A Not So Innovative Look at Innovation

1: The introduction of something new.
2: A new idea, method, or device.

You want to know how great my wife is? For my birthday last year she hunted down a Wii for me. This was no small feat on several levels as she not only had to find one but she also needed to drum up money from my friends to be able to afford it (well, the Wii itself isn’t too bad but she knew I would want four controllers and that starts to get pretty pricey).

The Wii is a good system but since this blog isn’t really about video games you may wonder why I bring it up. Go ahead… wonder already! Fine… I’ll tell you, I bring it up because I recently got Smashbros Brawl. Wait… that really doesn’t explain anything, does it?

What I’m trying to say, in my not-so-direct-route-meander-until-someone (usually my wife) makes-me-stop-because-they-are-sick-of-hearing-me-ramble kind of way, is that I read a review for the game (Smashbros) that gave it only two stars out of five. It was an Amazon.com user review, which means it can probably be trusted slightly less than the rather untrustworthy “critical” reviews but still it struck a cord. The reason it “struck my cord” (sounds dirty) was that the primary problem the reviewer seemed to have with the game was that it lacked innovation. This got me wondering just how important innovation is in a game.

I Loved Smashbros Melee, But Who Didn’t?

As I was working on this I was playing Magic Online, getting my first real taste of Morningtide. I just played against a guy that is apparently French. He was pretty much the coolest person I have ever played against… I really wish I could actually have communicated with him. He wished me a good game after the first game, which I won and then again after the second even though he mulliganed to four and then conceded without playing a card. I had a similar experience in a league yesterday and while I wasn’t overtly rude, I just conceded and walked away, I know I was not in any mood to be so polite. After all my complaints about the people of Magic Online I thought I should mention this.

I didn’t have a Game Cube so I really didn’t play all that much of Smashbros on that system but I did play it every chance I got. I loved it, though I was pretty awful at the game. I think many people regard it as one of the best, or least one of the most replayable, games for the system. So when I got a Wii I was thrilled I would finally get to have a Smashbros game of my very own.

I ended up having to wait longer than I had thought I would as it got rather severely delayed, but I finally have one and while I haven’t gotten to play too much of it yet, so far I love it. What does it have: more characters, more stages, more modes, more options, but no real innovation. Thank the divine spirits of gaming ancestry!

What I mean to say is, I am glad that the designers of Smashbros decided against reworking the game for the Wii. In case people are unaware motion control is not a piece of the new game at all (or at least in any mode I have seen) and personally I am very glad of this. One of the mistakes I felt they made with the new Mario Party game was that they made it all about (or mostly about) motion control. While that did add something I saw no reason that they should leave out all the other kinds of mini-games that they could have put in. On the other hand in the case of Smashbros it seems to me that the game could only have been harmed by the complete rework that would have been needed to make the game more about motion control.

Perhaps I am overstating things. The game may not have been “harmed” per se but I don’t really feel it would have been the same game and personally, I wanted to play Smashbros not some new motion control game that wanted to pretend it was a Smashbros game.

A Video Game Example of OMGWTF “Innovation”

Toejam and Earl is one of my favorite games of all time. When they announced a sequel to the game I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait for it to come out and be exactly what I had played before, only different and maybe a little longer.

Instead the amazing game Toejam and Earl, a truly innovative game in my opinion, was “innovated” into a rather weak side scroller called Toejam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron. I rented it once, played it for a couple hours with my sister and then took it back and never played it again. To this day I’m not sure what they were thinking. Perhaps simply that it was easier and cheaper to make a crappy rip-off that would sell only because the first one was good, than to make a real game, but I was highly disappointed.

Are You Sure This Blog Hasn’t Transformed into a Videogame Blog?

It has not, I assure you. Or at least that’s not really the focus of it or the reason for its existence (with the exception of games like Tinywarz which fits in just fine). On the other hand while I am talking a lot about Smashbros and videogames this post isn’t really about them. It’s about innovation.

