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Chapter 7. Creativity: The Missing Ingredient

Chapter 7. Creativity: The Missing Ingredient

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How Serious Is the Problem?

Opinions vary on the seriousness of this problem. Two wholly subjective matters control the debate: How creative is

the industry, and how creative should it be? The industry's own terminology demonstrates its dearth of creativity: We

all know that a "first-person shooter" requires the player to blast bad guys as he navigates a complex 3D environment,

collects weapons and ammunition, and solves puzzles. In the same fashion, we have other tightly defined genres: side

scrollers, adventures, role-playing games, wargames, simulators, and so on. There are also some standard variations

on these games: The addition of an external story makes a "story side scroller" or a "story puzzle game." There are

also crosses between genres, yielding role-playing wargames, strategy shooters, and so on. These techniques have

been with us for years. Back in 1983, my game Excalibur was an unconventional strategy game with a real-time

wargame built into it.

Oddly, the terminology has shown more variability than the actual content itself. "Hand-eye coordination" games

became "skill and action" games, which later were termed "twitch" games. Through all these changes in aliases, the

gameplay has remained unchanged: Such games require fast reactions from the player.

Younger readers may have difficulty appreciating just how little things have changed over the decades; the latest crop

of games always seems so new and fresh. Let me frog-march you on a walk down memory lane as we fondly recall a

single genre of game: the side scroller. It all started in 1981 with an arcade game called Space Panic. The player,

pursued by nasty little space aliens, ran up and down ladders, digging holes in the floor into which the aliens fell. This

was quickly followed by Apple Panic, which was a straightforward copy of the original, and Donkey Kong, which

added sloping platforms, the ability to jump over the oncoming barrels, and some other ways to die. The success of

Donkey Kong led to a sequel featuring the hero, Mario. There then followed a whole series of "Mario" games.

Throughout it all, the basic gameplay remained unchanged. There were, of course, plenty of embellishments on the

basic concept: more dangers to overcome, more complex challenges, and more levels. The biggest improvement

came with the addition of side scrolling, extending the playfield over a much larger area. As I write this in 2003, Mario

is still in business, still making money, and his games are still recognizable as a direct descendent of the original Space

Panic game of 20 years ago.

Or consider the venerable old role-playing game. It all started with the paper game Dungeons & Dragons in the

mid-1970s. A computer version called Moria quickly appeared on the networked educational computer system

Plato; a few years later, a direct copy of Moria appeared for Apple II under the title Wizardry. At about the same

time, a slightly different version of Dungeons & Dragons appeared for the Apple II with the title Ultima. Both

Wizardry and Ultima were big successes. The marketing people for Ultima, undiscouraged by trivial semantic

considerations, followed up the game with Ultima II, III, IV, and so on; I don't know what the final count of "ultimate"

games will be. Throughout this endless parade of games, there were few substantial changes in the design; for the

most part, each game added a few new complications and substantial cosmetic improvements. There were plenty of

competitors, too, but they all slavishly toed the basic D&D line: Build the strength of your character; accumulate

wealth, weapons, armor, spells, and other goodies; kill flocks of mindless monsters; wander varied terrains; etc., etc.,


The more insecure members of the games industry defend themselves by pointing to the movies. After all, they argue,

Hollywood has its own time-worn genres, too. Why blame the games biz for a problem that besets all entertainment?

Hollywood's use of the term "genre," however, is considerably more elastic. Sure, we have "action," "drama,"

"horror," "sci-fi," "comedy," and "family," but within these broad categories lies far more diversity than anything in the

games biz. Is Men In Black a sci-fi movie or a comedy? Does M.A.S.H. fall into the war category, the drama

category, or the comedy category? And into what categories do we place such works as Koyaanisqatsi?

How did the games industry get itself into this pickle? Some industry observers claim that this is the sad but inevitable

result of the maturation of the games industry. When we were younger, and budgets were smaller, publishers could

afford to take a big chance on a product. Nowadays, however, with budgets running into the millions of dollars, a

producer cannot take a big chance on an unconventional design. Look at Hollywood, they say; Hollywood grinds out

an endless stream of me-too movies because that's the only way to make money.

