Sponsored By

How Can Gameplay Allow Players to Get Creative?

How can creativity be brought into games -- is it even possible? Designer Eddy Léja-Six examines the nature of both creativity and games to get to the bottom of the question: which games allow for creativity, and how do they encourage it?

November 20, 2012

52 Min Read

Author: by Eddy Léja-Six

How can creativity be brought into games -- is it even possible? Designer Eddy Léja-Six examines the nature of both creativity and games to get to the bottom of the question: which games allow for creativity, and how do they encourage it?

Creativity and games are among the most important human activities. Children spend a lot of time playing and inventing, often at the same time: "Now you'll be the bank robber, and I'll chase you with this invisible dinosaur!"

Many adults will tell you they do not play games because WinMine (a.k.a. Minesweeper) "isn't really a game." Others will assure you they are not creative, as "they can't draw properly."

In fact, these two activities are part of everyone's life, and turn out to be as natural and spontaneous as breathing; almost as useful too.

As video game developers, we know how to entertain players and offer them meaningful and emotional experiences. But do we have the necessary tools to allow players to use their creative mind while they play? How did the games that attempted it fare? Should we even try to mix gameplay and creativity?

First and foremost, what is creativity? Here is the definition I could craft that gained the most consensus.

Creativity is the mental process allowing us to find and apply new ideas.

We'll add chunks to this rather short definition as the article goes on.

Calvinball, a perfect example of (excessively) creative gameplay
Calvin & Hobbes, © Bill Waterson

So What's the Plan, Then?

My objective in this feature is to identify if and how gameplay and creativity may work together in video game design. I shall try and cite as many relevant games as possible along the way. Here is a list of the missions I shall have to complete before I reach the end of my quest:

  • Define creativity further

  • Define gameplay

  • Identify how these two have already been used together in existing games

  • Analyze why those games succeed or fail in their attempt to give the players creative powers


The most obvious case of creativity in a video game comes from user generated content. While level editors and character customization have been around for a long time now, recent titles such as Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet have given the players tremendous creative opportunities.

Let us look at user generated content and the way it can be considered as creative gameplay.

Playtesting Faceez

At Neko Entertainment, we developed a DSiWare app called Faceez, in which users may mix, accessorize and animate faces from photographs. It is the only "non-game" I have ever worked on, but it requires a lot more creativity from the user than all the games I have designed. In fact, the whole app is a character customization menu.

Of course, the difference between an app and a game is gameplay. So Faceez is never going to be a good example of how gameplay and creativity may or may not mix. But it gave me a lot of clues about user creativity in software.

If someone asks to use your face to promote the app you've designed, believe me, you should say no.

Playtesting Faceez was particularly interesting, as two distinct behavior patterns emerged: Users combining game assets (accessories and animations) began by empirically browsing the available options, and then used the random button for a while before they felt really comfortable enough to be creative. Conversely, when mixing faces from their own photos, people had creative ideas right away. Why is that?

The faces that users mix come from pictures of the people close to them. The difference with other assets is that users already know them. Once they grasp how the system works, they immediately come up with ideas using the photos they have taken and the ones they could take:

  • "My sister with my big eyebrows..."

  • "Me with my boss' hair!"

  • "Oh, and I could take a picture of Brad Pitt and mix him with me!"

  • "Wait, what about a mixture of me, Brad, and my next door neighbor all inside the face of a chimp?"

  • And so on...

Applying those ideas may require testing, validation, mind changing, and chance findings... But at some point in the process, there are ideas -- creative ideas.

In the opposite, before a user may have the creative idea, for example, to make a Faceez use a tuna fish for swashbuckling, she either:

  • Must know, from experience, that the app contains a tuna accessory and a sword-fighting animation.

  • Or guess those two options must be available -- I mean, only crappy games don't feature tuna! -- and then actively search for them. Software users rarely think like that, because it is often disappointing. Of course, when guessing works, that is an awesome experience (we shall get back to that later on).

To be creative, a player must know the available options well.

The downside is that the more options the players have, the longer it takes to learn and master them. Or does it?

What is Your Name? What is Your Quest? What is Your Favorite Color?

Imagine how Rare's avatar editor for the Xbox 360 would feel with only four haircuts, three nose shapes, two shirts... Could anyone get creative in that context? Could a player try and mix those elements to meet the result she imagined? Or would any user just go for the least inappropriate result?

Creativity may only happen if there is a large number of choices.

Already, there seems to be a conflict: to allow for creativity, the users must easily understand the tools we give them. So to keep it simple, we might want to reduce the number of options to learn. But that would reduce the amount of available choices, thus reducing creative potential.

Character customization in Adult Swim's Five Minutes to Kill Yourself is brilliantly designed so that creativity is totally impossible; this is achieved by drastically reducing the number of meaningful outcomes, and it suits the depressing atmosphere of the game world perfectly.

In the indispensable The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell shares a very interesting personal experience about indirect control:

In my amusement park days, I sometimes worked in the candy store, in front of a big display of 60 flavors of old-fashioned stick candy. A hundred times a day, people would come in and ask, "What flavors do you have back there?"

At first, I thought I would be a smart aleck, and recite all 60 flavors -- as I did this, the customer's eyes would get wide with fear, and right around the 32nd flavor they would say, "Stop! Stop! That's enough!" They were completely overwhelmed by so many choices. After a while, I thought of a new approach. When they asked about the flavors, I would say, "We have every flavor you can imagine. Go on, name the flavors you would like -- I'm sure we have them."

At first they would be impressed with this powerful freedom. But then they would furrow up their brows, think hard, and say, "Uh... cherry? No, wait... I don't want that... Hmm... Peppermint? No... Oh, just forget it," and they would walk away in frustration.