To Innovate or Not to Innovate, That is the Question

Ah innovation. I’ve already given the dictionary definition of it (a lame trick to be sure) but let’s think about it a bit more. To innovate means to come up with something new. New means different and different is good right? Well, contrary to what Arby’s might have us believe, different is not always good. In fact most people prefer not to have things different. Most people like the idea of sticking to what they know and not deviating from their chosen self-built World-Box. Sure there are some people to which this does not apply, and sure there are others to which this applies all to well, but I am confident that for the most part it is true. This is not to say we never seek out new things of course but in general we prefer to stay with what makes us comfortable.

My wife and I went to see Avenue Q this past weekend. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Yes it’s a musical. Yes it has puppets. Yes it’s probably something different than what you are used to or what makes you comfortable but still, I think you should go. It was the first time I had seen it but then it wasn’t completely new and different for me since I like musicals, especially strange musicals, a lot.

So what does this mean for board games, role playing games, card games, etc.? Well, I think it helps to explain the success of D20 and the continued propagation of Magic: the Gathering for starters. D20 being an Open Gaming product allows people to know what they are getting into whenever they buy a new D20 game. At least as far as the system goes. Sure there are some differences but at its core you know the rules before you buy the game.

Magic on the other hand has had to compete against all sorts of other card games but none will ever manage to surpass it, partly because people are comfortable with the game and don’t feel like changing. Don’t get me wrong, a good deal of the success of these products comes from the quality of them as well but once the quality establishes the product initially, the comfort kicks in and assists in making the product last.

What Else?

Well, it makes designing new games an interesting challenge. As I said, the continued success of Magic is partly owed to the fact that people like sticking with what they know, but in the beginning Magic was quite the innovation (hey, that word that this post is supposed to be about!), how do we explain that? Well, truly unique ideas often get their own attention. Otherwise nothing new would ever be created.

Let’s look at magic for a moment longer. Magic has gone through an innovation lately that many of you may know about. That innovation was the addition of a new card type: Planeswalkers. Many people balked at this when it was announced and felt that it would be too much, too much change to the comfort they were used to. Personally I think that Planeswalkers have been a great success (Great Success!) and while they have changed the game some they have not made it a new game by any stretch of the imagination.

On the other hand Magic could have picked something else to change. (Well, Magic can’t really pick anything since it’s, ya know, a card game but its designers could have picked something else.) Truly they didn’t need to change anything but let’s assume that they felt there needed to be a big change for some reason and they were trying to figure out what that change would be, what other choices did they have?

Other things Magic could have changed!

  1. Add a sixth color
  2. Remove lands and use something more like the Vs. System or Big Deck
  3. Make the game have two draw piles, one for lands and one for spells
  4. Allow people to start with creatures on the board before the game starts (I mention this because before I played Magic I thought this is how it worked)
  5. Make Vanguard an “all the time” aspect of the game

There are of course many more possibilities than I have listed here but these are a few that have either been mentioned as possible ideas for the game, are ways that some people currently play unofficially, or are aspects of the game that could be built upon to become a more major aspect. Unlike the Planeswalker change I think all of these would have been large shocking changes that, while being innovative, would not have benefited the game as a whole.

So… When is Innovation Good?

I think that innovation is good when it creates something out of nothing more than when it changes something that people already have preconceived notions about or when it adds something to a game without changing the basic underlying theme/feel of the game. A new expansion for any game is in fact an innovation of sorts but an expansion that gives you more of the same is often better than an expansion that tries to take the game in a new direction.

Oh Lord, Another Example

I own the Lord of the Rings board game by Fantasy Flight and Reiner Knizia. For those that don’t know it’s a cooperative game about trying to work together to destroy the One Ring.

I, for one, like the game a lot but others have found it to be frustrating as it tends to be fairly difficult to win. I own all the expansions for the game but we don’t play with one of them: Lord of the Rings – Sauron. The Sauron expansion added the ability for one of the players to take on the role of Sauron and compete against the group. While this is a concept used in a lot of games (Descent for example) it just didn’t fit with the Lord of the Rings experience.

