Why Games Aren’t Creative Anymore
Posted by Ben Zeigler on March 31, 2008
“Think outside the box” is one of those catchy phrases that management-types like to throw around so much. The idea is that to come up with new and creative ideas, one needs to throw away all preconceptions and start with a blank slate. Unless you’re solving puzzles in a great game like Professor Layton (where it’s needed to solve probably 50% of the puzzles), this advice is basically worthless. It’s like handing someone a crayon and saying “draw something”. Unless that person already had something in mind, you’re probably going to get some incredibly boring scribbles. That’s not creativity. The human brain does not generate new, interesting ideas from some magical font of inspiration, they come from other ideas.
Whenever we do a brainstorm session at work for some game system or other, we always start out by listing some Principles. These principles are the Box from within we start our work. It’s easy to start filling out the obvious ideas that are implied by the principles, so we do that. Then come the variations and clarifications, where each person adds in ideas that are reflective of their own personal experiences and ideas. Random personal anecdotes from one person are combined with the game that another person played last night, and a crazy idea that combines them comes from a third person. Eventually, we realize that 2 of the principles we came in with were flawed, and we remove them. By the end of it we have a bunch of stuff that is exploding out the original box, and enough ideas to start making a game. This is creativity, and this is exactly how every great rock band or classical composer works. It can be a collaborative process between individuals, or one within a single person’s brain, but it works the same.
But there’s no guarantee that thinking within a box will ever generate new, creative ideas. Sometimes, it just results in incredibly focused iteration on a core concept, and never changes direction. In fact, smart people working on a problem will solve it in this way unless they can’t. The key is some sort of disruption to the focused iteration. In rock bands of 20th century, this disruption often seemed to be drugs. For the classical composers, I imagine it was often the whim of their patrons. In my example above, it was the interaction between disparate individuals in a group. And for much of the history of video and computer games, that disruption has been Technology.
Early arcade games were interesting because of the technical limitations, not in spite of them. Space Invaders is about aliens because planes were too hard to render, and the aliens speed up as you kill them because the game had to compute fewer aliens. Mario was red and had a mustache because it provided better visual contrast. The proliferation of character stats and levelling in PC RPGs compensates for the failure to bond with your player character through more direct means. Inability to represent motivations artistically led designers to add more complicated and interesting behavior to non-player characters. Striving against technical limitations drove all of the innovation in the 3D space and kept things interesting through the PS2 generation.
So why are games less creative and innovative these days? Well, we’ve basically destroyed all of the technical limitations, and are now in the “focused iteration” part of the creative process. There’s not enough disruption in the industry to create the real creativity needed to move us up to the cultural level of movies or music. Going forward I see two promising routes: Indie Games, and integrating ideas from outside the industry. Indie Games drive creativity in the exact same way as music and movies, by being limited in terms of resources. When you have very little money, you come up with creative solutions to problems. Also, there are many ideas from other media that are yet to be effectively integrated into the medium of games, and there is much fertile ground there. But, we can’t rely on the cycle of technical improvement to disrupt us from our boring but satisfying process of optimizing for the faithful.
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