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The Fetishization of Innovation

The greater indie scene has a lot going for it — smart and fun people coming together to make and play cool shit. But it also has something that’s extremely fucking annoying: many of us in this sphere value innovation and being revolutionary over refinement and being evolutionary.

I gave a version of this rant to a friend recently. He asked, after receiving some very heavy critiques, if there was anything innovative in his game. He didn’t expect a rant about how that’s the wrong question to ask. (But, in utter fairness, I remember thinking the same thing in his shoes years before, so it is a totally natural part of being a starting designer.)

I outlined some reasons that he needed to stop trying to be innovative and just make the game his game should be then, and I’m going to outline and build on that here.

Innovations often suck

Sturgeon’s Law applies here. Many people approach innovation from the standpoint of “well, I don’t see anyone else doing this.” What you’ll find is that much of the time, that’s for a reason: many ideas suck as game mechanics.

This isn’t to shut down people from experimenting with shit, but if you have an idea that doesn’t sing and you’re holding onto it simply because it’s “your original idea,” you’re doing yourself and your game a disservice.

Innovations are often fads

This isn’t to criticize good innovations, but to point out to those who obsess about their work also being innovations — you’re really saying “I want my game to trigger a design fad.”

Let’s look at some past innovations that enter into the realm of “fad”: scene framing, ritual phrases, narration rights, naming your own skills, multiple GMs/single player, moves, playbooks, and so on.

These are all,on their own, fantastic ideas. For the most part, their creators didn’t set out to make a fad, just do an interesting thing they worked for their game. But if you’re looking at these with envy and trying to create something in your game that will equal in fashion-hood, you’re doing it wrong.

Innovation is about being a rockstar

If you’re trying to be innovative, if you’re forcing that situation, you’re placing more emphasis and effort on playing a community status game over that of actually making your design work. Fuck that; that isn’t the path to actually getting status. Must as with the pseudo-joke that a woman can “smell” desperation on a man, the community can sniff out those who are trying too hard for accolades and stuff.

I was certainly one of those guys, back in the day.[1]

To think you’re innovative is hubris

It isn’t your job to declare yourself innovative. That’s judged by the community, the gaming zeitgeist. So don’t try to be innovative. Instead, be inspired, be passionate, be excited. Make the best game you can. And if it happens that you’re declared the second coming of Arneson or Cook or Baker, cool? But even cooler: people like your game and you bring joy into some lives.

– Ryan

[1] You could make an argument that I still am. I’ll save that for the trolls.

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22 Responses to The Fetishization of Innovation

  1. Greg Sanders says:

    I tend to think some of those who are chasing innovation might often be better off if they instead asked themselves “what problem or absence in the hobby am I trying to address with this game.”

    In that formulation both innovation and evolutionary change are means to an end. Thus, a designer looking for a critique might be better asking “does my game help keep players not in a scene involved in the game?” and not “what do you think of my awesome new mechanic where you throw dice at people who aren’t paying attention?”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      If that was the point, sure. Often, I’m seeing those obsessing about innovation to be obsessing about status. But yes, they would take well to meditate on such questions. Totally!

      – Ryan

  2. Part of the story behind Blood Red Sands was to design a game that stole all its alpha rules from other games. Now, yeah, it’s been smoothed out into its own ruleset over time, but Ralph wanted to make the point that there was plenty of mileage “inside the box” without having to make something brand new.

    It’s a valid point.

    • Josh Roby says:

      Smallville Roleplaying is 100% recycled & stolen, design-wise. There are miles and miles still inside the box.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      We should, as a community, openly praise more evolution. Thankfully, Cortex+ has caused us to start doing so.

      – Ryan

  3. Ralph Mazza says:

    If you substitute “novel” and “novelty” for “innovate” and “innovative” I’m 100% with you. In fact…I made that very rant a few years back that led to one of the design goals of Blood Red Sands (as Seth mentions above).

    But most of the time when people in gaming talk about or refer to “innovation” they really mean “novel”.

    For BRS I was actively pursuing the goal of “innovation without novelty”

    Trying to innovate is IMO a good thing.

    Trying to innovate by being novel is where you get all the BS you rightly rant about above.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ralph,

      Truth. “Novel” is a good way to express it, when you know what’s up. New designers throw around “innovative” though, so that’s the word used.

