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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

How can creativity be brought into games -- is it even possible? Designer Eddy Léja-Six examines the nature of both creativity and games to get to the bottom of the question: which games allow for creativity, and how do they encourage it?

Creativity and games are among the most important human activities. Children spend a lot of time playing and inventing, often at the same time: "Now you'll be the bank robber, and I'll chase you with this invisible dinosaur!"

Many adults will tell you they do not play games because WinMine (a.k.a. Minesweeper) "isn't really a game." Others will assure you they are not creative, as "they can't draw properly."

In fact, these two activities are part of everyone's life, and turn out to be as natural and spontaneous as breathing; almost as useful too.

As video game developers, we know how to entertain players and offer them meaningful and emotional experiences. But do we have the necessary tools to allow players to use their creative mind while they play? How did the games that attempted it fare? Should we even try to mix gameplay and creativity?

First and foremost, what is creativity? Here is the definition I could craft that gained the most consensus.

Creativity is the mental process allowing us to find and apply new ideas.

We'll add chunks to this rather short definition as the article goes on.

Calvinball, a perfect example of (excessively) creative gameplay
Calvin & Hobbes, © Bill Waterson

So What's the Plan, Then?

My objective in this feature is to identify if and how gameplay and creativity may work together in video game design. I shall try and cite as many relevant games as possible along the way. Here is a list of the missions I shall have to complete before I reach the end of my quest:

  • Define creativity further
  • Define gameplay
  • Identify how these two have already been used together in existing games
  • Analyze why those games succeed or fail in their attempt to give the players creative powers


The most obvious case of creativity in a video game comes from user generated content. While level editors and character customization have been around for a long time now, recent titles such as Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet have given the players tremendous creative opportunities.

Let us look at user generated content and the way it can be considered as creative gameplay.

Playtesting Faceez

At Neko Entertainment, we developed a DSiWare app called Faceez, in which users may mix, accessorize and animate faces from photographs. It is the only "non-game" I have ever worked on, but it requires a lot more creativity from the user than all the games I have designed. In fact, the whole app is a character customization menu.

Of course, the difference between an app and a game is gameplay. So Faceez is never going to be a good example of how gameplay and creativity may or may not mix. But it gave me a lot of clues about user creativity in software.

If someone asks to use your face to promote the app you've designed, believe me, you should say no.

Playtesting Faceez was particularly interesting, as two distinct behavior patterns emerged: Users combining game assets (accessories and animations) began by empirically browsing the available options, and then used the random button for a while before they felt really comfortable enough to be creative. Conversely, when mixing faces from their own photos, people had creative ideas right away. Why is that?

The faces that users mix come from pictures of the people close to them. The difference with other assets is that users already know them. Once they grasp how the system works, they immediately come up with ideas using the photos they have taken and the ones they could take:

  • "My sister with my big eyebrows..."
  • "Me with my boss' hair!"
  • "Oh, and I could take a picture of Brad Pitt and mix him with me!"
  • "Wait, what about a mixture of me, Brad, and my next door neighbor all inside the face of a chimp?"
  • And so on...

Applying those ideas may require testing, validation, mind changing, and chance findings... But at some point in the process, there are ideas -- creative ideas.

In the opposite, before a user may have the creative idea, for example, to make a Faceez use a tuna fish for swashbuckling, she either:

  • Must know, from experience, that the app contains a tuna accessory and a sword-fighting animation.
  • Or guess those two options must be available -- I mean, only crappy games don't feature tuna! -- and then actively search for them. Software users rarely think like that, because it is often disappointing. Of course, when guessing works, that is an awesome experience (we shall get back to that later on).

To be creative, a player must know the available options well.

The downside is that the more options the players have, the longer it takes to learn and master them. Or does it?

What is Your Name? What is Your Quest? What is Your Favorite Color?

Imagine how Rare's avatar editor for the Xbox 360 would feel with only four haircuts, three nose shapes, two shirts... Could anyone get creative in that context? Could a player try and mix those elements to meet the result she imagined? Or would any user just go for the least inappropriate result?

