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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

The Grammar of Creativity

It is a well-known established fact throughout the many-dimensional worlds of the multiverse that most really great discoveries are owed to one brief moment of inspiration. There's a lot of spadework first, of course, but what clinches the whole thing is the sight of, say, a falling apple or a boiling kettle or the water slopping over the edge of the bath. Something goes click inside the observer's head and then everything falls into place. The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist's mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the elevator, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different.

- Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

What is the fundamental distinction between aesthetic and gameplay-efficient designs? In fact, they do not use the same language. When players create Spore creatures tailored for gameplay (with all the skills necessary for a certain play style), they think about the rules of the game, about the obstacles they may encounter, about their ultimate goals and the way they are going to reach them.

On the other hand, what motivates players to design creatures before they even know the gameplay that well? Indeed, when they create their first Spore creature to try the game out, they do not have a clear idea of what they will face. Yet, is it the same feeling as modeling a creature from scratch in Zbrush? Not at all.

For starters, it is easier with a creature editor, as you are guided and never experience a "blank page" syndrome. But the main difference is probably that players know their creature will come to life (even if they do not know if it is going to survive for long). When designing their creature, players imagine how it would fare in what they expect the game world to be.

If creativity is the ability to combine old ideas to generate new ones, the question is: Where do these old ideas come from? Most gameplay-related customization systems are very narrow and limited, and do not allow a large enough number of options for players to be creative. Ideas from other domains usually do not have much value. The only pertaining grammar is strictly endogenous.

When the editing tools are deep enough to allow for designs based on a creative idea, as in Spore, the player uses a much wider grammar. It may be a combination of elements from the real world ("behold the butterfloctopus!"), the game world ("tiny flying animals every other creature wants to eat"), from everyday life ("a clone of my ugly math teacher"), from fantasies ("a giant penis"), from cultural icons ("Homer Simpson with Wolverine's claws") or even from many different grammars at once ("flying Homer with a giant penis and a pulley in the middle!")

Behold the butterfloctopus!

This is exactly why Faceez' photos allow users to be creative right away. Not only do they allow for a larger number of options, but they use a grammar the player already knows.

Of course it is always possible to create something that will work in creative grammars as well as the gameplay grammar. Sometimes, efficiency brings its own aesthetic value, and people familiar with the game will be able to decipher the creation's characteristics by just looking at it ("I see you've designed a social creature; nice idea to make it a fast sprinter, just in case!")

Wherever ideas come from, the ability to connect concepts from very different worlds is a cornerstone of creativity. Or more simply:

Creativity requires inspiration.

Inspiration mainly describes the way the brain connects existing ideas to build new forms, concepts, actions... The process is mostly unconscious, and has the reputation of coming and going. While this is true, there are several ways it can be stimulated.

We have already discussed how randomize buttons may familiarize players with the available options. Randomness may also give ideas, just as browsing Google Images or listening to people during a brainstorming session. An arbitrary flow of concepts gives food for thought.

Arbitrary situations may have the same effect: When the only tool you have is a hammer, any Celine Dion CD you come across may give you ideas. Situations do not only give players elements to work with, they also imply a certain number of constraints. Sometimes constraints guide inspiration; sometimes they destroy it. A gameplay grammar brings constraints to the customization process. These constraints may help new ideas appear, or they may just prevent and kill any creative ambition.

It turns out user generated content allows for inspiration and creativity but is not strictly a part of gameplay. Few games allow creations to have a deep impact on gameplay, and that may result in synergy or conflict.

Those conflicts come from this unavoidable fact: all players have at least one gameplay objective. User generated content may or may not mix well with it. This raises an important question: What is the purpose of creativity?

The Muses' Secret Agenda

For any of us, creativity evokes insight, epiphanies, imagination. This is indeed a very important aspect of creativity: Without the ability to have ideas, creativity cannot exist.

But creativity does not stop there. It has a purpose. That purpose may fluctuate, be unconscious, arbitrary, silly... but it still is a purpose. If you do not have an objective, there is just no point in being creative. Creativity is inspiration plus perspiration.

On a theoretical level, having an objective and having a problem is just the same thing. Of course they do not sound the same at all. For example, I may accuse you of creating your own problems, and that would sound bad. Or I could praise you for deciding of your own objectives, which sounds a lot better. While these feel different, I am really talking about the same phenomenon: creating your own problems gives you objectives. Similarly, by picking your own goals, you will face the new problems of how to reach them.

