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How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

November 20, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

How can creativity be brought into games -- is it even possible? Designer Eddy Léja-Six examines the nature of both creativity and games to get to the bottom of the question: which games allow for creativity, and how do they encourage it?

Creativity and games are among the most important human activities. Children spend a lot of time playing and inventing, often at the same time: "Now you'll be the bank robber, and I'll chase you with this invisible dinosaur!"

Many adults will tell you they do not play games because WinMine (a.k.a. Minesweeper) "isn't really a game." Others will assure you they are not creative, as "they can't draw properly."

In fact, these two activities are part of everyone's life, and turn out to be as natural and spontaneous as breathing; almost as useful too.

As video game developers, we know how to entertain players and offer them meaningful and emotional experiences. But do we have the necessary tools to allow players to use their creative mind while they play? How did the games that attempted it fare? Should we even try to mix gameplay and creativity?

First and foremost, what is creativity? Here is the definition I could craft that gained the most consensus.

Creativity is the mental process allowing us to find and apply new ideas.

We'll add chunks to this rather short definition as the article goes on.

Calvinball, a perfect example of (excessively) creative gameplay
Calvin & Hobbes, © Bill Waterson

So What's the Plan, Then?

My objective in this feature is to identify if and how gameplay and creativity may work together in video game design. I shall try and cite as many relevant games as possible along the way. Here is a list of the missions I shall have to complete before I reach the end of my quest:

  • Define creativity further
  • Define gameplay
  • Identify how these two have already been used together in existing games
  • Analyze why those games succeed or fail in their attempt to give the players creative powers


The most obvious case of creativity in a video game comes from user generated content. While level editors and character customization have been around for a long time now, recent titles such as Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet have given the players tremendous creative opportunities.

Let us look at user generated content and the way it can be considered as creative gameplay.

Playtesting Faceez

At Neko Entertainment, we developed a DSiWare app called Faceez, in which users may mix, accessorize and animate faces from photographs. It is the only "non-game" I have ever worked on, but it requires a lot more creativity from the user than all the games I have designed. In fact, the whole app is a character customization menu.

Of course, the difference between an app and a game is gameplay. So Faceez is never going to be a good example of how gameplay and creativity may or may not mix. But it gave me a lot of clues about user creativity in software.

If someone asks to use your face to promote the app you've designed, believe me, you should say no.

Playtesting Faceez was particularly interesting, as two distinct behavior patterns emerged: Users combining game assets (accessories and animations) began by empirically browsing the available options, and then used the random button for a while before they felt really comfortable enough to be creative. Conversely, when mixing faces from their own photos, people had creative ideas right away. Why is that?

The faces that users mix come from pictures of the people close to them. The difference with other assets is that users already know them. Once they grasp how the system works, they immediately come up with ideas using the photos they have taken and the ones they could take:

  • "My sister with my big eyebrows..."
  • "Me with my boss' hair!"
  • "Oh, and I could take a picture of Brad Pitt and mix him with me!"
  • "Wait, what about a mixture of me, Brad, and my next door neighbor all inside the face of a chimp?"
  • And so on...

Applying those ideas may require testing, validation, mind changing, and chance findings... But at some point in the process, there are ideas -- creative ideas.

In the opposite, before a user may have the creative idea, for example, to make a Faceez use a tuna fish for swashbuckling, she either:

  • Must know, from experience, that the app contains a tuna accessory and a sword-fighting animation.
  • Or guess those two options must be available -- I mean, only crappy games don't feature tuna! -- and then actively search for them. Software users rarely think like that, because it is often disappointing. Of course, when guessing works, that is an awesome experience (we shall get back to that later on).

To be creative, a player must know the available options well.

The downside is that the more options the players have, the longer it takes to learn and master them. Or does it?

What is Your Name? What is Your Quest? What is Your Favorite Color?

Imagine how Rare's avatar editor for the Xbox 360 would feel with only four haircuts, three nose shapes, two shirts... Could anyone get creative in that context? Could a player try and mix those elements to meet the result she imagined? Or would any user just go for the least inappropriate result?

Creativity may only happen if there is a large number of choices.