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Where Does Creativity Come From?

While I'm pontificating on the subject of creativity, I might as well explain how one goes about being creative. Some

people confuse creativity with intellectual anarchy; they figure that, in the world of creative thought, one idea is just as

good as another. Not so; creativity is serious business and you don't attain high levels of creativity by random


Our minds are associative; new ideas are generated by combining old ideas in novel ways. This combinatorial

process is not a simple additive one; you don't jam two ideas together any old way to create a new idea. Instead, they

go together in pattern fashion. Consider this highly schematic representation of the concepts in your head (see Figure


7.1. Mental organization.

Now, any substantial idea is really a collection of closely related concepts, like what is shown in Figure 7.2.

7.2. A single extended idea.

The trick in creativity is to notice that there's another idea in the pattern, an idea that closely resembles the first idea

(see Figure 7.3).

7.3. Two analogous ideas.

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How to "Get Creative"

You can facilitate this process in a number of ways. The best strategy is to stuff your head full of concepts and all

their associations. After all, the bigger the web of associations at your disposal, the greater the chance that you'll find

some odd parallel between two ideas. Wouldn't it be great if you noticed a creatively useful connection between, say,

dinosaur paleontology and Polynesian language structures? Of course, if you don't know much about dinosaur

paleontology or Polynesian language structures, you'll never notice the connection, will you? You want to populate

your mind with a wondrous and colorful diversity of ideas, a grand carnival of conceptual heterogeneity.

And how might you go about this task? Simple: You read. Herein lies the greatest failure of the younger game

designers: They don't much believe in reading. "Hey, we're the video generation," they tell me. "We were brought up

on a steady diet of video. We won't put up with all those boring books. We need some sensory stimulation." Some

also claim that they can find anything they need to know on the Internet, so there's no need for books, they smugly


Brace yourself: I'm putting on my "Crotchedy Old Fart" hat and I'm going to give you a lecture.

Now see here! If you think that you can learn enough about the world to design games without doing a substantial

amount of reading, you're never going to amount to anything! Video is designed for the lowest-common-denominator

audience—people who couldn't stumble their way through a multi-clause sentence if their lives depended on it. And

the Internet contains very little of intellectual substance. The grand total of all the information that I can find on the

Internet about any given topic of real intellectual interest is less that what I can get in a single good book. You try

looking up Erasmus on the Internet—I guarantee you won't find anything matching what you'll get in a single good

biography. Or dinosaur paleontology, or Polynesian language structures, for that matter. Sure, maybe someday you'll

find some of this stuff on the Net. But do you ever think you'll find anything like Fiscal Accounts of Catalonia Under

the Early Count-Kings (1151–1213), or Conjunction, Contiguity, Contingency: On Relationships Between Events in

the Egyptian and Coptic Verbal Systems? The latter book, believe it or not, actually contributed to some of the

thinking that went into writing this book. Don't kid yourself—if you want to compete with Da Big Boys, you gonna

have to do some serious reading.


Read more.


Reading is a lifelong process. I remember reading Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in sixth grade,

primarily because it was the biggest book I'd ever seen in my life. And I've been at it ever since. You don't need to be

as maniacal as I've been, but if your bookshelf contains little more than science fiction novels and technical manuals,

you probably better reconsider your intention of becoming a game designer.

And if you think that this is just Chris Crawford's personal hobby horse, think again. Will Wright is always

recommending to me these weird, strange books; I try them out and wonder what the hell is going on in his head. Sid

Meier will floor you with his reading background. Dan Bunten read voraciously. Same thing goes for Brian Moriarty,

Gordon Walton, Greg Costikyan, and Eric Goldberg. All the great game designers are reading addicts—and so am I.

So there!