Creativity may only happen if there is a large number of choices.

Already, there seems to be a conflict: to allow for creativity, the users must easily understand the tools we give them. So to keep it simple, we might want to reduce the number of options to learn. But that would reduce the amount of available choices, thus reducing creative potential.

Character customization in Adult Swim's Five Minutes to Kill Yourself is brilliantly designed so that creativity is totally impossible; this is achieved by drastically reducing the number of meaningful outcomes, and it suits the depressing atmosphere of the game world perfectly.

In the indispensable The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell shares a very interesting personal experience about indirect control:

In my amusement park days, I sometimes worked in the candy store, in front of a big display of 60 flavors of old-fashioned stick candy. A hundred times a day, people would come in and ask, "What flavors do you have back there?"

At first, I thought I would be a smart aleck, and recite all 60 flavors -- as I did this, the customer's eyes would get wide with fear, and right around the 32nd flavor they would say, "Stop! Stop! That's enough!" They were completely overwhelmed by so many choices. After a while, I thought of a new approach. When they asked about the flavors, I would say, "We have every flavor you can imagine. Go on, name the flavors you would like -- I'm sure we have them."

At first they would be impressed with this powerful freedom. But then they would furrow up their brows, think hard, and say, "Uh... cherry? No, wait... I don't want that... Hmm... Peppermint? No... Oh, just forget it," and they would walk away in frustration.

Finally I figured out a strategy that sold a lot of candy sticks. When someone would ask about the flavors, I would say "We have just about every flavor you can imagine, but our most popular flavors are Cherry, Blueberry, Lemon, Root Beer, Wintergreen, and Licorice." They were delighted at having the feeling of freedom, but also glad to have a small number of attractive choices; in fact, most customers would choose from the "popular six," a list I made up, and a list I would change frequently to help ensure the other flavors didn't get too old on the shelf.

Indirect control may be used to help players overcome the overwhelming sensation of creative freedom. In fact, default settings and "randomize" buttons do just that. They tell the player: "You could design any character you want, or you might also just use that one."

Why Choose Between Lipstick and a Moustache?

Another classic solution to that problem is to reduce the number of options, but allow players to combine them so that there still is a large number of possible meaningful outcomes. For example, Warcraft III (Blizzard) allows players to pick a color among 12; there are just 12 possible results. Players of Titan Quest (Iron Lore) may choose their clothes color among five choices per gender.

We may evaluate the combinatorial depth of a system by calculating a ratio of outcomes per option: in Warcraft III, the player has 12 options and there are 12 possible results. 12/12=1, so its ratio is just 1. There is no combinatorial depth at all. Titan Quest has seven options in total (male, female, white, brown, blue, gray and red) and 10 possible outcomes. This means Titan Quest's ratio is 10/7=1.42.

The ability to combine options may create a great difference between the number of options to master and the number of meaningful outcomes [1]. It's interesting to see that it suits those games' ambitions: Just picking a color hardly qualifies as customization: Blizzard's designers needed different colors to make each player different, and Warcraft III allows up to 12 players. Adding the choice between male and female, as in Titan Quest, is the beginning of combinatorial customization. (Later in the game, the appearance of characters mainly varies due of their equipment and active buffs.)

LittleBigPlanet may be the deepest game ever when it comes to customization and creation.

This way of combining options illustrates how game users can only be creative by combining things that already exist. Put that way, it seems very limited. But cannot the same thing be said of any creative process? As Robert I. Sutton of Stanford University points out, creativity is making new things out of old ones.

Creativity is making new things out of old ones.

Do ideas need to be new in order for them to qualify as creative? Well, creativity is a mental process, above anything else. If the players think they invented something the world has never seen ("Ooh, how about a Barack Obama Mii!"), then it just feels that way. So yes, creative ideas need to be new for the creator -- not for the world.

But as I said, Faceez did not have gameplay. Other very creative titles, such as Elektroplankton (Indies Zero) or Art Academy (Headstrong), will not help either. In order to find if and how user generated content is a part of gameplay, we must first define the word.