Finally I figured out a strategy that sold a lot of candy sticks. When someone would ask about the flavors, I would say "We have just about every flavor you can imagine, but our most popular flavors are Cherry, Blueberry, Lemon, Root Beer, Wintergreen, and Licorice." They were delighted at having the feeling of freedom, but also glad to have a small number of attractive choices; in fact, most customers would choose from the "popular six," a list I made up, and a list I would change frequently to help ensure the other flavors didn't get too old on the shelf.

Indirect control may be used to help players overcome the overwhelming sensation of creative freedom. In fact, default settings and "randomize" buttons do just that. They tell the player: "You could design any character you want, or you might also just use that one."

Why Choose Between Lipstick and a Moustache?

Another classic solution to that problem is to reduce the number of options, but allow players to combine them so that there still is a large number of possible meaningful outcomes. For example, Warcraft III (Blizzard) allows players to pick a color among 12; there are just 12 possible results. Players of Titan Quest (Iron Lore) may choose their clothes color among five choices per gender.

We may evaluate the combinatorial depth of a system by calculating a ratio of outcomes per option: in Warcraft III, the player has 12 options and there are 12 possible results. 12/12=1, so its ratio is just 1. There is no combinatorial depth at all. Titan Quest has seven options in total (male, female, white, brown, blue, gray and red) and 10 possible outcomes. This means Titan Quest's ratio is 10/7=1.42.

The ability to combine options may create a great difference between the number of options to master and the number of meaningful outcomes [1]. It's interesting to see that it suits those games' ambitions: Just picking a color hardly qualifies as customization: Blizzard's designers needed different colors to make each player different, and Warcraft III allows up to 12 players. Adding the choice between male and female, as in Titan Quest, is the beginning of combinatorial customization. (Later in the game, the appearance of characters mainly varies due of their equipment and active buffs.)

LittleBigPlanet may be the deepest game ever when it comes to customization and creation.

This way of combining options illustrates how game users can only be creative by combining things that already exist. Put that way, it seems very limited. But cannot the same thing be said of any creative process? As Robert I. Sutton of Stanford University points out, creativity is making new things out of old ones.

Creativity is making new things out of old ones.

Do ideas need to be new in order for them to qualify as creative? Well, creativity is a mental process, above anything else. If the players think they invented something the world has never seen ("Ooh, how about a Barack Obama Mii!"), then it just feels that way. So yes, creative ideas need to be new for the creator -- not for the world.

But as I said, Faceez did not have gameplay. Other very creative titles, such as Elektroplankton (Indies Zero) or Art Academy (Headstrong), will not help either. In order to find if and how user generated content is a part of gameplay, we must first define the word.


[1] I keep mentioning "meaningful" outcomes because moving the character's jawbone one millimeter down will not result in a perceptible difference.

What is Gameplay?

All Gamasutra readers have a good grasp of what a video game is -- so while there's room for argument, I will not even bother to redefine it here. Warning: this article contains ideas that some readers may find offensive. If you don't think The Sims is a game, look away now!

We all know games may be "used" to be creative, just as a magazine may be used for collage. We need to find out if creativity may occur during gameplay. Surprisingly, there is no easy consensus on the word "gameplay". Tom Heaton wrote: "Most people could agree on a rough definition along the lines of 'the gamey bit of the game.' But disagreement will quickly arise as to what gameplay actually is, what its elements are, why one feature contributes gameplay and another doesn't."

For the purpose of this article, I will try to build my own personal definition. Gameplay is the core of the game's flow. Therefore, gameplay is the heart of the activity of playing.

Here are a few examples of gameplay actions in a video game: exploring a map to find hidden secrets, moving a white rectangle to bounce a white square back, trying to beat your own time record on Track D with Car #42, equipping a new shield for increased armor class, or climbing a large mountain to find out how far you can see.

So what isn't gameplay, then? For example: navigating a menu to choose a game mode, watching a cutscene, modding, turning the volume up, or waiting for an opponent in a matchmaking lobby.

Gameplay occurs when players:

- Have an objective

- Cannot immediately reach their objective because of the obstacles on their way

- Have to undertake actions to overcome these obstacles

Of course, the details may vary greatly from game to game: there may be several objectives at once, the players may choose or invent their own objectives, the obstacles can consist of challenges, rules, labyrinths, puzzles and many more, and the actions may range from very intellectual choices ("is it the right moment to upgrade my base to Tech Tier 2?") to mere reflexes ("Do a barrel roll!")

The Impact of User Generated Content on Gameplay

More and more, games allow players to create their own characters, their own levels, and their own worlds. The amount and depth of available options determine the user's freedom. In most editors, the number of possible outcomes is just dizzying.

Many of those editors do not partake of gameplay: for instance, building levels and sharing them turns the player into a level designer. And level design, as you probably know, is not a game in itself.

Sometimes, gameplay may affect those editors, most commonly by unlocking options and items ("Well done, you've completed Level 2! Here is a nice 3x2 platform to build new levels!") But while, in this case, gameplay opens the door to creativity, it does not make creativity a part of gameplay. When a poker player spends the money she won, she is no longer playing poker.

Other times, gameplay may limit creativity. For example, Lionhead's game The Movies puts the player in charge of a production studio. A rich tool allows editing movies, but the player can only cast the available actors, use the already unlocked sets, etc. Yet again, the creative efforts one may put in one's movie will not impact the gameplay. It may just result in a very nice video to share online.

Games such as Audiosurf (Audiosurf LLC) and Vib-Ripple (Nana On-Sha) make level design out of assets such as music or photos. Even if these are creative assets, they are usually created outside of the game (and most of the time not by the player. The Prodigy is my favorite Audiosurf level design team.)

All Points Bulletin (Realtime Worlds) gives you the amazing power to turn your gun-toting character into a male pornstar from the '70s with a blue moustache.

The most common customization feature allows the player to craft the main character's appearance. This kind of editing is usually very deep but has no impact on gameplay: for example, I once gave Commander Shepard (from BioWare's Mass Effect) the face of a skinny grumpy guy with distasteful facial hair, but understandably, it did not have any impact on the way people reacted to him.

