably yours as well) saying that their focus is innovation. However, the biggest issue of innovation is communication. To bring something new to life, that people haven't seen before, you have to find a way to explain it. I've seen many situations where great ideas fall victims to lack of understanding.
Imagine - you're in the room with this brilliant idea. You have executives listen to you, you start explaining, passionate, convincing but you get blank stares in return and the question "Can you give me an example in a successful game?"
And this is where the danger lies. There are no examples in successful games. Otherwise, you're only following someone and not innovating. When you aim at the so called blue ocean, you always face the same dilemma: "Have nobody succeeded there because there's no real product to market fit or just because nobody made it right yet?". Can you make it right?
You need to have strong vision and sometimes just enough trust to pursue those ideas. Probably if nobody really understands what are you saying - you should come back and revise it. Chances are people you are asking for feedback are more familiar with games than gamers themselves. However, if people know what you are saying and the only feedback you're getting is that it just has never been done before - maybe that's the whole point to go for it.
Why would you want to innovate?
So what is the actual point of innovating? After all the stress and discussions that I've mentioned above it's so easy and compelling to say - ah, let's take Clash Royale, add a couple of features and that is going to bring us 5% of their audience. Huge money!
But why? Why people who play Clash Royale, who Supercell have been building trust with, will go and play your game? Because there are a couple of new features? Players don't really think that way.
Take PC, single player experiences, you're competing for player's attention at the CURRENT moment. But eventually he or she will complete Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider Man and will be on a lookout for new games. Maybe yours is interesting enough.
However, take League of Legends or mobile examples such as Clash Royale, Candy Crush or Marvel Contest of Champions. People play those games for years. They don't actively look for a new one. Sure, they might try out your game and they MIGHT consider staying if yours is better. But a couple of new features will not make your game actually better. You should provide a new experience to consider your game as an alternative.
Market is so saturated in every genre that there is either a single player takes it all - Clash Royale, Hearthstone, Pokemon GO or there is a multitude of successful games in a genre such as puzzle: all Candy Crush games, all games from Playrix and Peak Games and so on.
To be really able to take part of their audience OR actually create a new slice of audience you need to offer something new. Something players have been waiting but didn't know. The everlasting issue of gaming is that new games usually don't solve problems. We assume that if we make it really fun - people will like it, but if they have so many minutes in their day to play games they need to like it MORE than other games. Almost all mobile games are built as services right now, everyone wants to be there for 3, 5, 10 years. None of the games will give yours any slack.
Probably many would deem the innovation that I’m talking about dull and not that innovative after all, however I think it just needs to deliver fresh exciting feeling for players to enjoy no matter how has it been achieved. I think the innovation scale depends on the industry itself. When in the indie games, the innovation might be really wild, in the F2P mobile it can be unexpected mix of several elements.
What kind of innovation is acceptable by your audience? Take a woman 50 years old. How many new features and experience does she want to handle when starting a new game? Something completely new and wild or rather something familiar with a twist that makes it fresh for her?
Let’s start with an easy example - Clash Royale. Let’s take a look at it from two sides. First - how does the initial concept sound like and, second - what does it really brings to the market?
The brilliance of clash royale, and it’s easy to say in hindsight, is that its initial concept wouldn’t even sound that innovative. Always same map, two players, three towers for each and a deck of 8 units with mana economy. That sounds like any other strategy game out there, but nobody could simplify a strategy game that it actually FITS the mobile experience.
As we all know, behind the simplicity there are numerous parameters that make the gameplay of Clash Royale so long-lasting: location of spawn, pathfinding, unit combos and counters, mana management and many other small details.
Now take a look at the actual market, were there any successful games that featured strategy gameplay with synchronous multiplayer? Nope. That’s how you want to innovate. Even though you might say, from the gaming perspective overall - Clash Royale is just a strategy multiplayer game or simplified MOBA or whatever you would like to call it, this game had nothing to compete with on the market and it easily took the place and holds the crown ever since.
Switching to more casual games, consider Gardenscapes: no innovation in the gameplay except multiple goals, it’s quite usual mix from Candy Crush and Fishdom. However, taking something simple as rebuilding a garden with light narrative along the way and it totally crashes the market.
Compare Homescapes to its predecessor, it went for innovation in the gameplay - booster system that is rather similar to Candy Crush, but colorless and with some other adjustments. Keep evolving the narrative bit and the audience is happy to play another match3 game that feels fresh when you play the levels.
Looking at a newer competitor on the match3 market - Home Design Makeover, they went all across the board with innovating and it could have pan out like it did or it could have been a total failure. They took a gameplay similar to Farm Heroes Saga or to their own Sugar Swap Mania, added a big difference - boosters that stick to the tile, added on top of all of that meta that is somehow mix between Homescapes and Design Home and they’ve got a really solid product that offered an experience of decorating while playing fun and fresh puzzle game that nobody came up with before.
