Wrapping up my thoughts on Innovation

My position on innovation has been stated before.  I have grown to truly loathe this subject.  Arriving at a definition of innovation that enough people will agree upon is only half the battle.  You then have to hope that people will understand the context in which you use the term.  Then you have to hope that you’re not preaching to a bunch of zealots who believe the complete opposite and only care about arguing the definition for which you thought you had consensus.   I do not want to exacerbate the situation further, but I would like to add to my thoughts on innovation.

I’ve have arrived at the following principles:

1) If you’re using a model or framework from a past game, use what worked and discard what did not. There is little reason to continue if you’re not going to learn from the lessons of the past – both good and bad.
2) Perfect the fundamentals.
3) Do not fix what is not broken.
4) Change for the sake of change is wrong.
5) Are you working backwards? Ensure that what you are designing today is on par with or surpassing the achievements and accomplishments of yesterday.
6) Then, once 1-5 are considered, is innovation necessary to complete the vision of your design? If yes, innovate. If no, then do not innovate.

If I had to identify the point where most developers fail it would be on number five.  When it comes to innovation, I have 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 graphics”.  Not quite.  I’m saying that today’s games should be using the old games as a launchpad or baseline rather than the ‘ideal’ that they one day hope to achieve.  Therein lies my reasoning for stating that older games are not living up to the promises of the older generation and my conclusion that we are working backwards. If getting back to the point where our ‘ideal’ future is our baseline means an old game with new graphics, then by all means.

To sum up the six points, I’d like to reference a statement that Graev made when we were having one of our random conversations about games.  He said, “Innovation is fine as long as they do not sacrifice the integrity of the game”.   I immediately wrote it down because he had captured exactly what I’ve been rambling about in one sentence — a sentence that is also quite deep.

The definition of integrity: an undivided or unbroken completeness or totality with nothing wanting.

As long as the integrity of the game and the genre are preserved then innovation is a great thing.  It’s how we’ll move beyond what we have known as ideal to create bigger and better games.  For now though it’s all about getting back to the starting line.

  • You bring up a good point, a sore one at that with #5. I’ve had a few debates with members of the STO-Hype-Crew as of late. One sentence that pops up often in these discussions:

    “Remember WoW and EQ2 also had bad launches , and they also lacked content at launch”.

    I can only go wtf to that line of thought, that is the epitome of “going backwards”. People should compare a new MMO to WoW 2010 and EQ2 2010, not 2004/5 .

    Isn’t it absurd to “justify” lack of content / bad launches based on what happened to WoW 5 years ago?

    So if you look at MMOs that launched in the last 3 years, how many actually launched at the quality/content of the MMOs that were “up and running” at the time…

    Yes, NONE , and still people think it is acceptable? If MMOs are about box sales, Yes, long term sustainability? No.

  • Keen wrote:
    I’m saying that today’s games should be using the old games as a launchpad or baseline rather than the ‘ideal’ that they one day hope to achieve.

    There’s a thin line between learning from the past and copying the past. While I will proudly agree that developers need to learn from the past, we won’t see innovation and advancement if we only look to the past, particularly with already popular games.

    In your previous post, you wrote:

    You’re crazy if you think millions would not eat up a game built with the ideals of DAOC, with the graphical capabilities of today, providing that ideal three-way true territorial realm war.

    While you may not merely want DAoC with prettier graphics, understand that from this statement that is what many developers will think.

    I also want to make sure that people understand what they’re asking for. To quote simon above, “People should compare a new MMO to WoW 2010 and EQ2 2010, not 2004/5.” You need to understand that you are arguing that a new MMO needs to be in development for 6+ years, because that’s at least how long it took WoW to add all the content we see in the game now. You can’t rationally expect 6 years of development (most of it while making handsome profits!) to be shoved into 2 years of development. And, since nobody can really afford 6 years of MMO development, this means that there will be MMOs that come out. (It’s interesting to note how history repeats, where everyone compared new games to EQ1 when they came out; Blizzard was able to spend a stupid amount of money on development to meet expectations, but now you see the relative stagnation we see in the industry now as expectations are now well beyond what a developer can reasonably achieve.)

    In the end, asking for innovation (or lots of content) and polish, as I said in my post, is asking for the impossible. So far, people might ask for innovation or evolution, but you also have to go out and support it, even if it falters a bit.

