Worlds of Design: Creativity and the Game Designer

What part does creativity play in game design? Novice game designers often have a confused idea that game design is all about creativity, which is very far from the truth. Creativity is important, but a small component of game design. Most of the work involved in designing the game is fairly straightforward thinking and problem solving. This is not to say that it's easy, but it does not involve a great deal of creativity.

"The key question isn't "What fosters creativity?" But it is why in God's name isn't everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything."--Abraham Maslow
The Misunderstood Creative
The general point I want to make here is that you don't need to be a terrifically creative person to design a good game. Creativity can be misunderstood. In game design it is mostly not about getting ideas, is not brain fever, is not wild imagination. Anybody can come up with nutty off-the-wall stuff. For me, creativity is about finding unusual ways to solve problems, not necessarily unique, not necessarily flashy.

Too many people think creativity is all there is to game design, and it has to be said, the sexy part of game design is the conception and elaboration of an idea that may turn into an enjoyable game. The rest of it is not sexy. It takes a long time to test and modify a game, and it often gets to be un-fun toward the end of that time. I think a lot of so-called game designers want the equivalent of a convenient relationship with the most fun parts without the work that makes relationships last. You can try and do this in games, but what you'll end up with is a lot of half-done, and usually half-baked, games that will not be published unless you publish it yourself.

It's also not unusual for people who call themselves designers to complain that constraints limit their creativity. That's actually the opposite of the truth, in art generally as well as in game design. Constraints promote creativity because you work harder to find solutions to your problems--and you have specific problems.

It's really hard to decide what to do when there are no constraints. You need to consider the constraints and that will help you make a better game. You always have a target audience, for example, whether you know it or not. You may not think of it in your head, but it's there. Constraints breed creativity.

Creativity vs. Execution
While you can be creative in lots of different ways, if you don't execute the overall game, if you don't have a willingness to stick with it until the end when you're bloody sick of it, then you will not come up with a good game. Maybe somebody else (called a game developer) will do that work, and the game will be great in the end, but it will be your work plus somebody else's. The whole process is more an engineering problem than a creativity problem.

Adams and Rollings in Game Design Fundamentals suggest that creativity or innovation by the game designer amounts to 5% of a game. My formulation is a modified form of something Thomas Edison said, and that is success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Edison said 1% and 99%, but he was famous for using trial and error. In other words, he guessed at a solution and checked the results, and that's why he perhaps discounted inspiration.

Talented Game Designers
Some people certainly have a talent for designing games and some people certainly don't. Inborn talent may make the difference between a decent game and a good game but game design is also a craft that can be learned, not something that only a few lucky individuals can do. The necessary creativity is in most of us. We just need to bring it out, or bring it back in Maslow's terms.

Execution counts for far more in game design than creativity. If there is no creativity then you're probably not going to get much of a game, but creativity is not the major part of the equation.
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Tom B1

Explorer
The rolling of dice is a convenient way to represent
unknown variables or to assist the referee in making decisions.
Feel free to modify the results if you do not like
the way they turned out. Change a death result to a severely
wounded result if you feel a character has behaved
heroically and deserves a second chance, or kill off one who
has done something incredibly dumb but lucked out on the
die roll. Be fair in doing this, however, and try not to be
too heavy-handed. Most players feel better if their character
is done in by the die roll than if killed by fiat.
I have found a bit the opposite. Players get very frustrated when the die from random dice in a minor fracas. Nobody likes to die (I like it more than most.... enjoy the new character creation.....) but to die accomplishing something important gives a death meaning. To die just because the dice dislike you some day... argh.

And the reality is most RPGs don't make it easy enough to accomplish the simple things and failures unlikely enough to cause harm that if you roll a bunch of tests over a campaign, you will fail critically all too often and end up horribly wrecked or dead. We had a crit table once in D&D that had a 1/400 chance of a decapitation. We saw that happen on several occasions and it killed one of the most fleshed out and well played characters in the middle of a fight with the Saughagin (sp) King in an underwater temple complex. Fortunately that death felt appropriate because the group was battling a big, mean boss monster. The character was given a heroes byre after the boss fight. We did realize that could have happened even in the most minor of fights and then it would have really sucked for everyone.

The issue is realistic and fun and somewhat risky encounter in the real world will, statistically over not too long, main or kill you. To have a great game, we need some blunting of that.

I do agree with letting stupidity kill characters if they had a chance or two to recognize their peril but persisted in the risk. Those are the cases I'd let the dice fall where they may.

In most games, I have found having some limited resource that can help mitigate the most severe outcomes of the dice is a good idea. Luck Points, Destiny Points, Action Points, Fate Points, whatever... it mitigates the insta-kill or the permanent maiming. Esp in universes with no super heal or resurrection ish magic or tech.

