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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

What is Gameplay?

All Gamasutra readers have a good grasp of what a video game is -- so while there's room for argument, I will not even bother to redefine it here. Warning: this article contains ideas that some readers may find offensive. If you don't think The Sims is a game, look away now!

We all know games may be "used" to be creative, just as a magazine may be used for collage. We need to find out if creativity may occur during gameplay. Surprisingly, there is no easy consensus on the word "gameplay". Tom Heaton wrote: "Most people could agree on a rough definition along the lines of 'the gamey bit of the game.' But disagreement will quickly arise as to what gameplay actually is, what its elements are, why one feature contributes gameplay and another doesn't."

For the purpose of this article, I will try to build my own personal definition. Gameplay is the core of the game's flow. Therefore, gameplay is the heart of the activity of playing.

Here are a few examples of gameplay actions in a video game: exploring a map to find hidden secrets, moving a white rectangle to bounce a white square back, trying to beat your own time record on Track D with Car #42, equipping a new shield for increased armor class, or climbing a large mountain to find out how far you can see.

So what isn't gameplay, then? For example: navigating a menu to choose a game mode, watching a cutscene, modding, turning the volume up, or waiting for an opponent in a matchmaking lobby.

Gameplay occurs when players:

- Have an objective

- Cannot immediately reach their objective because of the obstacles on their way

- Have to undertake actions to overcome these obstacles

Of course, the details may vary greatly from game to game: there may be several objectives at once, the players may choose or invent their own objectives, the obstacles can consist of challenges, rules, labyrinths, puzzles and many more, and the actions may range from very intellectual choices ("is it the right moment to upgrade my base to Tech Tier 2?") to mere reflexes ("Do a barrel roll!")

The Impact of User Generated Content on Gameplay

More and more, games allow players to create their own characters, their own levels, and their own worlds. The amount and depth of available options determine the user's freedom. In most editors, the number of possible outcomes is just dizzying.

Many of those editors do not partake of gameplay: for instance, building levels and sharing them turns the player into a level designer. And level design, as you probably know, is not a game in itself.

Sometimes, gameplay may affect those editors, most commonly by unlocking options and items ("Well done, you've completed Level 2! Here is a nice 3x2 platform to build new levels!") But while, in this case, gameplay opens the door to creativity, it does not make creativity a part of gameplay. When a poker player spends the money she won, she is no longer playing poker.

Other times, gameplay may limit creativity. For example, Lionhead's game The Movies puts the player in charge of a production studio. A rich tool allows editing movies, but the player can only cast the available actors, use the already unlocked sets, etc. Yet again, the creative efforts one may put in one's movie will not impact the gameplay. It may just result in a very nice video to share online.

Games such as Audiosurf (Audiosurf LLC) and Vib-Ripple (Nana On-Sha) make level design out of assets such as music or photos. Even if these are creative assets, they are usually created outside of the game (and most of the time not by the player. The Prodigy is my favorite Audiosurf level design team.)

All Points Bulletin (Realtime Worlds) gives you the amazing power to turn your gun-toting character into a male pornstar from the '70s with a blue moustache.

The most common customization feature allows the player to craft the main character's appearance. This kind of editing is usually very deep but has no impact on gameplay: for example, I once gave Commander Shepard (from BioWare's Mass Effect) the face of a skinny grumpy guy with distasteful facial hair, but understandably, it did not have any impact on the way people reacted to him.

Of course, gameplay is not everything in a game. The character's appearance has an impact on the play experience; otherwise the greatest game studios would never bother to develop deep customization features. Playing as a unique custom character changes the player's whole impression of the game... and it may prevent a MMO player from realizing that she is just player #65535. Sharing creations online is also amazingly satisfying. Again, there is no doubt this kind of creativity is very rewarding, but it is not directly gameplay-related.

May I See this Plasma Cannon in Another Color?

However, it may happen that character editors have an impact on gameplay. In Bethesda Softworks' Skyrim, players can pick a character race among 10. This choice influences stats, skills and some of the NPC's reactions. It will also determine what the visual customization options are. For example, Khajiits are humanoids with cat-like heads. The player may customize many facial features, but the character will always look like a cat.

In this example, we see the player's choices have 10 different gameplay-related outcomes, and billions of purely aesthetic possible results. It is often the case during character creation: there are fewer options pertaining to the gameplay (such as skills, classes, perks) than visual options (colors, clothing, facial traits).

Why is that? Well, any designer who has actually fine-tuned a game system knows that the more different elements you have, the harder it is to find a balance. Adding just one new skill too late during the production may ruin the whole experience for players, whilst adding 15 moustache shapes just one week before Gold Master seems quite safe.

...Unless of course we are talking about the Fable games (Lionhead), in which facial hair patterns grant bonuses. Remember guys: a Sheriff Moustache makes you attractive but scary!

It now seems gameplay customization hardly gives enough freedom for players to get creative: without a large number of options, creativity is impossible. And allowing a large number of gameplay-related options is quite difficult. There are a few noticeable exceptions, though.

Maxis' Spore Creature Creator may be the deepest character creation tool ever made. It allows the user to spawn trillions of totally different creatures. Doubtlessly, any editor allowing creating a seven-legged creature with three noses is indeed an amazing creative tool. What's more, the chosen elements have an impact on the creature's abilities: wings allow the creature to fly, nasty big pointy teeth make it carnivorous, and nimble feet will make it the best dancer in the ecosystem.

Several other games allow character customization to have deep gameplay effects, such as Impossible Creatures (Relic) or Freakyforms (Asobism). When using those editors, a conflict may emerge between the will to create original creatures and the desire for efficiency. Sometimes this conflict will result in even more creativity, but it may as well get frustrating and illogical: imagine yourself creating a perfect predator, a huge carnivorous brute with massive claws. You then check its stats and, because you used basic Level 1 claws, it has weak combat abilities...

After mentioning this to a friend, I realize he had the same problem, and came up with the same (creative) idea as me. He added a tiny appendix granting a Level 5 attack ability (the maximum value) hidden between the creature's legs, where no one would see it. That way, the creature was the fighting juggernaut he expected; yet it did not ruin the look he wanted it to have, notwithstanding the tiny razor-sharp genitalia.

The creature on the left has Level 1 attack options (Strike, Bite and Charge), while the creature on the right has these same attack options at Level 5. Does the single-legged teal freak really look five times more powerful in close combat than the purple hulking beast?

The same phenomenon (synergy or rivalry between customization and gameplay) appear in other games. Players of SimCity (Maxis) may discover that the town they always wanted to build is not viable at all. Discovering that might be an interesting experience ("Oh, people will not pay twice as much tax for a magnificent park!") but even in that case, following wacky ideas will actually reduce gameplay efficiency. The players then realize their two objectives do not mix: creating a "me-town" and avoiding bankruptcy.

On the contrary, players may later get to understand the gameplay better and come up with creative and efficient design. The same goes for Spore. The creatures players build later in the game tend to be consistent with the game's logic and at the same time be noteworthy creations, even for those who do not know how the game works.

Players who get to know a game's rules, as well as the game world's logic, are less likely to make ridiculous mistakes -- such as giving a very stealthy character goggles with three bright green lenses.

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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.