Friday, March 26, 2010

Innovation for Innovation’s Sake

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.


Kenny said...

I think if you exchange "Innovation" with something broader, like "Change", and ask the question again it becomes evident:

Is (uncertain) change for change's sake good?

Logan said...

the very last paragraph sums things up perfectly if you ask me... the only thing that really matters is that we get good games... players don't care if it's innovative or not, they only care if it's fun.

so instead of focusing on innovation for innovation's sake, shouldn't developers just focus on making a fun game?

if you happen to do some innovative things to achieve that fun, then that's great... but innovating and creating something that isn't fun is just a waste.

innovation should be a byproduct of creating good games... it shouldn't be a driving factor...

when innovation becomes a driving factor, you stop focusing on fun and the game suffers for it.

innovation is good, but it's not something that should be focused on, it should come naturally, when it's forced, it very rarely works out well.

Anonymous said...

The Nuances of Innovation
(...)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.

I disagree with one thing here. If I wanted to add something (anything) to a game, I imagine that I would have to change some existing mechanics. And as such I thin that would still be innovation for innovations sake, even if changing existing mechanics in the process.

Do we really care about what is innovative?

I do not find interesting, this kind of rhetorical questions. It appear unclear what this question means. It's better to flesh out the rhetorical questions I think than simply using it this way, even if you elaborate the interpretation below.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Doing anything for the sake of doing it usually doesn't lead to good results. As Kenny points out above, change for the sake of change isn't generally looked upon as a positive thing.

So, let's ask the question, "What is innovation good for?" Primarily, it's good for novelty, which is something a lot of game players value. Eventually a type of gameplay gets stale and boring.

One problem we run into is if games hit a local maximum. Imagine that fun is like a landscape, and the higher the elevation the more fun a particular form of gameplay is. If you reach the top of a hill, then any change made will make the game less fun: you can only go down the hill. But, what happens if that hill is right next to a mountain? So, in order to make a game that is "more fun", you'll have to go through some stuff that isn't as much fun as what was before.

Should we innovate for the sake of innovation? No. We should have a goal. The problem is that sometimes you have to explore less fun types of gameplay to get to stuff that's more fun.

Kenny said...

Umm, "I want to make a game that noone else ever thought about, like micromanaging a family's every day life."

Yes, change for change's sake is a good thing! You only need the gift of being able to see what's worth executing and what's not.

Rubens Peculis said...

This is an area that I believe needs to be more closely monitored. Recently, Google+ announced a feature I think is a perfect example of innovation for innovation's sake. I wrote a little about it here: Google+ and the alleged Photo Search feature