[1] I keep mentioning "meaningful" outcomes because moving the character's jawbone one millimeter down will not result in a perceptible difference.

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Luciano Lombardi
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Great article. It totally surpassed my expectations. Congratulations on such a well written, educative and interesting article! Bookmarked indeed to use it as a reference.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you! It was a very nice experience to piece this together and I look forward to writing another one. Glad you like it!

Selosse Sandra
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Nice work. We learn an important thing that will help us to know the player's expectations.
I look forward to the next article!

Vivien Lalu
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Fantastic article Eddy! I know some of your work and you are an incredible designer - this paper was very inspiring and I look forward to reading more from you on Gamasutra! All very best... Vivien

PS: I played Neverwinter Nights & LittleBigPlanet more than any other game, mostly because of the built-in editors. I also spent lots of time with ModNation Racers for the very same reason.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thanks Viv!

Zack Wood
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I think the act of learning a few actions, then putting them together in order to overcome new challenges (what happens in good games), is in itself creative.

There's also imaginative creativity, when you start imagining things about the world and characters that aren't actually included in the game. Extending the game world by believing in it and imagining things that the developers didn't necessarily intend, is to me at the heart of good games. That's what happens for me in all my favorite games.

Also, the "What Games Are" blog uses the words "art brain" and "play brain" to address a lot of the issues you described as gameplay efficiency and aesthetics. I want to popularize those terms, as I think they are really clear and useful for discussing these issues.

Zack Wood
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Also, I think the simplest definition of creativity is not "making new things out of old ones," but "making connections between things that were not previously connected." So it's more like thinking about the old things in a different way, or using them in a new way- not just recycling of old things into new things.

Eddy Leja-Six
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This is all really a matter of definition, that's true. But all the definitions I can think of are about what goes in the player's mind. My point is that a computer game cannot measure that.

For example, even though I agree that combining actions you've learned to overcome a challenge CAN be creative, it all depends on what the player feels: maybe someone told her the correct solution (a friend, an online walkthrough, a tutorial, a hint system...) Maybe the player has seen exactly the same situation before, possibly in another game. Or maybe the Level Design allows her to ignore the challenge or find a way around the obstacle. In those cases, the game will know the player went past the challenge, but can't possibly rate the player's creativity.

Eddy Leja-Six
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@ dario silva:

Sequence breaking is a bug exploit, and as I said in the article, I think this behavior can be considered as very creative.

In your example, the game rewards the players for finding a way around the challenge it supposedly rates. This challenge wasn't supposed to reward players for cheating. It does, but wasn't supposed to.

You're right to point out that a game may reward the player indirectly for being creative. And I think that's what happens in games with a strategy element. But even in those games, the system never goes "oh, clever move!", it states "level complete!" The other players online may have much more interesting comments on the way you've completed the challenges, and that happens with God of War exploits as well.

By the way, it may seem like I'm trying to agree with you at all cost, and that smug smile on my profile picture isn't helping, but I'm just trying to clarify the point I'm trying to make in the article. I didn't write it to convert people, so I'm really happy to disagree with you!

Bart Stewart
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There were so many things to like about this piece. (And some very nice subtle references, too. :)

It sparked a lot of ideas, but I'll try to end with questions.

The main question is this: if creativity is so awesome as gameplay, why are most game developers so determined to prevent it? Why take such pains to strictly limit player verbs or possible system interactions? There are several not entirely bad reasons why. Exploring those might help highlight where creativity in games can go as a practical matter.

1. One problem is offensive content. If you let players affect the gameworld, particularly if they can interact with other players in any way, they are guaranteed to spell out naughty words, erect enormous genitalia, and build penisauruses. (Google "Sporn" for NSFW examples of how gamers immediately used Spore's creativity tools.)

2. Another problem, as noted, is that emergent behaviors can look to some people like bugs. That doesn't mean they *are* actual bugs, bugs in a game being defined as behavior that opposes the intended play experience. Just because it was unintended doesn't mean it opposes the desired play experience.

