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Innovation

September 20, 2008

I have heard it said thousands of times that the only thing publishers are interested in is money, not innovation. The games that come out speak for themselves. Think about Halo. What did Halo innovate? Multiplayer? I was doing split screen multiplayer in FPS’s in GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Heck, FPS multiplayer existed in DOOM. So nope, nothing there. So somebody comment if they can think of one major mechanic that Halo innovated.

The point I am getting at is that innovation is risky. It basically says, “Players have never seen this before, so how will they understand it?”

The innovation question continues to haunt me. I totally believe it is worth it to come up with things that have never – or at least, have rarely been used – in games, but there can be innovation beyond the mechanics. The art style can be innovative, for instance, like Psychonauts’ Dali-esque universe. It’s the innovative mechanics that publishers believe scare away gamers. In reality, we will play these games. We will at least play the demo. But it’s these imaginary demographics that believe we are scared of innovation that the publishers believe. Or at least, that is what I have been told from designers who have attempted to innovate.

Does this mean I am against innovation? Absolutely not. But I’m 21. I had my first game published at 13 and then shied away from the industry for years because it was such a horrible experience. Now I’m back and I just want to make something that’s fun. I don’t want something I look back on and say, “Yeah, you know, we tried to do this thing that defined the whole game but it didn’t work so we scrapped it.” I’ll do that someday, I don’t feel like doing it right now. Not without some kind of epiphany. Innovation for the sake of innovation? No. Innovation for the sake of enhancing the gameplay to a whole new level? That’s a risk worth taking, and an epiphany I did recently have. However, it completely slipped my mind during the presentation. I may or may not detail it in a later post but it is an entirely new way of dealing with balance. And when I say new, I actually mean new. And not for the sake of innovation. However, it’s not a function that feels like it would be important in a game pitch, and also feels like the kind of thing that would turn potential publishers away just because of how complicated it is to understand. It’s also not vital to explaining the mechanics of the game, but is vital to how the game plays. It’s really conflicting.

If I had the chance to give this presentation again in front of, say, a tribunal of professionals instead of 20 peers, I would in an instant, just so I could go deeper and really have a conversation with them. There’s so much I could talk about with more questions asked than just, “What’s innovative about this?” Where do I begin? I prefer the questions that start with, “Tell me more about” and then end with something I talked about in the presentation. Please, let me ramble. Let me espouse my designs so you may understand them better. Leave it open ended and my mind doesn’t know where to start.

Long story short, this next hour is going to be one of the longest of my life.

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6 Comments
  1. Thomas permalink

    “Think about Halo. What did Halo innovate?”

    That is a bit of a straw-man there. I’m not sure anyone is claiming any particular part of it is innovative.

    Though, I wanted to ask you what you thought innovation means.

    “…it is worth it to come up with things that have never [been used in games]”

    I think what you mean here instead of innovation is original. Could you elaborate more on what innovation is?

    One last thing.

    “If I had the chance to give this presentation again in front of, say, a tribunal of professionals instead of 20 peers”

    “Please, let me ramble. Let me espouse my designs so you may understand them better. ”

    Rambling with your peers is what you are supposed to be doing now. Don’t wait to sit down with a tribunal of professionals. You can afford to be naive now, but your fantasy pitch with professionals will never happen.

  2. The way I see it, there are two kinds of innovation: Original and Improvement. Original innovation a lot of the time I see as forced, especially if it is not part of the core. These are very often the babies that have to be killed mainly because the designer can’t think of a good way to execute it. I would list some examples from what I am working on right now, but am under NDA so I can’t.

    Improvement innovation, however, I fully support. Take Painkiller for example. It took a gun that everyone was familiar with – a lightning gun – and gave it a secondary function that made it shoot Shurikens. I consider that to be good innovation, creating weapons that act as 2 weapons in one. Things that mix up the formula.

    In short, I define innovation as something that builds upon previously defined functions, or creates entirely new functions, in an attempt to differentiate the product from the pack. My thing, though, is that I prefer to let innovation come about through iterative design and not just force it for the sake of doing something new. The exception to this is if the core starts out as innovative, such as Katamari Damacy’s dustbunny mechanic (as I like to call it).

    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against core innovation. I’m against things like “real-time waiting,” where you think it’s a good idea to make people wait around while a blacksmith makes a horseshoe, but really, it’s not. Innovation for the sake of “we need something different” is, in my opinion, not innovation at all.

  3. Thomas permalink

    “…an attempt to differentiate the product from the pack.”

    “I have heard it said thousands of times that the only thing publishers are interested in is money, not innovation.”

    “Players have never seen this before, so how will they understand it?”

    When speaking of video games, differentiating products is the only form innovation takes. ‘Innovation’ is risky because its harder to sell, not because its harder to introduce the player to the game play. Innovation has less to do with game mechanics and more with the return developers and publishers get.

    “So somebody comment if they can think of one major mechanic that Halo innovated.”

    I can tell you why it sold. Microsoft backed Bungie in an attempt to make a flagship game that would define the Xbox Live experience to the users. Microsoft – a publisher – essentially made ‘improvement innovation’ with online console games.

    “…publishers are interested [in money], not innovation. ”

    To be blunt, there is no such thing as innovation. In the realm of video games, finding ways to make money is innovative. When publishers use the word its a guise. When ‘designers’ use it they are arrogant. Good Game makers innovate on a daily basis, they call it problem solving.

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong but I was under the impression that Halo was one of the first ‘regenerating shield’ effects? It was certainly the first time I seen it.

    Sometimes I don’t think you need to innovate. Innovation is good, sometimes very good (Portal), but sometimes sticking to something everyone knows and is familiar with is alright. Just not so often it saturates the market.

    • Raptor: Call of the Shadows had regenerating health all the way back in 1993. Granted, much slower than Halo’s, but the general mechanic had been around before.

      Uncharted 2, recently released, though technologically innovative, doesn’t have any gameplay mechanics out of the ordinary, yet it’s receiving rave reviews. Sometimes playing it safe is okay, especially when you can do it as well as that game does. Other times it’s worth taking the risk. Imagine if Uncharted 2 did have some unique innovation that was as well crafted as the rest of the game. All the reviews that say “this game doesn’t really do anything new” wouldn’t, and the game would get more 10/10s instead of 9’s or 9.5’s. I hate numbered rating systems but you get the idea. There’d be nothing to complain about. Still, like the post says, if you just slap on innovation, you’re not designing your game with as much love as you could be.

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