Of course, gameplay is not everything in a game. The character's appearance has an impact on the play experience; otherwise the greatest game studios would never bother to develop deep customization features. Playing as a unique custom character changes the player's whole impression of the game... and it may prevent a MMO player from realizing that she is just player #65535. Sharing creations online is also amazingly satisfying. Again, there is no doubt this kind of creativity is very rewarding, but it is not directly gameplay-related.

May I See this Plasma Cannon in Another Color?

However, it may happen that character editors have an impact on gameplay. In Bethesda Softworks' Skyrim, players can pick a character race among 10. This choice influences stats, skills and some of the NPC's reactions. It will also determine what the visual customization options are. For example, Khajiits are humanoids with cat-like heads. The player may customize many facial features, but the character will always look like a cat.

In this example, we see the player's choices have 10 different gameplay-related outcomes, and billions of purely aesthetic possible results. It is often the case during character creation: there are fewer options pertaining to the gameplay (such as skills, classes, perks) than visual options (colors, clothing, facial traits).

Why is that? Well, any designer who has actually fine-tuned a game system knows that the more different elements you have, the harder it is to find a balance. Adding just one new skill too late during the production may ruin the whole experience for players, whilst adding 15 moustache shapes just one week before Gold Master seems quite safe.

...Unless of course we are talking about the Fable games (Lionhead), in which facial hair patterns grant bonuses. Remember guys: a Sheriff Moustache makes you attractive but scary!

It now seems gameplay customization hardly gives enough freedom for players to get creative: without a large number of options, creativity is impossible. And allowing a large number of gameplay-related options is quite difficult. There are a few noticeable exceptions, though.

Maxis' Spore Creature Creator may be the deepest character creation tool ever made. It allows the user to spawn trillions of totally different creatures. Doubtlessly, any editor allowing creating a seven-legged creature with three noses is indeed an amazing creative tool. What's more, the chosen elements have an impact on the creature's abilities: wings allow the creature to fly, nasty big pointy teeth make it carnivorous, and nimble feet will make it the best dancer in the ecosystem.

Several other games allow character customization to have deep gameplay effects, such as Impossible Creatures (Relic) or Freakyforms (Asobism). When using those editors, a conflict may emerge between the will to create original creatures and the desire for efficiency. Sometimes this conflict will result in even more creativity, but it may as well get frustrating and illogical: imagine yourself creating a perfect predator, a huge carnivorous brute with massive claws. You then check its stats and, because you used basic Level 1 claws, it has weak combat abilities...

After mentioning this to a friend, I realize he had the same problem, and came up with the same (creative) idea as me. He added a tiny appendix granting a Level 5 attack ability (the maximum value) hidden between the creature's legs, where no one would see it. That way, the creature was the fighting juggernaut he expected; yet it did not ruin the look he wanted it to have, notwithstanding the tiny razor-sharp genitalia.

The creature on the left has Level 1 attack options (Strike, Bite and Charge), while the creature on the right has these same attack options at Level 5. Does the single-legged teal freak really look five times more powerful in close combat than the purple hulking beast?

The same phenomenon (synergy or rivalry between customization and gameplay) appear in other games. Players of SimCity (Maxis) may discover that the town they always wanted to build is not viable at all. Discovering that might be an interesting experience ("Oh, people will not pay twice as much tax for a magnificent park!") but even in that case, following wacky ideas will actually reduce gameplay efficiency. The players then realize their two objectives do not mix: creating a "me-town" and avoiding bankruptcy.

On the contrary, players may later get to understand the gameplay better and come up with creative and efficient design. The same goes for Spore. The creatures players build later in the game tend to be consistent with the game's logic and at the same time be noteworthy creations, even for those who do not know how the game works.

Players who get to know a game's rules, as well as the game world's logic, are less likely to make ridiculous mistakes -- such as giving a very stealthy character goggles with three bright green lenses.

The Grammar of Creativity

It is a well-known established fact throughout the many-dimensional worlds of the multiverse that most really great discoveries are owed to one brief moment of inspiration. There's a lot of spadework first, of course, but what clinches the whole thing is the sight of, say, a falling apple or a boiling kettle or the water slopping over the edge of the bath. Something goes click inside the observer's head and then everything falls into place. The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist's mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the elevator, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different.

- Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

What is the fundamental distinction between aesthetic and gameplay-efficient designs? In fact, they do not use the same language. When players create Spore creatures tailored for gameplay (with all the skills necessary for a certain play style), they think about the rules of the game, about the obstacles they may encounter, about their ultimate goals and the way they are going to reach them.

On the other hand, what motivates players to design creatures before they even know the gameplay that well? Indeed, when they create their first Spore creature to try the game out, they do not have a clear idea of what they will face. Yet, is it the same feeling as modeling a creature from scratch in Zbrush? Not at all.

For starters, it is easier with a creature editor, as you are guided and never experience a "blank page" syndrome. But the main difference is probably that players know their creature will come to life (even if they do not know if it is going to survive for long). When designing their creature, players imagine how it would fare in what they expect the game world to be.

If creativity is the ability to combine old ideas to generate new ones, the question is: Where do these old ideas come from? Most gameplay-related customization systems are very narrow and limited, and do not allow a large enough number of options for players to be creative. Ideas from other domains usually do not have much value. The only pertaining grammar is strictly endogenous.

When the editing tools are deep enough to allow for designs based on a creative idea, as in Spore, the player uses a much wider grammar. It may be a combination of elements from the real world ("behold the butterfloctopus!"), the game world ("tiny flying animals every other creature wants to eat"), from everyday life ("a clone of my ugly math teacher"), from fantasies ("a giant penis"), from cultural icons ("Homer Simpson with Wolverine's claws") or even from many different grammars at once ("flying Homer with a giant penis and a pulley in the middle!")

Behold the butterfloctopus!

