Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

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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6 Responses to “Why Games Aren’t Creative Anymore”

  1. Wolfe said

    I have spent a lot of time pondering this topic between various game projects. I think you are on to something here, I find it useful to compare games with music. One big difference between these forms of art is the common understanding of what they are about. This becomes Raph Koster “grammar” stuff, altho I think the problem is spread across a wider range of abstraction.

    When I try describe this to people who know almost nothing about either music of games I find that its easier to use music theory for metaphor. One primitive aspect of music is standing wave, another one is natural harmonics and so on. The relationships between the natural harmonics of a fundamental harmonic sets the foundation for chords, which leads to scales and so on. Its not really a direct relationship but in some aspects these theories are structured from the bottom to the top. At the top of the structure you have theories about what makes proper drama in the later acts of an opera. If you spend some time talking to several different music industry professionals you’ll be hearing much of the same theoretical arguments describing how music works from many different sources. These theories cover the toolbox for music development all the way from fundamental notes to opera arrangements and fantasy.

    If you spend some time talking to game industry professionals you’ll only in some places find a synchronized theoretical basis. Then soon after you leave the theories about interaction, reward schedules, fun, and maybe a few more design fundamentals you’ll notice how they separate from each other. There is no common ground, which basically means they dont know. Its gut feeling magic theory at work which shapes a lot of the designs we see today. This type of magic tends to fail, so instead of understanding the theory to a level where you can develop something new the fallback is to copy something old.

    In a very reductionistic type of way I look at games as consisting of five levels.

    Controls -> Verbs -> Core Mech -> Abstract Mech -> Emergence

    These to some degree are arranged in order of “closeness” to the player. A common method of innovation in the game industry would be to do something new in one of these levels, thereby forcing some new things to crop up in the nearby levels. Altho due to fear of inducing risk the impact of the changes are culled to be as small as possible when it comes to things which are defined by genre.

    When you compare this to how you compose music it would be like innovating in the genre of rock music by taking a popular rock song like “Enter Sandman” and changing the guitars for flutes. Its a great innovative idea in the “verb” area of the composition. But its doomed to fail, or at best become a very narrow niche product for the flute geeks in the world.

    The failure on the part of the game industry is all to often the lack of understanding that if you change the guitars for flutes you’ll have to accept changing the melody, and the chord progressions, and the lyrics, band name, performance…

    Another typical failure is the expectation that changes in purely abstract systems will make a great game. Make enter Sandman but change the song structure to play the solo in the intro. Make next mmorpg be about killing foozles but when you create a guild you can set the guild insignia to show the face of the guild leader. Changes done at the higher levels of abstraction purely will never work as a real selling point to the average player. Changes has to be fundamental and done right. The screenshot you can see of an average in game situation should show some value proposition to the user who already is playing something similar. This is where I find all the coming big MMORPG’s failing, its all the same as EQ/WoW but with a very slim chance of having a quality of the same level as WoW has.

    WAR has some abstract changes to how a character works once you get involved with the higher level activities. (The flavor might be different but the verbs appear to be the same). At some high level you have a new type of group play ruleset which involves bringing your lot of frinds to a special kind of persisted Battleground. It might sell to some but it wont be noticeably different from WoW.

    Age of Conan looks like it has some changes to the controls used in combat. But nothing says there will be any changes to the actual verbs of core mechanics because of this. Its the flute Enter Sandman beast, unless Funcom can make sure to change the core mechanics and abstract mechanics too. But then the game would have to be about something which actually differs from WoW. High level organized players should need to strive towards something that is different from the hunt for talented guildmembers to help out with whatever problem the game presents to organized player groups. (example of abstract WoW/EQ mechanics)

    Well, I guess I wrote too much already. And the probability that this is comprehensible is not too great either. 😛

  2. bruce said

    I think the number one factor in diversity is competition. if you look at the evolution of rock music complexity in the 60s, it was all bands like the beatles and the beach boys trying to one up each other. grunge in seattle in the 90s was the same.

    when you have high barriers to entry, there are less people competing, and no one can afford to fail. that’s why in the 80s, with every band needing a polished music video and heavy label promotion to get heard, music became bland and polished.

    games are the same. right now it’s VERY expensive to make a game that lots of people want to play, so it’s not surprising there’s a smaller number of people making them, and since most companies (even big ones) only release a few games a year, it could kill the company if you release a single game that fails big. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot more focus on making games that are ‘same old + a few new things’ than ‘so crazy it just might work’

    eventually either the current dinosaurs have to learn to be more nimble (witness EA’s current restructuring attempts) or they will be replaced by the current tiny mammals (club penguin, runescape, whirled, etc.)

    so the key to creativity is lowering the barriers to entry and the cost of failure.

  3. JZig said

    Wolfe, thanks for the comment. I have to disagree with you a bit: The type of analysis that you (and I) are going into in terms of breaking down the theory of stuff is NOT at all required for real innovation. In fact, by distilling the processes down to abstract theories, I think it becomes somewhat LESS innovative, and instead redirects focus to iterated improvement. Once you break stuff down in the way you did, it becomes much easier to iterate on sections to make the whole better, but I’m NOT sure it actually makes it easier to come up with actual new ideas. Based on what I’ve read about Blizzard’s design process, I believe they DID break stuff down in this way, which lead to an extremely polished, but I would argue not very innovative, game.

  4. JZig said

    Bruce, yeah, I totally agree about the competition thing. Trying to work with a high budget, or within an established license can stifle creativity and make everything about polish. One other thing is that when people say “competition” drives creativity they often mean competition between large stable corporations, as opposed to chaotic mess from your music examples.

    I know it’s probably not good for the company bottom line, but some more chaos in the mmo space would be nice 🙂

  5. Wolfe said

    I see it as several relatively separate topics. The one about theory is roughly saying that when people really dont know what the customer wants they’ll look at what the customer already is paying for. Which is one of the reasons why things look like they do.

    The other one is how the project was sold to investors. Very few designers has the power over the product that Mozart had over his operas. This power is currently only given to designers with a proven track record, and even then its at best a Blizzard type of situation. Which I agree is about refining points to meet critical quality. The difference there is that Mozart knew his artform, he didnt need to prototype the “string section” or whatever. The Amadeus movie is a nice metaphor also for the game industry. ^^

    I have been involved with a few too many discussions with clients where I know that its more important to get the project started than to make it the best possible product on the same budget. These goals become somewhat competing for attention and it drives the adoption of a defensive strategy from the designer. The thing here is that even if Im convinced that an iterative process will be better for the end product I can only use that argument a few times before the people with the money starts to look at me in a funny way, so you give up and eventually agree to “waterfalling” certain aspects of the high level design. There would be more “chaos” if I kept on pushing it, and that would be bad for “my bottom line” so to speak.

    The destructive type of chaos that I notice at play in the game industry is the lack of functional communication. Yet again the Amadeus metaphor, when Mozart is about to bite it from his illness and the antagonist of the story, Salieri, helps him with writing the Requiem they use a functional communication, something like:

    – violins, A-minor descending arpeggio

    In the games industry a similar statement might have the recipient of the message starting to write on the liberetto. There is noise in the communication, this is overcome by each studio pretty much developing its own method of communicaition. Noise is pretty much just lack of presicion, chaos is rather the opposit – “exponential growth of perturbations in the initial conditions”

    Chaothic structure could arise if the noise went down. To the benefit of things like harmony and synergy.

    What I’ll be interested in seeing is how accurate my predictions for WAR and AoC really are when there is more user feedback floating around the web. ^^

  6. […] 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. doublebuffered […]

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