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When it comes to game design, innovation isn't job no. 1

Tadhg Kelly argued at GDC Next today that successful game design isn’t necessarily about reinventing the wheel, but embracing past successful game designs, extending them, and cross-pollinating with other designs.
As part of a wide-ranging talk, columnist, game designer, and consultant Tadhg Kelly argued at GDC Next today that successful game design isn’t necessarily about reinventing the wheel, but rather embracing past successful game designs, extending them, and cross-pollinating with other designs. “We [game designers] like to think in the ideal and the abstract, but when the time comes to say that maybe this means game design could be expressed as templates we could use, we run for the hills,” Kelly said. He said games are actually “long past their infancy”; that successful games of the past, whether you’re talking about Tetris, Call of Duty, or Super Mario Bros., for example, have already laid the path for modern game design. “We don’t like to hear that – just like the novel, the movie, the automobile or the standing structure – there are describable ground rules for what works and doesn’t in producing successful game entertainment,” Kelly said. “Most especially, we don’t like to hear that games are long past their infancy and actually coming through their tantrum teenage years … That we, in fact, missed out — that we don’t live in the founderwork era of games,” when big innovations in games were much more frequent. Kelly said true innovation does still happen in games, just at a much slower rate than in the past. “Some of my friends tend to think that in expressing this opinion that I’m arguing solely for faster horses in a new age of motor cars,” he said. “That’s not it at all. I’m not saying there’s no room for innovation or creation in games. What I’m saying is that ‘founderworks’ discovered shapes that were successful, and often the way that modern games succeed is by finding their way back to those shapes.” Kelly said interfaces and technology continue to march forward, but design “shapes” -- or templates -- established by earlier successful game design come back again and again. That happens because they work, he argued. “We see new franchises and characters, but from a play-function perspective games maintain a remarkable consistency to prior works. We see a lot more extension rather than invention, a lot of cross-pollination rather than beginning from first principles. Like Shakespeare’s formula for sonnets, some shapes just work better than others. “If you can allow yourselves to accept that games have a history and use it rather than pretending to reinvent the wheel, you might be better able to begin projects well. The other option is to be depressed that you were born too late.” 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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