Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Why don't we play innovative games?

A Tale in the Desert is an MMO without combat, but not a pure sandbox either, there are skills, a series of tests, and a complex social gameplay. Puzzle Pirates is a completely player-skill based MMO, where your success at anything is determined by your skill in various puzzles, not your level or stats. Wizard101 has more traditional levels and quests, but a completely novel combat system based on magic cards. And the guys from PixelMine just sent me a press release on how their MMO Ashen Empires won the Best Fantasy MMORPG award at the Independent Games Festival. And that is just a handful of examples I happen to know of. There are tons and tons of innovative MMOs out there. But each of them attracts only a few thousand players. Meanwhile millions of players play games like World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, and then whine loudly about the lack of innovation in these games.

Doh, guys! Most game companies produce games for the money, not because they hope to become critically acclaimed starving artists. They are always going to look out what kind of games seem to sell well, and then make that sort of game. If customers throw a billion dollars a year at Blizzard for World of Warcraft, and A Tale in the Desert is making peanuts, then of course other companies prefer to make a game more like WoW than like ATitD. They would be crazy if they didn't do it.

In the last open Sunday thread people were blaming the big companies to make games as bland as McDonalds bland food. I'm saying that the complaint would be a lot more valid if the complainers weren't actually sitting in the McDonalds restaurant and eating bland burgers, while right next door there is an empty, small gourmet restaurant with a varied, but foreign cuisine. As soon as about a million of you guys start playing innovative games, game companies are going to make more of them. As long as you go for games that offer small, evolutionary steps to a well-known concept, companies are going to make those. The question is not why WAR isn't more innovative, the question is why there aren't more people playing Wizard101 or other innovative games. Game companies produce what the customers want, and we only have ourselves to blame if we voted with our wallets for evolutionary approach. If even we as players are afraid to try something really new, then how can you expect a company to bet millions of dollars on really new?
This is an obvious point, but depressingly often ignored. Big companies don't often innovate as much as gamers ask for, because, as so often is the case, what gamers think or say they want and what gamers actually want are not the same.

Except in some cases, which is why indie games can be so cool, but also why the more quirky ones don't go mainstream.
Speaking of innovative games, did anyone else notice Seed a couple of years ago? It never seems to be mentioned when discussing innovation, mmos, and why innovative games struggle. Sadly, it seems to be a perfect example.

Thought it looked like an intresting story, new gameplay, but it closed before I ever played it :(
If a million players played Wizard101, then game companies would produce more Wizard101s, not more innovative games.
Gamers are looking for good games to play, sometimes a new concept can turn out to be incredibly good, but that doesn't mean every thing new will be something good.
Game companies know this, innovation will always be risky since it is difficult to asses just how well something new will work.
The only way to make the development of innovative games profitable would be for all players to agree to play those games, even if they turn out to be bad and that's not likely to happen any time soon...
The food analogy doesn't really hold up for MMOs. McD's only pro-factor is convienience, it's for lazy people and that's it. It doesn't really taste well and it's unhealthy. So the overall experience, while convienent ist really bad for the costumer with a working taste for quality food.

Games are much more complex. The overall experience in WoW is so good, that even more innovative products, can not compete with the overall customer experience. Production values are critical. Just take a look at WAR right now. Even being the more recent product, it can not compete with the look and feel of WoW's combat. If you want another analogy take any Apple product for example. They are more expensive, in the case of iPods they may even lack features but in the end, they deliver the better customer experience.

I even dare to say, that innovations are way more easy than to deliver the better overall experience. If you want to sell a game, that people spend hundreds and thousands of hours, small things become critical all of a sudden. Innovation does not make up for more basic flaws.

Team Fortress 2 - in developement for almost a decade - almost does not add a single new game mechanic, no innovation so to speak. Still they thought about the small, subtle things and focused on those. In the end, they did not reinvent the genre, but delivered the most fun experience i've seen for the genre.

Sticking it to Valve once more. Think Portal, labeled as an "innovative" game. If you played the prototype, the core almost did not changed at all. Still the game took years to develope. Why? The overall experience. While the hardcore may burst into tears for the pure innovative aspect of it, you will not reach mass appeal with subar production values and an unpolished experience. Even EverQuest still delivers innovative elements but the game will still not achieve mass appeal.