I have sometimes allowed players to choose bad ends for their character because it made for a better adventure. I am generous in letting them replace lost characters (or turned characters) because they were generous to the story and experience for everyone else.
 

pemerton

Legend
AW has a couple of problems in my mind: They treat it like improv and the GM is supposed to respond to anything (rather than saying 'ah, no... let's not go that way'). That's fine if the GM has the context to understand and do something useful with every suggestion the players make .... but it still runs the chance of creating some things that can really screw up a somewhat coalesced and coherent campaign. I don't think that AW acknowledges that the GM has something to contribute and that some things players might suggest cannot be easily adapted to the particular themes and flavours of a given setting. A lot can, but some will just be a net negative.
I'm not sure how much AW experience this is based on - the GM ("MC") in AW is pretty fundamental, given how many player moves require, as part of their resolution, that the GM make a move. And there is no principle of AW GMing that says "do something useful with every suggestion the players make". There is Ask provocative questions and build on the answers. And there is a move Tell them the possible consequences and ask. These are about the GM managing the way content is introduced.

It's true that in AW there is no setting fully established by the GM in advance of play. The expectation is that players will help establish it by responding to the GM's questions. I think Classic Traveller works pretty well played like this too. I think in this respect I'm not too far apart from @dragoner's approach.
 

Tom B1

Explorer
It is a hard cover of Classic, The Traveller Book. I went back to Classic for this game due to two reasons: first it is the simplest of systems, so the easiest to modify with as few rules changes as possible; second, its personal combat is a chaotic, simultaneous, no initiative, deadly and fast. Marc Miller being a Vietnam veteran who had seen real combat only a few years earlier, I suppose he meant it that way. Space combat is fast too. I like the limited design of the ships, as that mirrors reality, right now we have 2.5 designs for rocket engines, and even those are very similar. Changing to a percentage, such as a engine taking up 17% of the isn't as realistic as saying here are your engines, this table gives performance per tonnage. I like designing spacecraft, doing one right now, though I like the limitations vs endless permutations. Certain simple features, such as no armor, and the pseudo newtonian movement, fast and deadly; with a few of my own tweaks to make them fusion rockets, is good enough.
My few complaints or mechanical issues with CT are:

  • Per-task, very variable modifiers. It makes every task a look up (if you care about consistency or accuracy to what the book says). It's a modifier salad. And what bonuses and bonus levels are not very uniform.
  • The engine package system and the limited number of techs - they fit in a scenario like our own (non-interstellar society that hasn't even really managed much intra-system travel), but not in a 3rd Imperium sense (far more advanced society, very mature, tens of thousands of inhabited worlds, many sentient aliens with tech to contribute, etc). There ought to be a massive list of options and abilities to work in things between the options. That isn't what CT gives us. It's an okay system, but does not make sense in the 3rd Imperium (which itself has flaws... natural trade would tend to equalize tech between planets and see populations move to the most habitable even despite the wishes of governments for instance).
  • Shotguns and cutlasses for serious militaries. Yes, shotguns might have a place, but they still have kick, and if your power is shot out, you'd better not be treating them as your main shipboard weapon. Cutlass... no. Just no. Graduating imperial marines without any weapon skill but Cutlass is... ludicrous. You don't get certain jobs unless you can learn certain skill to certain levels of competence. And as a close friend in US SF said to me "We don't train in hand to hand. You can do that yourself if you want, but in CQ, you have a primary (M4) and a secondary (sidearm). A silencer on a sidearm or on an SMG or carbine if needed. The pistol can be used very close to the body and so the times you'd need that skill in a military context are so low the training time isn't worth it.".
Here are some interesting yet fairly CT-ish alternates:
Universal Game Mechanic https://thetrove.net/Books/Traveller/01 - Classic Traveller/Universal Game Mechanic.pdf
BITS Task System https://www.bitsuk.net/Archive/GameAids/files/BITSTaskSystem.pdf
Acme Task System Classic Traveller: The Acme Task System
Rule 68A RULE 68A - A Ref's Guide to the Classic Traveller Task System - Citizens of the Imperium

I like the hard sci parts, but as a veneer. Real orbital mechanics and the realities of thrust mean most space engagements if they can happen at all involve a passing joust in open space (with a long turn around) or an engagement around a planet (likely in orbit or at least the planet will have a lot of impact and the ships will be moving slow). Open space battles with a lot of very localized manouver are very unlikely.

That's realistic, but not quite so much fun in an RPG.

I have seen Brilliant Lances, and also played 2300 back in the day, some questions I always had was that if you had a faster than light missile, how would you see it, and the FTL ship you were shooting it at? Was the board game version Star Cruiser?
In 2300, you jumped using Stutterwarp (max 7.7 ly) and I think the jump was much faster than the 168 hour jump in Traveller. You didn't fight at FTL. You fought sub-light and ranges might have been 500K km and less. Speeds wouldn't be totally insane. No FTL missiles.

