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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next


Open-ended games leave the players the freedom to choose their path and provide a rich environment with lots of highly interactive toys lying around. As we have seen, it may sometimes lead to a series of short-term objectives with no connection or consistency. While this is fun indeed, these short-term gameplay cycles reduce the player's anticipation.

As we all know, video game worlds are often extremely static. Merchants wait at the same spot all day, monsters just wander aimlessly until adventurers kill them, and NPC's never loot chests. Though it makes no sense in those game worlds, it is necessary for players to control what happens. When everything is dynamically changing, they cannot anticipate the results of their actions, and this leaves little room for long-term strategies.

Conversely, complex dynamic behaviors decrease the player's anticipation. Unfortunately, they have the same effect on the developers. And when we fail to anticipate how the game will behave, this leads to a larger number of bugs. In fact, that's the definition of a bug: an unforeseen and unwanted behavior that emerges in a piece of software.

Thinking Outside the Box

When complexity leads to unexpected behaviors, most of them are bugs: they are unwanted. But what if those behaviors actually turn out to be interesting and make sense in the game world? Then the game designers turn their frown upside down and start calling it "emergent gameplay" -- lucky bugs, if you will.

Two famous examples of emergent gameplay are the ability to use wall mines as steps to climb up (Ion Storm's Deus Ex) or using the blast of a rocket to "rocket jump" to very high places (various FPS). Now this move has become a classic, and has even been integrated as a perfectly normal technique in Team Fortress 2 (Valve).

It takes a creative mind to find new solutions to gameplay problems, especially when these solutions are emergent: players even need to be more inventive than the designers.

The frontier between emergent gameplay and loopholes is quite thin. In fact, the distinction is purely moral: every player judges if such and such emergent features are a legitimate part of the game. One could argue that mine-climbing makes no sense, and therefore refuse to use it. As in every type of game, cheating is a moral issue.

Still, the act of cheating can indeed be creative when it implies finding a clever workaround. But I would not qualify cheating as gameplay, because it usually removes all obstacles intended by the designers. Without obstacles, there cannot be any gameplay.

We will not discuss hacking here and its creative merits, as it clearly happens outside of the gameplay. Creative gameplay actions can only happen inside the game. We have already seen though that the player's goal may come from "outside the game's box": from the player's imagination, mainly. But it may also come from an achievement or trophy system, for example.


What is the difference between internal and external objectives? Most the time, they are the same. A character asks the player to beat the boss, and an achievement asks the same. Even when an achievement is not consistent with in-game goals, it still is a gameplay objective, and this has no impact on creative potential.

But achievements may sometimes encourage players to guess what the objectives are. They do that by giving no description (or a very cryptic one) or just by being hidden away in a sub-sub-sub-menu.

With 250 achievements such as "die on downward spikes", "look hopeless", or "suspend a corpse for two seconds", Achievement Unlocked 2 (Armor Games) gives you many occasions to guess how silly or surrealist your remaining objectives are.

Is guessing creative? Again, creativity is more about the path than the destination. The way your brain sniffs in all directions to find the solution may be creative. Even if every player in the world will end up with the same answer, each player may or may not have been creative reaching it.

Guessing may happen without an achievement system. It may even work without an objective: guessing about hidden features or secret zones. Again, that may or may not be considered creative. Most seasoned gamers check behind waterfall for bonuses, but that attitude is clearly non-creative.

Guessing gives unique feedbacks to the players. They feel as if the designers are telling them, "Yeah, we thought about that too!" Usually, these features use an exogenous grammar. For example, in the first level of Kingdom Rush (Ironhide), I tried clicking sheep over and over, and I was thrilled to discover it had the same effect as in Warcraft. Similarly, a friend of mine was very excited when he discovered empirically that driving a DeLorean over 88mph in Driver San Francisco (Ubisoft Reflections) unlocked a special challenge.

What We May Learn from Board Games

Looking at non-video games is always very interesting. We, video game developers, are a very young species. The Egyptian game of Senet is said to be one of the first games ever, and apparently dates to around 5,000 BCB (Before Crash Bandicoot).

Video games changed the play paradigm by having computers assist or replace humans. It sounds creepy, but it really isn't: displaying graphics and playing sounds assists the player's imagination; managing the rules means the players do not have to do it; simulating AI characters replaces human opponents [2]. Even the human player's actions are sometimes simulated (real-time demos, tutorial examples, AI vs. AI fights, etc.)

At this point, you may suspect that I am going to rant about how board games are better, about the place of human in society, and the fact that computers may never understand the beauty of a sunset... Not at all: video games have a lot of cool specificities, and most of them come from the use of computers and what that allows for. I do not compare video games and non-video games to determine which is better. But creativity being highly subjective, the presence of computers has a large impact on the game system.

In almost every video game, a computer is in charge of managing the rules. In more traditional games, this has to be done by all the players or by a designated player (the game master, the referee, the banker, etc.) This difference allows for much more complex rule sets in video games: apart from hardcore pen and paper role players, no one would enjoy calculating the chances for a sword swing to hit a monster when it is influenced by a dozen variables. So the computer's enormous calculation power is put to good use. Board games, on the other hand, seldom allow the kind of creativity that emerges from the game system's complexity [3].

We have seen about Create that a computer is unable to identify or appraise creativity. The same goes for morality, artistic value, negotiation, aesthetics or any other subjective matter. In a board game, the players, who deal with these matters as they see fit, handle rules intelligently [4].

Board games, it seems, could just treat creativity as the game's goal. But often they don't. Again, this ability is a means, not an end.

When creativity is a major game mechanic of a board game, it serves a purpose such as making someone guess a hidden word by drawing or modeling clay (Cranium, Richard Tait & Whit Alexander), hide a few weird words in a free speech (Nonsense, Véronique Houbaert & Bernard Ralet), coming up with a believable definition for a word (The Dictionary Game), role playing to make a point or get oneself out of trouble (The Werewolves of Miller's Hollow, Philippe des Pallières & Hervé Marly) -- contra this last example, "role playing" may mean a lot of things in a video game: giving your character a name, chatting in a weird way on ye olde public channels, building stats... but it never implies that your role playing has an impact on gameplay.

Dixit (Jean-Louis Roubira) is a gorgeous and subtle board game in which creativity is encouraged and rewarded.

Video games do allow other players to rate another person's creativity, for example giving five stars to another player's custom level. But those decisions are made totally outside of gameplay. In the aforementioned board games, the other players' decisions are gameplay decisions: they have an impact on victory or defeat.

Video games have other players too. Of course, I am not talking about 12 year-old rage-quitting Counter-Strikers. But with the current trend of social networks and asynchronous games, multiplayer is more and more about taking time to play with people you know and like. Could we follow in the footsteps of board games?

Actually, we already do. The very popular Draw Something (OMGPOP) is obviously inspired by the timeless classic Pictionary (Rob Angel). Drawception (Nihildom) uses the same principles as the traditional game of Paper Telephone. A few MMOs allow rating other players' creations to determine their popularity score, such as Mamba Nation (Mimesis Republic).

I believe this trend is very interesting and makes a lot of sense for social games, as do many ideas coming from the world of non-video games. It is up to us to hear what they have to teach.

As this article nears its conclusion, I realize I cannot conclude this article without mentioning two of the greatest video games ever for creative players.


[2] The genius of a project like Chris Hecker's Spy Party precisely comes from asking people to act like AI (though saying that might be oversimplifying the game's concept).

[3] Though I have to point out that board games and various toys have used physics as a game mechanic long before Havok came out.

[4] As a consequence, there sometimes is much more arguing!

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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.