This is exactly why Faceez' photos allow users to be creative right away. Not only do they allow for a larger number of options, but they use a grammar the player already knows.

Of course it is always possible to create something that will work in creative grammars as well as the gameplay grammar. Sometimes, efficiency brings its own aesthetic value, and people familiar with the game will be able to decipher the creation's characteristics by just looking at it ("I see you've designed a social creature; nice idea to make it a fast sprinter, just in case!")

Wherever ideas come from, the ability to connect concepts from very different worlds is a cornerstone of creativity. Or more simply:

Creativity requires inspiration.

Inspiration mainly describes the way the brain connects existing ideas to build new forms, concepts, actions... The process is mostly unconscious, and has the reputation of coming and going. While this is true, there are several ways it can be stimulated.

We have already discussed how randomize buttons may familiarize players with the available options. Randomness may also give ideas, just as browsing Google Images or listening to people during a brainstorming session. An arbitrary flow of concepts gives food for thought.

Arbitrary situations may have the same effect: When the only tool you have is a hammer, any Celine Dion CD you come across may give you ideas. Situations do not only give players elements to work with, they also imply a certain number of constraints. Sometimes constraints guide inspiration; sometimes they destroy it. A gameplay grammar brings constraints to the customization process. These constraints may help new ideas appear, or they may just prevent and kill any creative ambition.

It turns out user generated content allows for inspiration and creativity but is not strictly a part of gameplay. Few games allow creations to have a deep impact on gameplay, and that may result in synergy or conflict.

Those conflicts come from this unavoidable fact: all players have at least one gameplay objective. User generated content may or may not mix well with it. This raises an important question: What is the purpose of creativity?

The Muses' Secret Agenda

For any of us, creativity evokes insight, epiphanies, imagination. This is indeed a very important aspect of creativity: Without the ability to have ideas, creativity cannot exist.

But creativity does not stop there. It has a purpose. That purpose may fluctuate, be unconscious, arbitrary, silly... but it still is a purpose. If you do not have an objective, there is just no point in being creative. Creativity is inspiration plus perspiration.

On a theoretical level, having an objective and having a problem is just the same thing. Of course they do not sound the same at all. For example, I may accuse you of creating your own problems, and that would sound bad. Or I could praise you for deciding of your own objectives, which sounds a lot better. While these feel different, I am really talking about the same phenomenon: creating your own problems gives you objectives. Similarly, by picking your own goals, you will face the new problems of how to reach them.

Creativity is a problem-solving ability; it requires a purpose.

ACME statistics show that coyotes are 78% more creative when they are starving. (Citation needed)

Life is full of goals: ambitions, dreams, needs, professional challenges and requirements, social obligations... So which real-life problems may the ability to "find and apply new ideas" solve? Plenty: closing a business deal, getting your children to eat vegetables, coming up with a funny joke to break the ice, getting all the luggage in the car, writing a 10-page composition on a Sunday evening, opening a strongbox on a desert island, and so many more.

If having a purpose and looking for a solution to a problem are the same, then gameplay and creativity seem very close. Moreover, the above examples are all quite challenging. Yet, are they similar?

Any game has at least one goal, even if the player had to invent it. Otherwise, it would not be a game at all. But it turns out real-life problem-solving is different from gameplay problem-solving. During gameplay, the player has limited options and is constantly judged by the game.

You may think this depends on the game but, in reality, it does not. Remember, we are comparing games to real life here: even the most amazing free-roaming physics-based massively multiplayer triple-A game contains extremely simple and limited objects and systems when compared to the real world.

What would happen if creativity were deemed the objective of the game? Let us look at Create (EA Bright Light) to find out.

Creativity for the Sake of It

Create is a mixture of Incredible Machine-like puzzles, contraption-building challenges, and highly customizable environments. While this title is a good puzzler and contains hundreds of different customization and/or gameplay items to unlock, it fails to reach the objective displayed on Electronic Arts' website: "Create tracks your creativity and rewards you for it."

The game features special challenges called "Create Chains": the player is rewarded for using a specific set of tools in a given level. Apparently, the ambition of Create Chains is to give players many opportunities to be creative, and thus get them to know the available options better. These options are quite comparable to those of a level editor, but they are entirely built-in and use the same interface as the problem-solving gameplay -- just as games from the Trackmania series (Nadeo) brilliantly gives players a level editor interface to design the most efficient track they can.

In fact, creativity is not the Create Chains' real objective. The real hardcoded objective is "use each of these tools enough". The player may be rewarded for picking any option and clicking randomly in the scene: the challenge has been completed but there has been no creativity. The challenge is a no-brainer.

The player simply gave the game what it wanted in order to keep playing.

At the top, you can see the situation Create gives you as a starting point for a Create Chain in level 1: Theme Park. The two other pictures show different "solutions" to the challenge, equally valid for the game system, but one of those is clearly more creative than the other.

We have seen how inspiration cannot be forced. So we understand how a game cannot ask a player to be creative on demand ("Be creative! NOW!")

You cannot just make creativity happen.

Even if players are willing to be creative, they may not be able to do it on demand. They may need time. But let's admit a given player succeeds in being creative, what happens then?


Create is unable to rate creativity. No existing video game could. Even fellow human beings are sometimes very poor at assessing another person's ideas -- as developers, you probably know about that problem. How could a basic video game AI crack such a subjective question?

Of course, games often pretend to acknowledge the players' sensitivity, for instance when judging the player's interior design (as in Nintendo's Animal Crossing) or when reacting to the name you just typed in: "Bollocks? My, what a pretty name!"

In the first level of Duke Nukem Forever (3D Realms), this AI-controlled Earth Defense Forces soldier seems to approve the cunning plan I've written for him on the whiteboard.

Nintendo's Wii Music has a very interesting approach. It allows the players to pick instruments, play the chosen track, design a cover, and then the system asks them to rate their own work, with no limitations whatsoever. The designers knew the game was unable to judge the music's quality, so the only pertinent opinion is the players'.

