Pure Innovation Is Highly Overrated

Why is pure innovation regarded as important in games and adventures, even as it turns out that it hardly ever happens? People like to be surprised when they play games, and some of the most famous game designers such as Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda, etc.) look for ways to surprise players. A true innovation is going to be surprising because no one has ever seen it before. On the other hand, even though most "innovations" have been done before, if the players don't know about that then they can be surprised.

Innovation is personal. It depends on what you already know when you play the game. People become jaded when they have experienced so much that it seems like nothing is new to them.

What's innovative to a novice may not be innovative to an expert. It's the cognoscenti, the grognards, who think that innovation is important - perhaps they fear becoming jaded. In the end, most people play games to enjoy them, and innovation isn't important.

Videogame developers realize this. Think of all the videogame sequels that sell so well. A few years ago 12 of the 13 "most anticipated games" listed in PC Gamer magazine were sequels. The occasional reviewer may complain about lack of originality in sequels, but players clearly don't mind.

One man's innovation is another man's old hat. Example: Stratego has been around a long time. Most people of my generation have played it, although as time passes its popularity has decreased. In fact, Stratego is an almost exact copy of a much older game, L'Attaque, originally patented and published in 1909. The patent expired by the end of World War II and a Dutchman added a column of squares and four pieces to each side, called it Stratego, and licensed it to a Dutch company who then licensed it to a series of American companies. So people playing Stratego for the first time might think it is innovative, but in fact it's an almost exact copy of a much older game that was still in print in England in the late 70s.

Ideas are not the main point of a game or an adventure, and hardly any idea is original. Your "great idea" probably isn't that great and has probably been thought of by dozens of people. It's the combination of things, and their execution, that counts. Good combinations won't be purely innovative but the result may be surprising or "fresh", something people have not seen before. People make up brand-new monsters to surprise players; but you can use combinations, or use monsters in new contexts, to achieve freshness.

RPGs are usually models of some fictional reality, and in models it's more important to make good models than to be original. My recommendation to RPG designers and GMs is to make good combinations to provide freshness, make good models, make good games, and don't worry about pure innovation.

"Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way." Tom Freston.

This article contributed by Lewis Pulispher
Lewis Pulsipher


A product is innovative based on if it is an unexpected improvement and if it results are successful. Something that is new but a market flop is unsuccessful, and its expression is not innovative, even though the intent or idea was seemingly innovative. A product can be innovative without being market changing.

People have a very hard time determining the value of good ideas. Good ideas are often viewed in the entertainment industry as having no value in themselves. A good idea that results in a best selling product clearly does have value, because its absence would mean the product would never have been realized. That's why really good 'idea guys' get paid big bucks but the vast majority don't.


Is there supposed to be a point or call to action in there somewhere, or was it meant to just be a hot take with no substance?


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Is there supposed to be a point or call to action in there somewhere, or was it meant to just be a hot take with no substance?
It's an opinion piece intended to start a discussion. If you're not interested, there are thousands of other threads here you can read instead.
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I tend to prefer people doing something better than it's ever been done before, to be much more important than people doing something different than what's ever been done before.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
I tend to prefer people doing something better than it's ever been done before, to be much more important than people doing something different than what's ever been done before.
I'm with you. A new car doesn't have to fly, it just has to has to be good. A new movie doesn't have to have new thought provoking ideas (although some movies certainly do!) -- it can just be good at what it does. Lots of people don't want a steak cooked in an innovative new way; they just want their steak cooked competently.

Of course, innovation is important too. But other things are just as important. Support, nostalgia, presentation, community, to name a few which don't even have anything to do with the words on the page.


Most innovation is pretty bad at first, and will probably require an iteration or two in order to potentially become good.

For example, the last innovative thing I can recall seeing in RPGs was Warhammer 3rd ed, with a whole bunch of different types of dice you could get from different sources (stat, skill, "stance", difficulty, circumstances), and those dice all had a mess of different symbols on them. That was sort of nifty, but rather hard to keep track of it all, and the game also had a whole bunch of board-gamey stuff surrounding things (e.g. all special abilities were on cards rather than written down on character sheets).

It wasn't until the dice became streamlined for Edge of the Empire, which also did away with all the paraphernalia that the system actually became good. So first innovation as a proof-of-concept thing, and then iteration into something good.

That said, I thought the group sheet for Warhammer 3 was a wonderful idea, and something that would be cool to see implemented in some other game.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I'm not really getting your point, can you restate? You keep using the term but your examples are not innovative so it's one of those Princess Bride "I do not think that means what you think it means".

Unlike what you are saying, innovation is not personal. You have a nifty but wrong or at least incomplete quote about it, but the actual definition from the OED: a new method, idea, product, etc.

From the examples you have about your private definition of innovative, it seems you are trying to say that using something that some people may not expect but not necessarily innovative since it can be old hat or a rehash to veterans is strongly sought after but is overhyped.

But then you suggest good combinations to provide freshness, which is what you just seem to be calling overhyped.

So I'm confused. Even if the reader accepts your redefinition of innovation, you are both calling it overhyped and suggesting it in successive paragraphs. What are you trying to get across?

Sword of Spirit

I agree with those who have said that quality is more important than innovation.

