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The Same, Only Different: Where and How Much Innovation in Video Game Design?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 2, 2013

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a long time. The newest incarnation isn’t officially “Dungeons & Dragons” (it’s Pathfinder), but it’s close enough.  I’ve played lots of tabletop adventures, and plenty of computer games based on the system. And then even more computer games that are loosely and unofficially based on  they system. I still have a lot of fun playing it.

But mechanically – the biggest change in game mechanics hit the scene around 1999, and Pathfinder is a natural extension of that. And even that revolutionary overhaul still tried to keep the basics more-or-less intact. Aside from armor class going up instead of down, and people referring to “DCs,” players of 1st edition AD&D and Pathfinder would probably be understand each other just fine. The mechanics resolve similarly. Some of the numbers have changed, and certainly a number of rules, but the fundamental mechanics aren’t too different. You still want to roll high on a D20 to hit, you roll 1d8 for longsword damage (plus bonuses), roll a save vs. a fireball on a D20 to take half damage, etc. (Incidentally, DC stands for… “Difficulty Class” – I had to look that one up because I’m so used to just hearing the initials… but it’s supposed to be analogous to “Armor Class” [AC] so I guess that fits…)

Of course, every game has a different context – a different story. We had one Pathfinder game that took place in the ruins of Washington DC a century after a magical apocalypse. We’ve had games where the entire party was nobility seeking a way to liberate their home country. We’ve had games where we hopped between the fantasy world and a variation of the mundane “real world.” We’ve played different characters, with sometimes different players, with different stories and settings and bad guys.

The point is – we’re still having fun playing the same game. There have been some rules changes, new house rules, and new sourcebooks brought to the table that might help freshen things up a little, but these are pretty minor variants.

Yet I’ve got this double standard where I rip on first-person-shooters because it’s “just another FPS.” “We’re still just running aiming, shooting, and hiding!” Where are the innovative game mechanics? I turn into some kind of game design, “gameplay is king” purist.  And yet, I still play them when one sounds interesting. And tower defense games. Sometimes a minor mechanical change and an interesting setting (but not too different!) is all it takes to part me from my money, in spite of my complaining to the contrary.

I figure a game designer trying to cater to my desires is like a frustrated TV show producer, trying to balance the demands of an audience who doesn’t want the show to change, but will get bored if it stagnates because due to lack of change. They want everything to be, “the same, only different.”

Is it really important to change up the mechanics from game to game to provide a different experience? We don’t make a major change to the rules of basketball or baseball every season, let alone from game to game. You’d think the audience would get bored after two or three games, right?

So what’s really more important? If you had a choice between two non-optimal alternatives, which would you choose?

A) A game with some really fascinating and innovative new mechanics but with the same old plot and setting (say, sci-fi-industrial) you have seen a million times?

Or

B) The same old mechanics you’ve played for years, but with an exciting new setting, intriguing characters, and a gripping, twisty plot?

Yeah, I want the best of both worlds, too. But if you only had to pick one or the other – new gameplay or new story, or “mechanics vs. context” – which would be more important to you? What might influence your decision?


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 23 Comments to Read



  • Tesh said,

    I think I’d lean to B. I still read new books, after all, and their mechanics are pretty old.

    That said, games are all about interaction and player agency, so I can easily see myself picking A on a day when I’m in a more curious mood. That seems to me to be the strength of games over other entertainment media.

  • eedok said,

    I lean more towards A, but I don’t read that many books, more of a sports kind of guy

  • Ayrik said,

    B all the way. Rarely is there a gameplay “innovation”/gimmick that does more than just annoy the heck out of me.

  • Greg Squire said,

    I generally lean to B. Occasionally I see new a game mechanic that I find interesting. Even rarer is the one that passes the “more than just a novelty” test. Those are the one’s I’d classify as “truly innovative”. It takes time to learn and become accustomed to new mechanics. And some people aren’t patient enough to learn the new mechanic. These people just want to “get on with the game”. I’m in that category most of the time.

  • Nachtfischer said,

    Talking about GAMES: Obviously A. B is not even a new game at all. Besides, I think games are a really bad choice of medium if you want to tell a linear, authored story (theme is a great way to support your mechanics though).

    Coming up with new mechanics is what game design is all about. A game designer should be an expert in crafting rulesets. If you take an existing game and re-theme it or force some new story onto it, you haven’t designed a game. (Sadly that is exactly what most developers do today.)

  • RedJohn said,

    I would lean B as well. Innovative mechanics are nice, but in the end I play games for the story. I think the catch is gameplay/story integration, which makes this either-or hard to put into practice in the real world. Good videogame stories naturally integrate into the mechanics somewhat (the most basic example being the famous JRPG “just use a Phoenix Down on Aeris!”) so mechanics are functionally a major part of the setting for the story. Games that keep the mechanics-as-setting concept in mind tend to do great on both ends, like the Deus Ex series or Neverwinter Nights.

