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GDC 2012: How designers can increase innovation in their games

Daniel Cook, chief creative officer at Spry Fox (creator of Triple Town), urged game designers to become inventors rather than re-purposers at a talk delivered at GDC today.
Game designers have a choice: Spend your professional life trying to make something interesting and new, or spend it creating "shady, derivative crap." This was the pointed message from Daniel Cook, Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox (Triple Town), in a talk delivered at GDC this afternoon. "There's a lot more to life than than cloning the work of others and merely adding your own 10 percent innovation," he said. "I want designers to stand up and say: 'I am an inventor!' That way we have a chance to not only make a mark upon the world, but even change it." Cook estimated that 80 percent of game developers work in studios which seek to copy the successes of other innovators. "But I believe the genres that exists today are the tip of an iceberg that is going to radically revolutionize this industry over the next few decades," he said. "It is an exciting, exciting time. There is so much invention left to be done." Cook was eager to emphasize the business benefits of invention over re-purposers. "Innovation pays off as it allows you to be first, fastest and to dominate. You have to invent and execute, of course. If you fail to execute then it leaves the door open for someone to come in an take your innovation and establish their game around it as market leader. But there is a magic spot where innovation tied with execution pays off in this industry." Cook described three phases of the journey towards becoming an inventor. "Game designers usually start off in the 'Apprentice' role, repeating complete patterns. This is valid as a student pursuit. But if you follow this into professional idea, then you become a hack. The second phase is 'Journeyman' where you’re taking ideas that already exits but mixing them in different ways. Journeymen designers are excellent at execution and usually introducing a few new ideas into the process." "Finally, the 'Master Inventor' is the final evolution, someone who takes ideas from many disparate places, melding them together into something wholly new and innovative. Cook outlined a number of tools to aid developers in the quest for invention. "Designing from the root is an excellent way to promote invention," he said. "Often, when we begin making a new game, we look to a breakout hit and we wonder how we can improve it. Instead of doing that, go backwards. Reduce the new hit to its absolute new fundamentals. Pick one thing that is amazing about it that you love and have that at the core of what you want to do." "As you retreat to the root that, begin listing anti-patterns," he continued. "Find a list of things that you are not allowed to do. Existing genres offer easy solutions to existing problems. It's so easy to fall back into those things, but if you deliberately work against them then you increase the chances you’ll innovate in a new way." Cook had strong words to say against design documents and milestone deliveries. "I hate design documents," he said. "Anyone writing design documents right now: You are wasting your life. Written designs are theories and they become locked in too early. Instead try to use design logs — more like a diary of the design. They look ahead at next few steps, but mainly chart reactions to the theories and builds." "Iterate with the willingness to change direction," he said. "Milestones are the enemy of innovation. In real invention the goals change. Be open to changing goal posts as you go. That way we have more of a chance to claim that we are inventors."

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