Welcome one, welcome all. This is an article I had intended to have up three weeks ago, but many things and thoughts popped into my head that seemed more appealing to talk about than today’s topic. I won’t presume to understand how my thought processes work, so I’ll just go along with its whims as that’s never failed me before, and hasn’t in this case. You see, the fact that I did the article on progression last week primes your mind for this one. Let’s get started.
The obvious thought to the creative process is “the more freedom you have, the more creative you can be,” but is that really true? Well research has showed that it actually isn’t. Anecdotal evidence I have gathered from various sources with whom I’m acquainted corroborates the information the researcher amassed in the form of the “blank canvas problem”. That is, a creator being given a blank page or sketch pad without instruction on what to put on it. A lot of people freeze up, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of possibility. “Do I draw/write about a cat? Maybe a dog. A caterpillar perhaps?” I’m sure you’ve perhaps been in a situation where you’re so busy thinking and reasoning that you forget to act. Well, this is something similar.
Now, give that artist/writer a blank canvas and the instruction “Draw/write about a cat.” Suddenly, brain power isn’t being wasted on trying to figure out what to do. It’s still complicated because the instruction there is pretty vague, but it’s better than having no instructions whatsoever. Here’s a pretty famous case of restrictions helping the creative process: Green Eggs and Ham. You see, Dr. Seuss dared himself to create a book using only fifty words, and that led to him writing the aforementioned story, and it’s something he definitely wouldn’t have come up with without that restriction he put on himself. This is what’s known as “creative limitation“.
Now, you may wondering what this has to do with games or game design. Frankly, I’m wondering why you think it has to relate to game design—okay, okay, it does. Remember that progression article? Recall how I mentioned that resource systems were meant to limit what you can and can’t do at certain points and there you will find the role of limitations/restrictions. Restrictions are intrinsically tied into progression, so you can build up, play through the middle of the story/game and then reach the end.
That’s the gameplay part of it, but now let’s look at the game design part. From a design perspective, restrictions will lead you to create something unique, or at least different from what you usually do. Allow me to use one of my patent pending examples:
- Yugioh: Let’s say you normally create spell cards that do 800 damage to your opponent. A restriction has been placed on you, as a designer, that you’re not allowed to make spell cards for the upcoming set. Well, you can fill the hole that absent spell card left by creating a monster with 800 ATK that can attack directly and tributes itself once you do damage with it. Suddenly, you created something that accomplishes the same thing as the spell, but you could also do more with it because it’s different enough in being a monster, in attacking and in doing battle damage.
- Magic/Hearthstone: To keep this as similar to the example above, you might include a spell that does 2 damage every set. Now, for the purposes of the newest expansion, you’re not allowed to make that spell. You can create a 2 power creature with Haste/Charge that removes itself from the battlefield after it does damage. It fills the same role, but is done differently.
Restrictions are good because they can force designers to come out of their comfort zone and figure out new ways to create, but let’s go back to gameplay. What are the restrictions here? Well, if you’ve ever played any competitive game, you know that when a strategy becomes too dominant, it often gets tweaked, rebalanced or outright restricted. If you’ve followed the Mortal Kombat X tournament scene since release, you’ll know that Erron Black‘s command grab got rebalanced by NetherRealm Studios because it was too powerful a move, yet that didn’t make one player abandon the character and just made him get more creative in the character’s usage.
This is something you see in pretty much every trading card game’s competitive scene. As set rotation (something deserving of its own article someday) and banned and restricted lists (also something that deserves its own topic someday) happen, tournament-quality decks tend to lose their trademark tools. It’s usually then up to the players to figure out what new or already-existing tools can replace the ones lost to salvage the deck, or to abandon that deck strategy altogether and move on to a new one. This creative thinking in deck-building is a dynamic process that wouldn’t occur without the limitation factors of set rotation and banned lists.
Indeed, one of my favorite tales of restrictions pushing deck building creativity has to be the case of the “Wind-Up” deck in Yu-Gi-Oh. You see, before the banned and restriced lists took away the key players of a combo the deck had that depleted the opponent’s hand to zero before they even got their first turn, the deck didn’t get as many top spots in tournament rankings as it should’ve. After the list happened and the combo was torn apart, players reworked the deck with mostly already-existing cards to create an even stronger “Wind-Up” Deck that got far more top placings than the previous version.
Now that we’ve discussed the good you find in restrictions, let’s do a quick run-down of the bad. You obviously came into this knowing that restrictions can hamper the creative process, and you were right. Too many restrictions, or too stringent restrictions can lock off creativity and force both designers and players to follow a pre-determined path. Take, for example, Yu-Gi-Oh. For the design process, because of the game’s Archetypal tunnel vision, there is no room to create generic cards that require player ingenuity to put together. For players, there’s so many cards where most of the text is what you can’t do with them with maybe one line of actual effect. Take this, for example:
A card like that doesn’t aid creativity. It just tells you it exists only to be used as Xyz material. There is no “cracking” it and figuring out how to use it in any unique way. This is the bad kind of restrictive that you need to be wary of, and that most people that play the game are weary of. It does nothing but stalls gameplay, is difficult to grok because so much of it is just text telling you what you can’t do and worst of all, it is unintuitive. This is not me using an unfair example either, as there’s many others I can cite. In the end, yes, restrictions can be bad, but when you use them right, you open a whole world of possibilities for both design and gameplay.
Come back next week when I, Terrorking, talk about the things Konami and Yu-Gi-Oh did right.
Yes, you read that.