Wednesday, June 14, 2006

What is Revolutionary?

Gamasutra posted an interview with Chris Crawford, one of the major early computer game designers. Chris laments the creative life in the computer design industry:

... the creative life has gone out of the industry. And an industry that has no creative spark to it is just marking time to die ... During the 80s there was a lot of experimentation, a lot of new ideas being tried (many of them really bad) but there was at least experimentation. Now we don't see any experimentation whatsoever.

This assertion is all well and good for Chris, who by no startling coincidence is pushing for publicity on his own project Storytronics, an interactive environment with less in the way of combat and more in the way of story.

What is that creative life of which Chris speaks? We used to measure revolutionary ideas in terms of decades. Now, in Internet time, just how much revolution can we expect every year?

A revolutionary product in one that opens up a new genre, connects with its audience, and usually inspires copycat "non-revolutionary" products. It may not have been the first in the genre; sometimes the first has a new idea, but doesn't quite know how to convert this to a good product.

Essentially, all other products that come afterwards provide only iterative enhancements. Products that came before failed to realize the potential of the idea. The revolutionary one is the first to truly tap the core power of the new idea.

A revolutionary product implies a popular one. There is no revolutionary without a revolution, and no revolution without people changing. Popularity does not necessarily imply public popularity. It may be popular with others in the same field of study. Some revolutionary products change things only by changing the way other developers produce, without the public ever knowing about it.

Revolutionary products tend to be accessible products, simple enough to catch on where more cumbersome products didn't. There are exceptions to this, of course. Sometimes you look back on a product that was revolutionary for its time and wonder how anyone could have used what now seems so cumbersome. As we will no doubt one day look back at text messaging on cellphones.

I can't speak for computer games, but it is easy to list some revolutionary board and card games:

Whist enjoyed immense popularity in the late 1800's. Whist was derived from a game called Ruff and Honors [1]. Bridge has now essentially replaced it as the leading international card game. Bridge is merely Whist with a bidding system and a dummy. Was Bridge revolutionary? I think so. Bridge's changes are simple to describe, but deeply changed the nature of the game.

Monopoly was a reworking of the Landlord's Game; it's revolutionary concepts were adding houses and changing the theme of the game from a morality lesson to a capitalist lesson, i.e. it became fun to play.

Other revolutionary games over the last century include Scrabble, Diplomacy, Tactics, Dungeons and Dragons, Trivial Pursuit, Magic: the Gathering, and Settlers of Catan.

Is Puerto Rico, arguably the best Eurogame in the world, revolutionary? None of its mechanics are truly original. It does not define a whole new genre, nor represent the turning point in a genre. So on that measure it isn't. Still, the very unique arrangement of these mechanics is both new and elegant. Copycats are already arising, and games that use a role selection mechanic are inevitably compared to Puerto Rico.

In computer games, the question is: are new games simply bigger, prettier, and longer versions of previous games but with different themes? Pick some first-person shooter and call it the revolutionary one in its field. Could any other first-person shooters also qualify?

Maybe Chris is right that not too many computer games are exploring new ground. While the vast majority of board and card games are not revolutionary, each one is a unique arrangement of mechanics and theme. The focus for new computer games seems to be about being more expansive, having prettier graphics, and more convoluted puzzles.

If you want to be revolutionary, you have to avoid repeating what has come before you. For computer games, that means not another first person shooter, puzzler, RTS, RTT, TBS, TBT, empire builder, or so on. For board and card games, that means not another auction, trade, negotiation, resource production, goods delivery, dice or card driven battle resolution, and so on. You need to open up a new genre, or at least produce a game in a genre that has nothing particularly good just yet.



Jackson Pope said...

We're already starting to get franchises in the board games world - not every game is an original combination of theme and mechanics. I give Ticket To Ride, TtR Europe and TtR Marklin as an example.

This is definitely comparable to the franchises (Age of Empires, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy) in the computer games world - where a publisher milks a popular license by bringing out new versions/editions/expansions which have the same theme and only slight changes to mechanics or new content to distinguish it from earlier efforts.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Jack: Yes. Very true. Also think Settlers, Carcassonne, etc.


Jackson Pope said...

Yeah, although those are more expansions which do tend to introduce significant new mechanics to the game, rather than being a new version of the game with possibly some slight mechanics changes.