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!")
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.
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.