Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

10 January, 2010

The Innovation Paradox
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:19 AM

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.

Defining innovation

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?

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  1. I absolutely want innovation. From my perspective, the Indy/small shop developer must innovate or fail. The reality is that raph’s “Moore’s Wall” theory (the ever increasing computer capabilities create exponentially higher expectations for baseline levels of graphics and such) pushes major studios to invest ever more and more money to make competetive titles, even if each individual game is no more impressive than a similar one was a couple years prior in it’s day.

    These costs, as you say, make the publishers highly risk adverse, and as such AAA titles invariably end up being shinier remakes of older games.

    On the other hand, this same effect leaves the Indy dev unable to compete in those games. You cannot make an Indy ‘traditional’ non-innovative FPS for example because you simply cannot gather the funding to scale Moore’s Wall.

    So, this means the ball is in the Indy developer’s court. They -must- innovate to compete.

    Comment by Derrick — 10 January, 2010 @ 6:37 AM

  2. My problem, as always, is not with innovation itself, but that the way companies treat MMOs is to innovate within the existing MMO. To try to parallel it with writing… assume you think that Stephen King’s IT is the best horror novel ever written. You bought it the year it came out, read it, and loved it. Now imagine that a couple years later, all copies of IT were destroyed and a new edition was placed on the shelf. This version of IT is basically the same, but one of the original characters is missing, there are two new added characters, and a handful of plot elements have changed.

    This is what happens to MMOs. My best example of this is EverQuest. In the beginning, and through the first few expansions, the changes made the game better because they fixed bugs and/or added missing elements. At some point, however, they began to remove old features and replace them or augment them with innovation, most lifted from other games or at least inspired by them. EverQuest now is nothing like EverQuest “back then”, and unless you are willing to play on the EQMac server, there is no way to play the old EverQuest.

    I don’t mind innovation in new titles. But it really sucks when a game you love changes itself to chase a new lover.

    Comment by Jason — 10 January, 2010 @ 7:09 AM

  3. Great, great article — from which you may infer that I agree with you. :D Innovation is an unfortunate buzzword that often means “make it not bore me anymore” rather than “do something new and exciting that might fall flat on its face” — and even when it means the latter, it usually *really* means “Make it new and exciting but not really all that different from what I already know and am comfortable with.”

    I’ve noticed for years that the more stridently players ask for change, the more stridently they will complain about it when they get it; just visit any game’s class forums for a taste of that one. To some extent it’s a human paradox: we seek new experiences (and get bored when we don’t get them), but we also have an initial high suspicion of anything outside our comfort zone (i.e. change).

    Then there’s the fact that any “change” is often labelled “innovation”, either by the player side or by the dev side, when in fact the two aren’t equivalent at all. Change isn’t necessarily innovative. There are similar misconceptions between innovation and invention. But then, that’s a mistake that’s often made in the business world too, and I’m getting overly semantic so I’ll stop.

    Comment by Ysharros — 10 January, 2010 @ 7:18 AM

  4. Not really interested in innovation. I’d prefer commitment. And imagination.

    I read a lot of fiction. Mainstream, crime, science fiction, fantasy, children’s, short stories, you name it. I don’t want “innovation”, like B S Johnson’s “The Unfortunates”, which was published as loose leaves in a box for the reader to read in any order they wished, or “A Void” by Perec, which doesn’t use the letter “e”. I just want to read an interesting narrative, with convincing characters told in lucid prose.

    Would-be MMO developers need to establish a clear idea of what their MMO is and who might want to play it. They need to make their MMO because an MMO is the best medium for what they want to achieve. Then they need to make it as well as they possibly can.

    Innovation isn’t required.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 10 January, 2010 @ 8:35 AM

  5. Innovation is not riskier than copying– it’s simply a different set of risks.

    In the mmo space, actually, it might be cloning that’s the riskier behavior.

    Comment by Matt — 10 January, 2010 @ 9:59 AM

  6. When players call for innovation, by and large I think what they really want is something new and exciting that caters to their tastes. As their tastes are based on existing products, it’s not that likely that something really bizarre (i.e., well and truly innovative) will be able to do that. Endless Forest and Tale in the Desert haven’t exactly set the world on fire after all.

    Comment by Yeebo — 10 January, 2010 @ 10:15 AM

  7. Yes, I want innovation in my MMORPGs. And by innovation, I mean new concepts, new ideas and new features. Some may work, some may fail, but I’d like to see some risks being taken.

    I agree with the spirit of Keen’s post about evolution but I don’t think evolution is right word for what he wanted. As everyone rightly points out, MMOs are evolving. Of course they are. With every new game we see improvements on features and a slow deviation from their predessors. What I think Keen was really trying to say though is that we need to see are some bigger leaps in more radical directions. Releasing a MMO that’s very similar to another one but with a slightly improved guild feature isn’t enough. We need something to some along and shake things up. We need mutation.

    Part of the feeling that diehard MMO gamers are feeling is that MMOs have lost their way and now play it safe in order to try and recreate the success of WoW. The developers – or rather the publishers with the cash – don’t want to take risks. It’s just like Holywood summer blockbusters. Games need to follow a specific formula to make money and that formula is based on whatever game made the most cash, most recently… right??! :)

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 10 January, 2010 @ 12:33 PM

  8. Innovation doesn’t always correlate with “profitable”, either. Sometimes it’s the labors of love that are the most innovative. They aren’t the most polished or even profitable. They won’t be found in the mainstream. Unfortunately, as evizaer rightly notes, MMOs are expensive things, and aren’t something a couple of obsessed devs can typically whip up in their garage. “Love” is a one-man dev team MMO, but it’s also nothing like WoW. It’s rough. It may never be profitable.

    But it *is* different.

    Comment by Tesh — 10 January, 2010 @ 12:51 PM

  9. We Need A Mutant MMO

    [...] Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green. I would recommend reading his excellent post entitled ‘The Innovation Paradox’ – it far more elegantly sums everything up than I ever could about current thoughts from gamers [...]

    Pingback by We Fly Spitfires - MMORPG Blog — 10 January, 2010 @ 1:17 PM

  10. I agree that true innovation will come from indies but what I don’t get is why we have to sacrifice polish for new features, imo polish can be achieved while creating new features.

