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The Designer's Notebook: A Few Remarks on Creative Play


April 29, 2005
 

Before I begin, an announcement and request: next month's column will be another in the annual "Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!" series. I'm always on the lookout for irritating design flaws in video games, but nowadays I'm mostly learning about them from you, my faithful readers. So if you know of a Twinkie Denial Condition that really hacks you off - whether it's bad gameplay, user interface design, storytelling, or something else entirely - send E-mail to notwinkie@designersnotebook.com and let me know about it. (And if you want to make sure I haven't already discussed it, drop by Gamasutra's index of Designer's Notebook columns and read the earlier "No Twinkie!" columns first.)

* * *

As game designers, we spend most of our effort on competitive play, whether it's player-versus-machine, player-versus-player, team-versus-team, or any of the other possible competition modes that we can use. Many of our discussions about core mechanics and balancing are essentially about the design problems of competitive play. We concentrate on competition because that is the essence of the oldest games, from Go to the Olympics of ancient Greece. It's also what our traditional market, the hardcore gamer, likes most. But what about creative play? It doesn't get as much attention.

There are a few theorists who like to claim that all gameplay is creative. I think this is based on an assertion that decision-making is self-expressive, and that because the player is taking a hand in constructing her own experience, she is necessarily creating something. From a philosophical standpoint, there may be merit in that argument, but I'm concerned with more practical considerations. The parent standing in the game store, wondering which games will allow his child to play creatively, probably doesn't think that deciding to shoot the toxic headcrab first and then the zombie constitutes "creativity." So, for my purposes, creative play means play that enables you to point at something in the game and say, "Look - I made that."

There's no question that creative play is an important part of video gaming, and its importance is only going to grow as our markets expand beyond the hardcore gamer. Women and young children are less motivated by a desire to compete (in the direct, gameplay sense) than boys and young men; and girls in particular like to use the gaming experience as an opportunity for self-expression. If we want to include creative play in our products, what should we include, and how should we go about it?

I'm going to propose a rudimentary taxonomy of types of creative videogame play, with a few random thoughts about each category. This isn't an exhaustive list, and I admit right from the beginning that the borders of these categories are very fuzzy. Still, I think they might help to guide our thinking about building creative play into our games.

Freeform Creative Play

This is any kind of creative play that lets the player use the game as a sandbox, largely without limitations. The player can do pretty much whatever she likes in the context the game offers. (If the game doesn't offer anything but freeform creative play, it's not really a game at all, but a toy or a tool.) An example of freeform creative play might include creating paint textures for your own car in a racing game, so the car appears exactly the way you want it to during the race. Pinball Construction Set, for you old-timers, offered pretty nearly freeform creative play: you had to build a pinball table within the general shape required, but you had unlimited numbers of bumpers, flippers, drop targets and so on to do it with.

Constrained Creativity (Construction Play)

Most construction and management simulations offer a form of constrained creativity - that is, creation is not purely freeform, but restricted by rules in some way. Sometimes they're economic rules: the player has to manage limited resources. In other cases they're physical rules: the player's constructions must make sense and must not fall down. Even LEGO bricks impose some constraints. You only have a limited number of them (unless you work for LEGO) and they only fit together in certain ways.


Rollercoaster Tycoon

Rollercoaster Tycoon, the Caesar series, Sim City, and many, many more games offer construction play. In addition to constraining the player through limited resources or physical restrictions, you can also challenge her to keep ahead of a process of entropy - to build and maintain things faster than events tend to wear them out. In Theme Park, for example, the rides had a certain probability of breaking down, and when they did, they needed people to repair them. Roads in Sim City routinely wore out through use and had to be replaced, and of course natural disasters could wreak havoc at any time.

Another way to keep the player busy creating is to implement a creation/destruction cycle. In the old Activision game Castles, there were two gameplay modes: building the castle, and then defending it against besiegers. During the siege mode, the castle took damage that had to be repaired in the next building cycle.

One of my favorite examples of construction play was Mind Rover from CogniToy. In Mind Rover, you built and programmed a robot, and sent it out to do battle with other robots. There were a number of physical constraints, because the robots had to be built on a chassis with a limited number of attachment points. But the programming could get quite intricate, and it was great fun to set it loose and watch it go.

Self-Expressive Play

This is a sort of subcategory of the preceding two categories of creative play, in which the creativity is specifically directed at representing one's self in some way. The typical example is character creation in a role-playing game. Some of the decisions have specific consequences for the gameplay itself (fighter or mage? good or evil?), while others are purely cosmetic (designing a coat-of-arms for your shield). As the former decisions interact with the game engine, they naturally have to be constrained within certain limits. Purely cosmetic decisions can be freeform and unconstrained.

