Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #67:

Creativity & The Online Gamer

by Shannon Appelcline

April 4, 2002 - Creativity is, I believe, a vitally important nutrient for the human brain. It's not as important as food or water or air, because you can live without it. But I believe it does fall into a just slightly less important tier of importance, along with companionship, sex, and other things that tend to make us happy.

Creativity speaks to a powerful need within ourselves — the need to express ourselves and put our imprint on the world. I feel it every day, and I feel joy when I'm able to express my creativity, be it by modifying a game, designing new sections for our web sites, or — for me, the purest form of creativity — writing. I love being able to create things that are totally new and share them with anyone who might care to partake of these new and unique things.

And I think that any game which hooks into this need for creativity is going to be a ten times better game as a result.

A History of Online Creativity

There have been online games just about as long as there's be an online. Traditionally they really haven't catered to creativity too much, probably because so many designers come from the mindset of single user games. And, with single user games, there isn't much way to share your creativity, so there tended to be much less point in supporting it.

The first online game I ever played was the old, venerable AberMUD, back in 1989. There was just the tiniest bit of creativity in that game. When you "beat" the game by reaching 15th level and became a wizard, you got to set your title. Before that you might have been called "Joe the Novice" or "Joe the Warrior" or "Joe the Paladin", with your title based on your level. There were only 14 levels, and so you were one of the nameless hordes. But, once you became a wizard you could set your title to whatever you wanted it to be. "Dinthier the Elven King" was my own character. A friend was "Thor the God of Thunder". It might not seem like a lot of creativity, but it was enough to make people want to gain wizard level.

The other reward for becoming a wizard was also a creative one. You got to emote — to express yourself in a freeform method, not bound by the twenty or so social verbs that existed in the system. "Dinthiar happily bounces about." You get the idea.

Some other games that I played at that time ignored creativity altogether. I remember Netrek, which was a great real-time space combat game. But, the most creative thing you could to in that game was lay out an interesting spread of photon torpedoes. Griljor, on the other hand, had very simplistic gameplay. You got to run around and blow things up. But, each and every player of Griljor got to create their own icon, representing themself in the graphical game. It was a pretty small picture, maybe 32x32 pixels, black & white, but people loved this ability.

In the days since AberMUD online games have expanded creative ability quite a bit. LPMUD, DikuMUD and their brethren gave their wizards the ability to easily program new game areas. But, except for some more experimental games which never reached quite as wide of an audience (say, TinyMUD and the MUSHes, MUXes, and MOOs that have descended from it), for the most part online game designers have restricted true creative ability to privileged users.

Why? I think because a lot of us game designers are afraid to give the power to modify our game worlds to the masses. And, besides that, seeing the number of griefers and other problems players which inhabit the Internet we're a little bit afraid of what they might produce if given total creative freedom.

To a certain extent we're following the same old pattern at Skotos. We restrict creativity to privileged users. Within Castle Marrach a few users have the ability use the alteration system to emboss arbitrary words or create arbitrary symbols, but that ability is severely restricted. And, if people want to create whole games at Skotos we require a proper proposal.

Some of this restriction is required. For example, we only have the resources to support a certain number of designers, hence our requirement for game proposals. But I think there's a lot of room to increase player creativity without increasing administrator overhead too much.

A Hegemony of Online Creativity

I have, I hope, been exploring the idea of increased player creativity in the work I'm doing on our newest game, Galactic Emperor: Hegemony. As I've discussed elsewhere, it's a strategic game, and at first blush that would seem to limit creativity even more than a traditional online roleplaying game would. After all, how creative can you be when you have specific goals and a specific timeframe and specific, and limited, ways to do the things you want?

As it happens, Space Empires, the game that would become Hegemony, already had some limited creativity built into it. As I mentioned in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #63, Galactic Empires, Part Two: Expanding into Space players could name stars. It might not seem like much, but being able to look at a map, part of which is defined by your own creative input, means a lot. In the first regular game of Space Empires that I played I carefully named all my worlds after types of rocks; my more recent game of Hegemony has resulted in angelic world names. It's been a lot of fun.

After pulling Hegemony over to our own site, I pretty quickly came up with a way to expand this creativity. Trial games of Space Empires have always used pre-named stars — at least partially to give players a reason to subscribe to regular games. As soon as the first regular game of Hegemony ends, tomorrow, I'll begin saving off a random set of 10 world names from the winner of each regular game; I'll be using those saved world names for future trial games. And that is, I think, an important component in allowing player creativity. You not only support it (in this case, by giving players the ability to name planets), but you also make it permanent (in this case, by saving those names for future use).

