People kept crying. Their tears slowly dripped down their face. They talked about something called Chiralium mixed with acid rain and also about the end of the world. They carried virtual babies around in little plastic containers. The bad guys left black handprints everywhere. It was a little disconcerting, to say the least.

I was playing a video game but it seemed like the characters, the scenery, and the dialogue were all from another world. You don't shoot anything. The basic gameplay consists of delivering packages from one city to the next and avoiding ghosts. A core gameplay mechanic is that you have to maintain your balance and not trip over rocks.

I've played video games since the original Doom release for PC, and the Atari 2600 captivated me as a kid. I've never played a game like this one, which is so weird and unusual that it made me want to keep playing longer than usual these days.

Meaning: It made me want to play more video games.

The game Death Stranding is a signpost for anyone curious about how innovation works, how to capture a new or jaded audience, and how to push boundaries as a way to drive interest. At the deep internal core of innovation is a basic business principle: If you create something that is actually new and groundbreaking, you will find an audience.

I remember reading a book by Seth Godin not too long ago called This is Marketing. One of his basic tenets is that you have to find your niche. The best marketing always focuses on your differentiators and not what everyone else is doing. I'm sure Godin has also written and talked about innovation many times, but my conclusion after reading what he wrote was how "your niche" and innovation are so closely tied. Too many companies make copy-cat products and then complain about the competition. Too many companies follow the established, well-known trends and then end up fizzling out.

Maybe they need to play Death Stranding. In the game, you don't shoot or kill anything. You mostly avoid the ghosts, who are trying to kill you. And yet, if you die, you don't just start over like every other game. You repatriate. It becomes part of the game and even the core theme since "death stranding" means being left behind (e.g., stranded). 

I like how a fandom site explains the concept: "Repatriation is the ability to return to life after death. When someone dies, their soul is sent to a place known as the Seam. Someone who is known as a 'repatriate' has the ability to guide their soul in the Seam by following a 'strand' [and] ultimately bringing their body back to life if [they suceed]."

The fact that something like that--e.g., the staple of every video game ever made is to respawn--is part of the core gameplay mechanics is quite innovative and even a bit jarring. No one ever thought of making respawning part of the core game. "Repatriating" puts you in an ocean where you can swim around and then respawn. It gets a lot weirder than that, though. While Death Stranding is a single-player game, other players can build bridges and leave ropes for you. In my case, I found a rope that made it much easier to climb up a mountain. I mentioned how everyone keeps crying. I have no idea why that is. In the game, you have to relieve yourself. What? That is just so bizarre on every level.

As the story progresses, you realize the entire game is really about exploration, uniting disparate clans, and traversing an area unscathed to deliver packages. The gaming site Polygon didn't seem to love the story but praised the unique gameplay. In fact, the reviewer seemed a bit surprised by how much he liked the postal delivery duties.

Visually, it's quite astounding. My first thought when the game started was that it looked like I was dropped into a movie (for real this time) and I kept thinking that every time I climbed a mountain or waded through a river. In one scene, when I was being pulled into the ground by the ghosts (called BTs which stands for Beached Things), I yelled out. I never do that. It was one of many weird, unusual, yet deeply captivating and transformative moments. I recommend the game if only to see what true innovation looks like.

I believe gaming is changing, and I'm curious to see where this all ends up. The industry is in trouble. People tend to buy a few games and stick with them, and the major releases are expensive to make. Sales are down, and virtual reality gaming didn't really catch on with customers. The phrase "innovate or die" is particularly apt for the video game industry.

It's apt for anyone starting a business as well.

Innovation has to be a core component. If you're not offering something new, you won't have anything new to say. If you are marketing a product using the same methods and channels as everyone else, you'll get left behind. First, create an innovative product, then figure out an innovative way to market it. Maybe that won't mean game characters will carry around virtual babies in plastic containers, but it might mean your iPhone app does something brand new or your business consulting business offers a unique twist.

I have a challenge for you if you are struggling with this topic. I'm a big fan of mindfulness retreats and the idea of getting away to read and think. Take some time, and evaluate your business and your products. Think about whether they are unique. Are you doing anything unusual and innovative? Do the products sell themselves because they are a little weird?

Feel free to message me if you need help or want to talk through some ideas. I'd love to be that person who tells you a product or service is not innovative enough.

Published on: Nov 20, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.