Reinventing the Wheel

Courtesy Mark Fiore
via The San Francisco Chronicle

You’ve heard the turn of phrase before. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.” Basically it’s an argument that doesn’t necessarily invalidate innovation, but suggests that working within established constraints means less work and a lower investment of time and resources. At the same time, only going with what’s known leads to stagnation. If people doesn’t innovate, nothing grows or changes. Yes, people like what’s familiar and are uncertain of new things. It’s why this year’s Madden is going to outsell a game coming from the independent market. It’s why fans are eagerly awaiting the next novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series and overlook brand new titles in the fantasy genre. This isn’t a universal truth to be sure, as there will always be people willing to try something new, but it’s true enough to be noteworthy and, in my opinion, worth examination.

When you get right down to it, on a mechanical level, there’s little difference between Gears of War and Mass Effect, especially the second title. They’re both cover-based shooters using a third-person perspective. However, they’re as different as night and day. The former’s focus on multiplayer, brutality and grim protagonists in interchangeable suits of armor is worlds apart from the latter’s storytelling, character design and decision making. In other words, they’re both wheels, but one’s a big thick tire on a monster truck while the other’s a Pirelli on a Bugatti Veyron. BioWare didn’t reinvent the wheel to make the experience of playing Mass Effect 2 distinctive from that of playing Gears of War 2, they just built that wheel differently.

Another good example? The aforementioned Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a fantasy novel series, so it’ll sit in the same section as Lord of the Rings. But George RR Martin isn’t all about exotic races, magical powers and a clearly-defined evil villain. Instead, his focus is on sweeping political landscapes, lands and armies rooted very much in our history and lots (and boy, do I mean lots) of interesting, well-rounded characters. GRRM doesn’t reinvent the wheel to write his books or get his point across. Instead, he draws from both the universes of fantasy with which we’re already familiar, and also from the legends and accounts we either know from studying history or recognize as familiar due to our own experiences. It makes a story with an expansive scope feel deeply personal.

It’s entirely possible that in our own creative process, we head down a particular path. We want to try something new. We want to go places that haven’t been explored, approach an obstacle in a radical way. As we proceed down the path, more ideas occur to us. It’s tempting to pull those ideas into the work at hand, just to see if it works. And then, when it comes time to look over where we are and how we came to be there, the path behind us is at least a bit messy, if not damn near incoherent. We’ve wandered a bit too far. We’ve tried to reinvent the wheel.

This doesn’t mean the mess is without merit, however. A square wheel, after all, can be chiseled into a round one if you’re willing to clean up the debris when you’re done.

3 Comments

  1. Definitely re-invent the wheel… periodically.

    It’s dangerous to try and make a living re-inventing the wheel. For reasons you seem to already understand, that’s the path to failure.

    The way to avoid stagnation in the norm (at least how I do it) is to dedicate time to a throwaway project. Small in scope, something you can finish by yourself, without taking TOO much time away from paying customers. Even in the most abject failures there is a nugget of success, and you can knead those nuggets into safe work to stay fresh.

  2. I agree with Daniel, definitely re-invent the wheel. Do it frequently. I’d even go as far as to say that you should do it always. At least in those places where it makes sense and avoid it in places that don’t.

    What I didn’t see in your piece (or Daniel’s project), though, was the mention that wheels are simply components of larger systems. Certainly, they are important; but big complicated projects like books, blogs or advanced mechanical systems have many wheels that can be reinvented

    For a book, it might be in the way that you pair two ideas. In a blog, it might be a radical departure from the content you normally cover. In a product (such as a phone), it might be the use of an OLED screen, which gives better color and battery life (though it requires you to radically rework your display code and drivers).

    Such changes encourage people to think in new ways and help them to avoid stagnation. Otherwise, you fall into well worn patterns of doing things.

    There’s also another advantage to reinventing wheels in small doses, it helps to get radical new ways of doing things accepted. Even if the new idea is revolutionary.

    I guess what I’m saying is that even square ideas can be valuable. And if the product isn’t, the thinking that gave it rise certainly was. At worst, it can prevent costly mistakes and failures in the future.

    Thus, re-invent freely. At least in the small things. Not every experiment works, but the process itself is valuable.

  3. This is a phrase I hear all the time in programming. Why write a new sorting algorithm from scratch when there’s several available for use?

    While reexamining things and seeing what new things may work is good, it’s not always going to go well. It really depends on what you’re doing. Working on something with a looming deadline and you know the publisher is looking for something it can really sell? Stick with the wheel. Wheels come in enough shapes, sizes, colors and variations that you won’t be limited in your creativity.

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