What is creativity? Raph Koster demystifies innovation and imagination

At GDC Next today, veteran game designer Raph Koster aimed to demystify creativity in game design, and give practical tips on how to be creative.
At GDC Next today, veteran game designer Raph Koster aimed to demystify creativity in game design, and give practical tips on how to be creative. "There's a lot of different ways to think about creativity," said Koster. So what is creativity? It's not a muse that comes and wails in your ear. Creativity is a skill that one can practice and hone. "It's actually a straightforward process that you can [make happen]." Before working towards honing creativity, you need to lay the groundwork for creativity. For game designers, you need to study games, and break their notions of what games actually are.

"Almost every video game we create is a variant"

The crux of Koster's advice on creativity was understanding past game designs, extracting them from past games, and putting them in a new context. "Almost every video game we create is a variant," said Koster, and true innovation is actually very rare. Innovation tends to happen in low-financial-risk areas like casual puzzle games; when risk rises, you see less innovation in game mechanics. Koster suggested that designers look for systems -- study games' systems, look beyond narratives in order to understand the game mechanics that lurk under the hood. Break games down. Typically, creativity and innovation happens when you take a very simple idea out of its "comfy context" and move it into a new context. For example, the simple card format can be used (and is used) in so many ways, whether talking about Uno, Texas hold-'em, or even making a house of cards. These are all examples of taking an existing concept or system, taking it out of its context, and mixing things up to create something new. "The tools of game systems are mathematical relationships," said Koster. "Find ways to work with these." He also suggested working in "analog" for digital game concepts "forces context switching." (Koster is apparently known for buying out chunks of the crafts section at Michael's, and working on game designs using his purchases.)

"The most interesting gameplay comes when the player's goals are somehow contradictory"

He reminded game developers that working within constraints leads to improved creativity. "Giving yourself a limited box to work in is a time-honored classic creative tool," he said. For example, think of Tetris without Tetrominoes; try to force a hex grid onto a game that lacks any; create a non-violent tactical RPG. Mash two ideas together that seem impossible to pair together: "The most interesting gameplay comes when the player's goals are somehow contradictory," he said. When thinking of genres, add a verb or goal, is another interesting piece of advice. For example, take a simple sidescrolling shooter and add "rescuing." That leads you to the classic Defender. Take a platformer, add "fast" -- you get speedruns. Another example of invoking practical creativity in games is changing input mapping. Think of controls as a game that is independent of the game itself. "Games are made out of games. It's better to think about how I can take a chunk of game out of this game and make another game...Take Defender, put it on a Wiimote -- whole new game!" Designers can also look at existing games and change their topologies: FarmVille in 3D (hanging plants?!); Dance Dance Revolution in a MUD room. "Could you mash up blackjack and Robotron? I have no idea! But try."

"Our only failure here is complete lack of imagination"

On dealing more with thematic creativity (the first part of Koster's talk focused more on systems and mechanics), he noted how the vast majority of games are about the player character becoming more powerful -- a theme that isn't particularly interesting. Even for action movies that have a supposed "bad-ass" in them often aren't about a person becoming progressively more powerful. In Die Hard, for example, it's about a man trying to reconnect with his estranged wife (in the context of terrorists and explosions). "Think about a peak emotional experience in your life," he told the audience. "Learning to ride a bike," one person answered. Another said "adopting a child." These can be themes for games, and not only are they interesting, but "trivially easy" to come up with, said Koster. "Our only failure here is complete lack of imagination," Koster said. He said the best games will "meet in the middle," where the theme and the systems come together, seamlessly. He said often triple-A games typically start off at the "top" with big focus on theme; casual game design often starts off at the bottom, focusing on systems. Ideally, systems and themes meet in the middle. "Creativity, since it is a skill, also needs to be a habit," he said. Be creative, and hold yourself to a routine. "We're in a creative field. Make it a habit, make it a skill. It's not rocket science: it's just hard." You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

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