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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next

Creative Solutions

Ironically, Create does a good job of allowing a form of creativity in some of the puzzle-solving levels. It does not mean that any puzzle-solving gameplay is creative. Brilliant ideas will not make you better at Sudoku. But arguably, creative players fare a lot better in a game like Crayon Physics (Kloonigames).

As any gameplay element, puzzles have an objective. Users may be creative when trying to overcome the obstacles if they know the available options and may come up with many different solutions.

That raises an interesting question: can a player be creative if there is only one possible solution? Jonah Lehrer presents Compound Remote Association Problems as a way to identify when and how the creative mind is used. These puzzles have only one solution, but the mind uses inspired idea associations to solve them. A puzzle with only one possible solution may allow a player to find this solution in a creative way.

Puzzles do not try to identify and rate creativity itself. They only care about the solution the players come up with. Not even the deepest puzzle may guarantee the players are going to be creative. It may only give them opportunities for creativity and interesting choices within the gameplay's endogenous grammar. Games may also encourage and stimulate inspiration by their structure, their level design or their time scale.

Of course, we do not always find creative problem solving in the games we would describe as puzzle games. For instance, there is more room to be creative when designing a vehicle in Banjo and Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (Rare) than in Bejeweled (PopCap).

The degree of creativity depends on the factors we have identified: for example, Armadillo Run (Peter Stock) allows for much more creativity than its timeless predecessor, The Incredible Machine.

The ancestor of the genre gives the players a specific set of items in each level. For example, Level 3 of The Even More Incredible Machine must be completed using only with a basketball, a tennis ball, a bellows, and a pair of scissors. Armadillo Run almost always gives the same seven types of items with only two added options (tension/compression and/or timer) and a specific amount of money.

This makes learning the options easier and gives the player loads of freedom. It also does a very good job of stimulating inspiration via the level design's initial situations; in other words, by giving the players new problems to solve with new constraints: distance, height, budget, obstacles, timed events, etc.

Armadillo Run is a puzzle game so rich it allows for creative thinking.

Many games reward creative ideas. Robot/Contraption builders are a good example: Robot Arena (Gabriel), Sprocket Rocket (, Bad Piggies (Rovio), and Bob Came In Pieces (Ludosity). But there are many others in different genres: Toribash (Nabi Studios), Max and the Magic Marker (Press Play), Magicka (Arrowhead), Pontifex (Chronic Logic)... In all of them, creativity is not the game's purpose, just one of the player's most valuable weapons.

From these examples, it appears creativity requires complex gameplay systems to emerge. Is this rich open complexity exclusive to puzzles?

And then I Had an Idea: Shoot That Alien!

Strategy is a long-term plan of action designed to achieve a certain goal, or the act of devising such a plan. As such, it belongs to the "actions" of gameplay. To reach their goal despite the obstacles, the players invent and apply strategies (among other actions such as exploring, solving riddles, monster grinding…)

As you see, I am not strictly talking about RTS or turn-based strategy games such as Total Annihilation (Cavedog) or Advance Wars (Intelligent Systems). In fact, strategy is a part of almost any game. For example, deciding of a course of action in Dishonored (Arkane), Hitman (IO), Far Cry (Crytek), Dead Rising (Capcom), or Assassin's Creed (Ubisoft) can be strategic indeed (or at the very least tactical).

Strategy is as likely to allow for creativity as it does puzzle solving. If the players master the available options and must make clever choices, then serendipity may help them reach their objectives.

As with puzzles, not all manners of strategy ask for inspiration. A skillful player may prevail with a simple and basic strategy in many games, but only insightful creativity allows for brilliant plans of action. As an example, the greatest chess players throughout history gave their names to openings they invented. They must have had those "a-ha" moments that characterize creativity.

A strategy is a plan of action designed to overcome a challenge.
R.U.S.E. (Eugen Systems)

We can therefore conclude that strategy and tactics are potentially creative ways of solving gameplay problems.

But for how long can players come up with new ideas in any given game? They shall soon be applying the same solutions over and over (Zerg rush!) What's more, a given player may solve a hundred puzzles and win thousands of battles without being truly creative.

What would happen if you let the player a very large freedom in a familiar game world?


Sandbox games focus on giving players a great deal of freedom: freedom to decide where to go, what to do, and how to do it.

The Sims (Maxis) and Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar) are good examples of this trend. The main difference between those two series (apart from the dignity of female characters) is that Grand Theft Auto mixes sandbox and traditional story-driven goal-oriented gameplay, while The Sims is a giant toy box, with no obligations and no background story at all.

Sandbox video games are inspired by, err… sandboxes. Here is a good example called… The Sandbox (Pixowl).

If strategy and complex problem solving leave room to the player's creativity, so do sandboxes, only more. Indeed, these open-ended systems give a lot of options to the players and encourage them to choose their own objective. Consequently, sandbox games often include some forms of strategy, tactics, and problem solving.

The name "sandbox" uses childhood as the ultimate symbol for sheer creativity, within reason -- despite the fact that a sandbox player does not behave like a child in a real-life sandbox. Those children have nothing but their imagination and sand. If they are lucky, they have a few toys as well. If they are not, maybe a few hidden dog turds.

"Silence is as full of potential wisdom and wit as the unhewn marble of a great sculpture", Aldous Huxley brilliantly wrote. In the desert of an empty sandbox, children become game designers. Their goal is to devise the tools for their own meaningful play experience. It sometimes includes some forms of gameplay.

In a sandbox video game, there usually is already a lot of content in the game before it even begins: characters, environments, behaviors, powers, controls, etc. While sand has no personality at all, these elements have a great influence other the player's state of mind. A better comparison would be that of a child alone in a toyshop. So many things to try out!

The game's theme gives players ideas, but so do its rules. For example, motorized vehicles are very different in The Sims or GTA. In Maxis' game, vehicles are mere events: they are a simple depiction of commuting, and that's that. The players do not even try to interact with them. GTA players, on the other hand, soon find out that vehicles may be used as quest items, transportation modes, battering rams, decoys, explosives...

This brings our attention to another form of creativity: so far, we have described how the creative mind can find solutions to an existing problem. Some other times though, finding a solution makes a new objective appear. Let us call that opportunity creativity.

Any GTA player knows that going from A to B is the best way to have silly ideas. For example, even though the only story-related objective is to reach the other end of town, suddenly a situation arises that changes the player's priorities. It could be a very nice car to steal, a rival gang to ambush, or just the perfect spot for a stunt. In most cases, the player ends up being chased by cops. And from there, other situations arise (being shot for example).

You just launched GTA: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds) to try your freshly stolen sports car and you end up in this situation: typical!

The Sims follows the same pattern: things players create (mainly people and their home) keep on living, interacting, changing. The players' plans are always shifting according to what happens and how their Sims' wishes evolve. Most of the time, players react to situations generated by the game system: "Should Will invite his next-door neighbor to dinner? How may Grace get the promotion she wants? The living room is too small for a new home video system; how can I rearrange the furniture?"

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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.