Excluding young children, all players come to every game with their own pre-existing player practices already well-established. Defender (1981) was difficult for arcade players to learn because it’s control scheme was nothing like the other arcade games of the late 70s and early 80s. The computer strategy game Steel Panthers (1995) uses a hex map because thirty year's earlier Avalon Hill’s second edition of Gettysburg (1961) established the benefits of these over square maps. DOOM (1993) and Quake (1996) used arrow keys rather than WASD because movement in most Western RPGs up to then had been controlled that way, with mouse-look simply creeping in as an optional alternative interface for games mounted on the Quake engine. Changes were incremental, not revolutionary, because utterly innovative practices become a barrier to play, creating negative word-of-mouth, high risk of bad reviews, and thus no eventual community.
One of the ideas I considered and discarded for this piece was calling it Evolutionary Game Design. Under this title, I would have emphasised the way player practices are conserved but new successes come from variations in these maintained practices, in a manner directly parallel to the way organisms succeed. This would have been closely related to contemporary theories descended from Cuvier’s ideas about evolution and life that I discuss in The Mythology of Evolution. John O’Reiss, who I chatted with at length for that philosophy book, calls this the conditions for existence, and by necessity they must be primarily conserved, or else there can be no life – I learned a lot from talking to him. In the end, I decided I was playing a dangerous game: I might distract from my ideas by making the parallel to the evolutionary sciences. It felt, well, a little tacky. But the point remains.