Monday, August 3, 2009

The Curse of Innovation

It’s difficult to innovate well. It requires smart people who have vision and strong analytical skills. But if you innovate well, your chances of success skyrocket. You harness the power of the long tail of gamers who want the new kind of play that your game offers. Differentiation is critical in markets cluttered with the detritus that the internet allows to accumulate, and strong innovation is the strongest differentiator.

Keen makes a stilted and awkward attack on innovation in one of his recent posts. I’d like to rebuff it here because I feel like his vitriol towards innovation is almost a direct attack on what this blog stands for—I cannot leave his attacks unanswered, especially when they are so confused and weak. I’m especially concerned because of the support he received in the offending post’s comments, so I feel that a long-form response is justified.

(I’m going to take on the more forceful of Keen’s arguments, because, quite honestly, I think the weaker version that is more agreeable is only agreeable because it says nothing notable. There’s no need to argue about stating that developers should stop making “bad” games.)

Keen’s Crippled Conjecture

Keen’s attack on innovation relies on a very flawed conception of how games are designed and implemented. By showing that his assumptions are mistaken, I will dispense with his argument.

Keen suggests that a game mechanic can be in one of two states: core game mechanics that are proved fun and worth perfecting in future games; peripheral game mechanics that are still experimental and should be subordinated during development to the core mechanics. Keen uses these classifications to make the statement that the former should not be compromised in pursuit of the latter. According to Keen, developers should not innovate if they have not perfected the core game mechanics.

There are several gaping flaws in the assumption that underlie this position.
  1. How do you define the core game mechanics of a genre? To define a core set of game systems that are intrinsic to a game genre is far from trivial and deserves significant study.

  2. Not all game concepts fit neatly within a genre.

  3. What about innovative core mechanics?

  4. How do you ensure your core mechanics actually work? If we’re not going to mercilessly copy every single formula, stat, talent tree, and advancement nugget from previous games we can ignore this, but if we stray at all from exactly what has been proven to work, we have to prove the validity and balance of our “standard” system all over again.

  5. It’s impossible to find a “core mechanic” with which everyone is satisfied—without such mechanics, there is no bedrock of solid design constructs for us to perfect and later build innovation upon (according to Keen’s theory).

  6. Not everyone agrees on what is a mistake and what works. Different kinds of gameplay are fun for different people. What is fun for players is generally what works and we all know how subjective, whimsical, and fickle fun is.

  7. Perfection in games is impossible. Different games are perfect for different players. Aiming for perfection either means diluting the character of your game so it appeals to a massive audience or you need to know exactly the kind of player you want to have fun in your game and maximize that player’s fun. Both of these choices are impossible: the first because it’s impossible to perfect a game for everyone and the second because it’s impossible to narrow the audience of a game down that much without targeting exactly one player.

These seven flaws illustrate the weakness of Keen’s assumptions. His deductions made based on those assumptions cannot hold water.

The Source of His Sordid Suspicions

After reading Keen’s post, I quickly understood why he held such an opinion. It’s a simple case of response bias. Keen plays games that have some chance of interesting him—this immediately filters out 90% of games, most of which are worthless clones with little to redeem them. Keen is biased towards playing innovative games, because innovation is more interesting than faithful cloning. The spectacular failures among these innovative games pop out like 300-pound tumor on a 150-pound man. It’s easy to remember the games that innovated but were let down by a some decisive lack in design. It’s much harder to remember the games that didn’t innovate and were entirely pedestrian because they blur together into one ignominious mass of boredom.

It’s all a matter of what makes Keen—and probably you, too—care about games’ failures.

Why won’t people care that your game failed?
  • No one knows about your game (or you have a very small playerbase).
  • Your game is pedestrian (or worse) and is a glorified rehash.

Why will people care that your game failed?
  • Your game is hyped (or you have a significant playerbase).
  • Your game is a significant evolutionary step forward.
  • You promise innovation, but your game does not innovate.
  • You promise innovation, but your innovations fail.


Crimson Starfire said...

Really, really well said.

I was disappointed at Keen for linking inovation to failure in the MMO industry. He should have known better than that. You did a great job of pointing out the flaw in his argument. Nice work.

Keen said...

