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November 13, 2019
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The Creative Gaming Revolution

by Dylan Woodbury on 05/22/19 11:38:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In the 50-year history of the video game industry, we have seen many watershed moments that have expanded our definition of video games. These transformations are essential to the health of the industry because they create new possibilities for video games, keeping audiences engaged while broadening games’ appeal to new consumers. Some examples include the NES’s revitalization of the market, the introduction of 3D graphics, use of Internet in competitive/multiplayer experiences, and most recently the skyrocketing success of free-to-play monetization. Each of these revolutions stems from advancements in technology, business, and marketing. But there is a new trend booming that is harder to put one’s finger on, a movement which doesn’t descend from an evolution in technology or business. This trend is what I call Creative Gaming, a style of game design which offers an alternative way of approaching game development. In this article, I am going to trace the development of this new gaming paradigm, define its implications on the current state of game development, and postulate its future impact on the industry. But before I define what Creative Gaming is, it’s important to define what our traditional approach has been thus far.

The traditional challenge-based view of games

For a long time, video games were understood in terms of challenge. Players of games are put on treadmills of increasing challenge and given certain abilities to surmount these challenges. The “fun” is a result of the player learning to use her abilities to overcome these challenges, as Raph Koster’s much indoctrinated theory of fun lays out. Every arcade game followed this formula, and nearly every console/pc game since also fits this definition. It’s an immensely successful design that has powered the largest entertainment industry in human history. This challenge-based design has also proven to be highly flexible - different twists of gameplay result in what we call genres, which appeal to unique audiences. The challenge-based approach has also produced massively popular brands and characters, a necessary ingredient for consistent success and audience engagement in modern popular entertainment, and has been proven a successful method of delivery for incredible storytelling and artistic experiences, essential for the medium’s legitimacy as a medium of art. However, this challenge-based game design is not the only approach for game development, and there is much evidence to believe an alternative philosophy is gaining traction, one which could be the next revolution to grow the video game industry.

SimCity

That design philosophy is Creative Gaming, and its core principle is simple - people like to make stuff. This philosophy is definitely not new, an early example being Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set released in 1983, which simply gave players the tools to make their own digital pinball game. However, the Creative Gaming approach was rarely applied in a financially successful way, with most games continuing to focus on challenge, until the release of Will Wright’s SimCity in 1989, which sparked a new wave of Creative Games in the form of building-management sims. In SimCity, players are given the ability to create their own city, and aren’t forced to complete game-defined challenges. The success of this design proved that challenge is not an essential ingredient to video games. Will Wright took this formula to new heights with the release of The Sims in 2000. In The Sims, there are absolutely no explicit challenges. Instead, the player spends her time creating - building houses, personalizing characters, developing relationships, and creating stories. Players didn’t care that there was nothing to “beat”, nor an objective to accomplish. To a new audience of casual gamers, this was actually one of the game’s appeals. This was the realization of Creative Gaming in the market.

The Sims

One may find it surprising that, given its remarkable success, The Sims didn’t inspire competing titles or knockoffs, something one would suspect following the release of a fundamentally new, blockbuster game. I think this fact highlights how unprepared the industry was to develop games beyond the challenge-based paradigm. It would take another decade for an outsider to pick up the mantle of Creative Gaming with another original, financially successful Creative Gaming experience. That game was Minecraft, a game in which players create structures from blocks. It was made by independent developer Notch, an outsider who had a sense that players wanted something different than the mostly similar challenge-based games which continued to flood the market. Esteemed game designer Peter Molyneux said, “[Notch] didn’t stick to the old rules of game design that most developers slavishly obey. The gift was giving people a world to play with.” He said of the game, “Minecraft trusts in people’s ability to find their own entertainment… It is a glimpse into a new world of digital entertainment.” This time, the power of Creative Gaming was not going to be ignored, as Minecraft would soon become the most successful video game of all time. And the recent announcement of Minecraft Earth proves its potential for further growth.

Minecraft

One of Minecraft’s biggest contributions to the Creative Gaming movement, beyond its steadfast focus on creative freedom, has to do with its Redstone block, an element in the game which players can use to implement logic and control in their creations. It essentially allowed players to make their own games. It raised the level of complexity of the creation tools beyond that ever seen in Creative Games in the past. While many games had offered deep creation tools, rarely had they been presented as core mechanics of the game. The incredible functionality and huge possibility space of Minecraft, especially presented in the context of the quickly maturing social media landscape, created a viral sensation and ignited a massive, passionate community. Players quickly got to work crafting virtual play-spaces, including huge fictional cities, complex machines, and new methods of gameplay. While Notch and Mojang defined the core rules of the game, it was up to the players to make the game, to define what we actually do with it. This concept, that game-making is a game in itself, set the tone for a new wave of video games.