      Mythender has a couple “new” ideas/implementations, I guess — at least, in that other games don’t do the charging & limit break mechanics the way it does. But, that’s not the point, not why I did it. It’s just what’s worked for the emotional resonance I was aiming for.

      My point is: I wasn’t trying to innovate (and arguably, I didn’t). I was trying to solve a problem I found.

      – Ryan

  4. Ralph Mazza says:

    In responding to Josh on a G+ thread I had to come up with a better way to say what I was trying to say. So I’ll just go ahead and post it here also…

    Consider the question: “Why would I play your game to do X rather than just play that already does X?”

    If there is an answer…an answer as to why it was a good idea to design a whole new game rather than simply reskin or hack an existing one…that answer lies in innovation…something your game does that existing games don’t. If there is nothing innovative about your game, then there is no reason for you to design it. Therefor, every act of intentional design should, by the very decision to proceed with it, be an active attempt to pursue innovation…something that hasn’t been done before.

    It’s when you try to innovate purely by novelty that you wind up with gimmickry rather than solid design.

    So when you say “If you’re trying to be innovative, if you’re forcing that situation, you’re placing more emphasis and effort on playing a community status game over that of actually making your design work.” I can’t agree.

    If you *aren’t* trying to be innovative then you’ve got no reason to be designing at all.

    If you say instead “if you’re trying to be NOVEL…” THAT I 100% agree with. But I think its an important distinction.

  5. Jonathan Walton says:

    Maybe not surprisingly, I deeply disagree with this, though I think we’re seeing the same phenomenon at work.

    In my mind, innovation in game design is a mostly thankless job done in homebrews, abandoned projects, hand-crafted ashcans, contest games, and the like, appreciated by very few, but something that does the dirty work of laying the groundwork for the more polished games that come later and often get the bulk of the credit (the better, less-innovative games that you’re praising). You’re totally right that innovative work often sucks, because when you’re trying new things you’re unlikely to nail it the first time. Hopefully the people being experimental know that and present their games AS experiments.

    Lots of folks expect to be recognized for being innovative (myself included, though I hope I’ve learned better), and THAT certainly can be hubris. But innovation is mostly toiling in the dark and watching other people get recognized. For example, despite Clinton straight-up inventing the XP system in Marvel Heroic, he just gets his name listed among a huge block of people in the acknowledgements, with no specifics about “The Shadow of Yesterday” (other game communities don’t have the same standards for recognition). As more indie stuff becomes incorperated into the rest of gaming, I expect we’ll see much more of that.

    So, in any event, innovation is a bad way to be a rockstar. Any attention you get is fleeting and somebody else will come along and implement your sketchy ideas in a more polished and attention-grabbing fashion. But it’s also TOTALLY NECESSARY if roleplaying is going to carve out more space and continue to become more and more diverse. How many people are designing GM-less games now, when that was originally a totally crazy thing? How many games have endings these days? Without those mostly unfamous pioneers (like Paul Czege), that doesn’t happen.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jaywalt,

      That’s fair. I don’t expect everyone to.

      However, consider that I’m not talking to you; you already get this. I’m speaking to the people who are innovating for status, not just trying something and experimenting in order to better understand a game, an idea, this hobby, for experimentation’s sake, etc.

      Maybe I would better express myself if I said: “Don’t set as your goal ‘I want to be seen as innovative.'” That’s the point I am trying to address (with fairly harsh language to get through some new designer-haze).

      – Ryan

    • Jonathan Walton says:

      Cool. Your last response helping me understand what you were trying to say more. It’s more like: “Be innovative when that’s what your game concept requires, not just so people will pay attention to you.” And that makes sense.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And as a corollary: it’s okay if your game doesn’t need innovation in order to be successful and/or fun. Though, I still feel pretty strongly that innovation is something the community defines rather than the creator.

      – Ryan

  6. Jason Pitre says:

    As a new designer, I am often faced with the question “What makes your game different” or “What makes your game special”. Those questions do an excellent job at reinforcing the idea that it is innovation that is precious.

    I believe that Innovation in our context is finding a new way to successfully solve a previously unsolvable problem. Fred’s contribution/addition to the Marvel Heroes initiative system, for example, is a beautiful example. He solved the problem of making an interesting, collaborative yet competative dynamic initiative system.

    Innovation is the process of adding another tool to the designer’s already impressive toolbox. I think that people who do innovate do a great service to the community, but the innovation is a byproduct of creating your own good game.

    Just my perspective.

