Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Innovation and the Gaming Habit

People don’t buy games because solely because they are innovative, they buy games because they think the games will be fun to play. People do not try to reference some objective and authoritative “fun” when they decide if they will buy a game. They see the game in relation to their interests and what they’ve played in the past—based on this, they’ll decide if they want to try the game out. Perhaps they’ll have read a review before hand, but, most likely, players are buying games almost blindly. People who enjoy games will do more research before they purchase, but there still is thought of objective “fun.”

Fun is relative and subjective. So is novelty. We call novel game ideas “innovative”. We do this on a wide scale, taking into account all the games we can remember playing and some we’ve only read about or watched others play. There is no objective novelty to which we refer when we tag some mechanic or game as “innovative.” Our perception depends solely on our past experience. I may perceive a game as innovative, but you would be right to note that, for instance, three obscure games made by a Finnish game developer in 2001 already did that before, therefore the game isn’t innovative. All that matters, though, is that I find the game new, fun, and fresh. Discussions about true objective innovation are academic affairs.

Or maybe I’m looking for a game that will be more of the same in a genre I love, in which case I want to be comfortable and not jarred by unwanted novelty, unnecessary innovation.

If you follow how people spend their money, you’ll notice that they may claim to want something novel, but they most often buy more of the same. Note the painfully slow progress of the FPS genre, in particular.

Gamers clamor for innovation when they grow bored with kinds of games that they used to love and want to play more. Different people perceive the patterns in games at different levels of abstraction. The higher-level the patterns, the more games you’ll get bored of and the more you’ll clamor for innovation. When patterns become familiar and gameplay in those patterns is no longer fun, players will want innovation. This happens one player at a time—the community will not collectively make this leap, because each individual player needs to see the patterns and grow bored with them separately and on their own terms. When others point out the patterns the process may speed up, but boredom must develop from actually playing the games.

Over the past several years, gaming has grown in leaps and bounds. So many new players are seeing these hackneyed patterns for the first time that innovation seems unnecessary to industry participants. Game developers can borrow heavily from the past, sometimes outright cloning old games, and the new generation of gamers will pick up the rehash and experience it as if they were playing a brand new game. No need to innovate in an environment such as this—and this pattern of rehashing games to capitalize on new players shows no sign of reaching its end.

To most players, innovation would just be a nuisance. They’re busy playing games that were conceived thirty years ago and enjoying them just as their parents did in those days when the gaming industry was barely an industry. Players take a while to catch up to the modern days of gaming—many never do. But anyone who enjoys games and plays enough of them to develop a discerning taste will find that innovation and fun are noticeably correlated.

Innovation will never be chosen because it brings popularity. As the number of jaded gamers grows, though, innovative games will service niches that can comfortably host many profitable ventures.


Kenny said...

"When others point out the patterns the process may speed up, but boredom must develop from actually playing the games."

I really don't agree with this. You have some of the idiots screaming really loud and they can actually convince people who are simply to lazy to think and have an opinion for themselves. Hell, screaming people can screw the "fun" even for those people who would actually enjoy the game otherwise.

Anyway this rehashing is at least just as much an industry built on risk avoidance than new generation of players being new to certain types of content.

Nils said...

An interesting PoV. Thanks!

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

From a business point of view, the problem is that innovation represents a lot of risk but also a lot of reward. Some of the top selling games of all times were rather unique. The Sims is a classic example where the people in charge didn't want the game because it was too risky. Will Wright worked on it anyway and it went on to be the best selling game series for a long time. What's interesting to note is that The Sims ultimately appealed to a different audience than typical games of the time. (cf. the Wii for another example of "innovation" reaching a new audience, by design.)

On the other hand, the tried and true can be more reliable cash cows. As I've mentioned several times before, Blizzard has made a huge reputation on polishing existing games. They don't innovate, but they have consistently popular titles.

So, I think you're exactly right here. Most people really want more of the same. Every once in a while people want something completely new. But, in order to really hit the big time, you need to appeal to another audience, at least in part.