In Traveller, you can't (because of how Jump works) fight FTL either, with any rules as written.

Jump or Stutterwarp -> Strategic movement to reach someplace worth fighting over
Real space -> Where fights happen at sublight speeds

Your list of of steps for visiting a planet are interesting and a good resource. I'll check them versus my version when I have a bit of time.

We really should fire up a Traveller thread or two...
 
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dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I think of it as a game of "moves" (to use AW jargon) ...
I think this is inspired as they are more than simple task rolls. The main thing is that Classic Traveller is much more free-form, and without playbooks. I know the criticism over time has been to make the rolls all 8+, except that the player loses on that deal, because a lot were like "mishap on 10+, with -2 per level of skill." Skill 2 in Classic can be a major ability, such as no roll success in admin, demo, or engineer. Later Traveller editions go more towards a formal rules set, and trad roleplaying, which none were actually as successful; and even the more modern ones mention Classic by name. It is really a measure of how adaptable and modern a game it was for so long ago.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I have found a bit the opposite. Players get very frustrated when the die from random dice in a minor fracas. Nobody likes to die (I like it more than most.... enjoy the new character creation.....) but to die accomplishing something important gives a death meaning. To die just because the dice dislike you some day... argh.
I have had players that me recently for letting the dice fall where they may; however, Marc Miller is suggesting the opposite, in fact if the player is annoying... Nevertheless, it's also about how fast a Classic Traveller character can be rolled, later iterations, where rolling a character takes sometimes hours, then character death can be game ending.
 

pemerton

Legend
My few complaints or mechanical issues with CT are:

  • Per-task, very variable modifiers. It makes every task a look up (if you care about consistency or accuracy to what the book says). It's a modifier salad. And what bonuses and bonus levels are not very uniform.
I know the criticism over time has been to make the rolls all 8+, except that the player loses on that deal, because a lot were like "mishap on 10+, with -2 per level of skill." Skill 2 in Classic can be a major ability, such as no roll success in admin, demo, or engineer. Later Traveller editions go more towards a formal rules set, and trad roleplaying
I agreewith dragoner here. The push to uniformity in Traveller resolution makes it a weaker game. I look at MegaTraverler, for instance, and am not sure what it's giving me that (say) Spacemaster isn't. Whereas with Classic Traveller the answer to that question is really clea!

EDIT: Also, @dragoner, you've inspired me to revisit my energy beam rules to reduce the plusses to hit and expand the hit/crit rolls instead.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I agreewith dragoner here. The push to uniformity in Traveller resolution makes it a weaker game. I look at MegaTraverler, for instance, and am not sure what it's giving me that (say) Spacemaster isn't. Whereas with Classic Traveller the answer to that question is really clea!

EDIT: Also, @dragoner, you've inspired me to revisit my energy beam rules to reduce the plusses to hit and expand the hit/crit rolls instead.
I am still in the play-testing phase of those rules, my idea is to try to be somewhat logical, yet still fast and minimal; yours are good if they are what you are looking for. Granted, neither are totally in the range of what players will be dealing with, unless they were foolish enough to charge a ship 1000's of tons heavier than them.

Ancillary to skill are how characteristics (stats) were often used, versus just giving a stat DM, in Classic, spot rules were created such as for Tranq:

Tranq is a drug injected by a special cartridge and may or may not be in
sufficient dosage to affect an individual. The target, when hit, must throw his endurance or less to avoid being affected. If the throw fails, the target is immediately rendered unconscious.


This is from Snapshot, but it shows how the characteristics were often used, so that here, resistance was really a feat, if one's Endurance was over 12, where with a DM, it's +2, so once again the player loses.
 

pemerton

Legend
@dragoner - here are my rules for characteristics checks:

If appropriate, a check of a basic personal characteristic can be used to determine the success or failure of some attempted action, or to avoid some adverse consequence:​
Throw 19+ on 3D (DM + personal characteristic score); or,​
Throw 10+ (DM + half personal characteristic score, round up; a result of 9 with an even characteristic score allows a second attempt: throw 4+ on 1D).​


The second (2D) check is easier than the 3D check (provided the slightly funky re-roll for even characteristics is included). It's the referee's call which one to use. I got this idea of a harder and easier throw from the resistance to disease in Annic Nova, and also from some ideas in Andy Slack's "Expanding Universe" series in old White Dwarfs. I have a more detailed version of this (vs END) in my disease and poison rules, which also draw on both those sources. These have come into play a bit because the first arc in my campaign involved the PCs getting involved in, and then setting out to destroy, a bioweapon operation being run by some black-ops-type Imperial Marines together with rogue elements of the Scout Corps.
 

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