    As for mmorpgs I think its just sad that people (players) can’t seem to leave that ‘kill kill kill’ mode and move onto a different type of mmorpg. (maybe one that doesnt leave out the RP)

    Comment by CodeJustin — 10 January, 2010 @ 1:36 PM

  11. I think the enemies of polish are budget and schedule, not innovation. Unfortunately, budget and schedule are correlated with scale and risk, which are negatively correlated with the ability to try new things and, hence, innovate.

    It’s definitely possible to put out an innovative, polished game. To do so you need to have the budget and schedule to polish, and a willingness to risk it all on unproven ideas.

    Comment by Matthew Weigel — 10 January, 2010 @ 2:24 PM

  12. I think it’s all about balancing the change with enough of something else to make it really work. A good innovation in the long run is beneficial. In the short run it’s a hindrance, even if it makes the game better. So I think your best bet as a creator is to treat it like a weakness you have to counterbalance with something else (speaking from a purely design viewpoint; I’m guessing you’d advertise the hell out of anything different to make sure you stand out).

    Change is usually a mixed bag as far as player reactions go. I find that in smaller groups where I feel more of a connection with the person doing the changes I can handle having my character rewritten. In larger groups when this happens, like in WoW, I tend to leave behind whatever has changed and play something else for a month or two while I figure out how to play something and make it do what I want again. Like, I’ve had a paladin for several years that I’ve always played as a fully functional hybrid (as in, I swap gear and play another role well enough to be useful at it without shuffling specs). Unfortunately that style of play is not supported so anytime they make a significant change in talent trees or gear there’s a risk that what I’ve been doing so far is no longer possible.

    Most of my experience is with pencil and paper RPGs. I have a lot of experience trying out different things in that field and playing computer games for the last couple decades (including several years of WoW) but I’m not a developer. I got interested in Brian’s work when I saw a write-up about hybrids and another one about using roles other than the current tank/dps/healer that’s so common. So that’s the perspective I’m walking in with. If I say anything particularly odd, feel free to ignore it. :)

    Comment by Lanir — 10 January, 2010 @ 3:20 PM

  13. EQ2 was massively innovative at launch. They tried a bunch of things, most of which didn’t work. Remember status decay for guilds? That lasted a month. Remember items that got better as you leveled? That lasted 3 to 6 months. Remember interlocking crafting? That lasted no longer. Remember how you couldn’t do much of anything without a group? And the features, like combat locking, intended to eliminate powerleveling?

    However, there were other ideas that were there at launch that were innovative, and have endured. Modal combat, for example. That is, regen of power and health slows down during combat. Wow does this too, as does LOTRO and other games I know about. EQ2 launched a month before Wow, though, so I think it got their first.

    It meant no more sitting down to meditate. No more long waits between combats. Houses and the house decoration game. Guild leveling still exists, even though the mechanicds have changed several times. And it’s a very good idea. Nobody seems to have imitated the collection game, but I know players who love them their shinies.

    I have a post up tangentially related to this, by the way.

    Comment by Toldain — 10 January, 2010 @ 4:41 PM

  14. One thing to note is that I’m using “innovation” in the traditional sense here, of introducing something new. In business jargon, I’m really talking about “invention” here; “innovation” is the process of taking an invention and making it a commercial product. Feel free to mentally search and replace the terms as appropriate.

    One other blog post related to this that I didn’t include is Tobold’s Designing around WoW. He brings up the great point that a lot of people try to “innovate” by taking WoW’s core design then tacking more things on top of it. In some cases it might be heavy PvP, or a change of setting genre. Tobold even pointed out that as budgets get bigger, the conservatism (and therefore tendency to copy WoW) increases.

    Allow me to give a metaphor, since some people seem to still think you can innovate and still have high levels of polish. Let’s say I take you to a room with lumber, varnish, and hand tools. I tell you that I’ll give you a certain amount of time to build a chair. Assuming you’re not a professional furniture maker the results may not be great, even if you are given plenty of time. If I keep asking you to make chairs, then your ability to make chairs will probably increase with time. Eventually you might make a pretty good chair.

    Now let’s pretend that I put a wooden chair in the room with you Now you have a template to work from. You can measure the parts of the chair, see how the pieces are put together, perhaps even notice the intricate carvings and decorations and copy them. If you have the template to work from, your work will probably get better faster, although a lot of your chairs are going to look largely the same. Once you get more comfortable, however, you might start making variations on the chairs. But, if I’m paying you to make chairs you might be worried that making a chair that is too different might displease me, thus hurting your income.

    This is precisely what Blizzard does. Blizzard knows how to work wood and had very popular bird houses and bread boxes before. Now they wanted to make a chair. They took a look at the EQ style chair and used that as a base. They figured out what people didn’t want, and set about to improve it. Blizzard happened to be accomplished woodworkers, so this wasn’t really a daunting task for them. They made a very competent chair, made it look really good, and it was really popular.

    The issue is that we’re still talking about something with four legs, a hard seat and a stiff back. If you want a recliner or an ergonomic chair, you’re out of luck. People are too busy copying the basic wooden chair and trying to paint on their own cute bits to get you interested.

    To extend the metaphor more, we can also see why polish and innovation do not go together. Do you think the first ergonomic chair worked perfectly? How many revisions did it take before they got something that actually did work better? Fortunately when talking about chairs, it’s easy to do many rapid revisions to see how the chair works as a whole. When we’re talking about complex software projects like games, or worse yet MMORPGs, it’s not necessarily so easy to just dash off a new idea to see how it is accepted by the masses. As Matthew Weigel points out above, polish needs generous budgets and schedules, which tends to work against innovation.

    In the end, you can pretend that innovation and polish aren’t mutually exclusive, but that doesn’t change the pattern that has been observed over the last several years. If players continue to choose polished games over innovative ones, then we will see more focus put on polished games. You don’t have to worry about not supporting polish, though. If a truly innovative idea gains wide acceptance, you can be sure that the Blizzards of the world will be along to adopt the idea and give it their own level of polish.

    Thanks for the insightful comments, everyone! Keep up the great discussion.

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 January, 2010 @ 4:48 PM

  15. That’s an instructive metaphor.

    I worked in an office in the 90s where management thought it would be good employee relations to offer people ergonomic chairs. (For anyone that hasn’t seen them, they are constructions that have you putting your weight on your knees and shoulders, approximately, rather than on your backside. Supposedly this is better for your back). Out of an office of about 40 people, two people were willing to try them. Within a few weeks both had gone back to a normal chair. The ergonomic chairs disappeared and were never heard of again.