Little Big Planet

Game-making as games caught fire. Utilizing advancements in technology, developers were able to give players far more freedoms than was previously possible, along with the ability to share creations online. An early adopter of this approach, Media Molecule released Little Big Planet, a platformer game that focused on user created content, a year prior to the release of Minecraft. Console game publishers, now confident in the approach of Creative Gaming, continued to release game-making games. 2010 saw the release of ModNation Racers, similar to Little Big Planet, but focused on the genre of kart racing games. Microsoft, inspired by Sony’s efforts, released Project Spark in 2013, a more complete, user-friendly game creation tool, though limits on the game’s creative freedoms prevented the game from becoming a smash hit. Roblox, a game-making game targeted towards MMOs, continued to gain popularity during this time, and it currently boasts 90 million active users and a 2.5 billion dollar evaluation. 

Roblox

The approach of game-making games is successful for many reasons. First, as stated above, people like to make stuff, a desire that has been massively underserved in most challenge-based games. Also, because players are given part of the responsibility in making the game, they are incentivized to see the game succeed, and act as the developer’s strongest marketing force. The bigger the game gets, the more their creations shine. These game-making games mark a step towards video games becoming live, service-based experiences, with never-ending user-content extending the game’s life. Instead of hiring dozens of designers to churn out tons of content, a core group of developers could add new, often simple new features over time, and allow players to explore the design space and build tons of fresh new content.

Fortnite Creative

This trend of Creative Gaming has been massively successful thus far, but is still just coming to fruition. The sudden release of Fortnite’s Creative Mode in 2018 is an industrial admittance that game-making as games is an essential ingredient to the success of these live service-based games, even if only as a supplement to the main game experience. Given the massive success of Fortnite, many were surprised that Epic Games would invest so much into a supplementary mode so early in the game’s life cycle. However, upon inspection, this move make perfect sense. Epic Games’ challenge with Fortnite is to create an experience which feels alive and continues to surprise players, or it risks losing them to competitors like PUBG or Apex Legends, which have unique gameplay elements which could attract players with a change of pace. Fortnite’s structured release of new content by season, along with occasional in-game events, helps to achieve Epic Games’ goal of providing fresh experiences. However, by embracing Creative Gaming and giving players the ability to create their own play-spaces, Epic Games ensured that there will always be new, exciting content for players. The mode also builds a community of content creators which are incentivized to see the game succeed, as they are paid based on the dedication of the audience they build. Creative Mode also encourages social gameplay and networking, provides a fun side-experience for those who feel temporarily burnt out from the main game (and might otherwise be tempted to play something else), and provides an endless source of material for social media content and viral marketing. One example of this is the recent “Death Run” maps, which require players to navigate a series of challenges, competing for the fastest time. The creators of some of these maps have offered cash prizes to the winners, and have racked up millions of views on Youtube.

Mario Maker 2

Console publishers are continuing to push the boundaries of Creative Gaming. This year will see the release of both Nintendo’s Mario Maker 2, an incredible tool for making and sharing Super Mario levels, and Dreams, which has the biggest potential to again explode the Creative Gaming movement. Dreams, the newest Creative Game by Media Molecule, gives players a complete game development toolset. Players can model, paint, animate, conduct music, program gameplay logic - players are in control of every aspect of their game. This level of complexity has never been attempted before, and results in players’ ability to create an insanely diverse set of experiences. The game is still in Early Access, but some early standouts like the near-perfect Metal Gear Solid replication offer a hint as to the diverse creations that are possible, and the high potential for attention in the press and on social media.

Dreams, Metal Gear Solid

Dreams’ biggest asset, its complexity, is also its biggest challenge, as some players may be overwhelmed by the complexity of the tools and the sheer scale of possibilities. However, the game addresses this in several ways. Because players are encouraged to share and remix each other’s creations, you don’t have to be an expert in every discipline of game development. Are you a great sculptor? Then just focus on modeling, and other players will make games out of your creations, and perhaps collaborate with you. The game focuses on collaboration because Media Molecule realizes the success of their game lies in the ability for players to make incredible experiences, and this can often require teamwork. The game offers a limited set of tutorials, but players can also rely on the already incredibly supportive community to further their education. There are multiple Youtube channels and Twitch streamers dedicated to Dreams tutorials and walkthroughs, and online communities are quick to respond to questions and problems.

Dreams Environment

The diversity of experiences possible in Dreams is astonishing, which I believe challenges some fundamental assumptions we have about the video game industry. If Media Molecule can put its players in a position to develop full games that can compete with games released via traditional methods, it becomes harder to justify purchases of traditional games. Why buy a game when you can play something similar in Dreams for free, along with millions of other games? As Dreams expands, and as competitors emerge, these game-making games will eventually embrace cross-platform functionality, and they will soon perfect new ways of supporting and incentivizing creators. For example, Roblox has already paid its creators millions of dollars, and Fortnite has launched a system of rewarding creators based on the devotion of their audiences. As these game-making games advance in complexity, like Dreams has, there is much reason to believe they will begin to compete with traditional platforms like Steam.