Creativity cannot be identified or rated by a computer.

If creativity cannot be identified by the computer, it cannot reward it and more importantly, it should never punish players for not being creative. Even preventing the player from continuing to play is a slight punishment.

We have now defined creativity in a satisfying way. Let us gather all the fragments so that we can forge the ultimate definition of creativity.

  • Creativity is the mental process allowing us to find and apply new ideas.

  • To be creative, a player must know the available options well.

  • It may only happen if there is a large number of choices.

  • Creativity is making new things out of old ones.

  • It requires inspiration.

  • It is a problem-solving ability; it requires a purpose.

  • You cannot just make creativity happen.

  • It cannot be identified or rated by a computer.

Creative Solutions

Ironically, Create does a good job of allowing a form of creativity in some of the puzzle-solving levels. It does not mean that any puzzle-solving gameplay is creative. Brilliant ideas will not make you better at Sudoku. But arguably, creative players fare a lot better in a game like Crayon Physics (Kloonigames).

As any gameplay element, puzzles have an objective. Users may be creative when trying to overcome the obstacles if they know the available options and may come up with many different solutions.

That raises an interesting question: can a player be creative if there is only one possible solution? Jonah Lehrer presents Compound Remote Association Problems as a way to identify when and how the creative mind is used. These puzzles have only one solution, but the mind uses inspired idea associations to solve them. A puzzle with only one possible solution may allow a player to find this solution in a creative way.

Puzzles do not try to identify and rate creativity itself. They only care about the solution the players come up with. Not even the deepest puzzle may guarantee the players are going to be creative. It may only give them opportunities for creativity and interesting choices within the gameplay's endogenous grammar. Games may also encourage and stimulate inspiration by their structure, their level design or their time scale.

Of course, we do not always find creative problem solving in the games we would describe as puzzle games. For instance, there is more room to be creative when designing a vehicle in Banjo and Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (Rare) than in Bejeweled (PopCap).

The degree of creativity depends on the factors we have identified: for example, Armadillo Run (Peter Stock) allows for much more creativity than its timeless predecessor, The Incredible Machine.

The ancestor of the genre gives the players a specific set of items in each level. For example, Level 3 of The Even More Incredible Machine must be completed using only with a basketball, a tennis ball, a bellows, and a pair of scissors. Armadillo Run almost always gives the same seven types of items with only two added options (tension/compression and/or timer) and a specific amount of money.

This makes learning the options easier and gives the player loads of freedom. It also does a very good job of stimulating inspiration via the level design's initial situations; in other words, by giving the players new problems to solve with new constraints: distance, height, budget, obstacles, timed events, etc.

Armadillo Run is a puzzle game so rich it allows for creative thinking.

Many games reward creative ideas. Robot/Contraption builders are a good example: Robot Arena (Gabriel), Sprocket Rocket (www.crackingideas.com), Bad Piggies (Rovio), and Bob Came In Pieces (Ludosity). But there are many others in different genres: Toribash (Nabi Studios), Max and the Magic Marker (Press Play), Magicka (Arrowhead), Pontifex (Chronic Logic)... In all of them, creativity is not the game's purpose, just one of the player's most valuable weapons.

From these examples, it appears creativity requires complex gameplay systems to emerge. Is this rich open complexity exclusive to puzzles?

And then I Had an Idea: Shoot That Alien!

Strategy is a long-term plan of action designed to achieve a certain goal, or the act of devising such a plan. As such, it belongs to the "actions" of gameplay. To reach their goal despite the obstacles, the players invent and apply strategies (among other actions such as exploring, solving riddles, monster grinding…)

As you see, I am not strictly talking about RTS or turn-based strategy games such as Total Annihilation (Cavedog) or Advance Wars (Intelligent Systems). In fact, strategy is a part of almost any game. For example, deciding of a course of action in Dishonored (Arkane), Hitman (IO), Far Cry (Crytek), Dead Rising (Capcom), or Assassin's Creed (Ubisoft) can be strategic indeed (or at the very least tactical).

Strategy is as likely to allow for creativity as it does puzzle solving. If the players master the available options and must make clever choices, then serendipity may help them reach their objectives.

As with puzzles, not all manners of strategy ask for inspiration. A skillful player may prevail with a simple and basic strategy in many games, but only insightful creativity allows for brilliant plans of action. As an example, the greatest chess players throughout history gave their names to openings they invented. They must have had those "a-ha" moments that characterize creativity.

A strategy is a plan of action designed to overcome a challenge.
R.U.S.E. (Eugen Systems)

We can therefore conclude that strategy and tactics are potentially creative ways of solving gameplay problems.

But for how long can players come up with new ideas in any given game? They shall soon be applying the same solutions over and over (Zerg rush!) What's more, a given player may solve a hundred puzzles and win thousands of battles without being truly creative.

What would happen if you let the player a very large freedom in a familiar game world?


Sandbox games focus on giving players a great deal of freedom: freedom to decide where to go, what to do, and how to do it.

The Sims (Maxis) and Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar) are good examples of this trend. The main difference between those two series (apart from the dignity of female characters) is that Grand Theft Auto mixes sandbox and traditional story-driven goal-oriented gameplay, while The Sims is a giant toy box, with no obligations and no background story at all.

Sandbox video games are inspired by, err… sandboxes. Here is a good example called… The Sandbox (Pixowl).

If strategy and complex problem solving leave room to the player's creativity, so do sandboxes, only more. Indeed, these open-ended systems give a lot of options to the players and encourage them to choose their own objective. Consequently, sandbox games often include some forms of strategy, tactics, and problem solving.

The name "sandbox" uses childhood as the ultimate symbol for sheer creativity, within reason -- despite the fact that a sandbox player does not behave like a child in a real-life sandbox. Those children have nothing but their imagination and sand. If they are lucky, they have a few toys as well. If they are not, maybe a few hidden dog turds.