    If I want a chair, I want a chair. I am aware that I can contort my body into other shapes, lean, lie down, hang. I might even want to do those things sometimes. If I do, though, I won’t ask for a “chair”.

    Unlike a lot of other long-time MMO players, Iam not at all bored or jaded with the form. It’s my contention that the Everquest I played in 1999 was the best MMO I have ever played, and I’ve played a lot. I don’t need anything done differently. I just need that done well.

    P.G Wodehouse didn’t need to innovate. Terry Pratchett, Robert Parker, Robert Altman, Francois Truffaut, Tom Waits, Mark Rothko, El Camaron, they didn’t need to innovate. They perfected their art and their technique, burnished it until it glowed, until it was as good as it could possibly be.

    That makes it sound as though i am a fan of “polish”, which I am not. “Polish” is marketing. What I am a fan of is creativity, commitment and style. Find your mode of expression and perfect it. Innovation is a cheap gimmick.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 10 January, 2010 @ 5:32 PM

  16. Considering how expensive MMOs are, perhaps the best way to innovate is to aim at a small niche from the beginning. Make sure that the innovative core is done well, to keep the interest of the niche. Then, slowly polish your game over the years. Eventually, you’ll get a good product that people will like. When you’re confident the game is polished enough and innovative enough to keep people’s interest, try to hype your next release to get a lot of players curious about trying it.

    That’s what Turbine did with DDO:
    At first, the game had too little content and was too hard for the average MMO customers. However, its combat system and quest design was both unique and fun. Over the years, they further improved their quest design and softened their game’s learning curve. Finally, when they felt ready, they announced the shift to F2P and attracted a large number of players their way.

    Comment by Borror0 — 10 January, 2010 @ 10:11 PM

  17. What’s interesting is that Nintendo actually innovated the concepts of the Wii controller long before the release of the system. The gyroscope technology appeared in two games before, Kirby Tilt & Tumble for the gameboy color, and then Warioware: Twisted for the GBA. The latter game is a masterpiece, I seriously recommend playing it.

    Also, keep in mind that Nintendo tried to innovate beforehand with the Virtual Boy. Sega was a champion of innovation: they innovated first-party console online play, for one. Now they are a ruined company.

    I’d think F2P games are the way to go for innovation. Graphics and polish are less of an issue there, and you have more freedom to experiment.

    Comment by Dblade — 10 January, 2010 @ 11:32 PM

  18. Wrapping up my thoughts on Innovation

    [...] yet to see a single MMO since 2004 that has worked forward before attempting to be innovative. Pyshochild states in his blog about innovation that I am “asking for an old game with shiny new [...]

    Pingback by Keen and Graev’s Gaming Blog — 11 January, 2010 @ 1:01 AM

  19. I feel like a heretic for saying this but I’m not excited by innovation per se. I have never played The Sims nor do I ever want to although I accept it’s clever and successful.

    I’m not opposed to innovation but it’s not a reason I buy games.

    What mainly motivates me is complex strategical questions with a social dimension. I liked raiding in WoW more in the old days because it was more about gearing and resource management and I like it less now that it’s more platformy and less strategic. I like Eve. I like EQ2.

    The type of innovation I would like to see is not, generally speaking, the type of innovation game designers want to do.

    I would like to see a large combat mode for games like Warhammer and AoC where you cease playing a beautifully rendered avatar with distinctive and individual art and play a dot. Well maybe a bit more than just a dot but whatever the minimum is to let us play thousands per side battles without being crippled by lag.

    I would like people to make games that go far down the economic and trade dynamics pioneered by SWG and Eve and since abandoned by the industry. Let’s have silver only available in one game area. In a game where you have territorial control. Let’s have games where not everyone is a master crafter again.

    No one wants to do this stuff in MMOs.

    Instead we get the five direction combo thingy in AoC which was original and crap at the same time. (although it’s worth bearing in mind the byline from Damion Schubert’s blog: [i]Don’t confuse ‘new’ with ‘innovative’ – the latter assumes some level of non-suck[/i]).

    Or take the Diplomacy minigame in Vanguard, a MtG alike. Original for MMOs (although a similar minigame system had existed in 3dO’s Might and Magic series) and good but the rest of the game had terrible problems. Innovation on a feature doesn’t cut it if the rest of the game doesn’t deliver.

    So as a player innovation is somewhere below good box art and above Mr T adverts in terms of factors that make me buy your game.

    As an amateur designer I only innovate if I know precisely what I want and it doesn’t seem to be out there. And then I’d much prefer to find it already existing than have to invent it. For instance I’ve been planning a MMO and it’s important to me that other players should get information about what other teams of players on their side are doing. I asked about it over at designers’ forum F13 and got pointed towards skyboxes, which I’d never heard of but which seem to offer an established way of doing what I want. That’s a much better outcome than if they had given me an answer of never heard of anyone doing that, not sure it’s possible.

    I may end up doing a game that’s innovative but not by choice. Simply because it seems obvious why sports fans get excited about sport and not exactly rocket science to translate that excitement generating system over to a MMO game. But the least innovation I have to do to get the damn thing out there and working the better.

    Comment by Stabs — 11 January, 2010 @ 5:23 AM

  20. Avatar Art

    [...] guess that’s enough to make money, though. Why do we even care about innovation, [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 11 January, 2010 @ 5:53 AM

  21. Good stuff in the post.

    Its funny/sad to continue to read that people still believe you can create something new, and have it as polished as something that is being redone for the 100th time. This then also relates to those same people asking for something new one day, and the next supporting yet another sequel, stating that while they know its nothing new, gee its just so much fun. Clearly we can all see how badly THAT person is dying for innovation.

    Comment by syncaine — 11 January, 2010 @ 10:56 AM

  22. I think I’m more for improvement than innovation. Although I do like to wonder about crafting systems, and sometimes daydream for something innovative, without knowing what that innovative thing would entail.

    I think that’s something many people are either not getting, or confusing with “improving”. They say innovative without having any idea what that innovative thing would be or do. They just know they want something different. To that end, can you really know that you want something different? I think it’s a case of the loud minority who quite often run into burn out before giving themselves a chance to settle into any one MMORPG.

