David Wong’s article on the coming video game crash seems to have inspired Steven Den Beste, who agrees with Wong that there will be a gaming crash and also thinks that the same problems affect other forms of entertainment. The crux of the problem appears to be novelty. Part of the problem appears to be evolutionary as well. As humans, we are conditioned for certain things, and it seems that two of our insticts are conflicting.

The first instinct is the human tendency to rely on induction. Correlation does not imply causation, but most of the time, we act like it does. We develop a complex set of heuristics and guidelines that we have extrapolated from past experiences. We do so because circumstances require us to make all sorts of decisions without posessing the knowledge or understanding necessary to provide a correct answer. Induction allows us to to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously explored and exploited this trait in his experiments. Den Beste notes this in his post:

What you do is to reward the animal (usually by giving it a small amount of food) for progressively behaving in ways which is closer to what you want. The reason Skinner studied it was because he (correctly) thought he was empirically studying the way that higher thought in animals worked. Basically, they’re wired to believe that “correlation often implies causation”. Which is true, by the way. So when an animal does something and gets a reward it likes (e.g. food) it will try it again, and maybe try it a little bit differently just to see if that might increase the chance or quantity of the reward.

So we’re hard wired to create these heuristics. This has many implications, from Cargo Cults to Superstition and Security Beliefs.

The second instinct is the human drive to seek novelty, also noted by Den Beste:

The problem is that humans are wired to seek novelty. I think it’s a result of our dietary needs. Lions can eat zebra meat exclusively their entire lives without trouble; zebras can eat grass exclusively their entire lives. They don’t need novelty, but we do. Primates require a quite varied diet in order to stay healthy, and if we eat the same thing meal after meal we’ll get sick. Individuals who became restless and bored with such a diet, and who sought out other things to eat, were more likely to survive. And when you found something new, you were probably deficient in something that it provided nutritionally, so it made sense to like it for a while — until boredom set in, and you again sought out something new.

The drive for diversity affects more than just our diet. Genetic diversity has been shown to impart broader immunity to disease. Children from diverse parentage tend to develop a blend of each parent’s defenses (this has other implications, particularly for the tendency for human beings to work together in groups). The biological benefits of diversity are not limited to humans either. Hybrid strains of many crops have been developed over the years because by selectively mixing the best crops to replant the next year, farmers were promoting the best qualities in the species. The simple act of crossing different strains resulted in higher yields and stronger plants.

The problem here is that evolution has made the biological need for diversity and novelty dependent on our inductive reasoning instincts. As such, what we find is that those we rely upon for new entertainment, like Hollywood or the video game industry, are constantly trying to find a simple formula for a big hit.

It’s hard to come up with something completely new. It’s scary to even make the attempt. If you get it wrong you can flush amazingly large amounts of money down the drain. It’s a long-shot gamble. Every once in a while something new comes along, when someone takes that risk, and the audience gets interested…

Indeed, the majority of big films made today appear to be remakes, sequels or adaptations. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that something new and exciting often fails at the box office. Such films usually gain a following on video or television though. Sometimes this is difficult to believe. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption is a very popular film. In fact, it occupies the #2 spot (just behind The Godfather) on IMDB’s top rated films. And yet, the film only made $28 million dollars (ranked 52 in 1994) in theaters. To be sure, that’s not a modest chunk of change, but given the universal love for this film, you’d expect that number to be much higher. I think part of the reason this movie failed at the box office was that marketers are just as susceptible to these novelty problems as everyone else. I mean, how do you market a period prison drama that has an awkward title an no big stars? It doesn’t sound like a movie that would be popular, even though everyone seems to love it.

