Sunday, October 22, 2006

Inspired Gameplay

Sometimes graphics, characters and rules feed the player a specific story and environment, but they can also lead the player to a story and environment of his or her own creation. Gameplay can be inspired, rather than doled; from the player, rather than the developer.

If you tell an artist, a poet or a composer simply "make something", you'll probably get a blank stare or worried expression. I've been writing and composing for nearly 15 years now, and every year I have a stronger appreciation for inspiration. Everything we do in life is at its most enjoyable and most fruitful when we allow ourselves to be inspired.

My Asian Philosophy professor, Daniel Coyle, and I had many interesting discussions trying to pin down the Chinese concept of "wu-wei", which I've come to define as roughly "inspired action". Michael Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steven Spielberg...these people, some of the best in their fields, are known for inspired action. When Jordan went for a slam dunk or Hendrix soloed (swap him with Stevie Ray Vaughn or Louis Armstrong if you prefer), their actions seemed effortless and natural. When they were "in the zone", they didn't have to work at their actions anymore; they just played.

Everyone's familiar with the feeling of being "in the zone". It usually occurs only after warming up a while. That state of production doesn't have to accidental.

Inspiration isn't the sort of thing one can always call up at will, but it is possible to consciously create an environment which welcomes and attracts inspiration. The two components of inspired action are ability and peace.

  • Ability. A combination of innate and trained ability prepares one for inspiration. What good is an idea without the language and energy to adequately express/fulfill it? We are not all created equal in regards to aptitudes, but even the most innately gifted persons never cease to benefit from training, honing and expanding their abilities.
  • Peace. Countless obstructions can hinder one's capacity to accept inspiration. What good is an idea without the openness to accept it and the focus to truly know it? One usually gets in the zone only after warming up a while because warm-ups help us to ignore distractions and bring ourselves into harmony with our environment.


Of course, learning how to open one's self to inspiration is greatly beneficial to developers, but I think we should try to take it further. Developers can inspire the player, creating the gameplay experience indirectly by fashioning an environment in which players are likely to build their own experiences.

To do this, the developer must attend to encouragement of ability and peace, in addition to the source of inspiration. User interface, story pacing and combat pacing all play a role in the creation of peace. Gradual elevation in challenges and opportunities encourage the honing and development of ability. Too often, challenge is relativized (a conflict between a level 3 player and a level 3 opponent is equally difficult as between a level 10 player and level 10 opponent). Too often, the user interface is negotiable but not fluid and harmonizing (if the player has to try to remember which key or screen icon to press for a certain action, then movement toward "the zone" has been disrupted).

As for the actual sources of inspiration, they can be visual, audial, opportunities for action or many other things. As the real world proves, inspiration can come from just about anything, from a sunset to a machine to a paperclip. The trick is in asking of every object (visual or otherwise) in your game: What role does it play necessarily? What peripheral roles might it play?

For example, a tree might be one of many members creating the object of a forest, but it might also be a creature's home; a broken branch may tell the tale of a storm; a carved heart may tell the tale of lovers; dying leaves may speak of a dying land. A blacksmith might be just a blacksmith, but he might also have the look of one of those rebels you've been hearing about; a scar over his eye but a smile on his lips may send you searching for his history; the tune he often hums may be from a time when the culture was quite different, a time to which he is himself oblivious; his hammer may bare the trademark of a smithy of another town.

All of these are possibilities for little adventures which needn't be fleshed out fully by the developers...adventures which the players themselves have a hand in creating. There are countless opportunities for games to host far more fun than they directly provide.


  1. This can be implemented with the right design concepts in mind, you should read (and play) Jenova Chen's thesis.

    There are limits to ADD however, and they have to do with pretty fundamental issues of content creation and the economics behind that. Spore is trying to circumvent that, but the answer is elusive. One day I'll help fund a crazy piece of middleware that uses hueristic driven evolutionary algorithms to cultivate the player's intent into formed content on a stochastic basis. Does that make sense?

  2. AI that discerns player intentions is a pretty ambitious goal, but I hope you have luck with it.

    I started thinking of Spore halfway through this blog. A major design concern of mine, in relation that game, is that the character creation portion may feel too blind at times. It doesn't seem that the player is receiving much guidance as to what creature to create, so it's like a painter being given a palette and told simply "draw". That's intimidating and perhaps inhibitive.

    The creature trait bars (speed, agility and such) will help somewhat with that. But what would help more is somehow exposing the player to sources of inspiration (primarily other player creations) DURING the creation process, rather than before (inspiration is stronger when responding to active input than when responding to memory).

    I did play Flow, but I'll have to read the thesis as well. Thanks.


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