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Shedding Light in the Dark Tunnel of Game Innovation

Games are still ripe for deep design innovation, but creating unique, engaging gameplay is difficult and it can be hard to know where to even start. This post provides some questions that can help guide the creative process of designing new games.


Every match-3 game is really all the same game. Bejeweled, Candy Crush, Jelly Splash, and Frozen Free Fall...all the same game. Likewise all of the 700+ (according to Wikipedia) first person shooters. Conceptually, this is the argument put forward by Raph Koster in early 2013 in his piece “Every genre is only one game”. He makes the point that it is incredibly rare for new games, from a systems perspective, to be invented. The reasons are clear: To develop truly novel games is a significant creative challenge and creating commercially successful new gameplay even more so. Coming up with new game concepts and bringing those to life is often equated more to a mysterious art than a science.

Pixar President and Founder Ed Catmull shares in his book Creativity Inc how a member of his team, Pete Docter, compared the creative process to “running through a long tunnel having no idea how long it will last but trusting that he will eventually come out, intact at the other end.” A fitting description of the creative struggle that also exists in games. Is there any way we can shed a little light on the process of developing new games? How can we know what tunnel to run through to begin with? If we look to games that have done something new, at the system level, we can draw lessons that help us approach this difficult challenge. Following is a rubric of four questions that can provide a framework for creating new games, or at least major variants, that also have a good shot at making it through the creative process and finding an audience.

1. What subject area am I inspired by and have or can gain expertise in?

Often where we go to seek inspiration is from the games we love but if instead we look to other areas we are passionate about, we can find new worlds of untapped game mechanics. We have seen some successful games find inspiration from the arts such as from the works of MC Escher which inspired Monument Valley and the soon to be released Manifold Garden. Academia, on the other hand, is an area that has been minimally explored. Academia is full of complex systems that people are trying to formally model. Whenever you have complex systems, there is potential as game designers to figure out new and interesting gameplay. In order to innovate we have to be able to connect dots from outside of our core discipline of games.

“… in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.” - Maria Popova

2. Once you have a focus, what system is there to explore? How can the player inhabit that system? How can it be represented and interacted with?

This is also a key question in the framework I present in Bridging the Gap Between Game Design and Educational Games. There are great examples of unique games that found great success with taking these first two steps. Sim City, one of the best selling computer games of all time, is about injecting players into the system of urban planning. Will Wright developed a deep love for urban planning and extensively studied the theories surrounding the subject citing Jay Wright Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics as foundational for developing the simulation. Kerbal Space Program is a game about building and flying rockets into space. Players are playing inside the system of rocket science through a learning and discovery pattern. As a player you put the pieces of a rocket together and adjust your build based on the results from each launch. Strangeloop Games’ Eco is a survival game that takes players into a world in which they have to build a civilization without destroying the world. The game is injecting players into the system of global ecology. The alpha is out and they found a large base of awaiting fans through Steam greenlight and Kickstarter.

3. Does the system lend itself to gameplay that synthesizes what I already know people love?

We might be able to connect dots that give us unique ideas but how can we help ensure that the unique idea we pursue will be highly engaging for players? This question also helps shed a bit of light while in the darkness of the tunnel. Minecraft is one of the most commercially successful games of all time with more than 70 million copies sold. Minecraft took something people love to play with, building blocks, and combined it with the infinite possibility of a procedurally generated world. We could point to Sim City as a game people love for similar reasons. With our game Sleep Furiously we saw fridge magnet sentences as something people are drawn to play around with. If someone is standing near a fridge with word magnets, they will start making silly sentences. We combined that concept with the concept of the well-loved word game.

4. Will this game appeal to a unique audience or can it be extended to create new markets?

When you are coming from a subject based approach, the answer is almost always going to be yes. As we all know, we are in an incredibly crowded space and going after the same audience everyone else is makes it difficult for a game to break through the noise. In addition, this approach can help us find the super fans that Amy Jo Kim has written about. For us, we were able to generate our initial attention for Sleep Furiously from the linguistics community, a community underserved in gaming. The fact that our game had the angle of exploring Chomskyan linguistics and the famous “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” got us our initial press and downloads before it picked up interest from more traditional gaming press. Looking at another example, Kerbal Space Program is able to reach an extended audience of space and science enthusiasts. The game also has an edu version that is being used extensively in schools, greatly expanding its market.

It is exciting to me how much there is to still explore in game development. There is a huge amount of possibility and I hope this framework can be helpful in setting in motion the development of new gameplay. What’s more, for all of us there is probably an unusual hobby that we already have some expertise in outside of games. A game can be a world where that hobby is seen the way we see it - as something joyful, unique and worth exploring.

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