    Have fun!

  • Innovation, evolution, mutation… they all start to blur the same line although they are separate things. Innovation is defined as “the introduction of something new” whereas evolution is about survival of the fitness and progression of what works.

    In response to Brian’s article I wrote about mutation. I’m not expert on the subject but I think that with evolution alone, we’ll just see refinement of what’s already there, we won’t see any innovation. Innovation requires a new influence or idea, what I referred to as ‘mutation’.

    I absolutely agree with getting the basics right before attempting something new. Games will fail with their try to innovate with covering the basics. However, without innovation then the industry will never move forward and we’ll just keep seeing copies of what’s already on the market.

    The trick would be developing a game that does everything that exists correctly but also introduces some new concepts to shake things up.

  • I think increasingly MMOs ARE about box sales, though.

    The model of hyping the game, selling a million boxes, retaining a couple of hundred thousand subs after the free month and then letting those decline for a couple of years then closing the game would seem to be quite viable economically, I would think. That’s basically a retail model.

    On the other hand, a successful, long-running MMO turns into a service model, more akin to running a restaurant or a hotel. Not sure that a lot of games companies aren’t more comfortable with the retail mmodel over the service.

  • @Brian I just posted my comment and then saw yours 🙂 I thought your point about “asking for innovation (or lots of content) and polish, as I said in my post, is asking for the impossible.” was really interesting.

    Purely as a gamer, I have no appreciation (or very little) of the development process behind games so I think we often get lulled into the trap of wishful thinking. Do you really think it’s impossible to have both innovative polished games? Or is it just a case of not have a viable business model to support it?

  • “…and only care about arguing the definition for which you thought you had consensus.”

    This is why I dislike talking about game design on most sites because it usually breaks down into exactly this. In effect, you end up not talking about game design at all. 🙂

    “If you’re using a model or framework from a past game, use what worked and discard what did not.”

    Unfortunately this only works when the developer is fully aware of what works and what didn’t work. Another problem is that due to the complexity of the systems being created, problems may not rear their head initially but may take time to appear. Thus at first, something may appear to be a successful but after six months or a year of gameplay, it may be proven to be a failure. You see this a lot in complex systems.

    “Innovation is fine as long as they do not sacrifice the integrity of the game.”

    I’d take it a step forward. Innovation strengthens the integrity of the system (game) as a whole. Thus if you improve one aspect of the game, yet in doing so break two or three other aspects of it, you haven’t innovated at all.

    “I’m saying that today’s games should be using the old games as a launchpad or baseline rather than the ‘ideal’ that they one day hope to achieve.”

    This is where I agree with Brian. For example, more and more I’m seeing the potential of a taking a supposedly working “standard” in old games, ripping it out, and in the process improving a myriad of problems in the process (so the overall system is strengthened and improved). For example, character levels within games are perceived as a standard and they work, so they shouldn’t be touched with. I disagree and believe that with the right design, a game can be designed without leveling and in the process, alleviate a lot of problems from the past. Obviously a game of this nature would have to be tested extensively though, not only to ensure it works properly but also to do it in such a way that people are “eased” into this huge paradigm shift (i.e. no character levels), rather than leaving them scratching their heads going “WTF?”.

    “In the end, asking for innovation (or lots of content) and polish, as I said in my post, is asking for the impossible.”

    As for the polish and innovation problem, yes I think it’s probably hard to perfect both (without a lot of time). Yet I honestly belief if you can achieve one or the other, that will help people stick around till the other is achieved. At the same time, how big is your leap of innovation? Is it a small safe leap or is it a huge risky leap? Look at Allods Online for example. It has polish most definitely. Is it innovative? A lot of people don’t think so because the innovation isn’t huge. Yet to me it is innovation with it’s small little improvements that in the end, all add up to make a much more enjoyable gameplay experience, even surpassing WoW in my opinion.

  • “Thus if you improve one aspect of the game, yet in doing so break two or three other aspects of it, you haven’t innovated at all.”

    Just want to clarify this statement of mine. Some innovations / changes in games need supportive subsystems to make them work properly. So while a change in one game may not be innovative at all (i.e. fails to work), it may most definitely work and be innovative in another game, with different subsystems and mechanics to it. In effect, nothing stands alone, it is integration of the entire system that will determine the success of a change within it or not. The more integrated the change is with the whole system, the more successful it will probably be. If it’s just “tacked on” though, without much thought of integration into the system, then it will probably fail.

