I am not convinced that blind innovation is categorically bad—if it’s a meaningful concept at all. Starting from scratch and trying to make a game that is unique is a great way for game designers to get out of their comfort zone and produce something that aggressively explores and opens up the space of possible game rule combinations.
The Naive View
Let’s assume that innovation and fun can be objectively defined and universally acknowledged. In this case, I see innovation through the improvement of existing systems as moving a particular genre of game forward towards “perfection.” A perfect game is one where the mechanics, if changed incrementally, cannot be made more fun. If you don’t fundamentally alter the rules of a perfect game, you cannot make it more fun. It has reached the end of its evolutionary development. Innovation for innovation’s sake is not moving forward, it is moving laterally. Different paths towards the perfect game are found by discarding what mechanics have come before and coming up with something entirely new. Discarding mechanics can happen at any level: you can discard really basic mechanics like the character being in one world; you can discard mechanics like character death upon reaching 0 HP; you can discard relatively superficial mechanics like instanced raids. Through discarding the old in favor of building the new from scratch, new passageways to perfect games can be opened and these new perfect games have the potential to be more fun than past perfect games.
Those who rail against innovation for innovation’s sake want perfect games before they want lateral exploration of designs to occur. In this case, though, you can have your cake and eat it too: there are enough people making games that there’s no reason to discourage some of them from innovating blindly because you’ll still reach perfection at just about the same speed with or without a few rogue developers who try to reimagine the fundamentals.
By telling people that they should not innovate for innovation’s sake, you endorse the original blind innovations that were built up into our current genres of games. This suggests that current genres of games are the only genres that should exist—certainly that isn’t the case and it’s not beneficial for us as gamers to not want new genres of potentially great games to be invented and also perfected.
The original guy who made games for a spectrometer was innovating for innovation’s sake. He was creating where, in the past, nothing had existed. If you think that people should not innovate for innovation’s sake in games, computer and console gaming would never have existed!
The Nuances of Innovation
The assumptions I made in the first sentence of the naive view are not valid. According to the current understanding the game design community has of fun, we cannot objectively say that something is fun; the nature of innovation is also clearly not objective.
To analyze innovation for innovation’s sake, we must be able to decide if something is innovative. Innovation, though it generally has a positive connotation, basically means change into something relatively new. So if something was changed in a novel way from one game to the next or within one game, we should be able to claim that innovation took place.
Though this is the most intuitive analysis, it does not take into account the intent of the designer or the past experiences of the player.
We don’t perceive change unless we see or hear about the change happening. We must have knowledge of an initial state and a different end state. If you haven’t played games before World of Warcraft and you casually play the game without digging into the universe of MMOs, you would not think that WoW is a change necessarily because you have no other game to compare it against. If you started your gaming life playing shooters and then switched to WoW, you may find it to be innovation for innovation’s sake. Blizzard made a system that converts player time into character power; that’s a baseless change from the paradigm in FPSes of the player’s skill determining his character’s power. A player well-versed in RPGs and MMOs before WoW can see WoW as an innovator and improver. The clear trail of MUDs and past MMOs show WoW to be a slight change that is primarily polishing certain aspects of the genre for good reason, not simply making up new mechanics from scratch.
In order for innovation to be pursued for its own sake, the designer has to actually choose to discard what has come before in favor of rethinking what might be. If the designer doesn’t do that, their innovation is not independent of what has come before. Such innovation must be some attempt at improving a past system and therefore it is not innovation for innovation’s sake alone.
The innovation discussion is a red herring.
What one player finds innovative another might find boring and overdone. A player or designer can never pull back and truly see what is actually new and what is not. A designer cannot willingly eliminate his past experiences from contention as he designs are mechanic. Even if they could, there would be no way for outsiders to tell that this was happening. Is the designer stealing from Obscure Designer B who did it five years earlier, or did she come up with the same solution to a problem independently?
Because “objective” innovation doesn’t translate into fun, perhaps we should not discuss it seriously. The novel is often preferable to what we’ve already seen, but that makes no statement about quality. What is new could be shallow, whereas what is old could be deep.
The question we should ask ourselves is: how does this mechanic contribute to accomplishing the game’s apparent goals, and do these design goals lead to a fun game? If such a mechanic is, in fact, old or new is orthogonal to fun—innovation in games is necessarily subjective in discussions of game design, so it tends to be a red herring. Do we really care about what is innovative? We only care because looking back on how well old mechanics worked seems to be one of our only “objective” ways to see how fun a mechanic is—it’s a poor tool, but it’s the only tool we seem to have that isn’t muddled by our own taste. Until more psychological research comes out about the effects of game mechanics on gamers in the context of different games, we will continue to suffer the tyranny of innovation discussions and “copycat” name-calling. We don’t have the tools yet that we’d need to safely pinpoint the dismal utility of the innovation debate—perhaps the debate will only end when we can make games in a concerted, researched, scientific manner, instead of grabbing at apparitions we saw or heard about from previous games and designers and attempting to glue them to our own delusional and misguided conceptions of fun.