Which brings up another point. Not only is it difficult to create novelty, it can also be difficult to find novelty. This is the crux of the problem: we require novelty, but we’re programmed to seek out new things via correllation. There is no place to go for perfect recommendations and novelty for the sake of novelty isn’t necessarily enjoyable. I can seek out some bizarre musical style and listen to it, but the simple fact that it is novel does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable. I can’t rely upon how a film is marketed because that is often misleading or, at least, not really representative of the movie (or whatever). Once we do find something we like, our instinct is often to exhaust that author or director or artist’s catalog. Usually, by the end of that process, the artist’s work begins to seem a little stale, for obvious reasons.

Seeking out something that is both novel and enjoyable is more difficult than it sounds. It can even be a little scary. Many times, things we think will be new actually turn out to be retreads. Other times, something may actually be novel, but unenjoyable. This leads to another phenomenon that Den Beste mentions: the “Unwatched pile.” Den Beste is talking about Anime, and at this point, he’s begun to accumulate a bunch of anime DVDs which he’s bought but never watched. I’ve had similar things happen with books and movies. In fact, I have several books on my shelf, just waiting to be read, but for some of them, I’m not sure I’m willing to put in the time and effort to read them. Why? Because, for whatever reason, I’ve begun to experience some set of diminishing returns when it comes to certain types of books. These are similar to other books I’ve read, and thus I probably won’t enjoy these as much (even if they are good books).

The problem is that we know something novel is out there, it’s just a matter of finding it. At this point, I’ve gotten sick of most of the mass consumption entertainment, and have moved on to more niche forms of entertainment. This is really a signal versus noise, traversal of the long tail problem. An analysis problem. What’s more, with globalization and the internet, the world is getting smaller… access to new forms of entertainment are popping up (for example, here in the US, anime was around 20 years ago, but it was nowhere near as common as it is today). This is essentially a subset of a larger information aggregation and analysis problem that we’re facing. We’re adrift in a sea of information, and must find better ways to navigate.

6 thoughts on “Novelty”

  1. I have to say, I think that this seems to be pretty true within the gaming world (to tie it all back). Gaming- like movies, books, music, etc- has certain fairly defined genres. You’ll see/hear it all the time- “I’m a shooter fan” “I like platformers” etc.

    People play a game that they like, and they want to play a game that’s just like it… only… different. It’s a fine line that developers walk. If they come up with something that’s a hit, they have to capitalize on it before the market drops out from under it. Rockstar made GTA. It turned out to be a major hit. So, they had to make a sequel (well, they didn’t have to… but if they didn’t, someone else would have anyway). The problem, of course, is that they can’t *just* make a sequel. You have to up the ante every time you try to ride a success. You have to bring something new and novel to the table in order to keep people interested. Gamers will only play the same game so many times.

    The second GTA game introduced period music, bigger maps, the ability to change clothes, and pilot helicopters.

    The third one tried to up the ante more by making the game one giant map instead of broken up smaller maps, adding the ability to customize cars with paint jobs and new parts, and even more vehicles and mission types, as well as a very customizable character.

    A video game crash is almost inevitable, as long as the industry keeps doing what it has always done- flood the market with clones of popular games, and constantly pushing the pricepoint higher and higher in the (mistaken) belief that gamers care about how a game looks above all else. One thing that makes me think that another crash might be avoided is that Nintendo is pushing change again. The Wii is a big departure from the way things have been done in the past. It’s not even out yet, and already Sony is trying to ape some of the ideas. Nintendo is taking a chance and trying to bring something unique to the table again. They revitalized the hand-held market with the DS… it’ll be interesting to see if they can do it again with the Wii.

  2. I think Sony and to a lesser extent, Microsoft, are in trouble here. Nintendo is the only one introducing something truly novel with their system… and they’re also going to be the ones with the cheapest system. If they’re system goes for around $200, they’re probably going to sell like hotcakes, especially since PS3 and Xbox are going to be so expensive. Xbox probably will have the ability to drop its price a bit to compete because it’s been out for a while (and plus, their HD-DVD attachment is going to be optional, which will keep prices down for the uninterested). Sony will be the odd man out, I think. The PS3 sounds like it will be a disaster.

