Lego, Minecraft, and the Failure of Capitalism

I’ve said in the past that capitalism only iterates, it does not innovate. My usual go-to example for this is the iOS app store, where a tiny handful of innovators sit stifled undiscovered by a teeming mass of copycat clones of much, much more prominently distributed successes. Now, the myth that pure capitalism innovates is one of the foundational principles of the goods of a capitalist society – the idea that because there is financial incentive to innovate (better goods in a new market) there is reason to try things that are innovative. That is to say, the belief is that innovation yields enormous value.

This is bollocks.

Innovation yields unknown values. There will be innovations that do not do well and innovations that do well and you will have no idea which is or is not successful, especially in our marketplace that has the discoverability problems it does. Flappy Bird, that success story, is a game that seemingly almost everyone in the indie development scene made, and then moved on to other things. Innovation is this big risky thing, but you can definitely do things that may make some money, safely.

Consider, if you will, that the single greatest lego game that exists, the most profitable lego game that exists, was not made by Lego.

Lego is a company whose brand exists to make people buy Lego. Lego is a building, creative toy. Lego, we all love Lego, unless, you know, you’ve stepped on some of them. And the single greatest game that has been ever compared to Lego is none other than Minecraft. Minecraft came out in 2009 in earliest release, and two years later it was fully released, to enormous commercial success.

Why didn’t Lego make a game like Minecraft beforehand?

Lego has been making videogames since 1998. That was an eleven year and not insubstantial quantity of money head start. And those games they’d been making were tie-in games for their existing franchises; Bionicle and Batman and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Harry Potter and so on style games. Now, I like the Lego tie-in games well enough, but in those games, lego is just a #brand, an aesthetic to put over the skeleton of a PS2-Style Punch-a-guy, get-a-thingy style game. Those games are good games, but they’re not good because they’re lego games. They’re good games because they’re well-developed, have a lot of polish, and other than that, there’s nothing to them to make them Lego-like.

Instead of innovating and trying ways to make games that were about constructing things, about playing with lego, the incentivised system the lego corporation responded to was the one which had a steady return.

Part of this is that our best ideas, our wildest research, most of hte things that underpin our reality, are the results of Not Knowing What This Thing Will Do. Modern vaccines, artificial sweeteners, antibiotics, post-it-notes, the electron, liquified oxygen, the electric motor and dynamo all came about not because some corporate entity was told they needed to fill an innovation budget, but because someone was given the time and freedom to explore and understand and eventally came up with a doohickey. This holds for marketing – and it’s why we should be fostering failoures and giving people financial support to try stuff. Even if it doesn’t go well. Even if they’re going to fail, because they’re going to fail.

The idol of financial success is a sign of dreadful misunderstanding of what yields quality.

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