Innovation in Game Design

What makes a good game? Are you expecting me to maybe say ‘innovation’ in keeping with the title of this article? Well innovation may be one element that can contribute to the makeup of a good game but the determination of what makes a good game is very subjective. Do you like PAC-MAN? I don’t. I actually can’t stand it. I find it to be a tediously frustratingly pointless game not worthy of my time. Of course a huge number of dedicated PAC-MAN devotees would be quick to disagree with me. There’s no denying that the game was innovative and had mass appeal - just not to me. Such is the subjective nature of video games and how different games appeal to different people.

Many games that were considered innovative back in the day have long outlived that particular attribute but may still be fun to play. And while a game may not necessarily need to be innovative to be fun, it generally does need to be fun to be “good”.

However, considering the extremely subjective nature of what constitutes a “good” and/or “fun” game, let’s get back to the subject of this article - innovation.

Case Studies in Innovation

So what is innovation in game design and why is it important? Simply put, innovation means doing something differently than the way it’s been done before. In relation to game design, this may be a new implementation of a familiar feature or the introduction of an entirely new game element or genre that hasn’t been seen before.

Let’s take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean. The video game PONG was innovative in that it was the first bat and ball game to exist, whereas BREAKOUT was an innovative variation of PONG which used the ball to destroy bricks instead of just knocking it back and forth across the screen.

The first text adventure game (“Adventure” - later to be named “Collossal Cave Adventure”) was an innovative new creation. Text adventures were later to be followed by the innovation of graphical text adventure games that used a combination of both text and graphics to describe the environment for the player.

Other examples of innovation in game design include the introduction of 2 dimensional overhead views, orthogonal views and 3D first person views. But innovation in game design is not limited to just variations in graphical perspectives.

In fact, the first implementation of every genre of video game was innovative because it was new and different. You name it: platform games, scrolling shooters, combat fighting games, driving and sports simulations, puzzle, card and board games, colony building and resource management games... the list goes on and on. All were innovative the first time they were created. Tetris anyone?

The Need for Novelty

So you may be thinking: “Yeah, every genre of game and their variations have all been done to death! What innovation can possibly be left to explore? And why is it even important or worthwhile to have innovation in video game design? What’s wrong with just creating more variations of already successful tried and true implementations of existing game genres?”

Before answering that let me make one thing clear. Innovation should NOT be the ultimate goal of any game design. Many a slew of crappy yet innovative games have been unleashed upon an unsuspecting gaming public. (Maybe the world doesn’t actually need that toilet cleaning simulation after all).

So why is innovation important then? Well, when is the last time you played PONG? Without innovation you’d still be playing it. More likely, we all would have had our fill of PONG decades ago and the video game industry would have died a slow lingering death.

The early days of video games were all about innovation. PAC-MAN? SPACE INVADERS? MISSILE COMMAND? These and a myriad of other titles from that era are all shining examples of innovative game design.

While it may be acceptable for modern game publishers to barf out endless iterations of multi-million dollar Halo and Call of Duty first person shooters for their adoring fans to gobble up, retro gaming is different.

I hereby urge all existing and budding retro game designers to please think twice before creating that next platform game, overhead 2D maze game or scrolling shooter game. Although the Spectrum Next is perfectly suited to creating these types of games, they’ve been done - a lot - decades ago. And we can still download and play all of those games on the Next. So why just create more of the same?

Let’s take a cue from the brilliant and creative game designers of yesteryear who pushed their programming talents and the Spectrum itself to their respective limits to create wonderful games for our entertainment. What better way to honor their efforts than by using our creativity and programming ability to push the Next to its limits and create some truly innovative games? Sure the sprite engine built into the Next may seem ideal for creating that Jet Set Willy clone you’ve been pondering but... really?

Accepting the Challenge

Hopefully my rant has instilled in you the desire to inject some creativity and novelty into your games. But how can this be accomplished?

Maybe you’re having trouble coming up with an idea for a completely new and unique game genre or element. Sometimes innovation can be achieved by simply combining familiar elements in an unexpected way.

You really have your heart set on creating a platform game? Or a top down maze crawler? Or a 3D first person shooter? How about a combination of 2 or even all 3 of those? Whaat?! Sure, why not? A platform game where you climb up to a level that becomes a top down maze where you make your way to rooms that you enter and explore in first person 3D view. Boom! Can't you just imagine much fun would that be?

I’m sure you could think of other familiar game elements that could be combined in interesting ways. Remember BATTLE CHESS? A chess game where the pieces actually fight each other. War games often effectively implement this tactic by combining a strategic troop movement phase with an arcade style combat phase and occasionally even throwing in a diplomatic negotiation/trading/bartering phase for good measure.

Here's a few more examples of innovation possibilities to provide some inspiration:

Side scrolling shooter? How about making the ship fight against gravity instead of hovering effortlessly in whatever position you place it? The weight of the ship could even change depending on the types of weapons, cargo and amount of fuel it is carrying.

Top down or orthogonal view dungeon crawler? Instead of every NPC (non player character) instantly attacking you on sight, how about some baddies offering to join you and fight by your side for a cost?

Driving simulation? How about making the tires wear out as you drive around the track making it difficult to maintain control. New tire power ups could appear at random places on the track - run over them and your tires are rejuvenated. The weather could even change for each new section of track requiring different types of tires to be fitted for maximum speed and traction.

I think you get the idea and I hope I’ve made my point. While innovation alone does not make for a winning game formula, the minimal addition of some unique and creatively fun elements in lieu of coming up with a completely new genre can inject a hint of novelty into an otherwise mediocre remake. Who knows- you might just come up with the next Tetris. (Now don’t run off and immediately start coding a Tetris re-hash. Step away from the keyboard!)

While old retro games may be great for playing or to use for inspiration, please think twice before re-creating them practically pixel for pixel. I think we can all agree that Jet Set Willy has earned a well deserved rest.

- Spriteworx Team.