10 January, 2010
Ask gamers, particularly MMO fans, what bothers them about the game industry and one of the more common responses will be “innovation”. A lot of people feel that the game industry is too conservative, going for the safe bet when players want something new! Developers get stuck in ruts, focusing on sequels, clones, and copying the latest game design fashion to reduce risk.
Unfortunately, the same people asking for innovation are the same people who hinder it. There are a lot of reasons why we don’t see innovation in game development. Let’s take a look at some of them.
A standard caveat: I link to some people as examples that may not be entirely flattering to them. I mean no disrespect, just using public statements to demonstrate my points.
Why a lack of innovation is a problem
So, why is this worth discussing? The simple answer is that players say they want innovation. Game players tend to be attracted to the new; for most, they want something they aren’t already bored with.
A deeper answer is that we need innovation to help improve game development and design. To see the problems in the industry related to a lack of innovation, I recommend evizaer’s blog entry on The Imitation Rut. In brief, unless we try new things we won’t advance. Often new writers are given the advance that they need to “write a million words” in order to truly learn the craft. As they write more and more, they start to reflect on their work and look for ways to improve. Of course, reading others and learning from past mistakes is important, but someone who merely copies existing stories (or just rewords them) isn’t going to learn how to become a better writer, and certainly isn’t going to write a groundbreaking novel.
This is similar to other fields, including MMOs, where we need to test things out to see how they work. Getting into endless intellectual discussions about possible feature X vs. Y will often prove nothing until you actually try something out. In order to advance the state of the art, we need people willing to innovate.
Let me explain what I mean when I talk about the slippery topic of innovation. I’m primarily concerned with design innovation here; doing a bog standard game in a cutting-edge rendering engine may be technically innovative, but that’s not what I’m concerned with here. As usual, there are no hard and fast rules here.
At the core, innovation is doing something new. How new something has to be before it’s innovative is the question. If you study game development history, you quickly learn that it’s hard to have something that has never been done before. So, a game doesn’t have to be completely unique to be innovative. Sometimes combining familiar elements or taking a common element and presenting it in a new way can be innovative.
Let’s look at a big game that many people consider to be innovative: The Sims. This game certainly wasn’t the first simulation game. It wasn’t the first game about constructing buildings or controlling people. But, the gameplay of micromanaging the daily life of individual characters was unique. The A.I. elements that affected the individual characters was also not common in previous games. The ability to use the characters like actors and present stories was not found in another games. Putting all these elements together into a single game presented an innovative game the likes of which had not been seen before. Interestingly enough, this is one of the few highly successful games that has not been readily cloned, unlike a lot of other innovative games.
Innovation vs. evolution
How does innovation differ from evolution? I think most thinking people agree that MMOs have evolved over time. But, look at what Cuppy talks about when it comes to FPSes; half of her evolutionary improvements focus on the technical side with better graphics and machines. There’s an assumption that elements like improved graphics have to improve the game or make it more fun. This is not always the case.
Also take a look at Cuppy’s list of EQ2′s evolutionary elements. Of her list, many can be found in other games in other forms. Appearance slots are fairly original, however, but they don’t directly impact the primary form of gameplay. Mini-expansions and adventure packs were more of a business model decision, intended to get more money out of players for less overhead cost (putting a box in the retain channel). Only heroic opportunities and guild leveling are innovative systems to my knowledge. The other eight points she mentions existed in previous games. This is also ignoring the fact that EQ2 is a sequel to an original game, even though it has changed over time and become more independent from the previous game as time goes on.
She goes on to try to defend other evolutionary changes, but most of her defenses fall flat. One in particular I enjoy pointing out is “soloability” in games; Cuppy claims that WoW pioneered this when that is demonstratively false. EQ1 had a strong focus on grouping, but many early MMOs (and text MUDs before them) focused almost entirely on the solo player. Meridian 59 still doesn’t have the concept of adventuring groups/parties, with the vast majority of the game able to be played solo.
But, I will agree with one of Cuppy’s points: often players do not know what they want, and they often want completely contradictory things.
The conflict in what a player wants
Noted blogger Keen wrote a recent post about how MMOs are going backwards. His argument is that newer games aren’t living up to the promises of the notable older games: EQ, DAoC, and SWG. Keen argues that newer games seem to not really be improvements, using the example of Warhammer Online‘s two-sided war being an inferior duplicate of DAoC’s three-sided conflict.
Keen asks, “To correct this problem, why not make games that push the boundaries of what we knew?” One might think that he is asking for innovation, new elements added to existing games that made them more amazing. However, the article advocates simple systems such as a graphically updated DAoC. I agree with Cuppy in that Keen is ignoring a lot of improvements MMOs have made (although not necessarily the ones she points out), and asking for an old game with shiny new graphics isn’t really an advancement.