    • Leonard Balsera says:

      He also exemplified Jaywalt’s earlier statement that it’s a poor way to become a rockstar.

      “That’s tricky as hell, but thankfully, I know Lenny Balsera, and I know how he runs games. So I thought about how to blend that into the whole Marvel/Cortex Plus dynamic, and pitched an idea based on it, to Cam… The action order system in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is dead simple at its root, which makes sense, because it’s the dead simple concept that Lenny runs with: Action happens in the order that makes sense, and everyone gets their turn before a new round begins.” -Fred Hicks

      The funny part about that is that it’s not something I’ve ever advocated in any of my designs, for precisely the reasons Ryan indicates – it never felt necessary except in the context of some of my home games. So the degree to which the idea has gained traction is kind of astounding to me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      “Previously unsolvable” — I take issue with that. That’s a load of hubris. “A problem that hasn’t been solved to my knowledge/satisfaction?” Sure. But to say “previously unsolvable” is to say you know 100% of our hobby’s body of work.

      No one does, and that’s starting only with published works.

      Solve problems. Experiment. We should all do that. If you don’t explicitly try to innovate, and instead focus on solving whatever problem’s at hand or playing with something because you’re curious, you’ll do far better.

      Innovation isn’t a tool. It’s a status symbol. You don’t get to decide what’s innovative about your own work. (And the word “innovative” and “original” shouldn’t be seen as synonyms.)

      – Ryan

    • Jason Pitre says:

      Lenny, sorry about not highlighting your contributions to that system by the way. I read that post a while ago and forgot some of the details of how that came to pass.

      Ryan: That’s a fair point.

      I suppose I personally view the “innovative” label as a bit of an award for someone who solved a very tough design problem in an original way. It isn’t a tool, but it gives more tools to others.

      Excellent post by the way.

  7. Ralph Mazza says:

    I don’t know Ryan…I think maybe you have a particular pet peeve that has gotten under your skin and you’re taking your otherwise excellent point too far.

    Saying “solve problems…but don’t try to innovate” seems like a totally untenable distinction. Solving problems IS innovating.

    Innovate: to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.
    Innovation: something new or different introduced

    As I said before you better be actively trying to innovate with every game design you bring to market…or else there is absolutely no reason to bring your game to market. Every game had better be new, or changing something established or there’s no reason to design it.

    That’s why I thought it was important to distinguish novelty from innovation. I realize that common usage uses innovation to mean novelty and gimmickry, but I don’t think it helps to continue that usage.

  8. Ralph Mazza says:

    Well, If you are designing a game (or anything), and you are not trying to do something that hasn’t been done before (or something in a way it hasn’t been done before), then your efforts are unnecessary at best and completely worthless at worst.

    If you are designing a game (or anything), and you are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before (or something in a way it hasn’t been done before), then you’re innovating.

    In other words…actively seeking innovation is not only NOT any of the things you ascribe in your post it is in fact one of best reasons to design in the first place.

    This is so fundamental to the entire act of design I can hardly consider it vague.

    Now if you’re primary means of attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before is to introduce gimmicks in the hopes that mere novelty is and of itself is innovative…THEN you get the issues you point to in your post. Trying to solve problems is a key litmus test. Novelty for novelty’s sake that doesn’t solve anything is a fail result of that test.

    Its an important distinction because I can barely imagine a statement less useful, less true, or more destructive to design than “Don’t try to innovate”

    If you’re going to stick with “innovate” as your word of choice for the above rant, than I’m going to have to call BS on it. Its a non trivial distinction IMO.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ralph,

      You’ve missed the point here dude, in that “innovation” is the word that newbie designers have used for this.

      And now I’m going to say that you’re grinding an axe here.

      – Ryan

  9. Ralph Mazza says:

    Ok, your forum, your rules.

    But I’m going to have to log my position as “no..Ryan is totally wrong about that” for as long as you continue to use the word innovate to describe what it is designers shouldn’t do.

    Someone asking “how is my game innovative?” is a 100% valid question and the inability to answer it is probably a good indicator that the game in question is lacking a fundamental reason to exist.

    And if it sounds like I’m grinding an axe…its probably because I am. I find your choice of phrase not only wrong but potentially damaging and thus in need of being countered.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ralph,

      That’s fair, dude. We’re going to have to agree to disagree, because I’m as firm about you being wrong as you clearly are me.

      – Ryan