  • Darius said,

    Typically I would go A, but if I am already pretty fond of the gameplay I lean towards B. I love shooters, but the ones I tend to remember are the ones with excellent stories. But I’ve long since grown tired of the typical JRPG battle systems, so it doesn’t matter how fascinating the story is, I’m not going to be able to get through it.

    So B if I really enjoy the gameplay, A otherwise.

  • Xenovore said,

    Definitely B, but it can still depend on the game type.

    I.e. for each genre, there are game-play and UI “standards” (read: player expectations) in place that just work and work well. Don’t mess with those or, like Ayrik said, you’ll just annoy players. (This is one reason why games ported from console to PC tend to suck; the game-play/UI might work on a console, but usually fails on a PC, because it doesn’t fit the PC “standards”.)

    If the game doesn’t fit into an established genre, then it will be easier to be innovative and try new things. The problem is, just about every game type has been done already, so some sort of “standard” will almost always apply.

    Personally, the main areas where I want to see more innovation are AI and physical interaction. There’s a lot that can be done with those still.

    Finally, yeah, game-play is always king, trumping visuals and story; without good game-play those don’t matter. (But, don’t try to feed me some swill that looks like a bad arcade port from the 80s either, claiming that the game-play is amazing. There’s still a balance required there; good game-play plus good art equals great game.)

  • Xenovore said,

    @Nachtfischer: Some good points and I almost agree with you but. . . You don’t redesign tried and proven mechanics just for kicks and giggles, which is what it sounds like you’d prefer. That’s like redesigning chess; it might be an interesting task for a game designer, but nobody that plays chess actually wants the game-play changed, they play chess because it’s chess. Ditto for FPS games, RPGs, etc. We play those games because they are what they are; you can’t screw with the genre standards that are in place.

  • Galenloke said,

    I’m a B player. For both tabletop and computer/console gaming, I find myself much more absorbed in a game with lots of context. Dishonored for example, had a few interesting mechanics but it really was still an fps. The setting though was enough to make me spring for it (admittedly it was 50% off on steam too, that helped).

    On the flip side, if the question were changed to “good mechanics and poor story” or “good story and poor mechanics” I may have to change my answer. If the mechanics ever start to detract from the story, then priorities change.

    @Nachtfischer, I’m not sure I agree. I think games can be a good medium for a linear, authored story, but the mechanics must be sound. If the mechanics aren’t sound then you break the immersion that is required for telling a good story. Even re-skinning a game can work (if it’s a quality job) imho. But I think this disagreement could be boiled down to the difference of game vs experience. As Jay was saying, D&D has hardly changed as a whole game, but each new experience (each campaign) can be as fun and as valuable as a completely new game.

  • McTeddy said,

    Hmmm… I think the biggest flaw I see here is that A being done right depends on B. Unique mechanics should exist to SUPPORT the unique world. Done properly… all that actually matters is that the mechanics match the game.

    My problem isn’t a lack of innovation, but a lack of mechanical theme. What irks me is that playing an super-duper space marine feels exactly like fighting in World War 2. Game’s share mechanics because they are the genre standard… and NOT because they fit the game.
    Modern dev’s seem to think that slapping a new texture and script on something makes something unique.

    On topic though… If I had to pick, I’d probably go with A just because I usually only play games to learn from their implementations.
    Game writing and storytelling is still too poor for me to actually care about story games. If I wanted a B-Movie, I’d be watching one.
    Sure, there are some games that succeed on that front… but it’s rare enough that I’d take my chances with A.

  • Shane said,

    I’m more of a sandbox gamer, so would have to go with A for sure. I play games for option A, when I want option B I read a book. I’ve rarely been impressed with the story in a video game.

  • Felix said,

    Yet I’ve got this double standard where I rip on first-person-shooters because it’s “just another FPS.” “We’re still just running aiming, shooting, and hiding!”

    Perhaps that’s because most games, shooters included, don’t have a gripping story and interesting new locales to make you forget it’s the same old mechanics.

    Also, as Tesh pointed out, games are all about the things you do. Even as a tourist in meatspace, you sometimes want to DO something new besides sightseeing new places and tasting new foods.

    Text adventures achieve an interesting compromise. They all have a solid foundation of basic actions, so most of the novelty consists in story and how they combine those same-y actions into puzzles. Yet the most appreciated titles also build upon the foundation with new game mechanics to keep the player from falling asleep.

    All that said, if I had to make a suboptimal choice, I’d go with B, hands down. When your mechanics have to be all new and revolutionary all the time, they usually just end up being too complicated and annoying, both to play and remember. At 36, I have neither the time nor the patience of a teenager rewinding cassette tapes for a ZX Spectrum.

  • Attila said,

    I always get excited to try new mechanics. Stories and setting however…come on, there’s hardly such a thing as a new or original story. Once you’ve read enough, you pretty much realize that all stories HAVE to follow certain patterns. If I had to make the conscious decision, I’d have to go with new mechanics.

