Saturday, November 24, 2012

Player Creativity Considered Harmful

Is player creativity desirable in games?

There's a subset of developers who seem to think so. They like the idea that players should be able to express behaviors and create objects in a gameworld that they (the developers) never thought of.

But these appear to be a distinct minority. Most games are deliberately designed and developed to prevent any truly creative play. In particular, the number of in-game effects that characters and objects can demonstrate are cut back as much as possible.

Why take such pains? Why are most developers so determined to strictly limit player verbs or possible system interactions if player creativity is such a great thing?

There are several not entirely bad reasons why. Unfortunately for the game industry, I believe the combination of these justifications winds up leading to a severe majority of games that are so tightly controlled as to nearly play themselves.


One problem with allowing player creativity is rude content.

If you let players do things that modify 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.)

Developers can accept this if they're OK with a mature rating for their game, but creativity tools make it tough to sell a multiplayer game that's kid-safe.


Another problem is that emergent behaviors can look to some gamers like bugs.

That doesn't mean they are actual bugs, defined for games as behavior that opposes the intended play experience. Just because it was unintended doesn't mean it opposes the desired play experience.

The developers of Dishonored, for example, were surprised to see their playtesters possess a target while plummeting from a great height, thus avoiding deceleration trauma. It wasn't intended -- it emerged from the interaction of systems -- but it made sense within the play experience Arkane had in mind. So it wasn't a bug, it was a feature... and it got to stay in the game. That appears to be a rare exception to standard practice, though.


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.

An argument might be made that some creativity is needed to sell a lot of stuff. But that's not related to crafting as a process of imagining new kinds of objects that meet specific purposes and elegantly bringing them into existence within a gameworld. That's "craftsmanship," and it's what a crafting system worthy of the name would be... but that's not what crafting in MMORPGs ever actually is.

A truly creative crafting system would allow the internal economy of a gameworld to grow through the invention of new IP. Wouldn't that be an interesting way to counter mudflation?

To be fair, a creative crafting system would probably far outshine the rest of most MMORPGs. Part of the crafting system in the late Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) MMORPG was highly regarded, but in an odd way it was so much fun that it didn't ever really fit into a Star Wars game.

So what might a MMORPG (i.e., not Second Life) with a truly creativity-encouraging crafting system look like? In what kind of gameworld would the ability for players to imagine and implement entirely new kinds of things be appropriate?


Yet another reason to deprecate player creativity is game balance. Especially in multiplayer games, developers not unreasonably want to try to keep the playing field level for players using (marginally) different playstyles.

A common way this gets expressed is by organizing character skills in level-controlled classes. It's more interesting to key character abilities to skills, and let players pick and choose the skills they want. But this (developers have decided) allows the emergence of character ability combinations that may be either unexpectedly "overpowered" or too "weak" to compete effectively with players of similar skill levels.

This perspective that "interacting systems allow emergent effects that interfere with the intended play experience and therefore must be minimized" explains (as one example) why Sony Online Entertainment completely deleted the extensive individual skills system of the original Star Wars Galaxies and replaced it with a few static classes with specific abilities at developer-determined levels, just like pretty much every other MMORPG out there.

The New Gameplay Experience was well-regarded by some of SWG's new players. But many long-time players felt that the original SWG's unique skills-based ability model was much more creatively satisfying. When it was changed so radically to a class-based model, eliminating their ability to express themselves in a detailed way through their character's abilities, they left the game.

EVE Online also allows skill selection, but in practice most people wind up with the same skills. So is it possible any longer to offer a major MMORPG that encodes player abilities in mix-and-match skills, rather than a small set of classes in which my Level 80 Rogue is functionally identical to your Level 80 Rogue?


One more reason why emergence gets locked down in games starts, ironically, with sensibly trying to use more mature software development practices.

Test case driven software 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's often a Good Thing. It helps to insure that you deliver will be what your customers are expecting. But there is a dark side to this process, as there can be for any process, which is that if your organization starts getting top-heavy, with a lot of layers between the people running things and those doing the actual game development, the process eventually tends to become the deliverable. Reality becomes whatever the process says it is. Process is easier to measure than the meaning of some development action: "How many lines of code did you write today?"

The practical result of enforcing the "everything must have a test case" process is that every feature must have a test case. That's actually pretty handy for testing to a well-defined set of expectations.

Unfortunately, the all-too-common corollary is: if we didn't write a test case for it, you're not allowed to have that feature. At that point, the process has become your deliverable, and your game is very unlikely to tolerate any creativity from its players. It might be a good game by some standard. But it probably won't be memorable.

Still, a process for reliably catching real bugs is valuable. So how can the desire to allow some creativity and the need to deliver measureably high quality coexist?


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. The Witcher 2 fought this somewhat, but it's emphatically the exception.

Is there a middle ground between developer story and player freedom? Or is there a way to design a game so that both of these can be expressed strongly?

To sum up: from the perspective of many game developers, especially in the AAA realm, "emergent" automatically equals "bug" in all cases. 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. The idea of of actually increasing the number of systems or permitted system interactions seems to be something that just will not be permitted.

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?


  1. Awesome article, Bart!
    This is exactly what I'm working with in the new project.

  2. Thanks, Luis! Good luck with the project, and I hope you can show it off soon.