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.
- 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.
- Not all game concepts fit neatly within a genre.
- What about innovative core mechanics?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.