  • @Qpon: I wish I had the skills to implement those things into this blog comment section. If anyone knows how, please let me know.

    On Massively there is an interview with the Gala-Net’s Associate Producer Darren Allarde that was published today. A quote he makes in response to the question is spot on.

    Massively: “What would you say are the biggest problems cursing most modern MMOs?”

    Darren Allarde: “… Lastly, there tends to be a lack of game design integrity. … I feel that a lot of MMOs aren’t trying hard enough to do something beyond what’s already out there.”

    It appears that he and I share a similar view. At least I know I’m not alone. 😉

  • @ Brian,

    I disagree. I can expect 6 years of development… no I can expect 10 years of development to be in a game in 2 years. You know why? Someone else has already spent those 10 years of development. We aren’t asking current game developers to go back and re-invite everything SOE, Mythic, and Blizzard have already created. We are telling them to USE what has already been created.

    Everyone uses Blizzard as an excuse for the poor quality of games that have come out. A MMO that launches now MUST run as smooth as every MMO it plans to compete with… that means WoW, WAR, EQ2, LOTR 2010 and offer quality and enjoyable game play. Everyone understands that the amount of content may be less, but that is no excuse for it to be of less quality. This is the MMO market. I am not going to play another MMO because they used the excuse “we didn’t have 6 years to spend on the game”. I’m going to buy and sub to the highest quality MMO.

    Look at the games in any genre now days; they are taking what other genres have learned and improving upon them to make FPS, RTS, Racing, and fighting games better and with more depth. MMO’s advancement in new ideas has stagnated compared to all the other genres.

  • If you want to play innovative games with fresh ideas and approaches to the genre, you’re going to have to get away from the huge triple-A titles and look more at the indie shops and the smaller-budget games.

    To be innovative means, among other things, to take risks. The devs making the big games with the big budgets have way too much at stake to take that many risks. They are going to bring out the tried and true game development techniques that have been proven to maximize revenue, then up the eye-candy, and fix what they believe to be broken, throw in a few little design “twists” of their own and kick it out the door.

    Indie shops, in most cases, are as interested in making a great game that they want to play as they are in maximizing profit. That different philosophy in many cases drives them to be different from the main-stream big budget titles and allows them to truly try to innovate to come up with, in their mind, that perfect game for that niche audience that just plain hasn’t been made yet.

  • I don’t think the amount of content is a real issue. Ofcourse that lack of content is bad but new mmo’s coming out should worry in integrating the amount of content that they need to create an appropriate leveling curve and to give enough for the players to do at initial, middle and final level of progression while using said content to gradually introduce the players to the full features of the game.

    But the games need to deliver that content polished enough for people to enjoy and in a way that disguises the grind really well.

  • Keen, to enable reply go into your WordPress control panel, go into ‘Settings’, then go into ‘Discussion’, and then under the ‘Other comment settings’ heading, tick the ‘Enable threaded (nested) comments X deep’ checkbox. This will turn on the reply button and allow you to control how deep it can go.

    Of course it will depend on what version of WP you’re running.

    Hope that helps!

  • I believe it also depends on the theme. This theme appears to not support those options. And in a way, it’s nice that it all flows like a forum does; I tend to like it that way. A nicer quote feature would be welcomed though. HTML blockquoting and italics work.

  • …seriously though, the only thing that I might take issue with is the statement “Change for the sake of change is wrong.” I think that an experimental approach is necessary to “do something beyond what’s already out there”. Even if the game fails hopefully something might be salvaged and later improved upon.

    I am an advocate of change for the sake of change; I wouldn’t have nearly so many interesting travel stories if that wasn’t the case…

  • @Gankatron. Change for the sake of change is hardly justifiable when investing millions of dollars to launch an MMO. It’s very different from traveling.

    When you make a game and implement some innovative features you want to make sure they work great and the game is successfull. You won’t make changes for the game to be a train wreck, ruining yourself and the lives of the people that worked you for someone else to salvage the remnants.

  • @Pedro: …and a video game is not a train wreck where people die with their entrails strewn about, though it is an exciting and dramatic analogy, imagine the vivid colors!

