The Average Gamer

Player Creativity, And The Power Of Illusion

I wrote in a previous piece that destruction is the best way to make the player feel powerful. There is one more effective method – destruction’s opposite: creation. However, despite being the engine powering the success of The Sims, Minecraft, and the legions of Tycoon games, its seldom seen in more “traditional” games. Why is this?

The first, and probably most obvious reason is that destruction is more useful for narrative games. Game stories are almost exclusively adversarial. Kill The Evil Ones! Destroy Their Stuff! Creating ever more complex glasshouses, and roller coasters, as I do in Minecraft, doesn’t propel a narrative. However, this alone, does not exempt narrative games from encouraging player creativity and providing the player with choices.

Much as I don’t like debates on what a game is, I feel we may need to briefly address it here.
One definition says that games are “constrained fun”. This is interesting because the constraints play two roles. They create the fun, and they also maintain it by keeping the game balanced.

It follows from this, that even when games look free, open, and full of player choice, they are actually constrained by strict rules. My dream game involves creatively solving problems in a narrative-focused (but including a good bit of action) experience. However, the above is the first roadblock for my dream game, as well as for player creativity and player choice in general.

The second roadblock comes from the way games are made and funded. If we were trying to design an encounter for a game, we’d begin by roughing out the geometry and the key obstacles. We’d then run the encounter in our heads, thinking of ways to make it interesting, and of things people might like to do.

For example: there’s a walkway over a chasm that’s patrolled by guards. At its most basic we can have two options:

  1. Fight the guards and cross the walkway.
  2. Sneak under the walkway, weaken all of the supports, find the hidden path and cross.

Most people can get to this point and they could come up with loads of other cool things for the player to do. However, games have budgets and the publisher will have expectations of a particular return on investment. So for this encounter, what a designer has to decide is the following:

  • Is this a undermining-things game? Can we make the undermining things fun.
  • Will our core audience enjoy undermining the walkway?
  • With respect to the cost of implementing undermining the walkway – animation, particles, physics – am I going to use it enough?

So from the almost-infinite number of ways a human would approach a problem (almost all of them, differing very little from each other but still a huge number), through play-testing, and polishing, and cost-benefit analysis, it gets boiled down to three at best. However, even with play-testing, none of the available options may be the way you want to approach it.

One final roadblock comes from what we are using to control the game; a computer. At its core, a video game is a system and, because we can’t monitor it, it has to be a closed system.
What I mean by a closed system, is that the user cannot modify it. For example, in an FPS, I cannot modify the rate of fire of the guns while I am in the game.

This system has a limited number of inputs, which produce deterministic outputs, i.e. every time the system receives an input, it provides the same output, or at least one in a pre-set range. This allows us to feed our game into a computer, and for the computer to be able to handle it and not catch fire. Almost the textbook definition of creation is the injection of new things, or new behaviours into a system.

Yeah… that’s a problem. Computers can’t think; they’re only just beginning to do natural language processing. IBM’s Watson is the furthest along – it’s able to give top Jeopardy players a run for their money. However, the days of a computer being able to accept a request from the player, understand it, and then make a balanced judgement. As well as implement the judgement in real time, are a long way away. Sadly, that’s exactly what we need them to be able to do for creative problem solving to be a viable aspect of narrative based or open world games. Its a sad fact that the more game you want to have, the less creativity and player choice you can have.

Dungeons and DragonsThis is why I’m so jealous of Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve never played it but I have listened to the excellent Wizards of the Coast podcasts featuring the guys behind web-comics Penny-Arcade and PVP, as well as actor/Internet hero Wil Wheaton. I highly recommend them to anyone who is a fan of games, D&D or just a fan of interesting, very funny people.

The main thing I picked up on was the role of the DM (Dungeon Master, Chris Perkins) and the way he worked to include any crazy thing the guys wanted to do. I was amazed at how he was able to take their ideas, and quickly formulate a skill check that made sense, and maintained the integrity of the game. At its core, D&D appears to be about collaborative storytelling, along with the ability, if you have a great DM, to solve problems creatively, and in your own way.

D&D can achieve this flexibility, and video games can’t, for a couple of reasons.

  1. Everything is free
    If the players want to do something, they can do it. No polygons have to be teased into complex forms. No new behaviour has to be coded, and tested. No animator needs to get animated. As many one-off events as you like can be added, as long as a credible skill check can be formulated. There’s no pressure to reuse anything, as they didn’t cost anything.
  2. There’s less expectation of a polished product, and the ability to retcon.
    At the AAA level, games are expensive, as a result gamers expect smooth, well polished experiences. In D&D, if a choice unbalances a game, the players are less annoyed as they are not significantly out of pocket, and it can be fixed on the fly.
  3. It’s turn-based
    While not an advantage over a computer, it is how D&D gets the most out of its DM.
    A human would be unable to cope with a stream of complex requests from multiple players. However, they can cope quite well with one at a time.

The real lesson from D&D is that you can have real creativity in a system constrained by rules, and limits if you can make these rules, and limits flexible. A human overseer is a terrific way to do this.