Innovation does not pull you into the market, real polish does.
Maybe it's a bit like democracy, large numbers of people often make poor choices. The people who really make the bulk of the MMO-playing crowd are not here reading Tobold's blog posts about them.
The big MMO developers don't make very innovative games. Fact. They do that because making a big successful MMO takes 100+ million dollar, they need investors, they got shareholders and they don't want to take big risks and go for safe money instead. That's rather obvious.

But why should that stop us gamers of criticizing them for their lack of guts? Why should that stop us from supporting the developers that actually got the guts to take some risk? It's also rather obvious that people shouldn't stop doing that. So what's exactly the point?

And comparing A Tale in The Desert with Warhammer Online is like comparing an internet-flash game with Call of Duty 4.
Chrismue and Nuyan managed to get most of my point in already.

Innovative games fail in large part because the people with money say they do. They look at underfunded and poorly marketed products and rather than seeing the flaws, poor marketing or uninspired modeling for example, they pick the one good thing about it and blame it on that. Innovation is risk, but honestly if you can get people to buy crap from any number of retail chains just by screaming at them that they have to, good marketing more than makes up for it.

Sadly, marketing is the last concern of an overstretched budget that's barely going to get an unpolished product out the door in the first place. And since they can't get out a perfectly polished game with good marketing, they become one more example of how "innovative games don't succeed".
Different is scary. That McDonalds burger might be bland, but it's the same everywhere. You won't be pleasantly surprised in a McDonalds, but you won't get sick, either.

Also, the desire to conform to social norms and the value of the network effect cannot be overestimated.
Doh, guys! Most game companies produce games for the money, ...

Tobold we are not idiots! We realise this.

A 'truly' amazingly innovative MMORPG will still change things one day.
Except it won't, because people won't play it. People will play a game that would be truly and amazingly innovative now, but not yet - only after a long chain of minor innovation and refinement, so much so that by the time the game in question is released it's no longer considered really innovative.
People will go with the flow, they won't go sit in an empty restaurant how good the food may be...

This is not only the case with food or MMO's - think about the VHS system beating the superior Betamax or V2000 systems..
We don't play "innovative" games because most of them suck. Every now and then a truley innovative game will break the mold and earn some dollars, but not often. To make an innovative game your reasoning cannot be profit, because to compete in the current game market you need to "go big or go go home". No company will be able to secure an investment that seems risky if at best to make a profit.

So we continue the path of game evolution because it is safe. It keeps the game companies and stock holders happy, and most of the time it keeps the players happy because they don't waste time on sucky games.
People play the WoW's and the EQ2's because they are good games. People don't play the small, innovative games because WoW and all the other majors suck.

I did a podcast for Ryzom, one of the funnest and innovative games out there...original design, nice looking. But it has shut down 3 times now. In my opinion, "innovation" does not make up for lack of content. While I am perfectly suited to having a game that does not receive hardly any updates (I am more of a role player and explorer) most players are not.

Most of these smaller games are based on some innovation: "Skill based," "create your own scenarios," "puzzle based gameplay" but still have a limited staff and budget.

The real issue here is not lack of innovation, but the ability of players to burn through any amount of content within a few months. Players are not somehow "sick" and can't see a "innovative" game for the brilliant design it is. Players just get bored as quickly as possible. The games that will win? The ones that have the staff and the money to put out new and fun things for the player to do.

No matter how "innovative" the game, players will get used to it. Once players get used to something, they get bored.

There is a real difference between innovation and quality. Almost all attempts at innovative design have been delivered with a poor user experience attached to them from lack of design effort.

In music this is somewhat similar to the difference between the garage band and the mainstream production. Most "normal" people cant stand the poor production values of the average garage band, but they'll without much thought not switch channel on the radio when next Britney song is played.

In games you see this as the user interface lacking relevant information, or beeing cluttered, or having poor timing, or not looking nice, or confusing the user, or being unfocused, or not presenting feedback and a ton of little things.

Almost all the "indie" mmo's suffer from a series of these design defects and thereby disqualify themselves.

On the other hand the AAA industry does not dare change the underlying formula, because it is really expensive to replace the bread in the hamburger with marshmallows and then adapt the whole hamburger to be a tasty dish with their new marshmallow breads.

As DanC at lostgarden recently wrote: "Game design is a process, not a bolt of lightening from the blue. You build an experiment, reinvest in the things that work and try to fix the things that are broken. After iteration upon iteration, the game emerges."

This means that yes, you can make marshmallow hamburgers, but they will not be profitable with the recepie you expected. The value comes from testing a long string of experiments on people and figuring out what they react to well and what they react to poorly.

