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On the Struggle to be Innovative

Many of us in the semi-technical/creative space of game design chase a dangerous dragon: of trying to be innovative. In my post earlier this week on marketing mistakes, I brought up not using the word “innovative.” That word wounds me when I hear it, all the more so when spoken from my own lips. It’s a word of heartbreak and judgment, one that exalts and damns. Today, I’m going to express my rather personal thoughts on the subject (perhaps not coherently because it’s so complex and tied up in my mind).

We—and I very much mean me in this regard—chase innovation because with innovation comes status in the great game that is being a member of the games meta-community. That status is borne from influencing others with a design so much so that other games can be seen as descendants from ours. To be innovative is to be relevant. Innovation is, in a sense, proof of life. Innovation is a flag planted in the minds of others.

It seems like an innocent thing to want, but it leads to very unfortunate interactions and relationships—both for those recognized as innovative and for those not. Because being innovative isn’t something we can claim for ourselves, it’s a community word: something others have to bestow onto us. “Innovation” doesn’t just mean “something new”—that falls under the word “novelty.” If no one acknowledges that we’ve made some impact in the creative space, that means we’re not innovative.

Let’s talk about novelty. Making something novel is making something new, to be simple about it. “New” and “novel” seemed like synonyms for “innovative” when I was younger, but I know better now. I made a game called Mythender with a novel central mechanic involving over a hundred dice to create a lizard-brain effect, making the story in effect tangible. I wanted the five years I spent on this game to earn me the title of “innovative,” but it hasn’t, and at this point it won’t. It’s been out for three years, been played a bunch, and people like it overall, but it’s no Apocalypse World. It’s no Lady Blackbird. It’s no Primetime Adventures or GURPS or Vampire: the Masquerade or Dungeons & Dragons or the dozens of other games that have left lasting marks on the hobby.

All of the games I mentioned introduced something novel into their ecosystem in a way that resonated with an audience and influenced many games after them, even those that are by today’s standards seem dated. All of those games were innovative.

Let’s talk about the words “was” and “were.” Once you start chasing innovation, you have two outcomes: you will fail to be innovative, or you will succeed at being innovative for some time until your relevance fades away. Being declared as innovative is like getting a fix: it feels good, but it wears off. Some people chase it, and I’d be one of those people, for sure. (Others are afraid of the attention—something outside the scope of this post, because I’m not speaking to those people, but very much worth pointing out.)

A nontrivial chunk of innovation is credit in the public eye. Take Blowback and Night’s Black Agents: the Vampyramid in NBA comes from Blowback. NBA’s creator, Kenneth Hite, gives credit to Elizabeth Sampat, creator of Blowback. But is Blowback seen as innovative in the sphere of tabletop roleplaying games? No, it’s not. So it’s quite possible to have an impact on something and still not be seen as innovative for it. I really don’t know if that’s more or less painful than not having an impact at all.

All of that scratches the surface as to why, when I hear a designer say they wish they were innovative, my heart hurts for them. I understand the desire to be seen as relevant, as genius, as whatever positive attributes we see in others of our ilk.

There is no simple solution for this feeling. Being the sort of person who wants to “be innovative” has no simple cure. It’s to be a person routinely frustrated at best, and driven to dark moments. Over the last couple years, I’ve been slowly working to separate the desire to make stuff with the desire for status. This post is, in fact, part of that process of self-healing (which I only realized after hitting “Publish”).

I hope those of you who are afflicted with this yearning find your ways of being at peace, however that comes to be.

– Ryan

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4 Responses to On the Struggle to be Innovative

  1. Great piece, man. Thanks for your honesty here. I really resonate with a lot here.

    I think the other curse (the flipside of innovation) is the feeling that one is *derivative*. I can’t help but feel like Our Last Best Hope is really just Fiasco + Danger Patrol or that Urban Shadows is an Apocalypse World hack with little innovation or interesting mechanics. And that thought weasels its way into my brain, leading me to think that maybe something innovative would push it out and confirm that I’m the kind of designer I want to be.

    But that’s a trap. Everything is more or less derivative. Even things like Lady Blackbird / AW / Fate were taken, bit by bit from other systems and mixed into something new. We wouldn’t blame a chef for using flour, water, and eggs to make something delicious…

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thank you. :)

      You hit on what may one day be the companion piece for this essay: the value of remix culture and iteration.

  2. Kenneth Hite says:

    The Vampyramid in Night’s Black Agents is what I stole from/adapted from Elizabeth’s Push Pyramid in Blowback. The Conspyramid comes mostly from GURPS Illuminati and to a lesser extent from Burning Empires.

    And if Blowback (and Elizabeth’s designs in general) aren’t seen as innovative, that’s a double indictment of the design community: for not using them, and for not noticing (or crediting) where they have been used.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Bah, on me for not double-checking the term and relying solely on memory. Apologies; edited post.