What could we have if creation was truly possible in video games? Well, I’ve wanted a cross between Team Fortress 2 (TF2) and Minecraft for a long time. TF2 should be a game about building defences and holding onto a fort, and it is that… kinda. However, its constraints prevent it from fully fulfilling this

Asynchronous gameplay is something which is very interesting to me. It means some players playing a different game, or the same game differently, to the majority of players. The above-ground chaos of TF2, coupled with the engineers undermining bits of the opposing forts in a Minecraft style and setting traps in their own fort, would be special.

However, as well as the technical issues, balancing this would be an absolute nightmare. If players can dig anywhere they like on the game map, you can’t count on anything going on below ground. Chokepoints, and other fun ways of bringing the opposing teams together, are now unpredictable, and cannot be preset. You’d need a computerised DM to oversee the game, and make lightning quick decisions.

As such a DM is a long way off, the designers at Valve have created defensive archetypes, and built maps with choke-points designed for them. Players feel great when they stick a turret in a good spot, even though they were always meant to put it there. This is the illusion of creativity. It’s great, because it’s almost as powerful as true creativity, but much more controllable, balance-able, and easier to fit into the wider game.

Another example would be the skate parks in the Tony Hawk series. Players feel great building runs and finding ways to link tricks together. However, this is not real creativity. It’s not a lot better than tracing a drawing, but it works. The player feels good, and the developers can be pretty sure that every player will feel good.

My favourite example of the power of this illusion is 2009’s Picross 3D for the Nintendo DS. For those who don’t know, Picross is a series of games dating back to the the Gameboy. The concept behind them, is a type of number puzzle called a nonogram.

The player is given a grid – or in Picross 3D, a collection of cubes forming a 3D shape – with number clues on it. The clues tell the player which of grid-squares/cubes are part of an object contained in the puzzle, and which can be chipped away.

The genius behind Picross 3D is the way it makes you feel like you made the object contained in the puzzle. It feels like a carving simulator sometimes. The combination of the stylus tapping and a really great stone chipping sound makes it feel like you’re carving the object out of a rock. There’s zero creation involved here, as there is only one solution which was set when the game shipped. This is illusion at its best.

So true creation or player creativity is not present in mainstream games and to be honest, until we are able to control the consequences of it, this is probably a good thing. It’s a good thing, because we have the illusion to fall back on.

The problem is that not enough games are taking advantage of it. The value of this illusion for narrative games is that it elicits similar feelings from players to those that Minecraft does, but the developer doesn’t have to give up the storytelling and control advantages of more traditional game structures.

As my site bio says, I have a lot of imaginary conversations. These are okay, however they can get a little tedious as I’m always right. I’d love to hear your thoughts on creation in games and how you feel games will change in the coming 20-50 years. Talk to me in the comments section.


  1. afurryLPist

    14th Mar, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    pffft, minecraft is bland, desolate and featureless compared to Terraria (sadly Terrarias development days could be over if no more devs show up D: )

    Terraria is much more than just a 2D minecraft, and its constantly said “is this a 2D minecraft on iphones” or something like that posted by minetards (what i call people brain dead addicted on a game like minecraft, with NPC’s you cant do much with except make some type of factory and have you hard work in armor ache and break, only for a few more iron from a golem who could easily one shot you, within 2 hits, 1 hit without armor probably) i also hate how theres no variety of ores in minecraft, Terrarias tiers far surpass anything minecraft could ever do, the guide is now confident and what crafts what from your crafting list, aand iron has turned very useful (other than chandeliers, theres pumps, resetting timers for wires, and you have the abiity to drain an entire ocean for a merfolk only server, the water wont update unless a player gets near smething in Terraria, where as minecraft if the world doesnt have light every monster scatters like pizza topings around the entire world due to there being no “enemy spawns near player screeen” quota, and you cant use lights to repel enemies in terraria, minecraft is overpowered if you have tons of torches) what i BEST HATE about minetards is saying theres a 2D minecraft outwhen they are looking dead front at terraria, DO YOU EVER SEE A GIANT FLAMING SWORD IN MINECRAFT? DO YOU HONESTLY THINK THIS IS SOME CRAPPY JIZ ZED ON MINECRAFT AP! WHAT IS WITH YOURE COBWEBBED BRAIN! THIS IS TERRARIA! again and again i explain virtually every item that terraria promises, the fact armor and tools dont run out of durability due to all the hard work, if you destroy a chest the contents dont explode and it becomes invincible with something in it, CONSTANTLY i have to explain NOT EVEN THE BASICS of terraria are like minecraft, and i really want to greive minecraft multiplayer servers in SHEER rage when i hear that, destroy everything and then spell out the words Terraria in netherrock and lava wherever i destroy the house of whoever chatted that, one of the reasons we grief, is for power, another reason for this destruction is to collect items and materials from jeolousy or the need of the materials, or just mainly to show off power and pride with explosions or hard determination, yes i am a furry (i dont yiff or any of that sick stuff), and i devote my life to playing games to the fullest, comparing and explaining, so what if i get rage filled over someone screaming “2D MINECRAFT RIPOFF” its becuase they dont even imerse themsleves into Terraria, they just see things as the lighting as a direct ripoff “oh it has torches so its obviously a ripff of terraria”…. now im gonna go destroy some bland featureless building blocks in
    minecraft, brb.

