Portrait of a Type 3 Wanderer
How the Culture of Agon Excludes

Disentangling Innovation

In the context of games the term 'innovation' has become so devalued by overuse, and by continual extension to so many different situations, that any discussions involving the term expend most of their momentum struggling against terminological problems, instead of making any progress. James O, regular visitor to this blog, wrote a brief analysis on the topic of innovation in the comments to one of my posts; I felt it helpful to republish that as a Guest Author post, as this is an area where some discussion of terms would be most valuable.

I think one of the issues making defining "innovation" such a terminological trainwreck lies in the different classes of innovation - people use the same word for all these categories, although the differences between them are vast:

  • Innovation within a franchise: This might change the franchise by emulating other titles or by adding new play, but ultimately the innovations are limited in scope to affecting only this franchise. Example: Resident Evil 4 - it's new behind-the-back camera system helped intensify the horror ambience, and characters now control like actual human beings, and not 18-wheelers with 17 flats. However, none of these are actually new to gaming in general; just to the RE series.
  • Innovation within a genre: Somewhat broader, these innovations start with one game, but are important enough that they will either trickle down into other games of the genre, or be remembered for a long time as a highly innovative title (within the context of its genre.) Example: Starcraft - unlike other RTS titles, each race has a significantly different play style, even to the point where learning Zerg requires nearly re-learning basic game mechanics. This was widely seen as a very innovative game, although ultimately it only increased the playspace of the RTS, not gaming as a whole.
  • Innovation via fusion: I think this deserves its own category, although it may fall more into the former category. When two genres are combined, sometimes a very unique play experience can arise that transcends both genre and forms something new. Example: Deus Ex - by combining RPG style skill and inventory systems with traditional FPS control mechanics, play was significantly deeper than most FPS titles, while remaining much faster paced than most RPG titles. Not quite either genre, but not quite a new genre unto itself, I think Deus Ex is a successful example of fusion.
  • Innovation within the global playspace: This is the highest tier of innovation in that it extends playspace in general beyond its current limits. These games may not fit into any categories, because they are exploring new frontiers. Example: Katamari, which utilizes a very differnt approach to gaming by simplifying controls down to two joysticks, and introduces some very unique gameplay mechanics that are quite unlike anything else before. It does not fit into any genre category because it defines a new one. It may not affect the playspace of other games, but it does enhance the broader ludic landscape.

Of course, here all my terms for innovation specifically regard innovation in game design - when we talk about innovation in games, to me, the core of the game is the ludic design. Thus, when we talk of innovation in games, that is what I consider to be the innovation. Innovation in narrative, in technology, et al, are all seperate categories of innovation that also would need addressing. Unfortunately, the gaming press at large cannot seperate any of these categories, and thats how technological innovation in Doom 3 suddenly becomes termed as innovation in game design by some misguided magazines. Maybe we need new words for each category, because I'm sure my mere 4 categories is rather limiting in the broad field of innovation...

James O.

Since first reading James' comments, I've been considering what I would call the four categories of game design innovation he identifies. Innovation within a franchise is perhaps a special case of what we have been calling refinement, which is to say the gradual perfection of the game design of a franchise. Innovation within a genre could perhaps be considered feature invention. Via fusion could be considered creative hybridisation. Whilst innovation within the global gamespace fits to some extent with what we consider genre nucleation, although we apply this term often to the game that popularises a form, and not necessarily the game which invents the new form. Therefore, certain games should  perhaps be considered examples of play invention - they devise entirely new models for play. As always I welcome discussion on the choice of terms, suggestions for alternatives, and discussion about their potential scope and meaning.


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Using refinement as the definition for franchise innovation mostly fits, but I think that term should be saved because genre innovation can also be refinement, unless the particular feature invented is really significant (in which case we probably have a play invention on hands.) I think the dividing line would be that franchise innovation (and I use that term loosely here) is more about bringing a franchise up to par with some competitor, and occasionally includes some small-scale creative hybridization. It might push the franchise in a new direction, but it won't have much impact on other games, even within the genre. I take feature invention to mean something that actually is new, but perhaps not siginificant on a global scale. In breif, franchise innovation is almost always refinement, but refinement is not always franhise innovation. Both genre and franchise-level innovations mostly fall under types of refinement, I think.

I also think it's important to keep the genre nucleation and play invention terms seperate - while occasionally there can be considerable overlap, there are certainly many counterexamples. Katamari, for instance, is certainly new play, but I don't think we will see a host of object-aggregators crop up in the future.

Oh, and thank you for the front page post :)

In terms of franchise innovation, what we may be talking about is something akin to genre *normalisation*, i.e the gradual standardisation of certain successful features. This is somewhat equivalent to the effect selective pressures have on a (biological) population in an isolated environment: everything adapts to the competitive forces within its own (environmental) niche.

For the term 'feature invention' to be meaningful, I agree that it should refer to actual new features. In general, these may appear in other games regardless of genre, but the individual features will not be so significant as to fundamentally change the relationship between the player and the game - this is where 'play invention' would come into effect.

Having the two seperate set of terms - the 'innovation' categories, and independent terminology - seems quite useful. Of course, talking about it amongst ourselves is a long way short of propagating the terms into the language, but a journey of a thousand steps... :)

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