In an afternoon Independent Games Summit talk, Metanet's Raigan Burns (N+) discussed creativity and the making of unique technology to make unique gameplay, starting out by admitting: "We don't like programming... but it really is the only way to do some things."
Burns compared the evolution of using 'unique knobs' in indie games to the evolution of the Beatles from the buttoned-down George Martin years to the odd and more flowing experiments later in the group's life. He suggested that home made technology is less powerful and less reusable, but is quirkier and has more 'flava'.
In other words, the Canadian game creator suggested, even though some games have unique technology, very few of those games have technology that is the core of the game.
He referenced Quake III, which used neat procedural effects, but only for the background - and contrasted those to indie games, pointing out that experimentation and "trying out weird times" is something that larger teams can't really do.
He suggested that it's in the interests of small teams to development simple dynamical systems, rather than GBs worth of data. In addition, one-of-a-kind systems are a talking point, creating word of mouth - and unique technology.
He referenced Jon Mak's Everyday Shooter, which has a dynamic visual system which changes the background and effects every frame, and is all done in code - requiring "an agility" that larger teams couldn't accomplish.
In fact, Burns suggests of programming: "Just like any other science, it can be very creative, and you can have a distinct creative voice in the realm of programming." He suggested that what a graphics card can do is relatively limitless, but referenced of graphics programmers: "There's this terrific instrument, and everyone is playing 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' on it."
He then went on to N, explaining that they created custom circular collision detection for the original Flash version of the game, noting that making the technology and then seeing what it was good for.
They discovered that, with circular detection, you can put tiles down everywhere on the level, leading to a lot of creativity in the N level creation community. But again, Burns noted that experimentation was necessary, and suggested that more physics experimentation is vital.
Concluding, Burns noted some titles that have a unique technology, referencing Portal (portals!), Braid (for reversible simulation), Katamari Damacy (level of detail), Facade (a conversation engine) - all games that start from 'unique knobs' and extend out from there.