A Crash Course In Innovation
Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 1:44PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Game Development, Misc Design & Theory, Projects & Innovations, Super Mario Bros.

The following is the script and slides for a talk I did on 9/17/12 at Game Design Conference held in San Francisco California at the Fairmont Hotel. The talk went well, though I learned that I could have definitely used more time if I have more than 30 minutes. Keep in mind that the actual talk I gave was presented with the notes as a guide. (Don't miss the podcast "Critical-Casts"where I use the content from this talk to address the topic of Expression). 


Title: A Crash Course In Innovation

Description: Innovating in game design is tricky. It can be as simple as making the smallest player interaction more consistent, or it can be as grand as defining a genre. Innovation doesn't guarantee financial success, a quality product, or imitators. In this workshop l explain why designers should care about innovation and the method I use to refine, repair, and innovate. This isn't a light hearted, feel-good thought piece. It's time for a game design gut check.


Click here for the slides. The same information below is contained in the notes on the slides.




[SLIDE 2] My name is Richard Terrell. I’m also known as the KrazyKirbyKid or just KirbyKid for short. I’ve worked as a game tester, a design consultant, and an indie developer. I’m particularly proud of my blog, Critical-Gaming. Over the last 5 years I’ve written around 600 articles, well over 700,000 words, and developed a glossary of over 450 terms all with a primary focus on game design. 


[SLIDE 3] Game Design is focused on the construction of a game’s interactive systems and challenges. It is a very unique and special field that, in my experience, most conflate with other ideas. The design of virtual reality, simulations, and other types of interactive systems are not the same as game design. These experiences are the source of confusion that prevents most designers from being able to understand or explain gameplay and why it’s worth our creative time and energy. 

[SLIDE 4] The original title of my talk was “A Defense of Gameplay”, modeled after an article series from my blog.  But if you’re here for a talk on innovation, you’re probably interested in game design already. So there’s no need to defend it, and we can take this discussion to the next level.


This workshop is a crash course that speeds through many design concepts and lessons I learned as I developed my method for innovation. Instead of trying to learn each concept, try to focus on the connections between the concepts and why these connections are important. After we walk through my method, I’ll share the difficult “gut check” questions I ask myself to push me to innovation. There should be plenty of time for an open Q&A at the end. Let’s get started.

[SLIDE 5] What does it mean to innovate? The dictionary says to innovate is to create something new or something changed. By this definition innovation has a very broad range, allowing us to innovate by simply tweaking any game element. This definition also counts breaking features or making games less functional as innovations. After all, adding a new feature that ruins the balance of the rest of the game is an innovation.

[SLIDE 6] Creating bad games is not what we have in mind when we think of innovation. So, let’s narrow the discussion of innovation to kind that remixes existing elements, invents new elements, or solves design problems. 


Why Should a Game Designer Innovate?

[SLIDE 7] So the question I want to ask before we dive head first is, why do you care about innovation? Sure new things have that shininess that helps them get attention and sales. But appealing to the familiar also has strong marketing appeal.  So why worry so much about innovation? Why should a game designer seek it out? Here’s my best answer: If you want to create video games to capture, express, and present your unique ideas then it’s clear that you’ll need some innovation to represent your uniqueness. And because innovation can also solve problems, it helps us  convey our ideas and experiences more effectively.  

So now we’re ready to talk about how I innovate in the field of game design.

What is a game?

[SLIDE 8] When I say “game design” I specifically talk about the design of games. I've found Jesper Juul's definition from his book Half-Real to be the best.  Juul defines a game as "a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome... and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable." Each part of this definition is important for how we move forward in this discussion.

We’re interested in rules, how outcomes are scored, and how players exert effort. The purpose of gameplay is to communicate ideas and create experiences through interactive gameplay challenges. And the best way to understand what makes gameplay and game design great is to focus on these challenges. There are many computer simulations and pieces of software  that are interactive, a wide variety of activities involve teaching and instruction, and countless challenging activities. But the greatness of games lies in the combination of these elements.

[SLIDE 9] Video games are great because they are half-real, a term I’ve adopted from Jesper Juul. Half-real describes how video games are the combination of the virtual, fictional, non-real  events happening inside the game world simultaneously with the real participation, effort, and skills required of the player.

Video games are also great because they require skilled participation. (Well, the vast majority do). Practice and learning are necessary to build skills, making the way games teach a huge area for innovation. Also, an important part of effective teaching is feedback. Feedback from actions, clarity of goals, clear visuals and sounds, etc.

And finally, video games are great because of the emergence and expressivity of rule systems. Rules define digital events and interactions. They govern what we can do and how things work. We rely on consistent rule systems to predict, anticipate, and have agency inside game worlds.

How Games Work

[SLIDE 10] Now that we understand the kinds of topics under consideration, we can consider how games work. As game designer, we can create specific effects and experiences for the player through the way we construct a game’s parts. Even without learning how games are actually programmed, there are a lot of technical details a game designer needs to understand. Once you understand these details and parts, you can better construct a game to create new and better experiences in the ways that enhance what’s good about gameplay, and thus innovate in game design.

Here’s where we do a gut check.  Or at least I had to 5 years ago. Back then I had so many ideas for games and so many gaming experiences I wanted to describe and create. I talked about my ideas with friends and drew little diagrams. Like so many designers, I dreamed big! Unfortunately, all of that dreaming did not build up my game design skills or my ability to articulate my ideas.