    Comment by Jeremy S. — 11 January, 2010 @ 11:32 AM

  23. Blog-O-Steria – MMO Evolution/Innovation Theory

    [...] The Imitation Rut – That’s a Terrible Idea
    The Innovation Paradox – Psychochild
    MMO Evolution/Innovation Theory [43:48m][...]

    Editor’s note: the podcast doesn’t actually talk about this (or evizaer’s) post, which is a shame.

    Pingback by Channel Massive — 11 January, 2010 @ 1:13 PM

  24. I agree that innovation isn’t for everyone. Some people are happy with the way things are. Just as some people are happy to ride horses even though we have a lot of other transportation options open to us currently. So, if you like DIKU-style gameplay that’s fine.

    The problem I have is when people who really do like DIKU-style gameplay start crying for innovation and then shun it for some reason. As I wrote, the true paradox here is that you can’t have innovation and polish. If you want polish, then you need to accept that you’re only going to get games that have established gameplay.

    The other problem I have is when people who like older style of gameplay stubbornly refusing to accept change, particularly innovations, in newer games. If you like DIKU-inspired gameplay, you have plenty of options currently. Don’t throw a fit if some games come out to cater to other tastes, please!

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 January, 2010 @ 7:28 PM

  25. I would be one of the rare few who asks for innovation and really wants it.

    I play all types of games, MMOs, flash games, strategy, RPGs, FPS, sims, the works. I get a serious buzz out of learning the ropes and tropes and patterns of a particular kind of game. I love comparing one MMO’s crafting system with another’s – how much gameplay or simulation is inherent within it, and the lack thereof. Ditto combat mechanics and others.

    I play indie games and adventure games off Steam. I play ye ancient text-based interactive fiction or ascii character roguelikes. I can put up with cruddy graphics fine, but I love me some photo-real eye candy from time to time (mostly from FPSes).

    For a time, I actually found it quite hard to identify what ‘polish’ meant, because it’s like the antithesis of innovation, though after playing a number of games said to have it, I think I’ve narrowed it down to ‘smooth-flowing, no/few bugs, everything works like you’d expect it to, no trip ups with UI’ and so on. Either that, or it means cartoony WoW-like fluid animations a la WoW and Torchlight. :p

    Unfortunately, I am not your best bet for a long term buck simply because of my innovation-craving and novelty-seeking. I will come into your game, try it out for a delightful month – if your game is decent, I’ll stick around 3-6 months – and then promptly get bored with the repetitive aspects and slowly shift over to something different and new.

    I’ll make a publisher very happy because over a period of time, I’d buy up their entire stable of games (as long as they’re different and good). But I don’t think any MMO developer can keep up with my need for change for long.

    Conversely, if a game developer commits to a general policy of innovation and trying out new (but QA tested) things with regular updates, AND maintains good community relations over the internet forums – that’s how to earn subscription from me over the years, even if I’ve stopped playing the game for a time until the next change. That’s trust-building, rather than innovation responsible though.

    Comment by Jeromai — 11 January, 2010 @ 8:19 PM

  26. The Innovation Apocalypse

    [...] Innovation Apocalypse Everyone these days seems to be talking about innovation (every letter is a link there). And by innovation they mean games doing something [...]

    Pingback by Aim for the Head — 12 January, 2010 @ 6:26 AM

  27. #1 How much of a game’s development goes into the development of the game-engine and the set of graphics (rather than the arrangement of those graphics and the scripting of the engine to make a game). How many sets of graphics and game engines does SOE operate (5 or more?). I wonder … if a company made an absolute commitment to a single set of graphics and engine, could they then produce many games, each with very different game play? Sure, the visual characteristics of the games would blend together … but perhaps that would be an acceptable tradeoff. With 50 million dollars (a typical AAA budget) and very low art and engine development costs, how many distinct games could be produced? Please, correct my understanding of cost structure, if I’m incorrect.

    #2 It’s no secret that I (and many others) enjoyed pre-NGE SWG. I think, in many ways, SWG was the spiritual successor of post trammel/felluca UO. But where is the successor to SWG? There’s a game I’d like to see “evolved”.

    #3 Innovation needs to be tied to a need or want. How about a deep, social, tactically group-friendly game that one can play without a 4-hour session. As some of us gamers get older, it becomes tough (if not impossible) to play the MMORPG’s of old … and yet I just can’t stomache the simplistic play of web or facebook games.

    Comment by Tuebit — 12 January, 2010 @ 8:22 AM

  28. There’s a subtle line between “polish” and “innovation” though. I think it’s incorrect to assume you can ignore “polish” and use “innovation” as an excuse.

    To put it bluntly, you can’t give me a WoW-like “typical” MMO (leveling / classes / dungeons / crafting) that are unpolished with an improved graphics engine and then tell me “we innovated” . That’s just a lame excuse.

    So, get the basics and fundamentals right, this implies a certain amount of “polish” and then innovate. Unless your MMO is a total new concept, like going from Everquest to EVE, yes then your entire framework is part of the innovation. The last few years, MMOs devs rolled exactly the same game as WoW [fundementally] and then call their graphics improvements or a theme differing from the fantasy formula “innovation”.

    Comment by silvertemplar — 13 January, 2010 @ 5:28 AM

  29. I think we face two kinds of innovation:
    1. Technical innovation
    2. I lack a single word for it, but it’s a mixture of gamedesign and the way we perceive games

    I think both are very important, but for different people and different sights.
    While games do a great deal in pushing technology forward by using and supporting a lot of new stuff from the labs, we might have lost focus on good game design and especially how much game you get for your money.
    I remember somehwat 12 years back, when I bought LucasArt’s Game “X-Wing”. For that time you got stunning graphics…ok. but what was really remarkable was how many hours you could spend playing the game. There were 5 chapters of a huge campaign with round about 30 missions in each chapter. Thats a 150 missions to play, plus some Bonus Missions, which were motivating because you could earn a lot of medals for all sorts of different “x-wing-pilot-goodness”.
    Back then it costed some 30 DM (Deutsche Mark, i’m from germany…)
    When today you buy an average shooter you get maybe 7 to 15 hours of playing time plus some multiplayer stuff, if the game becomes popular. the average shooter is something like 50 Euro’s.

    Long term short: I think there’s too much focus on having the latest graphics and stuff in a game, instead of delivering more and better content and discovering new ways to play a game.
    Of course you have to be commercially successfull if you invest a lot of money into that state of the art graphics engine, but if I have super reallistic graphics, I’d like to enjoy that for longer than 10 hours.
    I see this as a missconception: The developer spends tons of money and time into using state of the art technology and in the end delivers a game which is played for 10 hours. Technical innovation? Yes! Long term player fanbase? Maybe! Striking game content and perception? … ?

