Innovation in Game Design

A recent podcast episode about innovation in games set me to thinking about a topic that I think Does Not Matter in game design. Most game players Don’t Care either, but clearly some people do.

(Note for Gamasutra readers: this was written in response to a podcast about tabletop games, for my regular blog, but I have included some examples from video games.  And many of the points about “innovation” apply to any kind of game.)

I rarely listen to podcasts, I suppose because I think writing provides a more concentrated form of information.  (I don’t read blogs much, either, preferring more formal articles.)  It takes more effort to read something than to listen, but in a given amount of time I think reading something that has been carefully written about a topic is more effective than listening to a podcast, which by its nature can be diffuse rather than focused.

Recently I was asked to participate in a podcast, “Ludology,” with Ryan Sturm and Geoff Englestein, “a podcast about the why of gaming” (in their case, tabletop gaming).  So I listened to some episodes before agreeing (it will be recorded in January).  The podcast is quite focused, the hosts have a topic in mind, may have a guest, and they talk about that topic.  There are no feedback segments or other distractions, just discussion of the topic and related topics.

A recent episode is about innovation and this set me to thinking about a topic that I think Does Not Matter in game design.  Most game players Don’t Care either, but clearly some people do. 

Definitions are important, as people seem to have different things in mind when they see the word “innovation” and its variations. “in·no·va·tion  noun
1.  something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.
2.  the act of innovating;  introduction of new things or methods. “

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”

These definitions are different as Wikipedia emphasizes the use of innovations rather than the creation of innovations, and uses “invention” for the creation of what others might call innovations.  In effect in #1 is defining what “an innovation” is while Wikipedia is defining what innovation itself is (’s #2).

However you look at it, why doesn’t “innovation” matter in game design?  First, true innovation in the sense of an entirely new mechanic in games is quite unusual.  "There is nothing new under the sun" applies to games more often than most might think.  Those brilliant ideas of today have often been used in the past.  This is typical:

    That's kind of a common pattern in everything I do. One minute I'm completely on my own and I think, “Wow, I'm a genius, I can't believe this idea nobody else had!” And then you look at the references on it, and it turns out that a hundred other people have done the same things in the 1980s.  And then you look, and you get your additional ideas from those. Between invention and stealing, you come up with a really good combination of ideas.  --Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games, publishers of Unreal Tournament series, Gears of War series, in Gamasutra interview 2009).

Second, whether something is innovative depends almost entirely upon one’s knowledge of previous usage.  To someone who is only accustomed to games like Monopoly and Sorry and Risk, Settlers of Catan may appear to be highly innovative, though to most hobby gamers it’s old hat.  In other words, innovation is entirely relative.

Once again, the question is what is “new”?  What’s new to a typical game player may not be new to a veteran gamer of broad experience.  And what is new to veteran gamer of broad experience today will not be new a few months from now. 

Being concerned about Innovation (with a capital “I”) reminds me of people who need to know sports scores NOW, even though the score will be just the same if they don't find out until tomorrow.  That is, what's innovative now, isn't later.  While an element new to a player may be a form of surprise, what counts in the long run is how the game plays, not whether any element of it is “new.”

The relativistic view that it all depends on what the players are familiar with, was brought home when the hosts of the podcast asked themselves whether Stratego was an innovative game.  However, they were unaware of the history of Stratego. There is no innovation in Stratego because it's an almost exact (and entirely legal) post-World War II copy of L'Attaque, a game originally patented and published in 1909 and still in print along with a group of spinoff games when I lived in Britain in ‘76-‘79.  By any definition, there is no innovation in Stratego.  But to most people who are unaware of those older games it is “new” in its methods. 

The idea that a game is more desirable to play because it is "innovative" puzzles me immensely.  This appears to be part of the “Cult of the New”.  On the other hand, as Shigeru Miyamoto has said, game designers are entertainers and are trying to surprise people.  Mechanics that are new to a player are a form of surprise.

My view is that what’s important in games is how the mechanics work together, the whole not the parts.  A focus on innovative mechanics strikes me as one step removed from the focus that novice game designers have on “great ideas.”  As I and many other designers have explained many times, ideas for games are virtually worthless.  It’s the execution of the ideas, how the ideas are carried out, that matters.  In other words a focus on innovative mechanics, mechanics that have not been used before, misses the point of games and game design.  To me games are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  A focus on innovation implies the reverse of those percentages, and implies that ideas are much more important than execution.  I don’t think so. The point is to have a game that’s enjoyable for a target market to play, not to have a game that is in some way “new”.

Having said that, obviously there are game players who value “new”. Game designers may be occasionally excited by the appearance of a new mechanic that they can then incorporate into their games.  And there is certainly that the cited reaction to an innovative game (as opposed to innovative mechanic) such as Dominion: we now have dozens of deck building games.