    I can immediately see two potential contextual differences which could lead to semantic arguments once again:

    First, if you are concerned about the success an individual game, as a stockholder might be, then change driven evolution is not such an appealing thing as it holds an untested risk of failure added to that which already exists for a new financial venture. On the other hand, change is absolutely necessary for evolution of the field.

    Second, I wouldn’t base one’s arguments on “change” signifying complete abandonment of traditional tried and true methodologies. I think change most likely would be incremental.

    Let us step back and not be so dramatic or extreme, say that a game introduces a novel feature, obviously one that has some rational behind it. Perhaps the public won’t warm to it and the game fizzles, but that is business. Evolution requires change, if done in a Darwinian sense, most of those changes will be detrimental, but what is more sensible in a world where we can formulate ideas, it is more of a fusion of the former and intelligent design (finally I can use that term and not feel like it is an oxymoron…).

    Any time you take a risk it may fail, and yet if you don’t that might have potentially been the best experience of your life, like traveling to Laos and zip lining 150m over the jungle floor; feel free to safely stay at home though, as you might just get into a nasty train wreck otherwise!

  • *sigh*

    When i mention lives i mention jobs, giving food to their kids and doing something for their professional realization. I guess you are too young to understand that.

  • Ohhh snap! Not so veiled insults don’t help support your argument.

    Yes making money is important to live, you don’t have to point out the obvious as it is obvious.

    Bottom line, trying something new in a game is key to development of the field, and while that represents risk, it doesn’t have to ignore all previous successful methodologies or represent financial ruination for all involved. Instant complete generation of a new complex lifeform doesn’t happen, it takes incremental risks improving on the original design, unless you believe in that whole god hypothesis, in which case a little rib can go a long way…

  • where did i insult you? is being young an insult?

    by the way you menttioned this:

    “…seriously though, the only thing that I might take issue with is the statement “Change for the sake of change is wrong.” I think that an experimental approach is necessary to “do something beyond what’s already out there”. Even if the game fails hopefully something might be salvaged and later improved upon.

    I am an advocate of change for the sake of change; I wouldn’t have nearly so many interesting travel stories if that wasn’t the case…”

    Trying something new is key to development. But doing change for change sake, changing things that work just for the sake of changing doesn’t leads anywhere. Many of the core principles that define a genre that many many years to change and change usually comes in small incremental ways.

  • No problem, saying someone is young who you only briefly know from an internet forum might imply a lack of worldliness or sophistication in the content or style of their responses. I will assume instead that you meant I convey myself in a young and sexually vibrant fashion much akin to Lady GaGa perhaps?

    Well then we can assume, like in most semantic based arguments that we fundamentally agree. It was my assumption that Keen did not mean “change” without any consideration towards game content or profitability, as that would be not be necessary to mention. In that context I think novel methodologies should be introduced and at least tried out in a PTR. I image that too much pressure already exists on devs to not stray far from the proven WoW model.

  • I’d love to see innovation in a few areas:

    1) Interaction with the world beyond slaying mobs that respawn in 30 seconds. When I cut a tree, I want it to be a stump. When I walk through snow, leave my footprints until it snows again. I want deer to run from me….now that’s what I think of as interactive. My presence in the world actually has some kind of effect.

    2) Actually limit resources. This takes balls because it can frustrate players. I loved early DAOC when repair of keep doors was expensive…. it was a real strategy for an underdog realm to bankrupt opposing realms by breaking doors and running off. Gold actually meant something.

    3) The chance to do something rare and awesome. Maybe score some points with your local deity and be enabled to one shot an opponent one time. Maybe if you are killed be transformed into some crazy undead monster that melts eyeballs. Playing a troll in monster play LOTRO comes to mind. A little lame, a lot of fun.

    I’ll stop there.

  • I like how number 3 is changed for the sake of change into number 4, thus proving both 3 and 4 are correct.

    Number 5 is obscuring a fundamental conflict. To keep up with graphics and other things that have become norms to even be taken seriously, resources have to be diverted from game play considerations. The only way out is a lot of income from early success but WoW has that cornered. Also,

    I think some of this is luck – it is hard to tell what works and what doesn’t until it is tried. The WAR makers weren’t trying anything crazy, they just tried something and it didn’t work. I think you had good ideas for WAR but I think WAR may have failed with them anyway. I guess luck is not correct; there is something there that was somewhat out of Mythic’s control, I think. People blame WoW; I dunno how correct that is.