Already, there seems to be a conflict: to allow for creativity, the users must easily understand the tools we give them. So to keep it simple, we might want to reduce the number of options to learn. But that would reduce the amount of available choices, thus reducing creative potential.

Character customization in Adult Swim's Five Minutes to Kill Yourself is brilliantly designed so that creativity is totally impossible; this is achieved by drastically reducing the number of meaningful outcomes, and it suits the depressing atmosphere of the game world perfectly.

In the indispensable The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell shares a very interesting personal experience about indirect control:

In my amusement park days, I sometimes worked in the candy store, in front of a big display of 60 flavors of old-fashioned stick candy. A hundred times a day, people would come in and ask, "What flavors do you have back there?"

At first, I thought I would be a smart aleck, and recite all 60 flavors -- as I did this, the customer's eyes would get wide with fear, and right around the 32nd flavor they would say, "Stop! Stop! That's enough!" They were completely overwhelmed by so many choices. After a while, I thought of a new approach. When they asked about the flavors, I would say, "We have every flavor you can imagine. Go on, name the flavors you would like -- I'm sure we have them."

At first they would be impressed with this powerful freedom. But then they would furrow up their brows, think hard, and say, "Uh... cherry? No, wait... I don't want that... Hmm... Peppermint? No... Oh, just forget it," and they would walk away in frustration.

Finally I figured out a strategy that sold a lot of candy sticks. When someone would ask about the flavors, I would say "We have just about every flavor you can imagine, but our most popular flavors are Cherry, Blueberry, Lemon, Root Beer, Wintergreen, and Licorice." They were delighted at having the feeling of freedom, but also glad to have a small number of attractive choices; in fact, most customers would choose from the "popular six," a list I made up, and a list I would change frequently to help ensure the other flavors didn't get too old on the shelf.

Indirect control may be used to help players overcome the overwhelming sensation of creative freedom. In fact, default settings and "randomize" buttons do just that. They tell the player: "You could design any character you want, or you might also just use that one."

Why Choose Between Lipstick and a Moustache?

Another classic solution to that problem is to reduce the number of options, but allow players to combine them so that there still is a large number of possible meaningful outcomes. For example, Warcraft III (Blizzard) allows players to pick a color among 12; there are just 12 possible results. Players of Titan Quest (Iron Lore) may choose their clothes color among five choices per gender.

We may evaluate the combinatorial depth of a system by calculating a ratio of outcomes per option: in Warcraft III, the player has 12 options and there are 12 possible results. 12/12=1, so its ratio is just 1. There is no combinatorial depth at all. Titan Quest has seven options in total (male, female, white, brown, blue, gray and red) and 10 possible outcomes. This means Titan Quest's ratio is 10/7=1.42.

The ability to combine options may create a great difference between the number of options to master and the number of meaningful outcomes [1]. It's interesting to see that it suits those games' ambitions: Just picking a color hardly qualifies as customization: Blizzard's designers needed different colors to make each player different, and Warcraft III allows up to 12 players. Adding the choice between male and female, as in Titan Quest, is the beginning of combinatorial customization. (Later in the game, the appearance of characters mainly varies due of their equipment and active buffs.)

LittleBigPlanet may be the deepest game ever when it comes to customization and creation.

This way of combining options illustrates how game users can only be creative by combining things that already exist. Put that way, it seems very limited. But cannot the same thing be said of any creative process? As Robert I. Sutton of Stanford University points out, creativity is making new things out of old ones.

Creativity is making new things out of old ones.

Do ideas need to be new in order for them to qualify as creative? Well, creativity is a mental process, above anything else. If the players think they invented something the world has never seen ("Ooh, how about a Barack Obama Mii!"), then it just feels that way. So yes, creative ideas need to be new for the creator -- not for the world.

But as I said, Faceez did not have gameplay. Other very creative titles, such as Elektroplankton (Indies Zero) or Art Academy (Headstrong), will not help either. In order to find if and how user generated content is a part of gameplay, we must first define the word.


[1] I keep mentioning "meaningful" outcomes because moving the character's jawbone one millimeter down will not result in a perceptible difference.

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