Shortly following the high profile release of EA's Spore Creature Creator, former lead designer Chaim Gingold gave a keynote titled "Magic Crayons: Spore and Beyond" at the Dutch Festival of Games, where the publisher distributed 500 hard copies of the creator to attendees.
The much anticipated and much delayed game features several editors that players can use throughout - but the Creature Creator represents the most difficult design challenge, Gingold told and audience of developers, professionals, and academics during his speech.
It's the first editor that players will experience, and, said Gingold, it's the only editor that players are required to play with.
Amusingly enough, an Electronic Arts employee reported to Gamasutra that the company's chief executive, John Riccitiello, wants all employees of the world's largest publisher to spend fifteen minutes of work playing with the Spore Creature Creator.
"I spent the last four years working on the creature editor and other editors in Spore," said Gingold, who has taken a sabbatical since completing his work on the project. The opening of his talk focused on the preliminary question of "why creativity is fun and why making stuff is fun."
Magic Crayons And Monkey Art
But there's a second component that Gingold sees: "Computers can breathe life into things." Through the talk, he explained his concept of magic crayons - creative tools that are for both fun and play.
He makes the comparison between Adobe's Photoshop, saying it's a creative tool to be sure, but a professional grade one that requires some skill and experience. "On the other hand, Sim City is a magic crayon you could give to anyone."
"Research has found that little monkeys, like little humans, like to make things," Gingold continued, explaining results showing that primates playing with charcoal on paper derived disproportionate pleasure from both the motion and results.
In fact, says Gingold, "this principle of disproportionate feedback is crucial," from bouncing a ball, to drawing, to playing Go or the drums. "Slot machines work like that. It's like a seizure with all this feedback you're getting."
"There's this enjoyment when you make things. When you externalize some part of who you are, you can reflect on it," he said, recalling early tests of the Spore Creature Creator, and how users reacted. "They would make something, and something would go wrong, but they'd still love what they made."
Further explaining the principle, a clean-shaven Gingold tells the audience that when he first created a Mii avatar, he had a beard.
When he looked at his Mii, he didn't like the way his virtual beard made his virtual avatar look, and soon afterward shaved off his physical beard. "It was like this weird mirror - I was really engaging the sense of who I was through the Mii."
There's a theory of soft and hard mastery, he continued, that hard things let you feel joy by achieving mastery over the difficult, while soft mastery lets you feel joy through simple pick-up-and-play ease.
"The Sims is definitely more of a squishy thing," said Gingold. "We definitely went more the route of soft mastery with the Spore Creature Creator."
Gingold then transitioned to talking about tales of things that come to life, from the story of Pinocchio to the legend of the Golem, a creature formed of mud and brought to life by occult incantations. "With computers," he said, "We can deliver that fantasy, we can make things come to life. Which is totally magical."
When you think of traditional games, said Gingold, you think of more goals and objectives. But there's an opposite style, built for "just the pleasure of doing things."
"In a traditional game you are the Luke Skywalker, you are the hero," but with the softer games, "you are more like the director." Gingold tells the story of Will Wright's first game, how he "had more fun making the levels" for the game, and that eventually the level creation tool was made into SimCity.
Stealing The Cheese
When detailing the design process behind the creature editor, Gingold said, "I think of it as Mission Impossible. You've got to get in there and steal the cheese." In other words, there are difficult parameters, and designers must find ways to get around every obstacle.
And they had goals from the start. "We wanted the output of this editor to look pretty good," Gingold recalled. Anything you wanted to make, he said, you had to be able to make easily - without frustration. "It had to be exciting and interesting."
Spore solved a major problem, said Gingold, with its animation system. But it wasn't easy. "Four years ago, there was a lot of back and forth between the animation and art teams."
Beside obvious problems with animation and art, there was a question of size. Compression was important because Spore's creatures had to be small enough to send over networks, and small enough to download as the game is in play. "The data is smaller than the size of the thumbnail," reported Gingold, saying "The picture is 20k. The creature is 4k -- it's incredible."
"The creature editor was the first one people would use in Spore, but also the hardest. So the others were easier," he said of the development process.
Possibility Spaces And Beans
"There's this idea I really like," Gingold continued, "of possibility spaces." In essence, within a circle of possibilities, there is a smaller circle of probability, and a smaller circle of the optimal. Those two circles don't intersect unless someone has skill and talent.
The team found that the creatures that had high probability of being created weren't as good as the creatures that skilled artists could make.
Gingold consulted the art director, Ocean Quigley, on the problem and found out that artists traditionally start creating characters out of bean shapes. Gingold then created a new tool using a 3D bean shape as its basis.
Players wanted more control than he gave them, so he added points that could be pulled - and they looked like vertebrae, which also helped the animation system. "This is like the deep structure of the creatures. It's very fundamental. You see that spine and you go, 'oh, it's a creature.' You reach out and touch it, and it kind of does what you expect" with the creature's curved structure.
How Spore Is Like Magnet Poetry
Gingold then talked about "deep structure," something that might appear to be chaotic, but is, in fact, is quite controlled chaos. His example? Magnetic poetry. "It blows my mind," he said, that people can take these random words and create deeply meaningful poems.
"It shows that the content is carefully crafted," pointing out that if they were magnetic letters, it wouldn't work at all. Forming a complete, meaningful sentence with a bag full of letters would be difficult. But the content system of magnetic poetry has been filtered.
Gingold moved on to discuss subsequent editors in the Spore experience, such as its building creator. "The problem was that there was no apparent structure." So, the team specified parts: roof, body, window, door, chimney. "If we know it's a chimney, we can have smoke coming out of it, right?"
"We made sure the new parts were interchangeable," he continued. "We had a castle set and a sci-fi set. The benchmark we held ourselves to was: you should be able to make something cool in three clicks."
"Once you have a grammar, you can use it generatively," Gingold told the audience. "The computer can reason about it." I can create objects on my own, and it can also create. "You can use that to help them along," he said of players, citing the example of SimCity's road editor which automatically suggested what the player might like to do.
One Click Mind
Returning to the topic of the creature creator, Gingold said that the leg manipulation was the last part of the editor to finish--and the hardest. But it also provided some insights into what players want.
"I wrote a bunch of functions that were our fuzzy interpretation of what looks good," he explained. "Most players don't know what they want. All they know is if it looks good or not, thinking 'Oh cool, it's what I wanted,' - even though they didn't have anything in mind."
Gingold also said that the more people switch back and forth, the more lost they can become. "We tried to minimize the modes in Spore," a principle extended as far as the user interface. "It just looks really simple and obvious."
The team wanted the interface to grow with the player, to "playfully reveal the features that it has," and to hold to a one-click structure, as Gingold pointed out that most people are used to the idea with email programs, web browsers, and search engines.
Gingold also explained that one of the things that game director Will Wright insisted on was that the creatures would have symmetry, saying, "It turns out that all living things are symmetrical."
In the end, Gingold says that he believes computers can ease "this anxiety and alienation that we have from doing one thing." Even though people become experts at their trade, "we can design houses, human beings, pinball sets," he said.
"I want to be able to make an animated movie like Toy Story," he concluded, "Or a pop song. I want to write a novel and not be particularly good at writing a novel," encouraging the audience to "invest in that structure and make those toys!"