Innovation is dead! Long live innovation!

Gamasutra has an interview with game-design legend Chris Crawford. Lots of interesting ideas in there, but the gist of it can be boiled down to a theme I’ve heard more than once over the last few years: innovation in games is dead, and the industry is living on borrowed time.

I don’t know much about the economics of the game industry, so I can’t comment on the latter point. But I have done a lot of reading and thinking about the first point–that there is no more innovation in game design. Is the age of game innovation–an era of quirky, bizarre and sometimes brilliant gameplay ideas that weren’t pigeonholed into narrowly defined genres–long past us? Has the experimentation of the 1980s been quashed by endless sequels? Have we been reduced to simply re-playing fancier-looking but completely derivative iterations of the same two or three games?

Looking at the game shelf of your local Best Buy, it’s awfully hard to deny this. Lots and lots of sequels; lots and lots of unimaginative games that simply splash a fresh coat of paint over gameplay that’s ten or fifteen years old.

But I’d like to disagree a bit with the doomsayers–partly out of a stubborn desire to play the devil’s advocate, and partly because the gamer in me (who has played many excellent games in the last decade) rebels a bit against the implication that what I’ve been playing lately is utterly lacking in creativity.

One problem I have with these “innovation is dead” arguments is that they tend to be unclear on what innovation actually is. Words like “storytelling” and “narrative” get tossed around, but these terms are maddeningly vague. Nor is it clear that this sort of innovation will make for games that are more fun. I’d like to suggest that innovation does exist today, but rather than taking the form of avant-garde gameplay styles, it consists of taking tried-and-true styles of basic gameplay (of which there are only a finite number, after all) and stretching them in new directions. Consider the following, none of which boast truly unique gameplay styles but which have earned a place in many a gamer’s heart:

  • Starcraft, which introduced wonderfully memorable characters and storylines into the otherwise somewhat dry-and-mechanical strategy game genre
  • Morrowind, which with its open-ended world design lifted many of the gameplay restrictions traditionally placed on players in roleplaying games and left players to pursue their own path through the game
  • Planescape: Torment, which took the framework of a traditional computer RPG and used it to tell a story with real literary and emotional power
  • Quake, Half-life, and Neverwinter Nights, which through their extreme (and intentional) customizability, spawned a thriving culture of community-built game content
  • The Sims, the game that still defies efforts to fit it into an existing genre
  • Guild Wars, which built an interesting fusion of single-player gameplay in a massive-multiplayer game environment

All of these games came out in the “dark ages”–the last decade, in which innovation has supposedly been dead. Yet each left a profound mark on the gaming landscape because they took existing gameplay frameworks and spun them in new directions. That might not be the textbook definition of “innovation,” but if it produces games like these, I’ll take it.

The “innovation is dead” crowd laments the decrease in the variety of gameplay styles available. But I think this is just the natural result of years spent refining gameplay styles that were once new and original: over time, the truly fun gameplay remains, and the not-fun gameplay is dropped. It is unlikely that we’ll see more than a handful of entirely new gameplay styles in the next few years; what falls to game designers now is to stretch the existing library of ideas into unexplored territory. There is art and, yes, innovation in borrowing proven game elements and refining them into something even more fun.

My last game purchase was Galactic Civilizations II, an explore-and-conquer space empire game that consists almost entirely of elements borrowed from games that came before it. I just hit level 37 in World of Warcraft, a game that’s mostly built on all the good ideas from other massively-multiplayer games. And you know what? Both games are really, really fun. I’ll be there to cheer on the new and bizarre when it appears (Spore, I have high hopes for you). And I’ll roll my eyes along with everybody else at the release of the 80th game in the Madden series. But in the meantime, I”ve got some fun, if not strictly innovative, games that need playing.

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2 Comments

  1. JVB says:

    Forget innovation, I’m still waiting for the remake of Wasteland! In fact, forget the remake… does anyone have the old disks laying around?

  2. Andy says:

    Hear, hear! I’ve got a copy on CD-ROM that I found years back, but from what I understand it’s pretty tough to find a legal copy these days…

    On the other hand, there are the Fallout games, which are pretty much sequels to Wasteland! Have you played any of them?

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