I'm doing what I can to expand player creativity in Hegemony in other ways. I think they'll all be fun for the players, and will tap into that creative need, but they're basically just variations of the same theme. I offer them here only to help you get your own ideas flowing:

  • Maps. Every game of Hegemony is built with 150 stars on a 50x50 grid. Doing the math (2500 choose 150) you can see that there are a lot of different options for star placement (2500! / 150!2350! to be precise, or a gazillion in laymens' terms). The old Space Empires allowed players to create maps by hand-placing stars, but that was a lot of work. One of the things I've done with Hegemony is create a Geometric Map Description Language which lets you define maps as circles, rectangles, rings, and sine waves. I've gotten about half-a-dozen submissions from players thus far, and have also been able to create some very unique scenarios of my own, my favorite of which is Ivory & Horn. Using some old Space Empires code I've even put together a Mapmaker to make map creation easier.
  • Nicknames. When I brought Space Empires over to Skotos one of the things I did was create Nicknames, to give a player the opportunity to have different styles of play within the game. We're still exploring the new creativity that this can bring to the game. In the future I expect to give players the ability to write a short description of their Nick and also to choose a specific color to represent their Nick in game.

And that's it for Hegemony. I've already seen a lot of this new functionality add very nice new color to the game and also have seen players respond very favorably to it. And that encourages me to create more of the same.

A Potpourri of Online Creativity

Those examples are fine and dandy for Hegemony, but you're probably wondering how you, as a StoryBuilder, can generally introduce online creativity into your own games. Let me start off by saying that I've actually talked about this idea once before, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #29, The Dynamic Dilemma, Part Three. I was looking at things in a different light in that article, trying to figure out how to make environments more dynamic, not how to let players express themselves. Thus, I limited the creativity in many ways; still, the article's worth reading as another point of view. Go ahead; I'll wait.

Now, back to creativity. As it happens, I think Hegemony offers some very good examples that can be easily generalized and thus applied to creativity in any online game. I'm going to start off with the assumption that you want to offer unfettered creativity — not just the ability for a player to effectively select from a menu, even if it's a very large one, but rather the ability for the player to create something totally new.

If you do this you can introduce player-created objects to the environment in one of two ways:

  • Filtering. You look at each player creation before it's introduced to the game. This is what I do with the Hegemony maps.
  • Retroactive Modification. After the fact you can get rid of or change inappropriate player creation. This is what I'm going to do with the star names and the Nickname descriptions. In the first case, I'll skim the star names every once in a while, as only 10 star names get added per game, and thus the list will remain manageable. In the second case I'll respond to complaints if anyone writes anything really inappropriate. (It's funny that more designers aren't willing to consider the idea of player creativity linked with retroactive modification. After all, players can say whatever they want in the game. How different is that from describing something?)

Whether to choose filtering or retroactive modification as the input method for player creativity has a lot to do with how much the creativity influences the game. No matter how much you want to encourage creativity, you can't let your gameplay go out the window as a result.

And that's the line that I've chosen with the player creativity I'm supporting in Hegemony. The maps have a huge effect on the game; they're, in essence, gameplay made concrete. And that's why those get filtered. Star names and Nickname descriptions, on the other hand, have no actual in-game effect, and thus I feel much more comfortable letting players have their way with them.

With that all said, what can you let players create? Anything, with that already implied caveat that you need to be careful if they're creating things that affect gameplay.

And, if you're writing prose-based games, then you get to take advantages of one of the largest powers of the medium. Text doesn't require as high a level of skill as, say, graphic design, in order to accomplish a minimum level of competence. And thus players are more likely to actually be able to create things which are at the same level of quality as the rest of the game. (Christopher Allen likes to call this "parity between the player and the designer" which is a very nice way of putting it.)

So, go wild and figure out ways that your players can create non-gameplay influencing factors. Some can be totally freeform, while others will need to be constrained by your game, but there are numerous possibilities including:

  • Floorplans of homes or businesses.
  • Descriptions of furniture or rooms.
  • Naming of items or businesses.
  • Descriptions of hand-crafted items.
  • Character background and history.
  • Descriptions of pets, servants, and other subsidiary NPCs
  • Printed stories, poems, or other media.

The last category, or printed stories, poems, and other media has actually been one of the coolest creative outflows in our first game, Castle Marrach. An in-game poetry contest was one of our first events in Castle Marrach, many eons ago. Recently we held a poetry, short story, and artwork contest, and got somewhere close to 60 entries, many of which were terrific. To paraphrase a great writer, if you offer them creativity, they will come.

Giving up some creativity can be painful for a designer, but the sky's really the limit, and your players will only be happier and your games better as a result.

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