Innovation: It's not about doing something new, it's about doing something BETTER

I read something the other day about where some of the most successful product innovations come from. It made sense to me at the time, but it took a conversation with a friend of mine for it to really resonate with me.

The gist is basically this: game developers, and Japanese developers especially, have a tendency to focus too much on innovation via their own creativity. Naturally the ideas that flow forth from developers’ minds are going to seem great to them – as human beings, we tend to attach a great deal of sentimentality to things that we can take ownership of. In reality, however, what the user finds “innovative” has less to do with “creativity” and more to do with “utility.” In other words, innovation is not about being original or about “surprising” the player, it is about finding the best way to deliver the core entertainment experience so that it resonates with the audience.

But isn’t innovation about doing something new, and doesn’t that involve the process of creation? Yes, but “creating” something is very different than exercising “creativity,” at least in the sense of the word we commonly hear associated with video games. When Shigeru Miyamoto decided to make The Legend of Zelda, the idea of an adventure in a vast fantasy world was not exactly “new.” It was drawn from real-world epic hero mythology and the common experience of a youth exploring his surroundings.

So I think it’s fair to say that there wasn’t much in the way of “creative genius” behind the creation of the first Zelda game. The concepts of adventure, fantasy, or exploration all existed in nature and culture long before the developers were born. The major characters – Link, Zelda, and Ganon – are each based on the most recognizable archetypes in existence. Even in the world of video games, The Legend of Zelda owes a lot to prior adventure, RPG, and arcade-action games.

The “innovation” came from the successful combination of these unoriginal ideas in a better way than the competition. No game at the time came even close to the sheer scale and depth of exploration that The Legend of Zelda had, and because of this, Zelda was simply the superior action-RPG/adventure game. Its success couldn’t have come from how “creative” or “surprising” it was (Japanese developers talk frequently about “surprising” players) because there was nothing particularly original about it. If there was anything “surprising” about it, it was that the NES was capable of such a content-rich experience.

The image of a remote pointing at the TV was commonplace before Nintendo introduced the Wii RemoteA better example is the Wii’s motion controls. The first and most obvious observation one can make about the Wii is that Nintendo did not invent motion controls. Gyroscopes, motion sensors, and infrared pointing devices all existed and had been used in video games long before the Wii. What Nintendo did was create an all-in-one system for motion controls that was easy to learn how to use and easy to bring into the home. How did they accomplish this? They took a recognizable household device, the TV remote, and put motion sensors and an infrared pointer inside. The way the Wii System Menu is organized is broken down into “channels” which is language ripped directly from television. Despite what Nintendo says about the Wii U controller predating tablet devices, touch-screen PCs have been shown off to the public since 2001 at the latest, and Nintendo already introduced the two-screen format on the DS.

This is exactly the opposite of creativity. It is like Nintendo looked at the GameCube and asked “how can we get more people to buy our next console?” and then realized that the answer was to make it less original and distinct and more like something people were already buying. I would be willing to bet that the decision to put a touch screen on the Wii U controller came from the DS’s success and was accelerated by the growth of the tablet market.

Wii software wasn’t particularly creative either. The controls for Wii Sports came about from efforts to emulate real-life motions like bowling, swinging a baseball bat, aiming a bow, and so on. Infrared pointer aiming in first-person games like Metroid Prime is not creativity, it is common sense. Mario Kart Wii was not the first racing game to come with a steering wheel peripheral. Skyward Sword‘s motion controls are an exercise in adapting this existing motion mimicry to improve a franchise that already featured sword-fighting, projectile-shooting, and so on.

How is <i>Skyward Sword</I> innovating <i>Zelda</I>? By making sword combat, aiming, and so on more like their real-world counterparts” src=“×140-7544.jpg” width=“250” height=“140” class=“mt-image-left” style=“float: left; margin: 0 20px 20px 0;” /></a>That is not to say that these games are not <i>innovative</I>. They clearly did and continue to do an excellent job in getting people excited about the Wii. But they are not innovative because they were <i>creative</I> (there is nothing creative about bowling or swinging a sword), they are innovative because they are <i>better</I> at doing the jobs demanded of them (entertaining the customer). At least, customers perceive them as more valuable (i.e. worth their money). <i>That</I> is how Nintendo innovates: not through “creativity” or “surprise,” but by delivering experiences that customers value. The more appropriate word is “familiarity,” not “creativity.” Familiarity resonates with people much more strongly than creativity.</p>
<p>If anything, Nintendo’s efforts to be “creative” have only held them back. No matter how good the game turned out to be, it’s a solid fact that the art style of <i>The Wind Waker</I> held it back. We’re seeing somewhat of a repeat performance with <i>Skyward Sword</I>, although it’s admittedly not as heated or drastic as before. The inclusion of a world revolving around trains in <i>Spirit Tracks</i> definitely earned that game a bit of a bad rep, to the point that many people fail to see it as a true <i>Zelda</I> game. The water-based F.L.U.D.D. in <i>Super Mario Sunshine</I>, weird play mechanics like tripping in <i>Super Smash Bros. Brawl</I>, and many other such “creative” additions were met with similar criticism.</p>
<p>No doubt Nintendo saw many of these as fresh ideas, otherwise they wouldn’t have used them to begin with. But did these ideas come from fans? Did they ask fans whether they wanted such things before moving forward? Certainly not. And yet when they <i>did</I> listen to fans by providing a more <i>Ocarina</I>-like art direction in <i>Twilight Princess</I> and a more traditional (F.L.U.D.D.-less) <i>Mario</I> experience in the <i>Galaxy</I> games, those titles went on to be considerably more successful.</p>
<p>People often see dance games and motion control arcade collections and exercise games like <em>Wii Sports Resort</em> and <em>Wii Fit</em> as “casual” fare, while only “real” games like platformers, shooters, and RPGs count as “core” games, but I’d argue that that’s not the case. If the users value the dance games, the arcade collections, and the fitness games, then those are “core” titles. It’s clear from Wii software development and sales patterns, which always favor these kinds of games in the long term, that these gamers make up the “core” of the Wii audience. They are the backbone of the system. It’s by focusing on this audience, which consists of both people who were entranced by gaming in the 80s and early 90s and people who have never owned a gaming platform but found value in the Wii, that Nintendo’s “innovation” exploded and continues to draw people in today.</p>
<p>That’s not to say there isn’t a distinction between these kinds of games and big-budget “industry” games like <em>Super Mario Galaxy</em> and <em>Skyward Sword</em> – it’s clear from the production values and so forth – but I’d compare the difference to that between a TV show and a movie. At the core they’re both film media aimed to entertain, but the business models (TV makes money off ad revenue, movies make money off of box office and retail sales) and level of commitment required from the consumer (you can watch the TV from home, going to the theater is less convenient) vary tremendously. </p>
<p>The other path to innovation involves <i>surveying the habits of your users</i>. Oftentimes successful features come out of players (modders or glitch experts) tinkering with existing game content.<a href= Malstrom lists several examples of this kind of User Innovation:

When we look at video games, almost all the innovations are from user innovations. When Sid Meir played a crappy airplane game and said, “I can make a better game than that,” that is user innovation. When Nolan Bushnell played Space War and wanted to improve on that and other games, along with the people in that era, that was also user innovation. Richard Garriott, the inventor of the Ultima series, was nothing but a user trying to innovate on various products around him from Lord of the Ring books to board games resulting in the Computer Role Playing Game.

The very first ‘video game designers’ were actually users of games and other mediums (like toys, Nintendo was a toy company before a video game company). Many people who got into game design were due to them creating user innovations (e.g. modders).

One gamer was named Jay Cotton. He wanted to play Doom over the Internet. So he devised a way for Local Area Network to be tricked over the Internet. He eventually spread this technique to other PC games and sold a service of it called Kali.

What is relevant about that? One of the games that found profound popularity over Kali was Warcraft 2. Blizzard was so impressed that they included Kali with the Warcraft 2 CD. Without the user innovation of Kali, there would be no Battle Net. And there would be no WoW.

Another example that I’m sure most of you are familiar with is Team Fortress 2. Team Fortress 2 is actually the sequel to a user-developed Quake mod. It was the first public game to feature headshots and one of the first shooters to heavily feature online team play. After its popularity grew, Valve took interest in the team who built the mod and hired them, and eventually Team Fortress 2 was born. I don’t think I need to get into how successful that venture turned out to be.

Looking at Zelda, it’s clear that one of the most popular fan endeavors is trying to find ways to sequence break, whether via intentional shortcuts (which were all over the original game) or by glitching their way past obstacles. Just look at the massive fan cults surrounding speed running. Clearly these kinds of exploits and tricks are valuable to Zelda players.

It's a lot harder to pull off completion times like this in games these days…If Nintendo wanted to foster this user innovation in their games, they would put a lot of time and research into making sure there were plenty of opportunities for players to sequence break. Instead we’ve seen a trend towards actually removing these exploits and tricks so that it is no longer as easy to skip game content. The trend is perhaps more noticeable in the Metroid series, particularly in the Prime games which in a few short years added all kinds of reins to the game to keep the player from straying and paving his or her own way.

Rather than placing control of the game with the players, developers are reserving control for themselves. Players must experience all of the “surprises” the developer has built into the game. I think this is a bad design decision and insulting to users to boot. Players would find much more satisfaction (and hell, they’d find more “surprise” too) in figuring out a secret shortcut than following the set path the developers have in mind.

Nintendo should find whoever over at Grezzo decided that it was good to treat helpful glitches as design features and hire them to work on the next Zelda game. Grezzo’s staff clearly was made up of Ocarina of Time fans who know the value of user innovations like glitches and exploits versus the value of developer “creativity.”

That’s not to say that I think games like Skyward Sword are not innovative. Clearly there was an effort to take the innovations already introduced with Wii Motion Plus and use them to enhance Zelda. We’ve also seen a number of successful ideas from other games find their way into Zelda, like the stamina and shield meters. All of these inclusions are aimed at enhancing the existing Zelda framework. So don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Nintendo’s failing to innovate. I do, however, share Malstrom’s sentiment that they’re placing too much emphasis on “creativity” and “surprise” (things like adding flight travel and yet another new art style) when this wasn’t an essential ingredient of any of the classic games that took Nintendo to gaming heaven.

What do you think? Could Nintendo do more to focus on user-centric innovation? Do developers sometimes let their creativity get the better of them? Do you find more value in “creative” game ideas or enhancements of previous games? Sound off in the comments!

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