3. Crafting in MMORPGs is not creative. Crafting -- making objects -- in MMORPGs has nothing to do with "craft" or being "crafty"; it's about mass-producing widgets to win economic competition play. That's a perfect valid kind of play. But it isn't creative in the sense of adding new IP inside the gameworld.

4. Yet another reason to deprecate player creativity is game balance. Organizing character skills in level-controlled classes is preferred strongly in MMORPGs over keying character abilities to skills, and letting players pick and choose the skills they want.

That reduces the chance of the emergence of character ability combinations that may be either unexpectedly "overpowered" or too "weak" to compete effectively with players of similar skill levels. Prebuilt classes improve that balance problem, but never fully solve it while stifling character-building creativity.

5. The mature software development practice of test case-driven development is the process of documenting what your code is supposed to do through well-defined requirements, then writing test cases that describe how to find out whether the software you actually write meets those requirements.

That helps you determine whether every known feature is working as intended. But the all-too-common corollary is: if we can't write a test case for some feature, it's not permitted in the game. When the studio puts process over outcome, it's unlikely to tolerate game designs that encourage player creativity since that would allow behaviors that have no test cases.

6. Finally, there is the problem of the Epic Story. Emergent gameplay invites exploratory creativty. But broadly emergent gameplay interferes with a carefully-crafted narrative. The more epic and detailed the story -- which translates to more development money spent on that content -- the less freedom you can permit players to go do their own wacky things, because then they might not see that expensive content.

To sum up: from the perspective of many game developers, especially in the AAA realm, it seems that "emergent" has become a dirty word. A mindset that only the developers know how the game is meant to be played, rather than a respect for what players themselves enjoy doing, is leading many developers to design against creativity by tightly limiting the number of systems and permitted system interactions.

The result is that player creativity in these games is so constrained as to be nonexistent. You're just mashing buttons until you solve each challenge, in proper order, in the one way the developers intended.

Is there any sign that this might be changing, perhaps as the success of some indie games demonstrates that there is a real desire for games that encourage player creativity?

That's a lot of notes, but it was an inspiring article. :)

Luis Guimaraes
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Excellent points, Bart.

I'm specially fond of your opinions on all points, specially #2, #3, #5 and #6.

I remember a Tadhg Kelly's blog post called "The £500 Game", and while it had a some references with status selling - "What Games Can Learn From Shoes" - it was mostly an essay on the theoretical idea of "super-premium games". To quote the article:

"Arguably there are two broad stories throughout the gaming sphere: The casual game and the hardcore game. The casual game is cheap, fun, family entertainment. Unthreatening training for your brain, fitness programs or a bit of light sports. The hardcore game's story is more of a male-oriented skill-test. Hardcore gaming is deep, involving, interesting.

What I'm wondering lately is whether there is room for super-premium games? By this I mean game machines that cost £1,000, perfectly scultpted joypads and games that cost £500 a piece. This sounds insane, but if it works for shoes then why not for games? It's all in the story.

For many years the hardcore games industry has relied on the teenage boy syndrome. These guys think big but they tend to be poor. They're dedicated but they're often paying for games with their rent or food money. They're students, schoolkids, etc. Whatever is built has to meet their needs first and foremost."

While I don't think games should cost that much, the idea of "what kind of game would be worth it?" (I know people who would say "FIFA Manager"). Whatever crosses your mind when you answer that question is the best game experience is what you should be trying to achieve ta some point.

Edit: The further analysis on your blog is great as well.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Hey Bart. I am really glad that the article inspired you that much! And I'm possibly even happier that you enjoyed all the silly hidden references (I wonder if anyone spotted them all...)

You're making a great point. Players' creativity has become frightening to some companies. Ten years ago, emergence was a big buzzword!

As a player, I really love getting the opportunity to be creative. But not everyone has this craving: I know several people who stopped playing Bethesda's Morrowind after the tutorial because they were lost and didn't know what was expected of them. At first, I thought it was a shame. But who was I to judge that? That just wasn't the kind of experience they were looking for.