Creativity is a problem-solving ability; it requires a purpose.

ACME statistics show that coyotes are 78% more creative when they are starving. (Citation needed)

Life is full of goals: ambitions, dreams, needs, professional challenges and requirements, social obligations... So which real-life problems may the ability to "find and apply new ideas" solve? Plenty: closing a business deal, getting your children to eat vegetables, coming up with a funny joke to break the ice, getting all the luggage in the car, writing a 10-page composition on a Sunday evening, opening a strongbox on a desert island, and so many more.

If having a purpose and looking for a solution to a problem are the same, then gameplay and creativity seem very close. Moreover, the above examples are all quite challenging. Yet, are they similar?

Any game has at least one goal, even if the player had to invent it. Otherwise, it would not be a game at all. But it turns out real-life problem-solving is different from gameplay problem-solving. During gameplay, the player has limited options and is constantly judged by the game.

You may think this depends on the game but, in reality, it does not. Remember, we are comparing games to real life here: even the most amazing free-roaming physics-based massively multiplayer triple-A game contains extremely simple and limited objects and systems when compared to the real world.

What would happen if creativity were deemed the objective of the game? Let us look at Create (EA Bright Light) to find out.

Creativity for the Sake of It

Create is a mixture of Incredible Machine-like puzzles, contraption-building challenges, and highly customizable environments. While this title is a good puzzler and contains hundreds of different customization and/or gameplay items to unlock, it fails to reach the objective displayed on Electronic Arts' website: "Create tracks your creativity and rewards you for it."

The game features special challenges called "Create Chains": the player is rewarded for using a specific set of tools in a given level. Apparently, the ambition of Create Chains is to give players many opportunities to be creative, and thus get them to know the available options better. These options are quite comparable to those of a level editor, but they are entirely built-in and use the same interface as the problem-solving gameplay -- just as games from the Trackmania series (Nadeo) brilliantly gives players a level editor interface to design the most efficient track they can.

In fact, creativity is not the Create Chains' real objective. The real hardcoded objective is "use each of these tools enough". The player may be rewarded for picking any option and clicking randomly in the scene: the challenge has been completed but there has been no creativity. The challenge is a no-brainer.

The player simply gave the game what it wanted in order to keep playing.

At the top, you can see the situation Create gives you as a starting point for a Create Chain in level 1: Theme Park. The two other pictures show different "solutions" to the challenge, equally valid for the game system, but one of those is clearly more creative than the other.

We have seen how inspiration cannot be forced. So we understand how a game cannot ask a player to be creative on demand ("Be creative! NOW!")

You cannot just make creativity happen.

Even if players are willing to be creative, they may not be able to do it on demand. They may need time. But let's admit a given player succeeds in being creative, what happens then?


Create is unable to rate creativity. No existing video game could. Even fellow human beings are sometimes very poor at assessing another person's ideas -- as developers, you probably know about that problem. How could a basic video game AI crack such a subjective question?

Of course, games often pretend to acknowledge the players' sensitivity, for instance when judging the player's interior design (as in Nintendo's Animal Crossing) or when reacting to the name you just typed in: "Bollocks? My, what a pretty name!"

In the first level of Duke Nukem Forever (3D Realms), this AI-controlled Earth Defense Forces soldier seems to approve the cunning plan I've written for him on the whiteboard.

Nintendo's Wii Music has a very interesting approach. It allows the players to pick instruments, play the chosen track, design a cover, and then the system asks them to rate their own work, with no limitations whatsoever. The designers knew the game was unable to judge the music's quality, so the only pertinent opinion is the players'.

Creativity cannot be identified or rated by a computer.

If creativity cannot be identified by the computer, it cannot reward it and more importantly, it should never punish players for not being creative. Even preventing the player from continuing to play is a slight punishment.

We have now defined creativity in a satisfying way. Let us gather all the fragments so that we can forge the ultimate definition of creativity.

  • Creativity is the mental process allowing us to find and apply new ideas.
  • To be creative, a player must know the available options well.
  • It may only happen if there is a large number of choices.
  • Creativity is making new things out of old ones.
  • It requires inspiration.
  • It is a problem-solving ability; it requires a purpose.
  • You cannot just make creativity happen.
  • It cannot be identified or rated by a computer.

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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.