    I liked Splinter Cell and MaxPayne for that. I think they were both: technically on a high level and bringing good ideas with a fresh and innovative way of presentation.

    Comment by Christian — 13 January, 2010 @ 6:09 AM

  30. Tuebit’s first comment is another important aspect.

    When a game has a small budget, an enourmous chunk of that budget goes towards the basic technology needed just to get the player on the screen, terrain and textures in the world, getting the client to communicate to the server, getting the servers to calculate the AI of an unknown number of NPCs at once, and all those other basics that “armchair designers” never mention in their “Dream MMO” documents. This is millions of dollars that is completely overlooked from “blue sky MMO designs.”

    Write up your dream MMO. Now imagine you can only afford a fraction, let’s say half, of that dream game. Would you try? Or would you quit and guarantee that game is never made? If you decide to give it a try, what features would you keep? What features would you cut?

    Did you include those basics we just talked about? Remember, they MUST be in the fraction you keep, or you can’t ship. You can’t cut “animation system” or “graphics engine” or “network code” and still have a playable game – you have to cut from your innovative features. How many innovative features do you have left?

    Does your design include the tools needed to implement those features? If not, or if you underestimate how expensive it is to make them, you’ll need to cut more features to make up for it. What innovative features did you sacrifice this time?

    I’m sure you took into account the time and effort it takes to code and design the systems behind your Dream MMO, but did you include the vast time it takes just to put the data into the game? Even if we assume that you’ve covered the costs to “think them up”, how much time/money/manpower does it take just to type in 2000 quests worth of dialog? What about the time it takes just to drop the required objects in the world? If this isn’t included in your design, or if you underestimated the time it takes, you’ll need to cut more innovative features to make up for it.

    If your quests are something as simple as “kill 10 rats,” you only need to make those rats and place them in the world. However, if you are doing something more difficult, like “Defend the capital from the invading Space-Rats while convincing the Prime Minister to sign the Ion-Cannon Appropriations Bill (ICAB) into law,” it’s going to take 10, 20, maybe even 100 times as long to place the Prime Minister, script the event, enter the data needed for the “convincing” and “legal authority” systems to work. Did you account for this extra work? If not, cut more features (or make more “kill 10 rats” quests.)

    What if one of the features you end up having to cut is the “legal authority” system? Every innovative quest that uses this system, and all the work you put into designing them, is gone. If you need to rewrite the story, or fill in an xp-per-minute gap, or write new quests, these things take time/money/manpower, and you’ll have to cut more innovative features to make up for it.

    What if you (Lord forbid) run into bugs? What if you hire a lead that is indecisive and takes weeks to approve/reject ideas? What if there are meetings that result in nothing more than “We need another meeting.”? (One hour multiplied by eight designers is an entire day wasted.) What if you have to deal with office politics? How much will that cut into your innovative features?

    If you lose morale because people are overworked, that cuts into your innovative features. If you take a day to go to the movies as a company to keep morale high, that cuts into your innovative features. Catch a worker (or yourself) playing games when he should be working? That cuts into your innovative features. Spend way too long reading MMO developer blogs, that cuts into your innovative features. How much of your innovation is left?

    If your starting budget was small enough, your innovative ideas were gone a long time ago. (For many small companies, the budget barely covers the basics, and they have to cut from the very beginning.) No matter how much you love these features, how wonderful they are, or how much better they will make your game – they are gone. Why? Because an innovative combat system, with no graphics engine is worthless. An innovative crafting system with no items to craft is worthless. An innovative advancement system with no networking code, is worthless. You need the foundations before you can build these innovations on top of them.

    It’s not just having “innovative ideas” – it’s having the budget it takes to implement those ideas. Time == Money == Manpower == “Ability to implement innovative features.”

    I’m not sure exactly why big companies with huge budgets refuse to innovate – especially companies that already have the basics sitting in an existing game. The other comments (and the original post) seem to understand it better than I do, because I agree 100% with practically everything I’ve read here.

    But understand that there are small MMO companies out there who would love to innovate, but they can barely afford just to get players in their world.

    Every innovation they add means they have to cut an expected/normal/”if you don’t have it, you fail” feature. Can they cut the graphics engine? Crafting? Swimming? Animations? Quests? Direct Damage attacks? Status Effect spells? Particle effects? The auction house? Mounts? Mob AI? Chat? Trade? How many races/classes/zones can they sacrifice to allow one more innovative feature? What if they’ve cut everything they can and barely have time for 2 or 3 innovative features?

    What should they do? How should they solve this problem? Do they build what they can, more than enough to justify buying the game, and then try to squeeze those 2 or 3 innovations in, hoping that they can sell enough to add a 4th, then a 5th, then a 6th…? Or do they quit and guarantee that those innovations never see the light of day?

    Quitting is probably the smarter answer, but it’s why you don’t see innovation from small companies, either. The more innovative games never ship. Either they are missing the basics and thus are unplayable, or the designers quit because they realize that making a game with only one or two innovations is asking for punishment:

    “(Other MMO) has these features, why don’t you?”
    “That feature is just one new idea tacked on top of a DIKU clone.”
    “Why doesn’t this feature work like it does in WoW?”
    “The story, lore, characters, and world are different, but it’s still a clone.”
    “That’s not innovation! I can almost make (other MMO) do that if I do these steps and use an outside mod and a custom hardware macro. All they did was make it a built-in part of the game and design encounters based on it!”
    “That character can shoot a bow for ranged dps? Hunter clone! Oh, it can heal, tank, and ranged DPS? I meant druid clone! Oh, you said Melee DPS? I meant paladin clone!”
    “Sure, it has a great community, but that’s not design! Game design features can’t create community!”
    “Yeah, so they have 2 or 3 cool features? So what? The rest of the game is just a clone! Stupid, lazy designers!”


    Sometimes I wish I was smart enough to just quit, but for now, I still hope that one day I will be here, complaining about how I wish I had a little more money, so I could afford to add “innovative feature number 900″, instead of wishing for “number 4″.