  2. Geoff

    18th Mar, 2012 at 9:21 am

    You’re right about that, Minecraft and Terraria don’t compare. The only really similar thing is that they’re both games where you smash blocks and put them back down again somewhere else.

    Minecraft is definitely dry of features in comparison to Terraria. I’ve spent many hours in both, but Terraria was much richer in gameplay. Minecraft has 3 dimensions going for it, but dick-all for content.

    Very little value for adventure. “Dungeons” are small rooms scattered in the middle of buttfuck nowhere with a mob generator and a couple treasure boxes.

    Terraria has bosses, loads of items and mobs, magic, various projectile and melee weapon types made of different materials, ammo types, a gazillion things to craft, a great battle system that’s challenging yet user friendly, the ability to bring different characters to different worlds, lots of awesome things.

    I still like Minecraft in its own boring way, but Terraria isn’t a fucking Minecraft ripoff, it went above and beyond Minecraft in many ways.

    As for the actual topic of the thread… I think destruction gets boring and repetitive after a while, and illusionary creation loses its illusion and charm in repetitiveness.

    I think creation without a narrow, boring, predetermined storyline is pointless. You can play your way through a story, having created nothing, having simply watched a movie while pressing buttons, and never want to touch that game again, at least not until you forget half the details.

    But when the game world’s future itself is unpredictable, as in Dwarf Fortress, you have so many available plots to carve out of the game, so many you could say infinite. It’s exciting many more times through because you never know what you’re going to get.

    And if you go out of your way, in a game like Dwarf Fortress you can situate yourself in a wide variety of situations all with a different flavour. You make your own limitations by perhaps choosing to settle in a treeless desert, or a barren glacier. You can put yourself in a map with undead and other dangers, or a relatively safe location.

    You can seal off your base or leave it open… Defend it with traps, or dwarven military, or even war elephants/giant cave spiders/giant tigers/giant eagles… You can trade with elves, or slaughter all elvenkind who comes to meet you, starting a war with an entire civilization.

    And of course, so many unpredictable factors can cause for hilarious, epic plots of interactive storytelling. Just look up “boatmurdered.” Dwarf Fortress in succession games sounds like it captures the feel of D&D in its human flexibility, but draws immensely from the power of computational machinery. When it becomes unbalanced against you, sure, you’re screwed, but that’s one of the charms of the game: Losing is storytelling too, and thus is fun. Losing can be epic, and even sadistically entertaining if you’ve got dwarves running around all over the place fleeing fireballs after you dig too deep.

    When it becomes unbalanced in your favour, you end up with epic creations of dwarven ingenuity, possibly leading eventually to boredom and the desire to crack into that which would be wise to leave alone. For chaotic fun. So I guess you do have some control over the balance of the game after all.

    Isolate yourself from danger and live comfortably and carefully, or run headlong into danger? Do you want to strike a balance and stay well prepared but open to war? Do you want to prepare for a particularly dangerous undertaking and see if your fortress has what it takes to come out alive? Your choice.

    • Ed

      18th Mar, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      I’ve been kicking myself since writing this that I didn’t include surprise in the paragraph on Picross.
      Each puzzle has a different object. It’s a kind of “Kinder Egg” effect. The surprise keeps the creativity fresh. Doing this in a more structured game is probably impossible, as you’ll need the creative event to produce a very, very narrow range of objects.

      Another reason for being annoyed is that another academic definition of games is “Toys with surprises”.

      Off topic, but theres an incredible amount of academic literature focused on defining games and play. Both are very open questions, which surprised me, they seem obvious, but it turns out not to be so.

      I treat these pieces as learning in public. Thanks for your feedback.

    • I have a block.

      30th Jul, 2012 at 5:02 am

      Minecrafts real power is in mapping and modding. the communitys ability to share has made the game what it is.

  3. Debbie Timmins (Weefz)

    18th Mar, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Hey guys. Loving your comments on the piece. Let’s not get into a Minecraft vs Terraria war, please.

  4. carbonKid619

    26th Mar, 2012 at 7:09 am

    I have One word for you; SpaceChem. Look it up.

  5. kyle

    3rd Jul, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    one thing seemingly overlooked here is that minecraft is the very base game upon which anything can be added. if it is bland or boring then make a f****** mod to make it more interesting. minecraft is designed so that you can add anything to it. you want guns, theres a mod for that. new blocks? theres a mod for that. interesting narrative/quests? theres a mod for that. Minecraft has more possibilities than any other game i have ever heard of simply because you can edit the game and make it exactly how you want it to be. with enough time and effort minecraft can be any game you want but made better and out of blocks.

  6. GoldFish

    25th Jul, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Brevity. Practice it.

    • bromotomo

      6th Sep, 2012 at 4:34 pm