In a large system such as a AAA mmorpg the designers dont even know what is the bread, meat and marshmallow of their burgers. They cant really afford to figure it out so they blatantly copy McDonalds and try sell burgers by painting the door pink, and having a fun monkey on the sign outside.
Thank you

/agree 100%

As long as we continue playing what is being handed to us, we can only settle for games and developers that do not try hard enough.

Right now, no game has been made to attain a new #1 status.


We get games that only attain to reach number 2 in popularity.

"We are not trying to beat WoW"

WHY? Why not try?

Maybe you should?

Guess time will tell as we go along. But, as long as everyone keeps buying the same old stuff, we get #2 all the time (and yes, that IS an analogy)

Innovative games fail in large part because the people with money say they do. They look at underfunded and poorly marketed products and rather than seeing the flaws, poor marketing or uninspired modeling for example, they pick the one good thing about it and blame it on that. Innovation is risk, but honestly if you can get people to buy crap from any number of retail chains just by screaming at them that they have to, good marketing more than makes up for it.

Sadly, marketing is the last concern of an overstretched budget that's barely going to get an unpolished product out the door in the first place. And since they can't get out a perfectly polished game with good marketing, they become one more example of how "innovative games don't succeed".

This mostly describes how I see it as well.

When reading about games on blogs, forums, and such, I barely read about the smaller games at all. It's very hard, for someone just looking around quickly, to tell that they exist, than get enough information to see whether I might enjoy playing them or not.

I could also see some of this coming from fear of people who will think something like "This game is a bit different than the systems I am used to, therefore it sucks", which can make a lot of noise on the internet at least, and may be influencing development to someextent more than it should.
the question is why there aren't more people playing Wizard101

Not really addressing your larger point, but wanted to speak specifically about W101. Based upon your posts about it, I downloaded the client and tried it for a few days. And the main reason I'm not playing it anymore is because it wasn't very good.

The gameplay was indeed innovative, but also boring. Combat took way too long, due to the repetitive combat animations. And after having played for several hours, I still only had three different spells in my deck.

In the end, it wasn't as fun as Wow or War, so I uninstalled it. Another issue is that it probably wasn't targeted to 34 year old gamers such as myself.

It did have several nice features, and was easy to pick up. A good choice for a first time MMORPG-er, or young kids.
You don't just beat WoW. Saying that is the plan just sets you up to look like a loser when you inevitably do not smash WoW sub numbers in the first 6 months.

Innovation is great n all, but innovation filters out slowly over the years. Early adopters adopt and it slowly spreads out to the rest of the population until POW it hits big. Whether its the IPod or Model T, innovative things generally don't explode onto the scene. If you see an explosion like that, you can pretty much rest assured that it only seems innovative because you weren't paying attention.

Also, just because its new doesn't mean its really very good. People who like MMOs are, on the whole, pretty satisfied with the game style. They don't really want innovation, at least to the degree that would satisfy the innovation nuts. C'est la vie.
I agree with Tobold and the first poster.

Game companies are not charities out to make you, the game player, happy and content. They make games because people like you, game players, buy their product, thereby affording them nice things like boats and mansions.

There is a certain draw to being the "next big thing" in any industry, as there is in the gaming industry. But ultimately, you can be extremely innovative and that is great and all. But who is going to pay for it?

Often, if you do get money for such a game, your innovation may be high, but the polish and smoothness may suffer in order to get the product out. Gamers play a Beta that is even slightly less polished than a 4 year old Mega-Game like WoW, and they are complaining.

Point is, if you want innovation, go play a flash game that some guy made in his spare time for fun and without expectation of profits.

Massive multiplayer games are always going to evolve from previous game types and formulas. Well, no, thats not exactly right.

*Successful* massive multiplayer games will always evolve from previous game types and formulas. No one wants to beta test an innovative game for 4 years while funding is constantly an issue, along with staff to work on the game, limited content, etc.
As a developer, let me tell you, we're not in it to innovate for the sake of innovation.

If it makes the game better, in a tangible way, that can help make the product better? Yes, absolutely, we do and will innovate.

Does it do nothing except stroke someone's ego, and maybe let a few bloggers (not talking about Tobold here, just a nebulous 'bloggers') talk about how cool the innovation is, but no one buys it? Then it's a waste of time, energy, and oh yeah, money.