At the same time, I highly dislike design that unreflectively uses established precedents, rather than making sure they use the best ideas available (either through their own innovations, or through other works).

When it comes to RPGs, there are certain conventions that, whenever I see them used in a new game, I think are bad design. They may have been good design when first implemented (or may not), but there are way better ways to accomplish the goal now. Of course, sometimes people might choose a non-optimal design because they want a certain feel, just like creating a non-mechanically optimal character.

But that is reflective design. You've thought about it. You intentionally make a choice, when you know and understand the cons to the choice, because you believe it will overall accomplish your design goals better. I highly dislike unreflective design that just mimics what has been done without examining whether it is the right tool for the job, or even a good tool at all.

So I guess what I would say is: understand what you are doing when you are making a new product.


Some people have identified an attitude nowadays called "the cult of the new". Something is necessarily better because it's new, in this view. New is often equated with "innovative", rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly). Certainly, makers of general-market retail products seem to think "new" means more sales, so they tout "new taste", "new design", etc. on their boxes, even when they've made no practical changes.

As some of you, I think quality is more important, and I don't care whether something is new or old, innovative or not, what I care about is how well it works.

"Unlike what you are saying, innovation is not personal. You have a nifty but wrong or at least incomplete quote about it, but the actual definition from the OED: a new method, idea, product, etc." In games, at least, innovation is very personal, because by objective standards virtually nothing is innovative ("nothing new under the sun"), that is, there is no pure innovation. But any particular aspect of a game can be innovative from the point of view of an individual player's experience (that is, a subjective viewpoint). And it's much easier to be subjectively innovative through combinations of things, than to find a single pure innovation.

Of course, as with many discussions about games, an awful lot gets confused in semantics. Heck, people cannot even agree on a definition of "game". Did you know that one of the most well-known game design books, "Rules of Play", spends eighty pages on trying to define "game", and ends up with something that (by authors' own admission) leaves out RPGs and simply doesn't concern itself with puzzles?

I agree that you need to understand the whys when you create a new product. On the other hand, my experience of teaching video game design to college students, is that many of them think that what they like, is what everyone likes, and so they want to make something like their favorite game only "more" of it. Which is a way to a poor design, if it's practical at all. (Often they choose a AAA game they cannot possibly make themselves, as their ideal.)
Some people have identified an attitude nowadays called "the cult of the new".
Ironically, it's nothing new. Advertisers have been pasting 'new & improved' on the side of old products for generations.
The Cult of the Old, is, less ironically, very old indeed - and still going strong.


[MENTION=30518]lewpuls[/MENTION] Its sad when the game companies and their design teams try to rehash or make near mirror copies of earlier existing games to try and grab the market share of computer and console gamer's instead of seeing what made the game so well liked and then incorporating those features into their own near or future release titles.
Innovation comes about in both small and large grandiose ways from the new crafting and settlement creation in Fallout 4 to better story line progression/tie in to earlier games or building off snippets from the previous games Fallout 3's mentioning of the Commonwealth for example.
[MENTION=996]Tony Vargas[/MENTION] that is also true and sometimes it works and other time it flops like a dying fish... New Coke, Crystal Pepsi, certain Mountain Dew with X-flavors for a game tie in release, and etcetera.



In video games, cloning (making mirror copies) is a serious problem, and has led to lawsuits. I don't think we have much of it in tabletop games, though there are cases of parallel development that leave two games much alike.


Quality is more important IMHO. With an established brand you expect certain things. If I want a Big Mac (not very likely) I want a big mac not a cheese burger even though they are both burgers.


The OP seems to be basically about immovation versus refinement - about whether it's better to introduce a new idea into a product, or to take an existing idea and make it work as effectively as possible.

The thing is, you can't get to the latter without the former. Yes, the second or third iteration of a product or gaming concept is going to work better and be more playable than the first - but if nobody takes that first step, introduces those new concepts into the marketplace, then there will be no new concepts out there for you to take and refine, and the hobby will never move forward.

So yeah, maybe the product that takes existing ideas and just polishes them to make them better will be a 'better', more playable product - but the one that breaks the mold and tries something new is the one that will capture peoples' imaginations and give us new ways of experiencing our hobby. For the best possible playing experience we need companies taking both approaches.


I recall that back at university, we mathematically proved that there are in fact an infinite number of 'new' ideas.
And the reason is basically that by combining two old ideas you have already created a new idea!

Personally, I feel something can definitely be innovative even if you're 'just' combining old ideas or improve on them in some (new!) way. This is especially true if you take ideas from completely different fields and translate them into game mechanics.

Trying something _completely_ new is always risky: there's a good chance it will fail spectacularly. And, as the OP already points out: It's really hard to know if something truly and actually has never been tried before. I'd argue there's a much higher chance it's been tried before but you never heard about it because it just didn't work all that well (or at all).

But it's also worthwhile to revisit old ideas that didn't work out from time to time: (technological) progress may mean that an idea that was doomed to fail in the past can be perfectly fine today.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
The thing about ideas is that they’re easy. If I sit in the pub with a friend, we’ll have a hundred ideas in one evening. The ideas themselves have no real value - the work involved in turning them into something concrete is what has value.

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