Another useful strategy is to wonder. Wonder about anything and everything. Have you figured out why the sky is

blue? If not, shame on you! It's the most common wondering question anybody could ask. And for that matter, why

aren't cows green? They spend their days outside in the sun eating green grass; wouldn't it make sense for them to do

a little photosynthesis of their own? Why do catchy tunes, especially commercial jingles, go round and round inside

our heads until we could scream? Why do young adolescent girls go bonkers at rock concerts? Why are there tiny

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A Tyrannosaurus Rex for Ideas

Creative productivity is still only half the job—once you have all those great ideas, your next task is to murder most

of them. The sad truth is that most creative ideas are bad ideas. In my career as a game designer, I have come up with

hundreds of original ideas that I ultimately abandoned. The chapters on specific games later in this book will present

only the most cogent of those ideas.

What you need is a Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking through your mind, viciously attacking every idea you create. It

should pounce instantly and sink its teeth into the soft flesh of your idea. It should rip and tear with bloodthirsty

abandon. Most of your ideas will be torn to shreds by your inner Tyrannosaurus. That's good—better that they be

prey to your own monster than shredded by others or, worse still, fail in the marketplace after you've invested time,

money, and reputation on them.

Thus, the ideal game designer is a prolific nursery of creative ideas, spawning hundreds of clever new schemes,

feeding these innocent newborns to the hungry idea-destructors. Amid all this creativity and carnage, a few truly great

ideas will emerge.

But the balance between fecundity and predation must be perfect for the system to work. Some people just don't

generate many ideas to start with, so they tend to cherish what few ideas they generate; it's pathetic. When they foist

their miserable little ideas on me, my inner Tyrannosaurus jumps up and down gleefully, eager to masticate the plump

little baby ideas. In younger years, I unleashed my Tyrannosaurus too readily, and its ferocity hurt and angered many

people. Nowadays I keep it on a short leash; if an idea is truly bad, it will probably die of natural causes. I unleash my

monster only if the baby idea actually poses a threat of turning into something real.


Get creative! Get tyrano-saurical!

Then there are the creative fonts with no inner Tyrannosaurus. They gush with ideas, a few good, most flawed. These

people don't identify too closely with their intellectual children; murder one and they happily move on to the next. In

general, such people can be useful and productive members of creative teams as long as they are balanced with a

good Tyrannosaurus host; however, expect some tension to develop between two such people.

The saddest group is the people whose Tyrannosaurus has taken over. Possibly because they lack self-confidence,

these people never manage to get anything out of the nursery. They kill off all their ideas prematurely. Such people

need to be encouraged to think out loud, to lay their ideas out even though they know the ideas to be flawed.

Sometimes another member of the group can see a way around the supposedly fatal flaw, snatching the idea from the

jaws of the Tyrannosaurus.

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The Politics of Innovation

If your creative idea survives the attack of your Tyrannosaurus, it must face an even more terrifying monster:

Executivasaurus! This is actually an entire genus of related species: Executivasaurus Marketensis, Executivasaurus

Financialis, and, biggest of all, Executivasaurus Presidentens. Each has its own stalking methods, and each is a

remorseless, highly efficient predator.

E. Marketensis seizes your hapless idea with one clawed hand and demands that the game be "just like last year's big

hit…" then grabs it with the other and rips it apart, crying "…only different!"

E. Financialis pins your idea down to the ground under its huge foot, saying, "It must not cost more than this…" and

then seizes your idea in its jaws and tears its head off, saying, "…but it must have state-of-the-art technology!"

E. Presidentens has the most insidious predatory technique. It implants its egg under the skin of its victim, then waits

and watches for the egg to suck away all the life force of its unfortunate host. If the egg is successful, it takes over the

body of the host; if not, E. Presidentens devours the failed host.

Shepherding a truly creative idea through an organization is much more difficult than germinating, nurturing, and

developing the idea. Indeed, I consider it impossible for a creative person to push an idea through an organization; the

skills required for creativity conflict with the skills required for politicking; such skills never fit inside one mind without

eventually driving that mind into madness. The creative individual's best option is to team up with another person

graced with the political skills to survive in the domain of Executivasaurus. The alternative is to leave the organization

and start up a new company—if you can get the funding. Either way, it's a long shot. It's probably best to keep your

head down and work on a sequel.

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Chapter 7. Creativity: The Missing Ingredient

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