    Comment by Hue — 13 January, 2010 @ 1:01 PM

  31. As a design professional on the outside of the game industry looking in, I can offer that you’re looking at the problem in the same way all engineering-driven industries looked at it before they became consumer-driven – you’re viewing the problem from the inside >>> out when you should be defining it and solving it from the outside >>> in.

    Innovation isn’t a paradox, it’s just tough to pin down when the market you’re in doesn’t have a handle on it, and you don’t have any true leaders to follow. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s a pretty straight-forward process when you connect all the dots, and in the end what you learn is what your gut was telling you all along that you should be doing – you should have been doing.

    The game industry is poised to lead the world into the new era of the way we experience entertainment. The problem with MMOs in particular, though, is they are behind the consumer-driven curve. They’re still very much a software-driven, industrial product and there aren’t enough knowledgeable leaders in place within the organizations developing them to lead them in the right direction that we could later identify as innovation. The result is the risk-averse culture you’re referring to.

    There is a way through, but it’s going to either take infusing expertise from other industries that have gone through the curve – or it’s going to take a decade or two of time as the industry figures things out in its own.

    Comment by Keelhaul — 13 January, 2010 @ 5:54 PM

  32. Two final thoughts, as I’ve had more time to read through the comments here…

    1) Great analogy with the lumber, varnish and hand tools. Innovation is about having the problem well defined first, though, before you look to solve it. So the first thing to do is ask “why” is it a chair you are building in the first place? It’s a simple question, but it’s one product and service developers often have great difficulty answering in other industries, simply because they’re so caught up in making something that they’ve simply forgotten to ask the most important question, “why”. Next, “who” do you think is going to use this chair? Do you know who these people are? And I don’t mean their names, where they’re located and how often they’re online in your game – that’s not knowing your customer. I mean do you know their needs, desires and aspirations inside and outside your gaming experience… their latent needs, the things they don’t realize they can have in a new entertainment experience. Innovation isn’t about simply setting out and building the chair, which I think is the viciously cyclical approach many MMO developers are currently caught up in – development for development’s sake. Are they honestly creating enough new value to influence people to migrate over to their product? And let’s be honest, it’s a migration that MMO developers are asking of gamers, though they may not know realize it. This isn’t like asking your customer to switch fast food chains, it’s more like asking them to stop drinking Mountain Dew and start drinking tea – and not just try it, but stick with it for months. That’s a lot to ask the average player – a profile that more than likely makes up a significant percentage of the target market opportunity out there. The insight there could be that with a game like WoW, it’s not that the game is just that good, it’s that people have too much invested in it to switch.

    2) You can’t have innovation & polish? Fantastic thread here, love the energy… but I’m afraid I disagree on this point, which is exciting! The only reason it may feel like you can’t have both is because you’re still thinking about the chair. You have to take on a bit of the Matrix mentality to tackle the ambiguity of innovation head on. Remember, “there is no spoon”, so developers should stop trying to bend the same spoon and back up to see the bigger picture of the experience they’re attempting to create. Change up your furniture choice and fuel your new direction with influence from the outside >>> in. You may find you’re next project is a much more nimble piece of furniture that is more readily adopted by the mainstream and offers significantly new value. You may find you’ve been able to allocate resources differently during development as a result, and you’ve been able to streamline your polishing process because this new piece of furniture isn’t nearly as complex. The result could be a highly differentiated piece of furniture when placed among the competition, something that is still relevant enough to be placed on the same shelves, but offers enough new value where the cost of entry is desirable, and the barriers to adopting it are minimal. You may have more time to polish because you’ve changed what “polish” means for your process. If you’re changing up the rules, and redefining the paradigms and setting new rationale – then have someone pinch you, because you’re probably innovating.

    Comment by Keelhaul — 13 January, 2010 @ 9:53 PM

  33. Sorry – last note.

    What I meant to say was the insight could be that with a game like WoW, it’s not that the game is just that good, it’s that too much is being asked of gamers to get them to leave.

    Comment by Keelhaul — 13 January, 2010 @ 10:02 PM

  34. silvertemplar wrote:
    …you can’t give me a WoW-like “typical” MMO…

    That would not be innovative. And, yes, anyone who is going to copy the DIKU/EQ/WoW model better make sure they have lots of polish. Trying to claim that a WoW clone is innovative is just lying. You mention EVE and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. EVE had a really rough launch; manypeople panned the gameplay as boring and mostly “spreadsheets in space.” But, the game had enough support to survive that initial rough patch to become the game many people admire today. My point is that if you want innovation like EVE Online, then you need to be patient and accept that it isn’t going to be highly polished like WoW, a game built upon a core of already proven ideas, was.

    Christian wrote:
    I think there’s too much focus on having the latest graphics and stuff in a game…

    I agree, and this is not just a recent phenomenon. Lots of people have noticed that the focus has been on graphics and other “production values” rather than on core game design. The games we’re playing today are very similar to the games we’ve played in the last several years. The number of truly innovative products, like The Sims, is small.

    Hue wrote:
    (Lots of stuff about how hard it is to make an MMO.)

    I agree completely. One reason why I put faith into indie development is because we usually have no choice except to innovate. Trying to overreach means that you’ll have to cut features and release a game that might be a pale shadow of our grand imagination.

    What we really need is to start thinking in different ways. One game I’ve been taken with recently is Realm of the Mad God. It’s a simple little multi-player arcade type game made in a month from existing assets. It’s a bit rough, and I’m sure it’s probably hideous code under the hood, but it’s pretty neat that a small team was able to make a cool game like that in only a month. I hope the creators of that game are able to take their idea and do something cool with it. But, we need more games like this.

    Keelhaul wrote:
    …you’re viewing the problem from the inside >>> out when you should be defining it and solving it from the outside >>> in.

    If you were part of the game industry, you’d understand why this is the case. The first step is to educate people about the topic.

    …it’s going to either take infusing expertise from other industries that have gone through the curve….

    Unfortunately, there’s a long and unhappy history of the game industry trying to bring in outsiders to help things along. Usually attitudes like, “games are just widgets, and I know how to make/design/sell widgets” or “it’s just games, how hard can it be?” cause more problems than they solve. Even in industries you’d expect would be similar, such as the numerous times when Hollywood has tried to do games, the results can be catastrophic.

    I suspect the best we can hope for is for motivated game designers to learn from outside industries and try to apply the lessons. Which goes back to my point above, the first step is to educate people about the topic….