A Dreamer is not an innovator. Thinking up cool scenarios did not mean that I was actually thinking like a game designer. Why? Because the ideas I formed in my mind were mostly just a lot of emotions and vague ideas, two things that do not translate well when trying to create something using a medium in the real world. As an aspiring game designer I owed it to myself and my ideas to learn how to properly think in ways that would produce actual games and actual innovations.

This workshop is about understanding that the innovation process starts with you. How you think and feel directly affects how you design and innovate. The goal is to present a way for you to look at yourself and see what you’re made of. 5 years ago I knew that I had ideas inside of me that I wanted to express. I wanted to take my ideas seriously by explaining them in words. So my method of innovation started with my blog, Critical-Gaming.

[SLIDE 11] I started in a topic area that I was comfortable in: story critique and language. I critiqued reviews, wrote a few articles on BioShock and Zelda, and addressed a few other simple topics. After a few months of writing, I knew I had to buckle down and tackle actual game design topics. (story is not gameplay) I needed to be able to answer a big question lingering in the back of my mind. Why is Super Mario Bros. such a well designed game? If I couldn't explain why a classic like Super Mario Bros. is great, then it's highly unlikely that I would be able to explain why the idea in my head is great.


At the time it seemed so simple. All I had to do was explain what I thought in words? But I found myself struggling explain the simplest gameplay challenges in Super Mario Bros. It was easy to describe what Mario did on the screen, but it was much harder explaining the method behind the design; explaining why Mario works. I had terms like level, mechanic, combo, risk, but not much else. At one point I thought that my problem was that I just didn’t have the vocabulary to express my ideas.


My problem wasn’t that I lacked a game design dictionary. I realized that I couldn’t find the words to accurately describe what I was thinking because I didn’t understand how games worked. It was kind of embarrassing to think that after playing video games since I was about 2 years old, chatting on gaming forums, and dreaming up my own games that I couldn’t even explain the basics of a 20 year old platformer.

Necessity of Language

[SLIDE 12] The language we use to talk about game design not only helps us write about games, it brings order to the way we think. A good term with a clear definition works like a light in the dark rooms of our minds, illuminating the edges of our understanding while marking the boundaries between concepts. Without a clear language, it can be extremely difficult to convey what’s in our heads. Language works to untangle the ball of feelings, emotions, desires, and vague ideas we’ve rolled up over time.

[SLIDE 13] We can break down our understanding of game design into its component parts with precise and finely tuned language. Using consistent words to describe the parts of game design helps us recognize the parts in our design and the works of others. It helps us recognize the unique patterns and connections between a game’s parts, which develops a much higher level knowledge of our craft. In other words, it’s not about writing. It’s about understanding.

There’s no denying the positive impact having a detailed language makes. It’s empowering and a bit addictive. Once you know one term and experience the clarity it brings, you’ll want to learn other related terms as well. Learning in this way has its own sense of momentum. The following is a quick run through of my blogging history of game design and self discovery.



[SLIDE 20] The point I want to end on is if you want to innovate in game design, stop trying to innovate in game design. Innovating is the easy part that comes naturally when you have a grasp of the craft. It’s the game design part that’s incredibly complex. To become a better game designer, my method is regularly asking myself the important questions for learning; WHAT and WHY.

The WHAT is a fairly easy question to answer. Just identify the part, subject, or idea you want to know more about. If it doesn’t have a name, make up one. It’s answering the WHY question that will take you on an never ending adventure. Every WHY you answer will either bring up another WHAT or it’ll extend the investigation far beyond games into other fields of study.

Consider the following questions as they are the same questions I ask myself from time to time to keep myself in check.


Gut Check Questions

  1. Do I like gameplay enough?
  2. Am I looking for ways to embrace games for what they are? Or do I find myself subverting the medium?
  3. Do I know enough game design terms/concepts?
  4. Are my own opinions/tastes in games holding me back?
  5. Do I have enough gaming skill?
  6. Do I have a diverse enough background in life?
  7. Am I satisfied with mysteries and not being able to get to the bottom of the design issues I face? (WHAT-WHY-NOT NECESSARILY)
  8. Do I think all gamers (casual, pro, hardcore, etc.) are more like me or very different from me?


End of presentation.


When I got to the gut check questions at the end of my presentation, I went through the first 6 questions one by one and asked for a show of hands from the audience. I was surprised at their honesty. Turns out about half the room admitted that they were designers focused on gameplay as a priority. Others admitted that they were more interested in story and other interactive, non-gameplay elements.

Most also felt that they didn't know enough game design terms (question #3). I was careful to ask this question because I wanted people to consider what "enough terms" meant to them. When I got to question #4, I found that most people were slightly embarrassed to admit that they've refused to play the genres and styles of games they dislike in order to seek innovative ways to improve the projects they worked on. I think I conveyed the idea that our own tastes and opinions in games can hold us back. And that a true designer, a true innovator, doesn't let those biases hold him or her back from understanding what makes all games work. 


I didn't have enough time to finish asking all the questions or to go in depth with my response to the few that I covered. But I had a good trip, and I'm glad I made the journey on my own dime. If you're a designer, games writer, or just a player looking to understand more about yourself, what do you think of my gut check questions? 


Special Thanks to J.Hester and M.Fairchild and M.Terrell for helping me prepare this talk.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.