Is Innovation Unwelcome?

What a frightening subject to even bring up: Innovation. One of my big questions related to innovation is whether it is even welcome in gaming anymore. Do publishers want it? Do developers want it? Do players want it? The answer to all of those is, “yes and no.” We believe we want it, but do we really want it? Innovation is a word in the same category as Immersion; you can’t really define it in such a way that it satisfies everyone, and you can’t always identify it when you see it.

Merriam-Webster defines innovation as, “a new idea, method, or device.” They key word there for me is “method.” So yes, you can do the same basic thing in a different way and be innovative. An innovative game does not have to be completely different from everything we’ve seen before. There can even be innovative ideas incorporated into a game without changing the basic gameplay. Remember the first time you ever saw a quest indicator over an NPC’s head in an MMO? That was innovative!

No matter how you define the word, one thing is certain: Innovation is a risk. It’s a big risk. It heralds opportunity for you to massively succeed or massively fail as a company. Sometimes even critically acclaimed innovative games see very little profit for the developer, so what’s the point in even being innovative? Why not play it safe so your company can flourish?

It’s common to see smaller developers rant about how their ideas are too innovative for major publishers to even consider them. Do you blame them? The game is risky to make, and you never really know if the gaming audience at large is going to buy into the new ideas. Even if they do, they may not buy the game. You should also consider that your idea simply might not be that good, and the publisher isn’t willing to take the chance because they don’t see why you feel it’s so great. Backing up a sentence or so, not all games that are considered innovative sell nearly as well as those that are not considered innovative.

Example: Katamari Damacy. Innovative, critically acclaimed. I don’t know one person who isn’t a game developer who played it. You can’t even buy it at your local EB or Best Buy anymore. It did spawn multiple sequels, and I have seen the one for PSP at one or two stores, but something so popular with the critics and developers should mean gamers will buy the hell out of it, right? Not always. Note: I’m probably completely wrong here, and the game probably did extremely well, but I’m leaving the example anyway.

Another game that was met with critical acclaim and still boasts an underground following: Arx Fatalis. It had an innovative spell casting system driven by gestures. Essentially, you would draw out the spell you wanted with your mouse to cast it. Neat idea, and it was even fun as hell for a few hours, but I don’t recall that game breaking any sales records (possibly attributed not to the innovation but instead to the fact that drawing spells out all the time became tedious).

One of the things I hear from gamers all the time is that there is a lack of innovation in games, yet they themselves don’t realize they don’t even want it! Take books, for example. The fantasy novels that get the best reviews are quite innovative. They take place in other worlds with creatures all of the author’s own design. But the ones that most frequently do the best happen to be–you guessed it–the ones with elves, dwarves, and all those familiar Tolkien-esque critters. The same can be said for movies, music, and (of course) games: The familiar, when done well, sells well, often better than something innovate done well.

Now to take a little turn, I’m going to say something you might not expect: Yes, consumers do primarily want familiarity even if they believe they want innovation. Sure, innovative games are less likely to get you enough money to sustain your development company. But, damn it, that doesn’t mean you should never try to innovate. The fact is, if an innovative game is actually fun and different, you stand to make a hell of a lot of money. And I’m talking fun for that gaming public at large, not some tin niche audience that loves the idea of a game based entirely on diving through small openings while you perpetually fall to the core of the Earth (no real game reference, but I’ve never seen one like it!).

Sim City. Yeah, I know you were thinking, “prove it.” I just did. The Sims is another good example. Much of Will Wright’s success is built on innovative games and their profitable sequels. Will Spore knock the socks off gamers, or just developers and critics? I have a theory on that as well, which involves a statement like, “too much success yields too much freedom to create an idea without refining it,” but I won’t get into that.

I have a little saying I like to go by when I design: “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I want to change the wheel from wood to rubber.” In other words, innovate without failing gamers’ expectations. Improvements on an existing concept are innovative, by definition, even if they aren’t entirely novel.

That does mean that World of Warcraft was innovative. Sure, Blizzard took EverQuest and its successors and removed most of the tedium, polished the hell out of it, and generally made a better version of what had existed previously, but this was a “new method,” so it was innovative.

One thing to be cautious about when making a game is being different for the sake of being different. This is ALWAYS the wrong approach. You want to be different for the sake of being better. Different does not necessarily mean better. Better does necessarily mean different, in my opinion (because if it’s better, it can’t be the same). Don’t try to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed.

Anyway, the point of this entire post is the following: Innovation is risky, but with risk comes potential reward. Even if you ground a game in the foundations of familiarity, then branch out by making small innovations, that’s better than simply cloning what’s out there if you can make it better than it already is. Innovation is not unwelcome, but it’s damn hard to get it right.

Note; I apologize for how wandering this post is. It’s not structured very well, and I don’t even really make any succinct points in it. But, I wrote the thing almost a year ago and finally decided I would never bother to edit it past this point, so I decided to go ahead and post it after all.

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