    Great discussions so far. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 January, 2010 @ 10:10 PM

  35. Perfection would be a fatal flaw for evolution

    [...] into the zeitgeist of the week, Brian Green’s got an excellent blog post up on The Innovation Paradox. Alongside Melmoth’s dictionary heroics I pondered the line “I think most thinking [...]

    Pingback by Killed in a Smiling Accident. — 14 January, 2010 @ 12:22 AM

  36. On another note, and since i’ve recently started playing Everquest 2 (for the first time) and found the title oozing with polish and innovative little things. Wouldn’t you think it is easier to innovate on top of an EXISTING game that got through the launch-year blues (WoW/EQ2/EVE) than creating a new game from scratch and re-inventing the wheel? Isn’t this most likely the single biggest reason why WoW is still going? Blizzard would never have thought of the dungeon finder feature if they still had to struggle getting their animations or “graphics engine” right.

    If you’re creating an MMO right now, and it remotely looks or works like WoW (which is 99% of all MMOs out there, even Star Trek Online does not seem exactly like it will revolutionize anything) , aren’t you setting yourself up for failure if you expect results within a year? Does any of these MMO devs actually think 2 years ahead? Maybe innovation can only reasonably flourish in an MMO after a significant amount of time being -live- and the focus can shift from “enhancing” instead of “fixing” ?

    I’m fine with indie devs coming and launching something that isn’t exactly new or might be problematic, but indie devs do not have shareholders breathing down their necks with a ROI-blackmail within a year. They are generally in a position to innovate continiously and i do believe the likes of Fallen Earth and even Darkfall are in an unbelievably much better position to “innovate” than Cryptic’s Champions or Star Trek.

    The latest AAA [EA/Activision/SOE/Cryptic] releases seems to be the exact opposite. If it doesn’t succeed within a year the MMO goes into maintenance mode (no more ideas being poured into it)…and they start creating ANOTHER MMO [most likely with the exact same elements] in hopes to ramp up some box sales.

    Now SOE has been slightly different in the past with the act of buying existing MMOs and taking them over, which seems perfect if you go with the notion of innovation on-top of something vs. re-inventing the wheel. However, SOE obviously made a few blunders (Star Wars Galaxies) where they thought they’re “innovating” and it backfired (but the notion should be noted imho)…i won’t be surprised if that little disaster resulted in SOE cutting back on their “innovative” practices, hence them shutting down MMOs left right and center (Vanguard soon to follow?) instead of building on top of them.

    To summarise: Compare Everquest 2 vs. Age of Conan . Which would people think more innovative -right now- ? Which is most likely to innovate even further based on their existing states? I’d say EQ2 simply because it’s so far down the evolutionary chain.

    Comment by silvertemplar — 14 January, 2010 @ 12:33 AM

  37. silvertemplar wrote:
    Wouldn’t you think it is easier to innovate on top of an EXISTING game that got through the launch-year blues….

    Perhaps, but your innovation is limited. You mention SWG, so you’re probably familiar with the problems that the NGE caused. Radically changing the game (in this case to copy other games rather than to try something different) runs the risk of alienating people. WoW can’t scrap their level and class based system and try a skill-based one, for example, without putting their subscriber figures at risk. This is something we faced with Meridian 59; as much as I would have loved to use a microtransaction system, for example, I don’t think the fans would have stood for it.

    …better position to “innovate” than Cryptic’s Champions or Star Trek.

    Given that both of those are licensed properties, you’re right. Although, I think some people are disappointed that Star Trek Online seems to be following so closely to WoW’s combat mechanics for part of the game.

    Compare Everquest 2 vs. Age of Conan . Which would people think more innovative -right now-?

    Honestly? I’d go with AoC. They tried a slightly different type of combat, more action-focused. Admittedly, this didn’t work out as well as they hoped, so one might chalk this up more as failed innovation. But, I think it’s still more innovative than anything EQ2 has done. Now, which is the better game? I’d definitely give it to EQ2, and part of the reason is that it doesn’t have the same core problems. But, I did play AoC for a while hoping that they would be able to fix up some of the problems, so I’m not a complete hypocrite here.

    Further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 January, 2010 @ 2:05 AM

  38. Doing It Backwards

    [...] has a great post up, “The Innovation Paradox”, discussing the conundrum of innovating in games. The discussion is [...]

    Pingback by — 14 January, 2010 @ 11:48 AM

  39. Radically changing the game (in this case to copy other games rather than to try something different) runs the risk of alienating people.

    I think the trick here is not to modify existing, running instances of games, but to fork. Leave WoW in place, but make a second version with a different system. Give players the option to stay with the old version, or join the new one (or both, or make them entirely separate). Hell, there’s some serious business model to be built around this sort of thing.

    One thing I hope will start to drive some more innovation is stuff like Unity, which can significantly aid in getting over Moore’s Wall, by providing ready-made engines that are at least good enough for a lot of indie projects.

    Comment by Jebadiah Moore — 14 January, 2010 @ 3:13 PM

  40. A nice bit of affirmation from well-respected game designer Arnold Hendrick in a comment at Massively:

    “Brian Green’s basic point, that Innovation and Polish are diametrically opposed, has been pretty much my experience in the computer game industry over the last 25+ years.”

    He goes on to point out that Civilization as innovative but most of the effort went into just getting the thing to work, not polishing it. The sequels have focused more on polish.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 January, 2010 @ 6:22 PM

  41. Just got to reading this now as I was reading backlog entries from Keen’s site. I’m much more inclined to agree with this assessment, in light of the idea that nostalgia can be a bias maker that can alter or cloud our perceptions.

    *adds blog to blogroll and reading list.*

    More power to you!

    Comment by Victor Stillwater — 17 January, 2010 @ 2:15 AM

  42. Linkage: There is no New. Move along.

    [...] “Psychochild” Green starts it all. Don’t let him tell you it was like that when he found [...]

    Pingback by Stylish Corpse — 18 January, 2010 @ 7:02 AM

  43. I guess one big Problem with innovation is, that every Player wants Innovation but if a developer really makes an innovative game, every one takes a look at it and compares it with something familiar.
    Ofcourse it isn’t possible to bring out a game with is perfectly balanced and bug free but it could be innovative, the problem will be that only a few will play this game. Most players would probably say “yeah.. it has some cool new features, but the controls are different than what I am used in WoW”.

