Sunday, March 5, 2006

Thoughts on Innovation

Lots of people talking about innovation in games this past week, mostly due the catalyst article that is Jeff Vogel indie dev article "View From the Bottom #2" . Not one to miss the meme, I thought I'd chime in with some thoughts.

Among the posts that caught my attention:

  • Raph Koster references the above article and extracts a worthy quote.
  • Robin references the same article and points out that innovation is hard. (Amen)
  • Someone else pointed me to this post by Dan C from a year ago about innovation in games (good read, though I don't agree with all of it)

So that do we mean by "innovation" and why is it a problem? Well, innovation is quite simply "the act of introducing something new". And why is that a problem? Well, it's twofold:

  1. You need to *invent* (or 'create', depending if you are a left- or right-brainer :-) something new, and there's a risk that you may fail, and
  2. You have to hope that people will buy it.

I suppose there is a third problem which is that you hope someone doesn't build it first - but by definition if you are innovating your chance of this being a problem are lower than if you are building "the same old thing", so let's just focus on the first two problems.

The claim from many is that the first problem isn't a problem, that there's many ideas out there, just no one willing to fund them. Well, if that's the case then it's just another flavor of problem number two, right? People (with $5M) have to buy that it can be built. Then you build it, then you hope that other people (like, a couple hundred thousand of them, with $50 each) will buy it.

That's if you are doing Big Innovation. The kind Jeff says only EA can do. Nonsense, others say, EA won't take risks (I'm guilty of saying this myself, but I have to take it back based on what I'm going to say later in this post) and it's the little Indie guy with nothin' to lose that can take the risks. Well, tell that to Indie guy who's got to eat and all that.

At the end of the day, it's risk taking. And anyone, regardless of the size of their bank account, has a level at which they are uncomfortable. MS, of course, has a fairly sizeable bank account, but I'd venture to say (and I'm guessing, it's not my group) that when the whole Xbox Live thing got underway, some people where feeling that comfort level being stretched. And some people would claim it's innovative (at least parts of it).

So I was ready to dismiss it at that. Big guys can take big risks on little projects (Namco and Katamari) or little risks on big projects (EA's Neil Young's example of innovate a bit within an established genre or franchise), little guys can take little risks in little projects or big risks in, well, little projects (examples to follow).

I *was* ready to dismiss it at that, and then 3 things happened.

  • Adam Lake had a think. Adam (a former co-worker at Intel) is enjoying one of Intel's perks, his sabbatical, and is currently trekking around Australian and New Zealand doing things like catering to his girlfriends tropical fruit fetish and spelunking into caves to look at glow worms. (I didn't even know those were real! Note to self - less virtual experiences, more real ones.). Anyhow. Adam's doing some reading on his trip and just got through Stephenson's Quicksilver and made some comparisons to the historical references therein to tipping points. Hmm... innovation. Tipping points.

Is innovation really about carrying everyone from 'as we are' to 'as we could be' single handedly? Or is it a bucket brigade? Or a mix of both.

  • The second thing that happened was that I got forwarded to Plasma Pong. Stop now, go play. Ok, you are back? I don't know about you, but I'd say making pong fun again - making pong anything other than tedium - is innovation.

Plasma Pong.

But what is the innovation? Pong's been done. The author credits Jos Stam's fluid dynamics work from a couple years back for that part of it. There's probably some IHV demo code influence behind the choice graphics. Innovation? Or tipping point? Or is this one step away from a more finely tuned multiplayer version that sells a few hundred thousand units on Xbox Live Arcade, and would that be the tipping point?

  • The third thing that occurred to me is one I can't talk about, and it's too bad because it's the biggest one. I saw a game prototype (I see a lot of stuff in my new job here) that was a significant twist on a mechanic within a well established casual game genre. Not a "oh, that's neat, it changes it a bit" kind of twist. More of a "Holy crap, you've invented a new genre" kind of twist. A "Why in tarnation has no one in twenty years of this genre existing not thought of this!?". This was less "there's gold in them there hills" and more "turns out there's a secret gold mine under New York city".

Ok, maybe now I'm overstating it, but I have a point to make. Innovation is all around us. Anytime someone pushes their comfort level a little and takes a risk on something new, there's a chance they may innovate in some way. Building on these, both the good and the mistakes, pushes us forward.

I play a lot of casual games *A LOT* as part of my new job. I came into it with the same prejudice of "not another dang match-3 game", only to realize that there is far more innovation than people realize. Sure, there are clones, but there are many interesting twists, changes to mechanics or theme or gameplay balance, that make many of these innovative games. And it occurred to me that the negative stereotype of the match three games wasn't coming from people that played them - it was coming from the hardcore gamer crowd. Guess what guys and gals, outside fans of the FPS genre, Half Life 2 was just "another game where you kill people". Your gramma might confuse it with Unreal.

This is no different than kids saying "opera is crap" and old folks saying "that dang heavy metal music all sounds the same". Each wouldn't recognize innovation in the genre they dislike.

So I'd argue again that innovation is alive and well. It hurts to take risk - for anyone. Nothing new there. Maybe part of the problem is that incremental risk and incremental innovation doesn't breed anything but incremental reward and recognition. Is the problem that both fans and developers alike want "hero innovation" of the Carmack kind? We want to be wowwed all in one go in a big orgasm of innovative gaming, or we want to be the hero that delivered it.

Food for thought.


Matthew said...

Many believe that the older games are better because developers had to be more innovative within the limitations that the hardware provided.

Now, it is easier to for games developers to bring out games with great visuals but little else under the surface. For example, doom 4.

Anonymous said...

RE: ...due to hardware limitations...

...there's nothing that says innovation cannot happen in modern games via technology. Think about something like Ragdoll Kung-Fu where the innovation happens through restriction of the technology combined with a cool idea for mechanics. Basically, the developers said, "hey, we have this awesome GPU, but let's limit ourselves to the 2D techniques of yesterday." They ended up with a really fun and visually stylistic game that's accessible to anyone - even those with low-end graphics hardware.

I agree with matthew's second comment - look at the array of games brought out by the large publishers over the last couple of years and try to find more than a handful of honestly good games. Spectacular visuals (since GPUs have been the hot tech item; and I've got no problem with that), but little substance.

The same comparison and discussion could (of course) be drawn parallel in film and other industries.