Our preconceived notion of the game was one of cooperation and teamwork and this expansion went against that and thus did not work for our group. To the contrary I have liked the other expansions that have come out. Even the Battlefields expansion that added a new concept to the game but did not try to change the way the game felt.

So… What’s Your Point?

My point is that when designing a game you need to pay attention to your audience and to their expectations. Making a game and calling it Risk: Fantasy Adventure and then making a Risk-like game but using D20s would be a real challenge (and likely a disaster) since most people expect Risk to be based on six-sided dice.

Sometimes I feel that designers fail because rather than sticking with what people expect they try to make something “new” or rather than trying to make something fun they try to make something innovative. I’ve played a lot of games and afterwards said something to my friends like “Well, it’s neat… kind of a cool concept” but then really not played the game again. This also relates to my idea that “Simple = Good” but I’ll have to go off on a rambling discussion of that some other day.

I could probably write about this topic forever but I’ve probably already gone on too long. In conclusion let me just say that I like playing new games and I like seeing what new ideas people can come up with. Still, sometimes like with Smashbros I feel that keeping the good and expanding on it is far better than remaking it as something new. I’m not entirely sure what the Amazon reviewer was looking for but if he wanted something that was not Smashbros, why did he buy the game in the first place?

Feel free to sound off in the comments about games you feel were innovative for their time or games you feel innovated themselves to death!

    Scott Says:

    I just have to comment on the Magic list: #3 is one I’ve really hoped for, on more than one occasion. Not that it would ever happen. I do strongly dislike basic land cards though, and wished that something more like Netrunner, or Jyhad, was in place… if, you know, Magic hadn’t been the game that started the whole CCG gaming genre.


    Don’t get me wrong, Jyhad (Vampire now though I do still think of it as Jyhad as well) and Netrunner are both great games but neither allow for the game to play the way Magic does.

    An eight casting cost card would not be able to be as powerfull as they can currently be if you can be guaranteed to play it on turn eight.

    In Magic as the turns go by the chance of you expanding your mana base goes down and that is what allows for the game to play the way it does. While this sucks a lot of the time, I’m not sure there is any other way to make Magic be what Magic is.

    Also, while I loved Netrunner it did start feeling stagnant after a lot of plays because everything was so mathmatic that there was very little room for expansion.

    Scott Says:

    I think there’s room to innovate within such a formula (as Jyhad/V:tES for example). Though I won’t argue that it would change Magic a lot. I will contend it’s possible to change Magic for the better, but at the same time Magic’s been around for so long that people would be unlikely to adjust to such a change, nor would it be easy to reconcile the thousands of existing cards and effects (unless the change was extremely well crafted).

    At the same time, Magic has been changing all along, Planeswalkers included.

    I think I like to hope for change in Magic just because it’s one of the games I play the most, yet there are certain facets such as basic lands which seem like leftover crud from an initial design which was created before anybody knew how a CCG would actually play.

    Jyhad (I know, I like the classic name) isn’t perfect, but I think the way of playing cards feels a little more elegant. You could argue that cards designed to increase your pool or transfers are just as “wasted” as basic lands in Magic, but at least in Jyhad you could play perfectly well without them.

    I’ll agree to an extent with the mathematical nature of Netrunner being something that contributed to its stagnation. It was very mathematical, in some ways, yet the asymmetry and bluffing aspects were innovative within the context.

    I think the ability to break down almost any card or action to a mathematical equation must have made it very difficult to develop new cards or further innovate however. There was little reason to use some cards when a “strictly better” equivalent came along, and they never quite managed as much rock-paper-scissors style play as Magic can support.

    jackie Says:

    and im sure you havent even replanted the chia turtle i got you 🙁

    i did put in enough money to buy atleast one controller.