Counting Rupees: The Importance of Innovation

Each week Jeff Engel and Geoff Brooks contribute Counting Rupees, a column on the business behind gaming:

One of the most prominent words in game journalism and discussion today is "innovation" – how can companies innovate successfully, and how come there isn't more of it in the industry? Implicit in this conversation are three assumptions that don't generally get examined with the same thoroughness: that "innovation" is per se important for gaming, that all innovation is essentially the same in content and value, and that companies promote profitability over innovation. I'd like to talk about these unspoken assumptions in light of the banner few years that we've had as gamers.

I think most people would concede that innovation is important, whether to gaming or to consumer packaged goods. But why? At least in gaming, it's largely because our interest tends to dissipate along with challenge; if you're not being shown something interesting, why pay attention to it? Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it definitely doesn't breed excitement (nor sales) either.

But there are multiple types of innovation. Gamers, I think, tend to think of it one-dimensionally: to most of us, innovation generally implies significant jumps in game genre or style. As a result, we consider something like Spore to be innovative: it does something that no other game has tried. But why do we stop there? I've been spending a lot of time with Dead Space on my 360 recently, and although it's got beautiful graphics, the basic concept of survival horror – whether in Raccoon City or space – isn't exactly unique. In fact, many of the genre's basic conventions are cribbed either from the earliest games of its type, or even from typical horror movies. But Dead Space does something a little different in its dismemberment mechanic, and it builds a little bit on what came before it. Or take the example of, say, Super Mario World. It wasn't drastically different from Super Mario 3 in concept or execution, but it layered on new enemies, worlds, and mechanics in a way that made it distinct and entertaining. Even reverting to older game paradigms can be innovative: Mega Man 9 and its retro-chic packaging represented a step backwards in terms of graphics and gameplay, but it was drastically different from what the market currently offers. I'd argue that all of these games are innovative in a way that benefits gamers, even if that label isn't often applied to them.

"There are a lot of games that have tried to do something different ... and failed miserably."

By the same token, innovation isn't all good. Consider that different isn't always better. There are a lot of games that have tried to do something different ... and failed miserably. This is another myth of innovation: that being different is necessary and sufficient to creating innovative games. Sure, different is an important ingredient, but it's not nearly enough: a game must also be conceptually sound and successfully executed. I notice that this distinction is rarely identified by many people, but it's an important one. Being able to sort through ideas to note which ones have potential, being able to shepherd the ideas from basic conception to practical application, and being able to create a game based around them under a tight time frame and budget are all distinct, but related and critical, skill sets.

Finally, we tend to argue that many companies (especially big ones) don't care much about innovation. At the same time, the last few years have been the source of an incredible number of fun, successful games that have successfully innovated on a number of levels. Many of these games came from firms like EA, Activision, and Take-Two. So clearly, size may make it easier to develop innovative games, but it's not essential. Where's the disconnect?

Well, we're pretty happy with the things we like, whether or not they're new: witness the profusion of sequels and incremental improvements in gaming that are snapped up without hesitation. But we don't pay a lot of attention to trends that depart from the conventional wisdom – there's a reason it's the conventional wisdom. Big companies being slow-moving, profit-oriented dinosaurs; smaller ones being nimble, innovative, and adroit competitors ... it's a very old story, and one that makes a lot of intuitive sense, even if it's not always true in reality. As a result, there's an inherent bias in our judgments, even if it's unintentional. Gamers may also discount innovation that doesn't meet specific, defined standards (those games that aren't enormous leaps forward), so the incremental improvement that marks so many perfectly entertaining games are rarely considered the achievements they represent. I would suggest that a broader conception of innovation – and a recognition of the multifaceted talent it takes to put it into practice – goes a long way towards explaining some of the contradictions we see in our conversations about it.

As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.