Not to slap an age-old truism in the face, but there it is. As anyone who's ever faced a challenge will tell you, the toughest time to think of a solution to a problem is when you need to. That's why we sleep on things, and why we have our best ideas in the shower. Genius shows up when you don't need it to. So what does all this have to do with game design?
Debunking Necessity and Invention
We've all heard the phrase the title of this blog refutes. The general idea is that people think up new things when the old things simply won't do. If you think about it though, this is a very reactionary view of progress, suggesting that humans only innovate when there is an obvious need to do so. What about inspiration, or creativity?
The fact is, humans are very creative. So much so that we innovate on a regular basis... we just often don't know what do with what we've created. Most inventions are created either by accident, without a real purpose in mind or for a completely different reason that what they're used for today. They only seem to be invented as they're needed because they become prominent when they're solving a problem.
For example, the adhesive that makes Post-it Notes sticky-but-not-too-sticky was actually a failed attempt at making a much stronger adhesive. In 1968, when the substance was developed at 3M labs, it was basically shelved and ignored for 6 years.
Necessity is the Mother of Adaptation
In addition to being creative, humans are very good at adapting to situations. Much better, in fact, than innovating to solve a situation. This is part of natural advantage in the animal kingdom, we see a problem and use what we have on hand to solve or mitigate it. There are, of course, exceptions, but for the most part, we work with what we already have.
Take the Post-it note example. In 1974, another 3M employee who had seen the failed adhesive found a use for it: keeping pages of a book together, without binding them completely, convenient for holding a hymnal book open to the right page at church. This adaptation of a failed industrial-grade adhesive into a non-destructive paper adhesive was a terrific example of adaptation, taking a substance that existed, and had for years and using it to solve a problem.
To take this idea to a prehistoric extreme, think about the caveperson who first created fire. Whether she was consciously trying to create fire or creating it by accident,s he probably wasn't thinking about cooking food with it. She'd be eating raw food successfully all her life. It was only later that she or someone else adapted to use the fire not just for light and heat, but to prepare foods. Adaptation.
What does this have to do with game design?
One of the oldest mysteries of game design is whether it's better to start with theme or mechanics in a game. Starting with a theme is great, but can lead to difficulties in finding the right mechanics to fit. Likewise, starting with a mechanic is structurally sound, but can feel very soul-less if the theme is tacked on.
Perhaps a better approach is always be thinking about mechanics when you don't need them. Not even necessarily new mechanics, but rather interesting ways to combine mechanics or small twists on existing mechanics. That way, when you do need a mechanic for a game, you have a stable of ideas you can adapt, rather than needing to be brilliant and creative on the spot.
Next week, we'll continue this discussion by talking about why you don't always need a new idea to be successful.