Here's the thing: most companies are in the business to make money. We make what people want. Is this catering to the lowest common denominator? Maybe, but it's a pragmatic decision. You can't eat innovation, and being a critical darling doesn't necessarily put bread on the table either.

One more thing: Calling the people who buy mass market games any of the following terms makes you sound like a pretentious jerk: sheeple, idiots, or any variation thereof.

It's easy to say, "Dammit game companies, take a risk!" when it's not your millions being risked.

Noticed that my first paragraph wasn't clear. I should clarify:

I'm not working where I am to innovate for the sake of innovation. That's not necessarily why I got into my industry. Some folks may have, but then, I like to eat, and as others and I have said, innovation doesn't always sell.
the question is why there aren't more people playing Wizard101

I also tried Wizard 101 based on Tobold's review. It was fun to see the intro, but I couldn't easily figure out the combat system. Specifically, what to do after I ran out of attack cards. Did I have to wait for them to recharge, or did I have to buy some more somewhere? I also found the combat animations a bit repetitive, and the stand-in-a-ring combat very unrealistic (even more so than WoW's aggro radius and tagged mobs).

About innovation in general: I agree with the other posters' points about polish and rate-of-content and McDonald's. McDonald's may not be haute cuisine, but it is very tasty to the average palate, and the company spends a lot of money to test on focus groups and develop that level of "polish". Now if they could only churn out heroic welfare epic burgers faster...
I believe it is more first impression than anything else that makes the more innovative MMOs unsuccessful.

As example friends complained about the ATITD graphics, so they basically stopped before even touching the content (the tests and the crafting).

Same with Wizards101 (as the above commenter showed): the combat mechanics are not too obvious and it looks strange, so (s)he wouldn't give it more than an hour.

The best game you can make at the moment looks like the last one, but has some slight improvements. So it doesn't scare people and they feel right at home but feel like they got a better deal.

Like McD: same burger as last week, just slightly different sauce. Then compare how many customers McD has compared to a random restaurant in your town.
All this talk of McD's...

Time to go Vegan folks.
Openedge1 All this talk of McD's...

Time to go Vegan folks.

Again the voice of reason! The thought of eating lame uber processed garbage like that... never mind. If ya don't give up meat then at least eat real meat.
As a developer, let me tell you, we're not in it to innovate for the sake of innovation.

To the Dev: I think we would all agree with you...

However I think most some of us, I am, are trying playing down the revolutionary uber innovative angle the T has on War.

I am sure War is a great game and will be for many years, but let's face it - it is still a WoW clone to a lesser or greater extent.

I wouldn't expect it to be anything else... having played the table top game for a few years.
Well, i do believe that gamers in general prefer Innovation.

The thing here is that we are not talking about gamers when we're discussing WoW or WAR.

I hope I do not sound too snob, but someone who just wants to log in, do a quest or two, play with friends and such, is not going to seek for great challenges or innovation. He/She just wants to be entertained. Any innovation that comes along must make sure that the experience remains the same.

For example, let's assume that the ability to loot the corpse of killed players was a great innovation. It meant that everybody had something precious to lose. The Uber rare item could be taken at any time. That kept you on your toes. In WoW you have a 10% durability loss. That is enough for the player to go "gee wiz". So the basic premise is the same: you lose something when you die. But in the first case is for a gamer, in the second is for the person who wants entertainment.

Both ways are equally valid and i am not passing judgment. But unfortunately for gamers the latter is the vast majority of consumers out there and if I was a CEO of a company I would cater for them.
Just a question: wouldn't it be profitable for a successful gaming company to also provide niche games?

Think cable. There are channels for every taste due to the fact that the most profitable ones allow for the exitance of niche channels who will attract customers that other way wouldn't bother to sign on.
I'm afraid that the core of the problem is that games that are innovative usually have a distinct face which won't appeal to the masses. And, of course, production values are usually much higher for cash cows, because of lower risk taken.

Cash cows contain what the players seem to like, while a game with an idea behind it contains whatever supports that idea, ditching many potential audience-grabbing elements that wouldn't fit the setting/mood/whatever.
For example a game with semi-realistic medieval setting won't contain amazons in chain bikini, losing all those adolescent boys seeking boobs.

A game with a certain direction, looks and feeling is the number one for those who like the direction, but others will rather pick a bland alternative.

But I agree with Wyrm, the companies should start making niche games to supplement their main, "big" titles. Makes sense - once you have your cash cow, and all the means to make another MMO, why compete with your own title instead of creating a completely different one?
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