Something’s been percolating in my subconscious. I think it started about a year and a half ago when Greg Costikyan lambasted Warren Spector’s 2003 GDC keynote, in which Warren suggested that if game designers cannot innovate as often as they want, they can at least make the best games they can where they are. It didn’t help any when I read an excerpt from Chris Crawford on Game Design where he (among other things) said that sequels have no artistic content.

Both of these really rankled, and it has taken a good long while to figure out why. Actually, it didn’t take long to figure out why Crawford’s remarks had rubbed me the wrong way; he’d effectively said that Ultima VII, Day of the Tentacle and Shenmue II had no artistic content, an indefensible statement, especially in an industry where a new game design can take a few games to wear its rough edges off and become really fun. But there was something else, something deeper. And I finally think I know what it is.

I don’t think innovation is that important to game design.

Costikyan and Crawford both obviously pine for the days when everything designers (including themselves) did was innovative. But designers were innovative because they had no choice – no one had ever done what they were doing before! The field was wide open; everything was innovative.

But the nature of the available play styles on a platform are dictated by input devices, and the input devices we use haven’t changed much in a good long while. When I play Doom 3, I still use the same mouse/keyboard/screen setup that I used to play Quake. When I play Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando (yet another sequel that was better than the original), I use the same gamepad/screen setup I used to play Pitfall on the Atari 2600. Yes, my controller now has more buttons, a rumble feature and analog sticks, but the basic concept hasn’t changed – one hand steers the character and the other hand presses the action button(s).

Thus the only way to get the kind of earthshaking innovation Costikyan wants is to change what play styles are available, which is exactly what studios like Bemani do. Lots of people point to Dance Dance Revolution as a rare example of innovation in this moribund industry, and they are right. But what did Bemani have to do to get that innovation? They had to introduce new input hardware, and without that hardware DDR is just a Flash game. What else have I seen recently that at least attempted innovation? Lifeline looked very interesting…hey, new hardware. Donkey Konga – oh, wait. New hardware.

We’ve very nearly completely explored the possibility space of both of the classic gaming setups. We’ve discovered a lot of play styles that work extremely well with them. And having done that, we are now devoting the majority of our energy to making better and better games using these play styles. I’m trying to figure out why this is a bad thing.

“But there are only so many genres of games! Where are the new genres?” Well, again, genres are dictated by what people are willing to play and what can be physically done on the hardware. When the mouse came along, it made more play styles possible. When fast 3D came along, it changed a lot of play styles. And then came the internet…pity no one ever figured out how to use that to play games…

“But the industry doesn’t award innovation!” This is the conventional wisdom, and I disagree with it. The biggest selling game of all time is The Sims. The previous biggest selling game of all time was Myst. Both of these games were considered innovative when they were first released. Yes, you might be able to make a quick buck by knocking off yet another decent RTS, but a) it has to be decent to have any shot at success and b) you can just as easily lose your shirt that way. And while the industry doesn’t directly award innovation, it does tend to award good work – yes, I know, Ico and Beyond Good & Evil both tanked at retail, but for the most part it’s true – good work gets rewarded, and good work is the first necessary component to innovation.

The second is inspiration. And inspiration can’t be forced, it can’t be bought and it can’t be faked. When the lightning strikes, it strikes, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Innovation is inevitable, but the speed at which it happens depends very much on how much work in the field has already been done. Innovation now tends to wear away at the rough edges of play styles (witness Doom 3’s excellent handling of in-game interfaces) or adds fun new tweaks to an existing play style (Burnout 3’s aftertouch system or any of the myriad of new features in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) or blends play styles in interesting ways (notice how designers are grafting RPG elements onto every other genre) instead of creating new play styles out of whole cloth. It’s a river smoothing its rocks, where originally it was Michelangelo passionately attacking a marble slab.

The point of game design isn’t to innovate – it’s to make fun games. Innovation is just something that happens once in a while along the way. Designers should always have a bottle on hand to catch the lightning just in case it strikes. But if it doesn’t, I see nothing wrong with merely flawlessly executing a classic play style while throwing in a few new tweaks just for fun, and making lots of gamers happy by doing it.