At the end of his article, Keen asks several questions, trying to figure out why modern games don’t live up to their potential. The truth is that we need innovation to push the boundaries. Developers need to come up with new systems, new design elements, and new ways to bring new improvements to games. So, why don’t we see more progress from innovation?
To find this answer, we just need to read the Keen of five months prior. In this earlier post Keen says that games need to achieve “perfection” before they innovate and that “change for the sake of change” isn’t always necessary In an addition to his post he states, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Don’t remake what already works.” Unfortunately, this sets an impossibly high bar for innovation and advancing game design.
Innovation is Risk
The problem with innovation from a business point of view is that it is risk. A large game project with millions of dollars invested into it is going to shun risk, because a lot of money is on the line. Making an MMO is risky in the first place, so taking on more risk is not a sound decision unless that risk is going to result in more money commensurate to the risk. When you’re spending someone else’s money, taking on more risk can cause harm to your career.
For MMO fans, this means that if you want a “perfect” game it’s going to require a large budget. If it has a large budget, it’s not going to innovate. This is the reason why Keen’s earlier post about how developers need to focus on perfection before innovation is, in reality, the same as saying, “do not innovate at all” and therefore be unable to advance the state of the art.
Let’s take a look at innovation outside of MMOs for a moment. One of the most innovative changes in games in the last few years is probably the Nintendo Wii; love it or hate it, you had to admit that the Wii controllers are very different than previous console controllers. Even now, a lot of people are dismissive of the Wii since it does not have the graphical capabilities of competing consoles. But, Nintendo took a huge risk that went against the grain and it paid off spectacularly. I’m certain that if Nintendo had been trying to compete directly with the graphical prowess of the XBox 360 or the Playstation 3, they would not have had the ability to try an innovative controller design. Note that the other console companies only started to invest more in motion-control for games now that the Wii has proven it to be popular to the public.
Polish is the opposite of Innovation
The intense focus on “polish”, which usually means that an element has been refined and improved. “Polish” often requires a lot of time, though, whereas a feature that has been around long enough to be polished usually no longer innovative.
Let’s take a look at the master of polish, Blizzard and some of their biggest games over the last 15 years:
- Warcraft – A variation of RTS games pioneered by titles like Dune and several earlier games.
- Warcraft II – A sequel to Warcraft with a few new features.
- Diablo – An random dungeon game with a focus on action gameplay; earlier examples are Nethack and Dungeon Hack among other games.
- Starcraft – A successor to Warcraft in a Sci-Fi setting.
- Diablo II – A sequel to Diablo.
- Warcraft III – A sequel to Warcraft II. What’s interesting is that this game was supposed to include more RPG elements, but this was cut and the resulting game played more like a traditional RTS.
- World of Warcraft – A fantasy MMO with core mechanics heavily inspired by EverQuest, which was itself heavily inspired by DIKU MUDs.
If you look at that list, there isn’t much innovation. Now, some of these games can have elements that are considered innovative: Starcraft had three very different but still fairly balanced sides to the conflict. WoW, of course, introduced a lot of usability improvements not found in other MMOs. But, for the most part the most notable Blizzard games have been variations of exiting games and that is why they can afford to focus on polish: they do not have to worry too much about if the core mechanics are fun. In every case above there are earlier games that took the big risks by attempting an innovative change, then Blizzard adopted the basic gameplay and made incremental improvements to the game.
Now, this isn’t to insult Blizzard. Part of their strength is to know how to improve a game so that it is often easier to get into. Their game designers are knowledgeable enough to know what areas need to be polished. These are very impressive design abilities that few others developers can match. If you look at the biggest game developers you’ll see that their work is mostly based off of existing types of games. Bioware’s games are largely D&D-based, and variations of D&D have been around for most of the history of computer games. A more modern example is Zynga, whose social games are often variations on old BBS door games, or clones of other games but with better production values.
Innovation is a paradox
Unfortunately, innovation does not mesh well with polish, perfection, or other indicators of high production values. As I’ve said many times before, true innovation will most likely come from independent developers. They will often develop a game with less resources, but that means the will be taking less initial risks. This allows them to take more risks in development, but it also means that they may not have the deep pockets for great artwork, or to license expensive middleware, etc. The alternative is to wait around for a company to fall from grace like Nintendo to turn around and decide to buck the trend to offer something different. And, yes, larger games will evolve slowly, adding incremental changes as they go. You’ll have to be patient if you want innovation and to expect some rough edges.
What do you think? Do you really want innovation or has it become a meaningless buzzword? Are you willing to sacrifice other elements like polish, graphical presentation, and other expensive elements in order to enjoy innovation? What games have you tried out that have been innovative?