"Silence is as full of potential wisdom and wit as the unhewn marble of a great sculpture", Aldous Huxley brilliantly wrote. In the desert of an empty sandbox, children become game designers. Their goal is to devise the tools for their own meaningful play experience. It sometimes includes some forms of gameplay.

In a sandbox video game, there usually is already a lot of content in the game before it even begins: characters, environments, behaviors, powers, controls, etc. While sand has no personality at all, these elements have a great influence other the player's state of mind. A better comparison would be that of a child alone in a toyshop. So many things to try out!

The game's theme gives players ideas, but so do its rules. For example, motorized vehicles are very different in The Sims or GTA. In Maxis' game, vehicles are mere events: they are a simple depiction of commuting, and that's that. The players do not even try to interact with them. GTA players, on the other hand, soon find out that vehicles may be used as quest items, transportation modes, battering rams, decoys, explosives...

This brings our attention to another form of creativity: so far, we have described how the creative mind can find solutions to an existing problem. Some other times though, finding a solution makes a new objective appear. Let us call that opportunity creativity.

Any GTA player knows that going from A to B is the best way to have silly ideas. For example, even though the only story-related objective is to reach the other end of town, suddenly a situation arises that changes the player's priorities. It could be a very nice car to steal, a rival gang to ambush, or just the perfect spot for a stunt. In most cases, the player ends up being chased by cops. And from there, other situations arise (being shot for example).

You just launched GTA: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds) to try your freshly stolen sports car and you end up in this situation: typical!

The Sims follows the same pattern: things players create (mainly people and their home) keep on living, interacting, changing. The players' plans are always shifting according to what happens and how their Sims' wishes evolve. Most of the time, players react to situations generated by the game system: "Should Will invite his next-door neighbor to dinner? How may Grace get the promotion she wants? The living room is too small for a new home video system; how can I rearrange the furniture?"


Open-ended games leave the players the freedom to choose their path and provide a rich environment with lots of highly interactive toys lying around. As we have seen, it may sometimes lead to a series of short-term objectives with no connection or consistency. While this is fun indeed, these short-term gameplay cycles reduce the player's anticipation.

As we all know, video game worlds are often extremely static. Merchants wait at the same spot all day, monsters just wander aimlessly until adventurers kill them, and NPC's never loot chests. Though it makes no sense in those game worlds, it is necessary for players to control what happens. When everything is dynamically changing, they cannot anticipate the results of their actions, and this leaves little room for long-term strategies.

Conversely, complex dynamic behaviors decrease the player's anticipation. Unfortunately, they have the same effect on the developers. And when we fail to anticipate how the game will behave, this leads to a larger number of bugs. In fact, that's the definition of a bug: an unforeseen and unwanted behavior that emerges in a piece of software.

Thinking Outside the Box

When complexity leads to unexpected behaviors, most of them are bugs: they are unwanted. But what if those behaviors actually turn out to be interesting and make sense in the game world? Then the game designers turn their frown upside down and start calling it "emergent gameplay" -- lucky bugs, if you will.

Two famous examples of emergent gameplay are the ability to use wall mines as steps to climb up (Ion Storm's Deus Ex) or using the blast of a rocket to "rocket jump" to very high places (various FPS). Now this move has become a classic, and has even been integrated as a perfectly normal technique in Team Fortress 2 (Valve).

It takes a creative mind to find new solutions to gameplay problems, especially when these solutions are emergent: players even need to be more inventive than the designers.

The frontier between emergent gameplay and loopholes is quite thin. In fact, the distinction is purely moral: every player judges if such and such emergent features are a legitimate part of the game. One could argue that mine-climbing makes no sense, and therefore refuse to use it. As in every type of game, cheating is a moral issue.

Still, the act of cheating can indeed be creative when it implies finding a clever workaround. But I would not qualify cheating as gameplay, because it usually removes all obstacles intended by the designers. Without obstacles, there cannot be any gameplay.

We will not discuss hacking here and its creative merits, as it clearly happens outside of the gameplay. Creative gameplay actions can only happen inside the game. We have already seen though that the player's goal may come from "outside the game's box": from the player's imagination, mainly. But it may also come from an achievement or trophy system, for example.


What is the difference between internal and external objectives? Most the time, they are the same. A character asks the player to beat the boss, and an achievement asks the same. Even when an achievement is not consistent with in-game goals, it still is a gameplay objective, and this has no impact on creative potential.

But achievements may sometimes encourage players to guess what the objectives are. They do that by giving no description (or a very cryptic one) or just by being hidden away in a sub-sub-sub-menu.

With 250 achievements such as "die on downward spikes", "look hopeless", or "suspend a corpse for two seconds", Achievement Unlocked 2 (Armor Games) gives you many occasions to guess how silly or surrealist your remaining objectives are.

Is guessing creative? Again, creativity is more about the path than the destination. The way your brain sniffs in all directions to find the solution may be creative. Even if every player in the world will end up with the same answer, each player may or may not have been creative reaching it.

Guessing may happen without an achievement system. It may even work without an objective: guessing about hidden features or secret zones. Again, that may or may not be considered creative. Most seasoned gamers check behind waterfall for bonuses, but that attitude is clearly non-creative.

Guessing gives unique feedbacks to the players. They feel as if the designers are telling them, "Yeah, we thought about that too!" Usually, these features use an exogenous grammar. For example, in the first level of Kingdom Rush (Ironhide), I tried clicking sheep over and over, and I was thrilled to discover it had the same effect as in Warcraft. Similarly, a friend of mine was very excited when he discovered empirically that driving a DeLorean over 88mph in Driver San Francisco (Ubisoft Reflections) unlocked a special challenge.

What We May Learn from Board Games

Looking at non-video games is always very interesting. We, video game developers, are a very young species. The Egyptian game of Senet is said to be one of the first games ever, and apparently dates to around 5,000 BCB (Before Crash Bandicoot).

