The Myopic Plea for Innovation

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We’ve all heard it before: “Game developers should innovate.” – and when something finally changes, Gamers don’t like it. What gives? Are we missing something?

I don’t want to get lost in semantics – because this title is already pretentious enough as it is – but “innovation” has become a blanket term used by people who are unable to name their actual complaint, and you should never take it at face value.

But Should We Really?

Hot Take: Pokemon doesn’t need to innovate. Call of Duty doesn’t need to innovate. FIFA doesn’t need to innovate. Why would they? Games are bestowed with an identity when we design their core mechanics and that’s what players think of when discussing your game. It’s what franchises are built around.

While video games have the power to change, their concepts aren’t a cheap commodity to be discarded at the slightest perceived discomfort. Just think about it: If Poker started as a video game, what kind of bastardization of an activity would it have become if it were left to armchair designers? What would be its identity?

Granted, traditional sports and games amend their rules all the time – just look at VAR. But that isn’t innovation. It improves the way it’s being played in today’s context – it doesn’t change what is being played. And the same should apply for video games.

Call of Duty doesn’t need to innovate to set itself apart from Battlefield like Sony has to innovate to set itself apart from Microsoft. Video games are limited by their creativity much more than they are by their technology, and game mechanics don’t automatically become obsolete over time. We can always streamline, modernize or polish, but the moment you replace your game’s core mechanic you kill your game’s identity.

If you really need to innovate a core mechanic, it’s because your game is forgettable. In other words: A clone is doing it way better, or players realized that it was never good to begin with after the novelty factor wore off.

Oooh! Shiny!

Gamers want something new, and our job is to make them feel they’re getting something new without actually changing what they liked to begin with. People are generally not very receptive to change, and innovation always accompanies change.

So the next time you’re told to innovate, pause and think whether or not your players really want something different, or if they just want something better. My bet is on the latter.

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