    I would say to make an really innovative MMO you need a lot of money to really have a superb game right at launch. And probably you have to kill all “standard” MMOs so players are willing to try and focus on something new…

    Comment by Deathripper — 20 January, 2010 @ 3:40 AM

  44. Well, in terms of the writer wrting a million words so he innovates and does something new…who feeds him while he’s writing those words? What looks after him.

    Do you want innovation for free? Really, despite them being big, companies like blizzard or suchlike essentially have no one to look after them while trying to develop and do something new. So they don’t. Or it happens at a glacial pace.

    I don’t usually give them a get out of jail free card, but that’s because they don’t even seem to manage basic gameplay alot of the time (and hell, I’ll take space invaders as basic gameplay), or they manage it but screw it up (warsong gulch didn’t used to have a time limit on it). In terms of basic gameplay I’ll harp on them, but in terms of innovation – what, do you want it for free?

    Comment by Callan S. — 20 January, 2010 @ 2:03 PM

  45. Commit to quality

    [...] them tomorrow) I feel like talking about design once more. Earlier this week I found this gem on Brian “Psychochild” Green blog where he talks about innovation vs polish. [...]

    Pingback by Screaming monkeys — 21 January, 2010 @ 10:23 AM

  46. The Rampant Coyote referenced this post in Formula, Innovation, and Compromised Ideals. A practical look at how innovation works (or doesn’t) when you’re knee-deep in development.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 January, 2010 @ 8:14 PM

  47. The Myth Of The Perfect Game

    [...] Innovation is a double edged sword too, yet many of us cry for it. [...]

    Pingback by Sideshow & Syrana — 27 January, 2010 @ 7:03 AM

  48. As a late-breaking followup, I wanted to remind folks of the game Seed.

    Seed got some buzz for being an MMO without direct combat. (In the world of MMOs, a core design that doesn’t focus monomaniacally on encouraging characters to shoot each other in the face counts as innovative.)

    It failed almost immediately. It launched early (and missing some features) to try to bring in additional development funding, but still couldn’t last long enough to pay for itself.

    How can a champion of innovation in MMOs explain to skeptics why what happened to Seed wouldn’t happen to any MMO that tries to do something meaningfully different?

    (Editor’s note: I edited this slightly to turn a poorly parsed URL into a proper link.)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 18 February, 2010 @ 12:16 PM

  49. Evolution? Standards v Principles

    [...] Need a Mutant MMO The Innovation Paradox Thats a Terrible Idea: The Immitation Rut We’re Working Backwards WoW is the iPhone, not [...]

    Pingback by The Edge of gaming — 10 March, 2010 @ 10:03 PM

  50. A (paper) RPG podcast discusses this article in the first part of the show. Given that I’m a big fan of paper RPGs, it was interesting to hear this topic discussed in that context.

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 May, 2010 @ 12:42 PM

  51. Innovation in Gaming

    [...] the Boot has an excellent episode up about innovation in gaming. They use this blog post as a starting point. A lot of interesting points are raised, which I will respond to below. But [...]

    Pingback by Synapse Design Blog — 21 May, 2010 @ 8:39 PM

  52. Mixing is Innovating

    The big compromise that gets no credit in this article is mixing elements from different formats and different genres.

    Playing knights of the old republic was NOTHING like playing a d20 Star Wars game, even though the core mechanics are near-identical. It’s easy to see the six second rounds as coming straight from the sourcebook, but the usability innovations to make a real-time-turn-based RPG should not be taken for granted. Getting that full role-playing experience with a computer DM and then-cutting edge graphics was transformative. I don’t know if having that in a social context will be any different with the upcoming TOR, but whenever Bioware cracks the nut of the multiplayer RPG with a computer-driven DM, I will call it innovation.

    Additionally, some of my favorite games, and some of the most innovative, have merely mixed elements from existing games. Call of Duty 4 found incredible success by melding RPG progression and FPS multi-player. The “Prestige” system, by which players sacrifice their levels for a mark of distinction, allows new players to jump in, since there will be a range of different levels in every game. This singular innovation allowed the successful introduction of a whole host of RPG mechanics and is the lynchpin that holds the two genres together.

    The moral is: innovations can be small, they can be modest, and still create huge ramifications to the play experience. The trick is to create good innovations, ones that affect the game as dramatically as you intend, and in the way you intend.

    Comment by Marcus — 19 July, 2010 @ 1:01 PM

  53. Marcus wrote:
    The big compromise that gets no credit in this article is mixing elements from different formats and different genres.

    Depends on what is being mixed. Adding RPG elements to an existing genre of gameplay isn’t necessarily that innovative given the games that have already done so in the past several years. And, to be honest, “My game is like X, but with elements of Y” is so common that it’s almost cliché at this point; not sure we can really call it innovation.

    Even we call it innovation, the point of my article is that not every innovation is going to be a success, so players need to be patient. It’s going to take a lot of mixing of different elements to find the one that works great. Some companies might get lucky and strike a good combination early, but that’s still fairly rare.

    The trick is to create good innovations….

    Sure, that seems obvious. But, again, the point of my article was that you can’t really anticipate what will make a good innovation. The only real way to test a possible innovation is to put it out in front of your actual audience.

    I believe that test audiences and small betas might give you hints about what might work, but they aren’t authoritative. Plus, sometimes people don’t know what they want so something a typical tester doesn’t like might otherwise find wide acceptance. Again, see the derision that was heaped on the Wii but look at its astounding success despite that.

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 July, 2010 @ 1:51 PM

  54. The quest for fun

    [...] seeking out of new thing is one of the reasons why players ask for "innovation". They want something new that they haven't seen before. But, as I hinted in that linked article, [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 23 August, 2010 @ 12:47 PM

  55. Success, opportunities, and luck

    [...] I'll also point to my post on The Innovation Paradox and say, once again, that it's easier to take an already proven idea and polish it than to create a whole new idea. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 22 September, 2010 @ 9:52 AM

  56. The old, spiced with the new

    [...] to revisit our old friend, innovation. What happens if you focus too much on the new? You fail. As I wrote in that post, innovation and [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 18 March, 2013 @ 10:41 AM

  57. Defending Peter Molyneux

    [...] than just letting your audience know about your game, it’s about getting them excited. But, there’s a contradiction between what the audience says it wants and what it really wants. People say they want innovation, but players are quick to discard something that tries something [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 21 March, 2015 @ 1:39 PM

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