Tobold over at his namesake blog writes describes the lamentation of developers and innovation in the modern gaming industry (obvious this is mostly pointed at video games, but the basic concepts are very similar; here’s the link). What he’s right about is that gamers are consumers of the industry and that the industry will inherently develop for what gamers are willing to consume (simple market complexity). Innovation is many things, including a problem for the company and consumers, a stumbling block for companies and designers, but it’s also important.
Innovation offers something important to the companies and to gamers: certainty. This in itself is both a means and an end. The fact that systems can be easily iterated, tweaked, altered, and then repackaged for the gamer makes the development cost of the game decrease. That’s an economic decision for the company, but too the consumer has an economic decision as well. “Do I pay $40 for this manual, $60 for this box?” While obviously not true for all gamers, the fact that the $40 manual has a major brand name they’ve enjoyed in previous iterations is sometimes more powerful than the $20 manual that does not. The use-value of the brand name in this cash has more “cache” to spend as it. This is a guarantee in and of itself: I played D&D 2nd Edition and loved it; therefore, D&D 3rd edition, developed by similar people, should be effing awesome!!!
We know that the Recommended Product (to steal a wonderful series of arguments from 1980s archeology) is not always the best product, cognitively. That does not mean that Brand X is any better than it though. For example, AD&D was the recommended product in 1994, but World of Darkness was released and offered an entirely different game play. AD&D was still better for combat, tactics, and exploration, but WoD offered psychological drama, political play, and different takes on classes. As a Brand X, it carved its niche because it innovated where innovation needed to occur, not just because they could. As a result, this allowed the rules (which were rather light) to take a back seat to the systems and the characters. World of Darkness erred where most games of this style do: it put far too much onus on the Storyteller to develop things for the world.
A stumbling block
For as much as new ideas can refresh, they can also restrict. Mostly, the more innovation done, the more playtesting that is required of the community before taking the game to market. Identification of the poor ideas is key and considering that I’ve developed aspects of Cultura that I looked on not ten minutes later with the awe of overwhelming chagrin. I’m glad I have playtesters and people to whom I can speak and not have my ass kissed. This automatically leads back into development. Innovation takes time to develop clearly, concisely, and wisely. We could, tomorrow, develop a system of ideas and thoughts that become a story we wish to include only to realize that its storyline belongs on My Little Pony.
The current paradigm of RPGs, either video game or to a lesser extend tabletop RPGs, is still to kick down the door, use combat rules that offer the majority of the nuance, and focus on homogenizing systems that are only comparable. Skills, Physical Combat Ability, and Magic are all similar. Yes, but magic is far more esoteric and freeform than Physical Combat Ability which is far more tactical in application and more concrete which is still then different than Skills that allow your character to functional in vastly different ways than just obliterating through a scene. The rules to use those in game should be straight forward and not hidden in a manual somewhere, but HOW the character applies them should be inherently informed by the player. It’s part of the reason why physical combat got so damned boring in D&D: “I run up and hack you THREE TIMES NOW!” That was sweet when you first got it, but after so long of playing. This is why, at least in my opinion, magic users in D&D were so much fun.
Plainly put, RPGs are a genre that can use a nice bit of innovation to give it a booster shot in the arm. And, the best part is that it’s occurring! There are so many homebrewed games or variations offered on the ‘net that people have choices and access to content like never before. That’s a great step forward as well. I still to this day remember the old TSR homepage on AOL and visiting it for information on the game I loved so much. My DM used it to grab adventures that other players had written, discuss the game, and generally nerd out. Wonderful experience! We need to continue it and refine it, especially as the world continues to become more and more digital.
Further, developers and players need to consider what the character’s abilities do as a toolbox rather than a suite or package of intrinsic abilities, whether learned, achieved, or granted. It’s why D&D 4 is as staid as World of Warcraft: you need only learn which abilities are best to use and then repeat until no longer necessary. No matter whether that’s a tabletop or video game, it’s a disconcerting factor to realize that your abilities play your character more than the player plays the character. That’s engagement with the game, not with facets of it.
More things should be created from the heart of the designer: “I would want to play this, after having learned its rules.” Often times, games are maintained to the bottom line. Innovation only matters as the company and the Brand X grows. Once they’re on top, it’s about maintaining. And, like when Hadrian built his wall on the border of Scotland, it comes with the realization that the product has reached its point of stagnation. In that vein, a game must be developed to continually look forward and grow, rather than sequel after bloody sequel of marginally improved mechanic.