There are more examples out there, that did something simple if you think about it, however nobody really did that before them. Take a quick glance at these two examples: Golf Clash and Wordscapes.
Golf Clash took the golf gameplay that has its audience, combined it with the progression and the meta (including competitive 1 vs 1 play) from Clash Royale and it exploded the market. I can only guess, but I would bet that because of bringing this kind of progression outside of the gameplay itself, they have expanded audience outside of typical golf players and brought the successful monetization model to the previously skill based game that nobody knew how to monetize well.
Wordscapes just took a crossword game that has been out there forever and packed it with unique user experience that made it fun and rewarding to play short entertaining levels that brought a ton of downloads and allowed to make a successful business through selling hints and showing video ads.
Summarizing, you can see that some teams were able to create something completely new and unique that didn’t exist on mobile market before when others just mix or re-iterate in a way that create fresh experience for target audience and expands it even further.
Seeking for innovation
There’s no really good answer how to seek for innovation. I could tell you some tips that helped us in Social Point, however it might lead you in the right direction or nowhere at all.
Classic way to come up with new ideas is brainstorming with the team. However, you might find numerous ways to perform a brainstorm on the internet, I would rather focus on things that might help to get better results.
Number one, build a diversified team. People from different countries, different cultures, different backgrounds. Invite artists, developers, analysts, don’t do brainstorms only with designers. Having profiles that think differently is a crucial part in coming up with really unexpected ideas. Some thoughts of a developer that you would never have yourself will generate more discussions and more ideas.
Another angle of variety is bringing people who are not constrained by years of experience, bring passionate and sometimes naive juniors into the room. Experts tend to kill all ideas in their head even before voicing them and that doesn’t help collaborative brainstorming. Having a point of view of someone who is not yet “corrupted” by the weight of the industry is indeed fresh and extremely helpful.
To fuel the brainstorming, inspiring yourself is the way to go. However, we tend to look at games that are going to be our direct competitors and that creates a framework in our head that is very hard to escape. When you think how to do X - you always get an answer because that game in top 50 grossing already solved it. But maybe there are other ways?
Look at industries that are parallel to ours: movies, tv shows, books - what people enjoy there and why do they enjoy it? Can you re-create an experience of a cooking TV show in the game? Can you re-create an experience of escape room activity? Look for unexpected places and you can find something really interesting and innovative.
Another angle is old games. There are thousands of different games and probably almost every gameplay already has been created in some way. Get inspired by games from 80s, 90s, 00s, by AAA, indie games and many others. A variety of things that you can find in those games still haven’t found a good application on mobile. Is it because there’s no market or just because nobody has tried before?
And last but not least, we come back to the issue of gaming that it doesn’t solve any problems that players have. However, they play other games and you can identify what are their key needs in those games. You can figure out what they like, why they like it and more importantly what are they missing in those games.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your audience, conduct focus groups, make interviews. This is the most valuable information - reaching out to your end customer. A lot of the times you will discover something that you had never even considered.
Proving an innovation
And the last thing that I want to talk about is how to execute on the innovation that you came up with. Not everyone will agree, but I’m an advocate of an minimum viable product (MVP) approach. If you come up with something that never has been on the market, quality of the execution will not determine the baseline performance. It will depend on the idea itself.
Moving fast towards soft launch with an MVP product will allow you to gather the real initial reception of the real audience. All research prior to that can only give you information but it will never reliably prove your chances for success. Quality of execution might help you improve the metrics of your game if your baseline performance is promising with MVP version by itself.
It’s crucial to move forward as lean as possible to be able to pivot easily. Imagine you develop something for a year and then decide to change a couple of key systems. Chances are that you will need to rebuild the whole product. However if you went into soft launch after 3 months of prototyping and see that something needs change, it will take much less time to find the direction that is right for your product.
Iteration will always be the crucial process to create good games. You can only nail it from the first try if you know exactly your audience expectations (which is not the case if you innovate) or if you’re lucky.
Many will disagree with this point of view and you will never see an unpolished game from some very successful companies even in the soft launch. Many will iterate even on the huge polished product and will reach success that I have never dreamt of. There are many ways to get there, and I’m listing just one of them.
Nonetheless, I would advise, next time you build a game, consider what is the minimum viable product is for your audience. What is going to catch their attention? What will make them come back on the next day? Build iteratively, address your metrics one by one. Did you get your players back on 2nd day? Maybe now it’s time to retain them for a week.
I hope to see more and more innovative projects appear on the mobile market and prove that success is driven by original ideas and fresh experiences and we as a professionals should keep seeking for delivering these experiences to our players.