    I was thinking the other day that the next-gen video game consoles are a great illustration of the free market. Each system has it’s strengths and weaknesses, and they’re all betting on different things and I don’t think they can all win (i.e. I think at most two can be successful… at least one is going to crash and burn). Sony is betting on better graphics (they supposedly have the best hardware) and the media-center concept. XBox is simply upping the ante a bit from the last generaton, though they’ll also have the media-center concept (once the HD-DVD attachment is in plce). And Nintendo is betting on an innovative interface (and possibly gameplay) and lower price. Again, I think Sony will be the odd man out. They’re late to market with an overly expensive system that doesn’t seem to have anything innovative going for it. XBox was at least first to market and has already gained a customer base.

    Depending on the games, I think Nintendo will come out to be the big winner, while Sony will have to regroup and come back with something new. Xbox will tread water and perhaps convert some PS2 folks.

    The only thing that’s annoying about the Nintendo is the rumored always-on-even-when-you-turn-it-off concept, which just seems sinister (even if it’s not).

  3. re: The only thing that’s annoying about the Nintendo is the rumored always-on-even-when-you-turn-it-off concept, which just seems sinister (even if it’s not).

    Woah. I hadn’t heard about that. I’m going to have to read up about what they’re thinking with that. That *does* sound like a bad idea.

    I think you’re right, though, about what they’re each banking on, and I think you’re right about who stands to gain and lose. I think Sony is still targeting the hard-core gamer, and I’m just not sure that’s the right tactic to take. I think that Sony is working under the assumption that their audience has grown with the system, and that many of them/us are in positions now where we can afford to drop that kind of cash on a system. The question shouldn’t, however, be whether we can drop that kind of cash, but, rather, are we willing to drop that kind of cash.

    I love my PS2, but I’m just not convinced that it’s going to be worth the investment to pick up a PS3. It’s simply too expensive.

  4. Interestingly, I received my gaming magazine in the mail yesterday after work. One of the articles was actually talking about this very topic to some degree, and about how Nintendo seems to be poised to take advantage by pushing novelty over pure power, while PS3 seems poised to lose the most by taking the opposite route.

  5. Yeah, but at the same time, you never really know… what if Nintendo’s innovative new system is annoying to use… they might sell a bunch of consoles, but then not that many games. The general wisdom in the console arena is that you take a loss on the console so you can make money on the games. If that happens to Nintendo, they’re screwed. But then, I don’t think that’ll happen. It looks like the innovation of their system works in a few ways, some of which aren’t as obvious at first glance.

    For instance, it seems that most game developers are now more interested in working with the Nintendo system because… it’s innovative. It’s novel, and so it’s interesting to programmers, who want to tackle something new and exciting. This should be interesting…

  6. Oh, definitely. That’s the curse of any entertainment industry, I think, even if it’s a more obvious problem for gaming. We (consumers) want innovation, but you’re taking a risk when you go for it. It could pay of in spades like the DS did, or it could bomb like the Virtual Boy (Nintendo), the Visual Memory Unit (Sega), or any number of other attempts to try something new/different. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the DS was really just Nintendo’s way of testing the waters- the touchscreen idea is sort of the first step towards the Wii’s want, anyway.

    It seems like Nintendo is being pretty smart about this, though. In addition to the wand and the wand’s various attachments and cradles, it’s going to be possible to use the Gamecube controller, and it’s going to have a “classic” controller as well, for use on games that don’t make use of the wand functions.

    I think that this is a very exciting time for the gaming industry- there’s the threat of another crash (which I think is actually unlikely right now), but this is the first time we’ve had three systems that are going in such divergant paths to try to appeal to customers.

    You know, I’ll have to talk to my buddy, Tim. He’s actually working in games right now. I’ll see if he’ll share some of their reactions to the Wii and the wand- I’m sure that he or some of the other programers and designers must have some feelings about it. =)

Comments are closed.