Video games changed the play paradigm by having computers assist or replace humans. It sounds creepy, but it really isn't: displaying graphics and playing sounds assists the player's imagination; managing the rules means the players do not have to do it; simulating AI characters replaces human opponents [2]. Even the human player's actions are sometimes simulated (real-time demos, tutorial examples, AI vs. AI fights, etc.)

At this point, you may suspect that I am going to rant about how board games are better, about the place of human in society, and the fact that computers may never understand the beauty of a sunset... Not at all: video games have a lot of cool specificities, and most of them come from the use of computers and what that allows for. I do not compare video games and non-video games to determine which is better. But creativity being highly subjective, the presence of computers has a large impact on the game system.

In almost every video game, a computer is in charge of managing the rules. In more traditional games, this has to be done by all the players or by a designated player (the game master, the referee, the banker, etc.) This difference allows for much more complex rule sets in video games: apart from hardcore pen and paper role players, no one would enjoy calculating the chances for a sword swing to hit a monster when it is influenced by a dozen variables. So the computer's enormous calculation power is put to good use. Board games, on the other hand, seldom allow the kind of creativity that emerges from the game system's complexity [3].

We have seen about Create that a computer is unable to identify or appraise creativity. The same goes for morality, artistic value, negotiation, aesthetics or any other subjective matter. In a board game, the players, who deal with these matters as they see fit, handle rules intelligently [4].

Board games, it seems, could just treat creativity as the game's goal. But often they don't. Again, this ability is a means, not an end.

When creativity is a major game mechanic of a board game, it serves a purpose such as making someone guess a hidden word by drawing or modeling clay (Cranium, Richard Tait & Whit Alexander), hide a few weird words in a free speech (Nonsense, Véronique Houbaert & Bernard Ralet), coming up with a believable definition for a word (The Dictionary Game), role playing to make a point or get oneself out of trouble (The Werewolves of Miller's Hollow, Philippe des Pallières & Hervé Marly) -- contra this last example, "role playing" may mean a lot of things in a video game: giving your character a name, chatting in a weird way on ye olde public channels, building stats... but it never implies that your role playing has an impact on gameplay.

Dixit (Jean-Louis Roubira) is a gorgeous and subtle board game in which creativity is encouraged and rewarded.

Video games do allow other players to rate another person's creativity, for example giving five stars to another player's custom level. But those decisions are made totally outside of gameplay. In the aforementioned board games, the other players' decisions are gameplay decisions: they have an impact on victory or defeat.

Video games have other players too. Of course, I am not talking about 12 year-old rage-quitting Counter-Strikers. But with the current trend of social networks and asynchronous games, multiplayer is more and more about taking time to play with people you know and like. Could we follow in the footsteps of board games?

Actually, we already do. The very popular Draw Something (OMGPOP) is obviously inspired by the timeless classic Pictionary (Rob Angel). Drawception (Nihildom) uses the same principles as the traditional game of Paper Telephone. A few MMOs allow rating other players' creations to determine their popularity score, such as Mamba Nation (Mimesis Republic).

I believe this trend is very interesting and makes a lot of sense for social games, as do many ideas coming from the world of non-video games. It is up to us to hear what they have to teach.

As this article nears its conclusion, I realize I cannot conclude this article without mentioning two of the greatest video games ever for creative players.


[2] The genius of a project like Chris Hecker's Spy Party precisely comes from asking people to act like AI (though saying that might be oversimplifying the game's concept).

[3] Though I have to point out that board games and various toys have used physics as a game mechanic long before Havok came out.

[4] As a consequence, there sometimes is much more arguing!

Written to Life

When Mark Twain came home after visiting 5th Cell, he came up with his most famous sentence: "they did not know it was impossible, so they did it!" [5]

The Scribblenauts games allow the player to just type the name of items to make them appear: you thus may spawn a "blue platypus", equip it with a "diving mask" and then throw it into a "tiny black hole". The game recognizes tens of thousands of words, which is pretty amazing in itself. A creative player does not even need any level to have fun: I have spent countless hours on the main menu just trying things out.

If I remember correctly, my first true experiment aimed to discover how many crocodiles were necessary to kill God, but I got bored before I found out. God kicks massive ass.

There are roughly two types of levels in Scribblenauts. Firstly, those in which the player must go from A to B. Reaching the exit may get quite boring as the player ends up applying the same solutions, which is a pity; but with the ability to spawn an infinite number of helicopters and giant squids, creativity is not really necessary to overcome any obstacle.

The other type of level can get very creative. These ask the player to write relevant items or creatures into the level. The notion of relevance here depends on a brilliant lexical fields system: each item is tagged with several themes, categories, species, physical properties and so on. That's how, when a level asked me props for a horror movie, I was able for the first time in my life to complete a video game challenge using a dead horse. What a delight!

The Scribblenauts games have their flaws but they are certainly unique, and give the players many occasions to be creative: a huge number of options from many accessible grammars (from everyday life to cultural icons such as the Great Old One, Cthulhu), an immense number of choices, various situations susceptible to trigger inspiration and a never-seen-before pleasure of guessing the myriad of options the developers stuffed the code with.

One More Obsidian Block and I Quit!

Finally, I have to mention the game that already gave millions players from the whole world the craziest ideas... Ladies and Gentlemen, let us discuss, review, and praise Minecraft (Mojang).

Minecraft obviously qualifies as creative gameplay. Many players have spent hundreds of hours digging mines, designing automated rail tracks and building rainbow-colored cathedrals in this amazingly compelling construction game. The game world is very hostile, yet very simple to alter. In a few clicks, players may move mountains, build castles, and excavate dungeons.

Minecraft: changing the world has never been soeasy.

Minecraft never tells the players what to do. They do not have a story objective, whether short-term or long term. How come Minecraft is not a mere level editor?

