Encouraging Creativity in Rekkage

Creativity in games can be a powerful outlet for player expression, autonomy, and retention. But when attempting to inject it into games, be aware that creativity has an enemy.

“The Candle Problem” is one of many creative problem solving exercises that require out-of-the-box thinking in order to solve. This particular experiment asks the participant to fix and light a candle on a wall such that the candle wax won’t drip onto the table below. The only materials provided are a box of thumbtacks, a matchbook, and a candle (above). Assuming you haven’t been exposed to this problem before, go ahead and give it a try.

The solution: Empty the box of thumbtacks, put the candle into the box, use the thumbtacks to nail the box to the wall, and light the candle with the match.

At its root the solution is simple, but in a phenomenon known in psychology as fixation, many people often fail to see the box of thumbtacks as a potential catalyst for the problem, and instead only view it as a disposable container for something more relevant. This creative blindness is slightly alarming, but most participants eventually discover the optimal solution after enough exploration. But what if such a creative problem were to exist in a more game-like context that rewarded quicker thinking? Would that have any impact on our ability to think creatively?

“Large Stakes and Big Mistakes”

In the early 2000’s, a group of researchers at MIT ran several experiments in a small rural town in India. In these trials, participants were given three different types of tests (creative, concentration, and motor skills) and were rewarded with Indian Rupees based on their performance and test group. The results were startling; the groups that were offered the highest monetary incentive not only didn’t perform proportionally better, they actually displayed the lowest scores in the creative & concentration tests. As it turns out, the more pressure, stress, and competition involved in an activity, the more creativity tends to suffer.

Physiologically, this phenomenon can be narrowed down to the effects of the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight response” to stress. Once the brain identifies a threat or immediate challenge, the body produces adrenocorticotropic hormones (ACTH), which prime the body for overcoming the immediate threat by increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, and tunnel visioning on the task at hand. And while you are very likely to overcome any physical life-or-death struggle in this state (as is often the case in the animal kingdom), the side-effects of this adrenaline-fueled state – loss of hearing, loss of peripheral vision, dry mouth, shakiness – are severely disadvantageous for any other category of problem solving.

Put simply, high-stress competitive environments actually stint creativity.

Designing a Game that Fosters Creativity

So what are our options if our goal is to design a game that doesn’t stint creativity? Do we need to remove all semblance of rules, rewards, and multiplayer content?

Not quite. Like most questions in interactive design, there is no “correct way” to encourage creativity, rather there are numerous features and mechanics that should be hand-picked for your game in order to maximize creativity while minimizing fundamental changes to your game.

Rekkage is a game that focuses heavily on creativity; players construct modular 2D ships piece-by-piece before sending them into battle for several rounds:

For this premise, we enabled creativity through a few fundamental decisions: Opt-in rules, match length, and lack of player stats.

Opt-In Rules
The mechanical rules of Rekkage are incredibly simple:

  1. You can only place a limited number of parts onto your ship
  2. If parts of your ship take too much damage, they will fall off and be unusable
  3. If your ship dies, you will no longer be able to interact until the end of the round

These rules are kept incredibly simple so that they may serve as a basis for emergent player systems and social agreements. For example, players will often opt to play a match where ships may not equip “Gun” parts, or a match where all ships must be made entirely out of “Booster” parts for a silly demolition-derby-type battle. Perhaps one of the silliest I’ve seen is the “core-only” battles where players don’t customize their ship at all, and must use the limited functionality of their vehicle’s single “core” block to try to eliminate opponents. In each of these emergent game modes, there is a social buy-in required from all participants that they are willing to complete the match with the proposed ruleset, encouraging out-of-match fellowship and subsequently reducing any non-friendly competition in-match.

Match Length & Iteration Cycles
Another area we investigated for impact on creativity was the game’s match length. We began by experimenting with a lower number of rounds per match, but quickly discovered that players would very frequently create the exact same ship for the next match. And on the opposite end, when we increased the number of rounds per match, players spent a drastically longer time “min-maxing” their ship in the garage to make it something that would be able to endure for sometimes 20+ rounds.

Our compromise here was to limit the number of rounds between three and nine for any given match, where shut-outs and imbalanced ship battles will tend to end quicker (three rounds) and close matches with all players performing equally will linger up to nine rounds (roughly 7-10 minutes) before returning the players to the garage. This created an awesome dynamic where players were typically ready to try something new by the end of the match, but if they really loved their ship, they could simply reload their previous design for another match.

No Player Stats
The last feature that I believe contributed to creative expression wasn’t actually an intended feature, rather a convenient circumstance of limiting scope.

Post-game stats and player profiles are a great way for players to be able to track their growth mechanically, and to see how they compare to their friends (and to add some playful competitive pressure when your stats aren’t as high as theirs!). But if you’ve read this article so far, you are likely hesitant to champion such a competition-driving feature in a creativity-focused game. Conveniently, we hadn’t even planned for a post-game stat screen for Rekkage, not due to its implications but due to scope and development priorities. But once discussions arose for such a screen, it became clear that this would be a delicate feature to develop, and could give the game a significantly more competitive side that limits the creative space of the game. So we decided to put the bandwidth elsewhere. Did this ultimately help foster creativity? We can never be certain, but given what we know, I can only imagine it did.

A New Fronteir

Think about it: When you have a game that has numerous defined rules, defined long-term match length, and specific player stats, you are heavily influencing where player attention should be. Stats such as “most damage” or “highest kills” suggest that any customization choice that does not achieve these benchmarks are “inferior,” and consequently punishes explorative creative thinking. This much structure is not too indifferent from the framing used in the candle problem, where our fixation on an established rule structure makes it difficult for us to visualize a more creative use of our resources.

And that’s truly the hard part of building a creative game; games are driven by rules, structures, and laws. And while games like Rekkage, Minecraft, Starbound – and beyond – begin to explore this new frontier of creative games, there are still plenty of problems to be solved: Is there an environment where playful creativity and ravenous competition can coexist? How can we create a creative atmosphere in a non-sandbox world? Would we even want that?

These questions I leave to you to answer.

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