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Ahead of the Curve: Innovation in Gaming

In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment. - “Civilization Past and Present” by T. Walter Wallbank, Alastair M. Taylor and Nels M. Bailkey.

Darwin never said “survival of the fittest.” Certainly the best known quote by the man - but it was never actually written in his book - in fact, it was a misattribution to Darwin after a history textbook on his work was re-quoted. However the turn of phrase came about, in some ways it very accurately describes our natural world. Adapting to the environment around you is how you thrive, even when change makes it less comfortable for you.

Business is the same - adapt or die - and how successful you are in your market can depend on how fast you do it. First published in 1962, Everett Rogers postulated in his book Diffusion of Innovations that the adoption of new innovations can be graphed on a bellcurve. Now in its fifth edition, the concepts presented in this book still hold true today, more than half a century later.


The first people to commit to change or to a new product are the innovators. They don’t wait to see ‘one of your customers that does exactly what I do.’ They take the risks. These companies usually have high risk tolerance, a clear understanding of the technology behind the innovation and its benefits, high social status, and cash in the bank. Early adopters have some of these same characteristics but a lower risk tolerance - and thus are slightly choosier than the innovators. As the categories go on, they represent lower and lower risk tolerances, lower social statuses and less liquidity. They also represent lost time, market share, and profit from the innovation and an impact on the brand.

It’s probably safe to want to be in that first half of the curve. Get left behind and your profits, your brand and your business get left behind too. This is applicable for almost any industry, but what I want to talk about today is just one example of when the rush to innovate happens in the video game industry.

I’m sure you all recall the Wii. Though it was released in late 2006 as the last of the three big consoles (almost a year behind the Xbox 360), it came out the winner of the seventh generation.

Let me reiterate: with a lag time of almost a year, it still won the race.

I still remember the frenzy of people trying to purchase a Wii for the holiday season, only to find it sold out everywhere -- for months! You couldn’t get one no matter how you tried, which only drove demand higher (and, alas, left many thousands of kids and adults alike disappointed come Christmas morning). While Xbox and Playstation competed with more and more powerful machines, more exclusive games, and multiplayer via Xbox Live/PSN, the Wii came crashing out of the gate with something much more powerful: innovative, brand-new styles of gameplay.

There had been accessories for games before (Duck Hunt with an NES Zapper, anyone?), but nothing as flexible and accessible as the Wii. It targeted families and casual gamers, and pushed the idea of being an activity that anyone can do. By appealing to a wider audience than just the hardcore players that both the Xbox and the Playstation were fighting over, the Wii managed to snatch up a large portion of the market share. And that translated into profits.

And what followed afterwards? The later adopters.

This means the Playstation Move, of course, in September 2010, and the Xbox Kinect in November of that same year. If you’re doing the math, this is four years after the Wii hit the market, and Microsoft and Sony were just coming out with their replies to the Wii’s innovative challenge.

By that point, the Playstation Move felt like more of the same - two handheld controllers which, combined with a camera, would allow the gamer to play through movement.

The Kinect was itself innovative. You played with just your body, nothing handheld necessary. It was exciting to play without even a moveable controller, but by this time the generation of consoles was starting to draw to a close - the eighth generation would begin in November 2012, so the Kinect only ended up being around for a third of the years that generation seven were the the newest machines on the market.

Most people had made their choice on console, and the types of hardcore gamers that might buy a second console simply to use the Move or the Kinect likely already had them for the exclusive games. So while it represented a surge in additional hardware being sold for their console, it was too little too late to catch the innovator on this curve.

The Wii came out the winner. It was by far the weakest console, technically. In almost every area of performance, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 were vastly superior. sold the most, and that’s what really counts. The Wii sold more than 100 million units. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 were hovering in the 80s, at last report.

The message is clear. People want innovation. They want something unique.

The race right now seems to be for VR. In terms of hardware, this makes sense. It’s a new experience, and opens up new possibilities for games and other activities (movie watching, tours of places you never thought you’d get to see, among many others). But I would argue there’s space for more than one sort of innovation.

While the hardware continues to improve, while the graphics and music get better and better, I still feel there’s one area that’s been left to the wayside that comes from the games themselves - the AI. Imagine a world where the game changes and adapts to the player, where it can make intelligent, unique decisions. Where it remembers things you’ve done and provides you with real consequences to your actions that make sense. Imagine allies that work with you as a team, or enemies that put up a real challenge.

Combine that with VR and I’d say you’re talking perfection. I’d say that sounds like being transported to another world, and getting to do things that feel real. Imagine player immersion like never before.

Now that sounds like the sort of innovation that’ll win a video game war.

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