To be honest, I would have been unable to foresee Minecraft's amazing and inspiring success. For now, however, it didn't inspire many big-budget games for creative players. Not that I know of. There's just been a crapload of cheap Minecraft rip-offs...

That probably has to do with the reasons you mentioned. I especially love #5. As an industry Game Designer, I know professional developers sometimes overthink the game's content. That's why every once in a while, an indie or student game shows us how we are wrong about what the players want. There's a lesson in Minecraft's appeal to so many players, and I think you've explained in your comment why this lesson has not been heard as it should have been.

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Eddy Leja-Six
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@ Joshua : Speaking as a big fan of Morrowind, it's very hard for me to say that... you've got a point. I really loved exploring Vvardenfell, getting to know its customs, its creatures, even its harsh weather... but it is only fair to point out that such a weird setting will appeal to a smaller number of players.

I still have a feeling that freedom is not what certain players look for. Even Minecraft failed to trigger the creative fiber of some people. I'm certainly not trying to say that all games should give the player creative freedom or allow deep and interesting choices. There will always be a place for Dinner Dash in this world!

Arturo Nereu
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Thanks for sharing this Eddy, I had an amazing time reading the article.

I just want to add other area where gameplay allows people to get creative; this is when players share their creations via youtube, forums, etc.

There is another layer of creativity going on, one for example is creating your world on Minecraft and the other one is making, editing, and mixing the video.

Well, is just my point of view.

Again, congratulations on the article!

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you for your feedback! That really makes the effort worthwhile. (Good lord, somebody turned my "corny beauty pageant contestant" switch on!)

I almost didn't mention the pleasure of sharing creations and videos because it happens outside of gameplay. But that IS a very rewarding and deep form of creativity.

A few games even give the player powerful video editing tools, and this probably allows more people to make interesting videos. I remember spending a lot of time editing cameras with the built-in editor in Carmageddon II (I wish I had a more recent experience to share...)

Dave Ingram
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Thanks Eddy for this insightful piece. I love how everything ties together at the end, and your attention to the flow of the article.

You made me think of a saying I've heard before about freedom. Freedom exists in it's most nearly-perfect form only inside of a system of rules. In any state of anarchy, individuals are automatically governed by basic necessities (survival). It is only when appropriate constraints and restraints are in place that individuals have true freedom (in a civilized society, for example).

This speaks to the basic conundrum I see repeated in your article. At every turn, there are things inherent in game systems themselves that limit creativity. However, compare any of these scenarios to a blank screen, and it becomes apparent that the very gameplay systems that limit creativity are those that allow for some form of creativity to spring up in the first place.

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you for your nice comments, especially about the flow. I took a few iterative tweaks to make this massive article smooth.

I'm obviously not a philosopher but what you say about complete and utter freedom being somewhat shallow makes sense to me! Although being a quite geeky geek, I'm much less comfortable talking about real life ! :)

Paul Marzagalli
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Brian Fargo has talked at length (as have Obsidian devs) about the true power of roleplaying games coming not from the story but from the gameplay mechanics - that the systems allow the player to experience the story in a way that is unique to them. That it is through those systems that RPGs have their truest and deepest impact. This article seems to be in keeping with that design philosophy. Great piece!

Eddy Leja-Six
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Thank you Paul. I'm glad the article reads that way!

What you relate about Mister Fargo's approach also reminds me of the concept of "story machine" I've read about in Jesse Schell book: some games feature a pre-written story, but any game system contains all the ingredients for a global story to emerge. During design discussions, people often get confused between the 2 main meanings you may associate with "story": what the developers decided would happen, and/or the consequences of the player's actions.

As I suppose you do, I certainly hope that Obsidian's Project Eternity will push envelope to empower the player!

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Titi Naburu
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Thanks for this essay, Eddy!

One thing: when you say that "gameplay requires that the players take action to overcome obstacles and reach an objective", I think you are actually describing game mechanics. Gameplay is game mechanics with a dress. Like, shooting terrorists with a sniper or clicking smileys that pop up are different gameplay but the same mechanic.