... except I wasn't attacking innovation. Looks like you went to a lot of effort here, and you've made good points and expressed yourself well, but you've missed the point.

It's tough to do, but read all the comments and see how I've explained and worked out, for those like yourself who are struggling to get the point, what I'm trying to say when I say that innovation should come after perfecting and focus.

evizaer said...

And if you read my post, you'd realize I was saying that perfection and focus are impossible to achieve in a meaningful way unless you simply ask people to "make good games". Your guideline for making better games has no actual substance, though it certainly sounds good.

Perfection is a useless or impossible concept in a subjective field like game design. You face the double-edged sword of both perfection to the designers' intentions (which are often nebulous and impossible to define formally in themselves; these intentions might also be flawed as well) and perfection to the market (which is equally nebulous and impossible to define formally because markets are ever-shifting beasts and the generalizations they foster often are not true to life).

Focus is impossible because you need to know what to focus on. If you don't focus on exactly what someone else focused on (i.e. focus only exists comparative to what is out of focus), you have no means of conceiving focus. You have no choice but to rely on what those who have designed games previously have included in their games--here you fall into the logical fallacy of blindly relying upon tradition. But what portion of those pre-conceived features are innovative and what are not? Now we have to define innovation, which you have managed to avoid doing in a post condemning it as a tertiary (at best) goal.

We also have no way of figuring out exactly which mechanics failed and why--a lot of what makes mechanics work is the context in which they exist. Isolating mechanics doesn't do us much good because the quality of a game (and perhaps of the mechanics as they are in the game) does not lie in the individual mechanics, but instead in their interaction.

An aside:

And for the people who say "change for the sake of change is bad":

1. every mechanic is flawed--the real question should be if the mechanic is sufficient for the role in which the game uses it;
2. every mechanic works differently in the context of each different game where it makes an appearance;
3. there is no reliable way to see what is "change for the sake of change" because the axis of change depends on your own personal experience;
4. there is no reliable definition of the core features that must be in a given game (because it's impossible to divine developer intentions) before features start being "change for change's sake";
5. If the change had been successful, you wouldn't have branded the change this way. (You would only brand changes you don't like in this way, even though some changes that might have actually been made just for change's sake pass unnoticed or are even applauded.)

"Change for the sake of change", unless that change is something trivial, cannot be nailed down and ends up being a highly subjective and borderline useless branding.

Andrew said...


As someone who has read all the comments on your site, and very much "gets your point", I would like to reassert that the fundamental flaw with your argument is that any innovation "allowed" in your idea scenario is a frilly thing that cannot fundamentally change the way an MMO operates. If developers must not shift away from ideas that are proven to work, and only innovate once everything else is perfect, then games will be limited to meaningless innovations.

I would be beyond sad if any serious game development studios went that route.

Andrew said...

As a follow-up: I think that game studios should cherry pick proven systems that fit with the game they want to create, AND innovate in other areas.

Those innovations and core systems have got to be polished until they gleam, however.

evizaer said...

I'm going to cross-post a comment I made at Keen's blog because I think it sums up the argument without taking a thousand words:

"I think I’ve identified the source of our collective disagreement.

Keen’s supporters claim “It all makes perfect sense! Strong fundamentals, lots of polish, and a couple of innovations to put a cherry on top and you are a success.”

It does make perfect sense. But it only makes perfect sense because the terms keen uses are so vague and abstract as to be meaningless. It renders his advice useless.

Imagine you’re trying to learn how play guitar and your instructor plays a song for you and asks you to play it by ear, but when you fail to do so–you are a novice so you hit wrong notes and play out of rhythm–he just tells you “No. That’s wrong. Play the song correctly. Play the right notes in the right order. It’s so simple! How don’t you understand?” The instructor is giving you correct advice in that if you followed it you’d play the song correctly, but the advice is useless because it doesn’t actually help you play the song correctly.

It’s the same way with Keen’s advice: When you try to sit down and apply it, you will start to see that it just isn’t useful at all. He’s telling you to do things a certain way but you don’t actually have the capacity to do them that way–and even if you could, you have no way of actually making sure you are succeeding at any point.

So keen’s advice ends up breaking down to “Make good games!” Which is good advice in the sense that if you follow it you make good games, but it is entirely useless because it doesn’t actually help you make good games."