I wonder if the modern habit of playing a game only a few times, then moving on to the next one, is in part a quest for “something new”, fundamentally a hunt for games that aren’t kind of boring after the first few plays.  On the other hand, keeping in mind that many contemporary board and card games are much more puzzles than games, just as most single player video games or puzzles, we can understand why people lose interest after playing a few times and “figuring out the puzzle”. 

A focus on game mechanics also strikes me as reflecting a “component” notion of game design rather than a holistic notion.  It views games as collections of mechanics.  This implies that games are mechanical/scientific rather than artistic.  Yes, there are certainly mechanical aspects, but to me a game is greater than the sum of its parts, it's the combination that matters, not the individual mechanics.  Of course, I also view games as models of some reality (it can be a fictional reality).  You may evaluate the individual parts of a model but you mainly evaluate the model as a whole. 

The exception to that “model view” is wholly abstract games.  An entirely abstract game is necessarily a collection the mechanics, but to me it needs to be very few mechanics: there is no reason to obscure what’s going on by throwing lots of mechanics or other information into the mix.  Now if a game is a puzzle to be solved, which seems to be a common view in the Eurostyle, then complexity helps make the puzzle harder to solve.  I view most games as competitions, player versus player, and I don’t want too many mechanics to get in the way of the interaction of the players.  In the typical Eurostyle the interaction of the players tends to be minimized, just as competition tends to be minimized, and we have something more akin to puzzles.  There are of course Eurostyle games that are not typical, and these are often the ones that become popular over the long term.

Now if you play games because they have new/"unique" elements, not because you're interested in winning or mastery or a model or any of the other things people are usually interested in, then I guess perceived innovation (not encountered before by the player) makes a difference.

I must also ask, if you play a game because it's innovative (as far as you know), does that mean you lose interest after playing once (or twice) because it's no longer an innovation to you?

I also see an assumption in some quarters that “innovative equals good.”  But if you think about it, most "innovative" games are likely to be weak if not junk.  Thankfully most of them aren't published.  Why is it likely?  When you innovate for the sake of innovation, as I'm sure many try to do, then you're ignoring what's more important about the game, how it plays and whether players enjoy it.  If you deliberately include innovative elements, more often than not your innovation will at least be unsuitable for the situation, if not out-and-out junk in and of itself.

Video Games
Often the originally innovative game fails/has little impact, and a follow-up becomes much more well-known.  The Sims video game was thought of as a highly innovative game.  Many years before there was a video game called Little Computer People that did much the same thing but got little attention.  In other words The Sims was not nearly as innovative as most people thought it was.  But (in all its incarnations) it’s the best-selling PC game of all time.

AAA video games cost so much to produce that innovation is very risky. There's innovation in video games nowadays, but only from the indie publishers.  Big games are dominated by sequels.   All 13 games listed in a recent PC Gamer magazine as “most anticipated” by readers are sequels.   All of them.

AAA games are also straightjacketed by genres.  Players expect games to behave in the way other games of a genre behave, but slightly better.  World of Warcraft isn't innovative, nor is Call of Duty, but they dominate revenues.

Social network games seem to be dominated by a lack of innovation, at least if we judge Zynga’s Facebook games, which are said in some cases to be shameless copies of other games.  Zynga’s well-known games are repeats of a formula.   Zynga has become such a big company and makes so much money off their standard games that they can’t risk devoting a lot of effort to a entirely different sort of game.

Innovation in the sense of new methods is not important to success in the video game world.  It’s enough to use old methods in a slightly new way, much as all those 13 sequels are likely to do.  Angry Birds is absolutely not an innovative game, not even in the limited sense of using old methods in a slightly new way, but it has parlayed its atmosphere–it’s not a theme because it doesn’t modify how the game is played– into a branding empire.  (There are certainly successful video games that are innovative, such as Minecraft.)

Another Definition
There seems to be another definition of innovation which amounts to “how many games did this game spawn.”  By that definition Dominion is very innovative, as are the founding games of each of the standard video game genres.  By that definition Britannia was pretty innovative.  Brit was innovative for a number of reasons, but not the most obvious one. One of the major elements of Britannia, each player controlling more than one nation and each nation having different point objectives, was actually used first in Ancient Conquest I.  Almost everything else about the two games is different, even the sequence of play, as a player’s nations in Ancient Conquest all play at the same time and can cooperate closely.

I agree with Geoff and Ryan that the two most innovative tabletop games of our time are Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, both of which spawned entirely new categories/genres of games (both tabletop and video).  Still, what’s really important about those games to game players is that they were outstanding play experiences, not that they were innovations.  (I might note that an obscure World War II role-playing game preceded Dungeons & Dragons. . .)

I suspect that you’re as likely to be innovative in a game design, if you’re not trying to be, as those who are trying to be. 

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