Innovation refers to creating something new, better or improving upon another idea in a way that is significantly different then where it originally came from.
As a level designer and environment artist, you should always aim in creating something original. Be fresh with every new environment, every new level design and every new map you create.
When it is so easy to re-create and remake a Golden Eye map, an original Counter-Strike map or an Unreal map. Don't remake maps from other games unless you can introduce something new and interesting in a way that hasn't been seen before.
To innovate in level design you don't have to create a new gameplay type that a player has never seen before, or introduce a sci-fi weapon in a realistic shooter. Just simply changing and introducing a simple element in a new and unique way is often enough.
Break the mold.
A way to create something new is to mix-n-match. Creating interesting relationships between themes and ideas.
For example first person shooter and role-playing game elements to create games such as Deux Ex and Fallout 3.
I understand that you sometimes have to go through the phase in the beginning when you want to create your house or your school. There is nothing wrong with that.
Although, you want to ask yourself the following question:
Being different and original level designer that are few things you can do:
Step outside your own comfort zone and do things you normally do not do. See if you can apply what you are experiencing to your level design.
Keep expressing yourself in various art forms and using multiple level editors.
I create maps for Unreal 3, Counter-strike and now I've been working on L4D maps. I want to get into Crysis map editing, then jump back into the world of Unreal. I will keep expressing myself in many different ways so I don't get used to my own way of working. It keeps me thinking about different gameplay elements in various engines. Use new tools and problem solve in new environments.
When I become too comfortable creating maps and it becomes too easy to do something, which means I am not pushing myself hard enough.
You want to feel that uncomfortable feeling. The feeling that you are not sure if what you are doing is going to end up as you want it. When you feel that, you are outside your comfort zone. You begin to problem solve using your imagination.
What you bring to the table, as designer is the life you lead outside of the editor and outside the 3d program. It's your unique perspective and your own outlook. When you sit down to create and design an environment, it comes down to your personal experience. The new and creative ways of trying something. Using various elements from multiple art forms and your life experience to create something unique and original.
Mix and Match
Use different level editors and create maps with different gameplay elements. Expose yourself to different art forms. Painting, photography, film etc.
Look at life "Become an observer of the world."
Use a new style in your maps
Introduce a new theme
Look at what everyone else is doing, what are some maps that are being released. Notice a pattern of similarity and stay clear of it.
Don't remake maps from other games unless you can introduce something so new and interesting in a new way that hasn't been seen before.
Get outside your comfort zone and do things that you don't know how to do.
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