  • Nachtfischer said,

    @Xenovore: “Ditto for FPS games, RPGs, etc. We play those games because they are what they are; you can’t screw with the genre standards that are in place.”

    Now, that’s a problem. “Genres” in today’s videogames are essentially completely designed games. That especially goes for FPS, Puzzle Platformer etc. So, what a “designer” usually does is add some little gimmick, he “shakes up the popcorn bag” and bam… a “new” game we get.

    True game design is coming up with ORIGINAL mechanics. Look at designer board games… we get quite a few games with mechanics totally out of nowhere every year. In videogames? We’re lucky to get one or two.

  • Keith Burgun said,

    A, absolutely, because assuming that its gameplay is difficult, your brain is too pre-occupied trying to come up with good solutions to pay attention to theme and setting anyway.

  • Dasick said,

    @Xenovore

    Valve must be real monsters for making TF2. And the dudes who made counter-strike, a completely original approach to shooters? Monsters.

    A for me all the way. While it’s true that a good game is a good game if it’s new or 1000 years old, we don’t really have much when it comes to good gameplay.

  • Dasick said,

    And I can turn the argument around. Shakespeare’s plays have remained mostly the same for centuries, and people still watch and enjoy them. A good story is no less of a good story when seen several times. A good setting is no less a good setting the second or the hundredth time if it still has themes that have not been explored.

  • Tomasp3n said,

    B, without a doubt. I would go so far as to say I DON’T want new mechanics. Improved maybe, where systems get more fleshed out. But if you gave me a game with say Fallouts mechanics (1&2), in the same setting or a different one
    but with a new story and new places to explore, I would be satisfied for as long as it took to complete the game. And then I’d want a sequel.

    Many of my favourite games use pretty much the same mechanics but are still different games. The Wizardry series, MM, Homm, the infinity games, the first three Fallouts (1, 2, and tactics). Love ‘em all! Give me any one of those with maybe a bit improved graphics, and some interesting plots and/ot twists, and no voice overs. Bloody brilliant.

  • poopypoo said,

    It’s definitely a trick question but I’d say A. As a lot of others have said, video game plots are overrated. Howeverx that doesn’t mean that the skillful TELLING of a story can’t save a video game. A classic example is the recent bioware games. These are not outstanding games, the stories were eventually butchered, but the telling of the stories is so fresh and occaaionally witty that in some cases they succeed despite other flaws. Of course they’re also just about the only games on the market fully voiced by professional improv actors.

    Back to mechanics, classic mechanics exist for a good reason; many of these games are fun, and I don’t think a simple reskin of XCOM is necessarily a disappointment. New mechanics are not always necessary. But successful implementation is more tricky than that would suggest – the great shooters are not the same games if you make it never worth switching guns because you include too much uber-ammunition. The great RPGs are not the same if you ruin the XP balance or include a half dozen useless skills. So these are mechanics which are potentially quite difficult to duplicate, especially when you’re adding new twists, or when a different world or story design demands different supply methods. I generally think a story-game designer (for the record I think storygames should be considered a separate concept from more abstract, simple level-progression games) should be thinking first, what is the best way to tell the story, and conceptualize the game mechanics based upon the needs of the atmosphere – and then focus on doing whatever is necessary to keep the game fun (in spite of, for example, an oppressive atmosphere or a confusing, manipulative storyline).

  • Albert1 said,

    Innovation is overrated – I want some fresh Quake 1 clone: no story (maybe a briefing in the manual), completely disconnected levels, a grotesque blend of fantasy, scifi and mayan architectures. Yeah!

  • Xenovore said,

    @NachtFischer:

    True game design is coming up with ORIGINAL mechanics.

    Ok, I can probably agree with that. But my point is, if I want to play a FPS game right now, that’s exactly what I want, not something with “original mechanics” mucking up the FPS game-play.

    @Dasick: Not entirely sure what your point is. For one thing, neither of your examples was particularly original. E.g. TF2′s game mechanics were complete when it was a mod for Half-Life; even then most of the mechanics were borrowed from earlier team-play mods for Quake. Counter-strike: The only thing that really sticks out as original there was the capability to purchase upgrades; but still just a minor gimmick, in my opinion. Otherwise, the game is still a straight-up FPS (and a rather mediocre one at that).

    @poopypoo: Well said.

    @Albert1: Totally with you there. I was playing some Quake 1 the other night (with the Dark Places engine) and having a blast. When the game mechanics are already perfect, we don’t need “innovation”.

  • Albert1 said,

    @Xenovore: was it straight Quake 1, Scourge of Armagon, or Dissolution of Eternity? My favourite is Dissolution of Eternity!
    BTW, lately I replayed Return to Castle Wolfenstein: well, while not so light on story – I hate story in FPSs – it’s an overwork, compared to modern, boring AAA FPSs.

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