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Innovation in Gaming


By Dave Breen

What’s next in gaming innovation?

I’m a big fan of mobile technology like smartphones and tablets.  I frequently watch heated debates about innovation versus copying on tech blog sites like Engadget and Gizmodo.  These discussions got me wondering about innovation in gaming.  My main focus was on ” What were the major innovations in the past, and what might we expect in the future?”

My first stop was at Wikipedia to find a definition of innovation.  I found that innovation is “the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulate needs, or existing market needs.”

Given this broad definition, I believe it would be fair to say that innovation can range from minor refinements of an existing idea to ground-breaking revolutionary ideas.  It’s also important to consider another factor, the adoption rate for the new idea.  Critical mass is the word commonly used to describe the point at which an innovation achieves a rate of adoption that is self-sustaining and will continue to grow.

In tabletop gaming, there have been a few major innovations in the past 50 years that were so impactful that they changed the hobby.

Revolutionary Innovations:

2013 10 11 GK_innovation_post 2361Dungeon’s & Dragons® – The invention of the Role-Playing Game would be considered a revolutionary innovation.  Gary Gygax’s inspiration inventing D&D was his fondness for the Medieval period coupled with this interest in wargaming and miniatures.  It spawned an entire new game genre and likely was the event that led to the development of  computer based RPGs, and MMOs.

Magic: the Gathering® – The invention of the Collectable Card Game (CCG) was another example of a major innovation in gaming. Richard Garfield pointed to Cosmic Encounter as one of the primary sources of inspiration that led to the creation of MTG.

Evolutionary Innovations:

Not every innovation is ground-breaking.  Here are some examples of ideas that more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Cooperative games– likely have their roots in the Role Playing Games where players had to work2013 10 11 GK_innovation_post 2360together a team.  Pandemic is often cited as the game that has spread the virus (yes I went there) for the cooperative game genre.

Deck-building games – emerged as a refinement of Collectable Card Games – the grand-daddy of the deck building genre, Dominion, is credited for launching this innovative design.

Worker Placement – a novel game mechanic that became widely adopted.  Caylus is frequently cited as the first game to incorporate the worker placement mechanic.


I believe that there are some innovations that are getting close to mass adoption, but just need the right game to attract the attention needed for critical mass.

Physical\Digital Hybrid games – a game that uses both physical components and digital hardware and  software.  A good use case would be to have individual player boards using tablets while the main board is physical.  Many attempts have been made, but none seem to have found the right blend of traits to launch this genre to mass adoption.

The Lenovo Table PC is a prime example of the efforts to bridge the gap between physical and digital game play.

Another example is the accessories such Dice Plus that Tom Vasel recently covered is a great example of the move towards physical\digital hybrid games.

Campaign and legacy games – games that change and adjust over time like Risk Legacy and Pathfinder Adventure Card Game are gaining in popularity.     These games combine the short play time of a board game, with the thrill of an epic campaign.   Some of these games already exist, examples are Descent and Mice & Mystics have incorporated a campaign driven design.

Physical gaming using mobile devices – These are games where the players are actually part of the game.  Some use player movement  and performing actions that form the game.   The initial innovation was created by handheld GPS, and led to geo-caching. Google is working on a game called Ingress that is a good example of this genre.  Another example of this type of game is Shadow Cities.

Of course the strange thing about innovation is how hard it is to predict.

Hopefully, the next big thing is right around the corner.   Please feel free to leave your predictions on the next big thing in innovation in the comments section.

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