Even without directly paying creators within game-making games, there is much potential for independent developers to utilize these platforms. It is hard for an independent developer to build an audience while working on full-fledged game. Many independent games have gone the route of early access releases, essentially developing the game in public, but that isn’t always the best option for releasing a game. Games like Dreams, and even more limited games like Fortnite Creative or Mario Maker, allow these designers to regularly create game-content without very much investment, due to the ease of use of these tools. These games have huge audiences, and independent developers can create content and promote it on social media to build a following and a personal brand, while still spending most of their time on their full-fledged games.

Dreams Sculpting

Here’s another potential implication of the rise of game-making games - the work of game designers has long been seen as irreplaceable by community-driven design. Their work in many cases is still irreplaceable, like in long-form, cinematic experiences, for example. However, many game designers spend most of their time as content creators, in charge of creating obstacles on the never-ending treadmills of challenge in challenge-based games. Since this model of design may be under some threat, and since community-driven (as well as AI-driven) design has proven to be wildly successful at creating content which rivals and often surmounts that of professionals, I argue that this profession is posed to shrink and/or transform. I think this is a bubble that has long been ready to burst. Speaking from my personal experience designing challenge-based games in the industry, I have had the opportunity to work with some very passionate people who love making games. However, for many, it is a job to be executed with little personal attachment. I am not faulting designers for this - they are doing a job, in an industry which has been increasingly criticized for their treatment of workers. But it is inevitable that, when the player community is given these tools, the result is going to be higher quality for far less cost. Who would you rather have designing your game - one burnt out employee checking Facebook every 10 minutes while waiting to go home from their design job, or dozens of passionate hobbyists who come home after a long day at work to spend their free time creating content in a game for free, because they love it? This is the reason why Media Molecule has often chosen to hire designers from their level-making communities, a now common trend in the game industry. This shift in who creates content, along with the remarkable designs that have come out of these game-making games, proves that training at university or years of professional experience are not necessary for content creators. Game design is a highly instinctual art, and while knowledge of theory can be useful, I would argue the act of developing and playtesting games is all the education one needs to be a world-class game designer, especially given the online communities and resources which exist today.

Creative Games also poses a solution to a common criticism of video games, that they are a compulsive waste of time. Children’s obsession with Minecraft was more accepted than other game trends because parents can understand just by looking at the game that it is more akin to creative activities like Legos, than violent challenge-based games like Call of Duty. Also, Minecraft’s open design, which allows users to tailor it to their needs, set itself up to be used as a powerful educational tool. Mods of the game were created to teach programming, mechanical engineering, all branches of mathematics, economics, etc. I teach kids computer science in my spare time, and I am always being asked, “Can we play Minecraft instead?” By embracing Creative Gaming, developers can make products that enrich their players’ lives, providing creative outlets, a platform for expression, and methods of learning what would otherwise be tedious subject matter, refuting the stereotype that games are a waste of time.

Where is Creative Gaming headed in the future? Despite the movement’s already smashing success and momentum, I think the revolution is just getting started. I believe many categories of games can benefit from experimenting with the Creative Gaming approach. Take free-to-play mobile games, for example - Roblox has shown that there are mobile gamers interested in creative gaming. I don’t think it will be long before more free-to-play mobile games launch their own forays into this new space, giving players the chance to contribute to the game’s design and library of content. Although these games often require a large infrastructure and development team, I think independent developers could also experiment with Creative Gaming on a smaller scale. Creative Gaming is going to continue to both reinvent what games can be, as well as breathe new life into challenge-based games, and I believe every category of games will be touched by this movement in some way.

I also don’t think this movement is restricted to traditional games markets. The introduction of the Internet allowed everyday people to create their own virtual spaces with web sites, and Social Media has made that experience more connected, more user friendly, while removing the potential for users to define the rules of their individual spaces. Creative Gaming is set to revolutionize Social Media and the Internet, which will make it easy for users to create their own game-like spaces online and specifically tailor them to their own needs. Instead of companies using a bunch of tools like Slack, Google Docs, Excel, etc., they will be able to create a virtual space which will encompass all needed functionality, with a higher level of engagement, perfectly tailored to the needs of their employees and customers. Content creators of all types will also be able to tailor their virtual space to engage audiences in their own way, depending on the kind of content they create, and the nature of their audience.

In conclusion, challenge-based games are no longer going to be the monolith they have been in the past. They will definitely have a space in the market, but players want to engage with interesting systems that channel their creativity. I said in the introduction of this article that the continued expansion of the possibility space of video games is critical to the health of the industry. The possibility space for challenge-based games is running dry, and the kinds of games which push the possibilities of this approach are increasingly more expensive and riskier to develop. On the other hand, I see enormous potential for Creative Gaming to open up new creative outlets and new styles of gameplay, and to breathe new life into challenge-based games, while engaging their audiences on a much deeper level. As a level designer in the industry, I learned that making levels in a video game is a far more engaging, enriching experience than just playing them. That’s how I began to believe that Creative Gaming, already booming, was only going to grow in influence, and the success of games like Dreams and Fortnite Creative prove this. It’s definitely going to be a challenge to shift our thinking from challenge-based games to systems-based Creative Games. But making games is fun, so I’m looking forward to it.


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