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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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