Well, the game plays with our most instinctive urges in a very clever way. The omnipresent hostility gives players an objective: survival. They are always no more than minutes away from nightfall and the horrors it spawns. If they want to survive, they need to find a shelter. This urge to find a safe place has been important to mankind ever since wild things realized we were mouthwatering. Architecture has bloomed into an amazing art form, but it all started as just an attempt to get away from dangerous beasts (including other homo sapiens).

So the game has a very strong objective. Players have many ways to stay alive: big strong walls, armors, weapons, traps... hence a large array of creative strategies. Crafting these tools requires raw material so the players have to explore the world. This exploration leads to encounters, discoveries and... ideas. Minecraft has a tremendous potential for opportunity creativity, but its world being very static (apart from systemic or random events such as trees growing or monsters wandering), it allows for long-term creativity just as well.

The gameplay and the game world share a common grammar, mixing unique memorable creatures (especially the creepers), very simplified real-world mechanics (sand is "cooked" to make glass) and classic fictional elements (zombies are tough and slow).

The simplicity and clarity of the game semantics allow players to keep thinking about the game even after they stop playing [6].

I suspect many other things are at work to make this game a wonderful creativity enhancer: the mindlessness of block-piling [7], the regions' consistency ensured by the biome system, the absence of a clear goal pushing players to find a meaning to their adventures beyond survival... Minecraft would deserve an entire feature. One thing is for sure: it makes gameplay and creativity a happy couple.


We have discussed how creativity is the way we combine old ideas to create new ones. Inspiration is the process of generating those ideas but creativity goes beyond ideas: it is a problem-solving ability and requires a large number of possible choices.

On the other hand, we have established that gameplay requires that the players take action to overcome obstacles and reach an objective.

We must remember that computers are unable to identify creativity. We can only give the player room for creativity and try to stimulate it, but it cannot be rushed.

Gameplay can leave a lot of room for several aspects of creativity, just not in the games you would expect at first.

There's no arguing level makers and modders are a creative bunch. Kudos to them! But while they build stuff for the community, they temporarily step out of the realm of gameplay.

Customization usually has no impact on gameplay. When it has, conflicts may emerge between the player's creative motivations and the gameplay objective.

As creativity is a tool, not an end, its most efficient application is in complex problem solving, strategy, tactics or open-ended systems. This requires solid, consistent and deep gameplay systems.

Here is an overview of the eight forms of creative gameplay we've identified here [8]:

  1. In-game character editors sometimes give players a lot of deep and combinable options to determine their character's abilities or play style.
    Example: Spore

  2. Complex puzzles sometimes ask players to find and apply new solutions to a given problem.
    Example: Armadillo Run

  3. Some deep games reward clever strategies or tactics.
    Example: Total Annihilation

  4. In open-ended games, players may elaborate their own objectives.
    Example: The Sims

  5. Games with a lot of dynamic systems, especially sandboxes, are perfect for opportunity creativity.
    Example: GTA

  6. Complex and consistent game systems allow players to use emergent gameplay features to their advantage.
    Example: Deus Ex

  7. Successfully guessing how the game will react is extremely rewarding.
    Example: Scribblenauts

  8. Though this is rarely done in video games, victory may depend on other players' judgment.
    Example: Dixit

Closing Comments

Why does creativity matter? As a human ability, it is a gift, intrinsically part of our nature. This skill may benefit everyone, and it may be encouraged, trained, challenged... I may be biased on the matter, but I think games are the best medium for that.

I am not only talking about serious games here [9]. But as Raph Koster advocates in A Theory of Fun, games are all about learning. Creative gameplay is good for you.

The current trend of connected media is all about empowering users: social networks allow them to share information about their own lives, level editors give them the ability to tailor their experiences to match their idiosyncrasies, and the increasing success of mobile devices means electronic entertainment is available everywhere at any time.

For players, creativity can make all the difference between mindless button-mashing and unique insightful experiences. Allowing players to get creative may expend your game's lifespan and increase its virality: playing Armadillo Run during lunch breaks taught me how open-ended gameplay makes people stop behind the player to give advice. These people end up buying the game to try their own solution.

By tackling the very subtle matter of creativity, we may also learn how to deal with other subjective issues, such as moral choices. When gameplay uses the same grammar as the game world, then choices made by the player may have deep, emergent, and meaningful consequences.



For my first article on Gamasutra, I would like to thank… well, Gamasutra, obviously, not only for releasing it but also for their very motivating support. A thousand thanks to my wife, but only hundreds to each person who helped me gather information and gave me advice and data: Thomas Bidaux, Samantha Whale, Thierry Perreau, Nicolas Debeljak, Damien Chevalier, Adrien Pelov, Camille Lescaudron, Régis Bonnessée, Philippe Baille, Christian Cirri, Sylvain Gadonna, Antoine Guyard, Marc Rutschle, and all my geeky colleagues for the past eight years.

I would also like to cheer with a grateful wink all the people who don't know me at all but showed me the way through their work: Jesse Schell, Daniel Floyd and James Portnow, Jean-Louis Roubira, Bill Waterson, and many more I ungratefully forgot. I'd also like to thank the following creative companies: Mojang, 5th Cell, Maxis, Lionhead and so many more.

You may give me feedback by commenting or reaching me via LinkedIn (provided you are an interesting person). I hope you enjoyed reading this. Keep up the good creative work!


[5] Disclaimer just to be safe: this story is not true. Mark Twain died in 1910 and never played Super Mario, which proves he wasn't really into video games.

[6] I have once been in a boring work meeting where three people (including me) were drawing the plans for their next Minecraft buildings while some producer guy was waffling on and on.

[7] I believe piling things is as useful as dishwashing when it comes to triggering brilliant epiphanies.

[8] Minecraft could have been cited as a perfect example for at least half of these manifestations of creative gameplay.

[9] A serious game teaching how to improve creativity may be very efficient though.

Read more about:

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like