Over on Clash’s new blog, he discusses the ideas of System Structure and buried within his post is a bit about innovation. This is an important point to me as I have much the same view on it.
Innovation in systems is, in my opinion, more about the designer’s ego than anything to do with “doing it better” or any sort of “system progress”. I would go as far as to say 9 out of 10 times it is an illusion, a more complicated way to do something because the author wanted to do some thing “new” or different. Being different for its own sake is not a good way to serve your customers. The problem most folks face is that they will see some mechanic and bring their own subjective prejudices to it. You like that mechanic and it is “cool and innovative” because you either have never seen it before (even though you probably have) or you like the author or you like d10s and it uses d10s.
I am guilty of the exact same thing. I believe it combines a few factors. The first is how much we, as gamers, want to recapture that feeling we had when we played our first game. We want it to be new and cool and a different way of doing our favorite thing. Another issue could well be the belief that “It must get better”. Look at technology. Over time one person builds on another person’s work. We like the idea that things progress, innovation happens and the things we are excited about and love get better.
Let’s take a moment on that “get better” part. Innovation is not necessarily better but that is an argument for another day as I am not convinced that innovation is as common as perceived in RPGs. However, the more fundamental issue is that for progress to be made, the next game must be better than the last. This just cannot be true IMO. Games are a function of preferences. Some people will like Monopoly while others prefer chess. Both are board games but both have different Elements. Elements, as I discussed before, are those small pieces of play that we enjoy/hate so very much. When a “new” game comes out, you have a different arrangement of elements that might appeal to a different group of customers but to say it is empirically “better” is a fallacy. It may be different. I may be popular. However, i would not characterize it as better.
So, where does innovation come in? Unfortunately, many designers look to trying to innovate the elements. These are things like task resolution methods and how you do something. I feel that true innovation comes from the form of the game. That is to say, how you combine the elements, what you leave out, what you include and how they interact. Even here, innovation may not be as prevelent as is promoted. Remember, it pays to say your game is innovative. It pays (either in money or you ego) to have people say your game is innovative.
Innovation is seldom something that is easy, predictable or common.