Creative Play

Many games offer the player the chance to design or build something. In the Caesar series, it's a Roman city; in Spore, it's a creature. People enjoy designing and building things, and this kind of play is the main point of construction and man­agement simulations.

If you offer creative play, you should allow players to save their creations at any time and reload them to continue working on them. You should also let players print their creations out, take screenshots, copy them to other players' machines, and upload them to web sites. Sharing creations contributes to the fun.

Computerized creative play falls into two categories, constrained creative play and freeform creative play. A computerized game necessarily restricts creative play to whatever domain the game supports—painting, composing music, animation, and so on. In freeform creative play, few or no rules limit what the player can do within the confines of the game world, although play remains constrained by the domain, the set of actions that the user interface offers, and the machine's physical limitations.

Constrained Creative Play

If the player may only create within artificial constraints imposed by the rules, her activity is called constrained creative play. Constraining creativity may sound unde­sirable, but it really just provides a structure for the player's creativity. This type of gameplay grows out of some familiar ideas: the expressive power offered by
creativity tools; the growth in the number of actions available to a player as games progress; and the fact that players must overcome challenges in order to succeed. These may be combined in various ways, as the next two sections discuss.


In SimCity, the player can't build a whole city immediately; it costs money to zone each empty plot of land, and he can use only the money he has available. As his city prospers, he earns more money and so can establish new neighborhoods. Once he gets enough money, new features such as stadiums and airports, which were too expensive in the early stages of the game, become available to him. So long as the player continues to produce economic growth, he can make his city ever larger and add more and more facilities.

Construction and management simulations routinely implement this system of structuring the player's creativity. The player must successfully manage an econ­omy to construct larger creations and also to get additional creative power. This is a system closely related to that found in role-playing games, in which players must gain experience to learn new magic spells, and to that found in strategy games, in which players must harvest resources to perform the research necessary to get bet­ter weapons. In those genres, the economy of the game limits the player's ability to have adventures and fight wars; in creativity games, the economy limits the play­er's ability to create. The primary challenge in such games is successful economic management, with creative power serving as the reward for success.

This system rewards skill, granting players more exciting and powerful tools once they master the tools they already have. Educational software also uses this mechanism.


Another approach to constrained creative play gives players all the tools and resources they would like but requires them to construct an object that meets cer­tain requirements, usually having to do with making the object perform a function. For example, Spore from Maxis lets players design and build virtual crea­tures that then interact with creatures created by other players. The player gets a set of standard parts including arms and legs, eyes and ears, and weapons such as claws. Once the player constructs a creature, she turns it loose in the game world to fight or socialize with other creatures, and she can add additional features as she earns "DNA points." Although Spore can animate almost anything no matter how odd-looking, it does impose some physical standards: every creature must have a backbone and be a land animal. The game offers no way to create a creature with an exoskeleton, like an insect, or no skeleton at all, like an octopus.

The RollerCoaster Tycoon series requires the player to construct roller coasters in a theme park. The roller coaster must be designed in such a way that it doesn't crash or make the (virtual) riders sick but is still exciting to ride. RollerCoaster Tycoon com­bines the challenge of meeting physical standards with an economic challenge: Each element of the theme park costs money, and the player must stay within a budget.



Whenever you require the player to build to a standard and test his construction, when he fails he needs to know why—otherwise he can't learn the principles upon which you based the standards. RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 includes a feature to show the player how high and how steep the different segments of the coaster are, so he can figure it out with a little experimentation. See Figure 5.1.


With an adequate physics simulation, any game can test a player's creativity against a physical standard. An architecture game can test a building both for structural integrity and also for usability—rooms with no way to get into them are useless.

Aesthetics present a much larger problem, because they don't consist of a set of uni­versal laws in the way that Newtonian physics does. To test the aesthetic quality of a player's creations, you have to set some standards of your own. Consider some of the following options:

■ Test against a fixed set of rules that you establish. A game about clothing design could include well-known rules about color combinations, not mixing stripes with polka dots, and using fabric textures that harmonize and complement each other. This system rewards players who know the rules and conform to them. It's good for teaching the basics, but it doesn't encourage brilliant but unconven­tional combinations. Ubisoft's Imagine: Fashion Designer does something similar by requiring the player to design clothing for an AI "client." Unfortunately, the game offers no way for the player to find out exactly what the client wants. If the client refuses to accept a design, he doesn't say why, so the player has to find out by trial and error—a serious design flaw. If you plan to test the player's creations against fixed rules, you must provide a way for the player to find out what the rules are by some better means than trial and error.

■ Create a system of trends that the player can research. If you want to make a game in which creative challenges change over time, the way fashion trends change from year to year, design a system in which the standard against which you measure the player's work fluctuates. Each attribute of the player's product could be tested against a trend with its own rate of variation, so—using the clothing exam­ple again—hemlines might move up and down over a 10-year period, and preferred fabrics might change from synthetics to natural fibers over a 20-year period. The periodicity should never be completely regular or predictable, however. The trend information should be hidden from the player but partially accessible via a research process. When I ran a series of game design workshops on this theme, participants suggested several options for doing this research. The player, in the role of a fashion designer, could attend parties within the game and listen to computer-generated gossip, some of which would include clues about current trends; he could read auto­matically created fashion magazines and newspapers for clues; or he could even break into other fashion designers' workshops to find out about their works in progress.

■ Allow the public to vote online. You can let the players upload their creations to a web site and let the community vote on them. For example, The Sims 2: H&M Fashion Runway allows players to vote on clothing created in The Sims 2. This sys­tem relieves the computer of the responsibility for determining the aesthetic quality of the player's creations, but it significantly lengthens the time scale of the game—the player may have to wait hours or days until the votes come in unless the game has a large player base. You will also have to build a secure system that rewards players for voting and prevents vote rigging.

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