I had a (very) small role in helping to persuade EA management to publish Michelle Kwan Figure Skating. Although it was not my title, I did a certain amount of thinking about the game design, and was chiefly concerned with the gameplay mechanics - how do you make figure skating an enjoyable sports game, especially since it needs to be for the younger, casual, female gamer? I was mulling over issues of strength, timing, balance, and so on. When I actually saw the prototype, I was surprised to see it included a feature for designing your skating outfit, and putting your own face into the game. I had been working on the Madden team, where designing your uniform was never an option; but of course Michelle Kwan was aimed at an entirely different audience with different priorities.

Self-expressive play is critical in persistent online worlds, where the player may have the same avatar character for years, and wants that avatar to reflect their own fantasy self, and to be able to change it as time goes on. Clothing, hair, accessories, weapons, and even body shape are all options. People snigger about the "breast size" feature in Star Wars Galaxies, and of course teenage boys playing as women usually max it out; but from what I've heard, female players actually appreciate it. They can design a body that genuinely looks like them, not some (usually male) designer's notion of what a woman "ought" to look like.

Community Play

While we're on the subject of persistent worlds, they offer a good many other forms of creative play as well. Forming clans, organizing parties, planning and staging events, and so on are forms of something we might call community play - the ability to create with others. Although they're not as directly visible, in the sense of "I made that," as other forms of creative play, players can still take pride in them. Perhaps the feeling is not so much "I made that" as "I made that happen."

A Tale in the Desert is a good example of a persistent world that is all about community play. The whole object of the game is to create "the perfect society," and the players experiment considerably with that means and how it may be achieved.

I think fan sites and forums are good example of community play as well. You don't have to design them into your game, but as a company, you can make a decision whether or not to support and encourage them.

Storytelling Facilities

The appeal of The Sims, in my opinion, has very little to do with either its game world or its gameplay - in the sense of trying to overcome the challenges that the game sets. The Sims offers construction play, letting you build your dream house and furnish it the way you like (if you can raise the money), but even that is less interesting than the real point of the game: "playing house" with imaginary characters, and especially, telling stories with them. I think the single most important part of The Sims is the on-line photo album feature. This free service lets you take screen shots of the game, put captions under them, assemble them in sequence, and upload them to the Sims website for all to see. In effect, you can tell an illustrated story. Other people can vote on the stories, and the site keeps a running count of the top scorers and lists the new ones as they're uploaded.


The Sim's on-line photo album feature.

Now, most of the stories on the website are pretty dreadful, but that doesn't matter. The point is that the game provides these facilities, and the players enjoy using them. It adds value to the experience in a way that is completely unrelated to the core mechanics or the challenges that the game sets up.

The Sims is not the first game to include a storytelling element. Other games, especially role-playing games, can keep a log of everything you do and let you read it afterwards. However, there's an important difference. A flat recounting of events is not really a story. Furthermore, what you get is necessarily the plot and characters that were built into the game by the designers in the first place. The Sims doesn't impose such things. It's up to the player to create and manipulate the characters, take the pictures and write the text.

Game Modifications

It's now almost routine for a game of any size to ship with a level editor, a scripting language, and a means of importing art, animations, and geometry into the game. This is the very opposite of what I once thought of as the future of the game industry. Back in 1990 or so, I believed that the business model of the future would be, "Give them the razor and sell them the blades," i.e. distribute game engines very cheaply or free, but sell players the content to go in them (without which they are useless). After all, developing new art and other assets is more predictable and less risky than developing new game engines.

What I didn't count on was the incredible explosion in the cost of creating those assets. As of 2005, the vast majority of the development cost of a game is in producing the content, not the code. So it makes sense that we should sell people game engines and let them build new assets for themselves if they want to. Having all those mods out there helps to create demand for the engine.


Counter-Strike

People love building mods - whether they're as simple as new skins for characters, new battlefields as in Warcraft III, new enemies (bots) as in Quake, or entire new games based on old engines, as in Counter-Strike. Computer programming is itself a form of creative play; that's how many of us got started with it in the first place. The second program I ever wrote was a computer game. If you're doing it for your own enjoyment rather than as a job, and you're not doing it on a deadline, programming a computer is some of the most compelling entertainment that I know of. People love it so much that they can become addicted: hackers, in the original and proper sense of the word. Challenging, constructive, and rewarding: who could ask for anything better?

Not everybody likes programming, however, or has a flair for it. Fortunately, games use so many media that you can offer modding tools for many different talents: art, animation, music, sound effects, and so on. The Sims has more company-supported mod tools than any other commercial game I've seen. Conversely, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, which I wrote about a few columns back ("A Perfect Short Game") doesn't include any mod tools at all, but it doesn't need them. The whole game can be unpacked and every single piece of art, sound file, and line of text replaced by something different that you can build using ordinary graphics and audio editing tools.

Conclusion

I'm sure there are more types of creative play that I haven't thought about, and if you know of some, I would definitely like to hear about them. Creative play adds tremendous enjoyment to many games, and at this point in their evolution, I think a wise designer will look for ways to include it in his product, whether for PC, console, or online.

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