  • The principles are flawed because 1) they assume that what works and what doesn’t is obvious and agreed upon – what is “good”, “bad”, “broken”, “wrong”, “an achievement” etc about any MMO, past or current, is often highly contentious, and 2)innovation isn’t something you can just slap on at the end.

    To use Psychochild’s scale, you want polish of the old, not innovation / progression forward. That way lies death – it appeals to an increasingly smaller group of people who don’t want to see change because they know it’s “wrong”. And ironically it is a core complaint about what is being released today – that it is “WoW reskinned”. If it’s just ” reskinned”, why not just play Game X?

    MMOs do use older MMOs as baselines. It’s just that they aren’t using the same baselines that you might be, Keen. And WoW, by throwing out a lot of those so-called baselines, was more more successful than those original MMOs combined.

    @Epiny: No, you really can’t just squash 6 years of development into 2 years because some other company built up a game over 6 years. Development time includes building / upgrading the game engine, developing original content (I don’t think Blizzard is going to share all those quest assets, do you?), art design and development, etc. You can take the ideas that have been learned over those 6 years, but you can’t actually execute something that works using those ideas to the same standard in only 2 years.

  • Games need solid foundations before innovation can mean anything. We’ve all seen great innovations attached to fundamentally flawed games.

  • @UnSub

    Why can’t you implement something that has been learned over the last 10 years in 2? Look at what Activison/Infinity Ward is doing. They are hiring SOE employees just like Blizzard did when they set out to build WoW. Sure 2 years is an arbitrary number but it’s ludicres to think it would take a full nother 6 years to develop WoW again or 10 to develop EQ or DAoC.

    You take the developers from existing MMOs and use their knowledge base to recycle the good from past MMOs. Yes the new company will have to create the enviroment, but I dare say the features take twice as long to do. Sure what is good and what is bad can be subjective, but I don’t think it’s as subjective as most make it out to be.

    Look at all the existing MMOs and you can see what game features are the most popular among them.

    WoW didn’t throw out those baselines, they expanded on them. I think you do a huge discredit to the history of MMOs when you say that WoW was succesfull simply because it altered what EQ, UO, DAoC, and CoH did. WoW didn’t throw out the baselines, they improved upon the existing MMOs. Honestly if you can’t see that then I can’t discuss this with you anymore.

  • “Games need solid foundations before innovation can mean anything.”

    That’s pretty much my first rule of MMO game design as well. I’ve seen way too many games without a solid core to them and thus all of the extra content and features added to it in updates do little to nothing to improve the game. If your core isn’t functional and fun prior to going to beta, you’re wasting your time (because most times very little core functionality is changed in the beta).

  • Indeed, gimmicks do not a good game make. I hate gimmicky levels in every game I’ve played, and I hate gimmicky game mechanics.

  • @Terroni: You don’t get innovative games if you stick to polishing the fundamentals. Psychochild’s point is that you don’t get “polished” and “innovative” together because the polish requires stability and innovation requires going out on a limb. Of course the title needs to be stable enough to play, but past that it would be exceptionally rare for an innovation to spring perfectly formed in its first try.

    @Epiny: It takes less time to design the game on paper with existing ideas, but it takes time to actually build it. Cryptic has just managed to get STO in 2 – 3 years by having an existing game engine to work with plus a common design structure, but they still have to build the content that goes into the game.

    Also (even though I didn’t say it – please don’t put words into my mouth) WoW may have expanded on some areas, but it certainly threw out things that other MMOs may have had but didn’t suit the vision of the game they were building. WoW doesn’t have RvR, for instance, or the ability to take keeps, despite that being the alleged best part of other titles.

  • I agree with everything except 5. Many times you can’t beat or replicate past achievements in design, and if you try you wind up failing. The guy who did Ico wasn’t trying to make another Super Mario 64, and fell short of achieving that game’s mastery of 3d platforming, or sales, or fame. But what he did do was unique enough to make it an awesome game.

    I do agree we don’t need needless innovation in fundamentals, unless its part of the design. But there is a danger in trying to rebuild the past, and sometimes you have to be willing to go back in parts to go forwards in others.