Restrictions Fuel Creativity, And That’s Why Stealth Games Were Invented

GDC 2009 Keynote

GDC 2009 Keynote

The keynote at GDC was called ‘Making the Impossible Possible’.  It was delivered by Hideo Kojima, who designed the Metal Gear games, and describe the process by which he overcame seemingly-impossible obstacles to reach his game-creation goals.  He was a great speaker, and I thoroughly enjoyed the keynote.  The general take-away was that you must sometimes substitute new similar goals that are just as good, and that you have to be creative.  I might write another GDC post about the keynote which summarizes it directly, but that’s not what this post is.  Instead, I want to talk about a different takeaway I got from Kojima, which is that restrictions fuel creativity.  I’ll tie this back into Metal Gear and the keynote in a minute, but first I want to tell you more about what I mean.

Humans intuit answers to problems, but not to too-difficult ones.  You can intuit answers to simple algebra but not to simultaneous equations.  You’re not as good as chessmasters because they simply don’t see the bad moves, and only have to intuit which of the good ones are best. You’re not brute forcing; you’re doing magic that lets you simply see straight to the answer.  But, when there are lots of possible answers, it can be harder to intuit any of them.  Here’s a little experiment:

  • Quick, think of five objects.  Go.  Done? How about now?  Okay, now try the next one.
  • Quick, try to think of five red objects.  Go.
  • Okay, now try to think of five red foods.

The idea of this exercise was supposed to be that the added restrictions feel like clues, and actually make the question easier to answer.  Some early readers of this article tell me otherwise, so I guess you’ll have to take my word for it.  If you find that this makes me less believable, don’t worry!  The point I’m currently making isn’t central to the article.  But, wouldn’t it be easier if you had half the answers crossed out in a multiple-choice test?  Anyway, I intended to show that intuition is aided when you have more clues.  That’s how creativity works.

The next, more central point is that these kinds of restrictions can do more than help you find solutions; they can also help you find better, more creative solutions.  Here’s another experiment to ilustrate that point:

  • Imagine a blue thing.
  • Imagine a large blue thing.
  • Imagine a large blue thing made of wood.
  • Imagine an ugly large blue thing made of wood with three legs.

Any ugly large blue thing made of wood with three legs is still a blue thing, so you could have just started there.  But, you didn’t.  As you went down the list, your answers were forced to become more and more creative as restrictions were added.  As Mark Rosewater said in his column on developing Magic: The Gathering:

Suppose I locked a talented writer in a room. Once a week, I force him to write a short story. On the odd weeks, I let him write whatever he wants. On the even weeks, I give him a topic he has to write about. Will he be more creative on the odd or the even weeks? Research shows that the even weeks far outstrip the odd weeks.

Why? Because the even weeks force the writer’s mind to new areas of thought. Perhaps the writer would never think to write a story about a trapeze artist, but tell him he has to write about the circus and the writer heads down pathways he’s never tapped. In fact, experienced writers understand this phenomenon and thus build restrictions for themselves.

images-1This is where I tie restrictions back into Kojima’s keynote address.  The setting: 1984.  The second Rambo movie is a huge success, and to capitalize, Hideo Kojima is asked to design a combat game for the famicom, which is the Japanese NES.  That’s a broad solution space, and he might have come up with a very generic game.  Fortunately (!), a combat game was very hard to do on the available hardware.  The machine could only display 8 sprites per line, and in shooty a combat game, you’d need the player, some bad guys, and bullets.  That would quickly become too many sprites, which made a combat game impossible.  So, now he had a more restricted goal: make a combat game where there were no bullets.  Brainstorming here forced more creativity from Mr. Kojima:

  • What about a game where nobody ever shoots?  Every conflict ends with someone pointing their gun at someone else, and one of them giving up.  No, that would be lame.  There’s no action.
  • What about a game about escaping?  You have to run away and never be seen, and as soon as you’re spotted you lose.  Then there’s action, but no shooting.  No, that’s a very heroic main character.
  • What about a game about infiltrating?  You’re still running and hiding, but now going deeper into an enemy base instead of out of one.  Now you’re heroic, and it’s exciting, and there’s no shooting.

rc750j1f1This was the approach he used, and it resulted in the designing of the first Metal Gear.  That game was so creative, new, and fun that it gave birth to an entire genre.


269Every GDC article I write has the goal of helping us do a better job at IMVU.  Since I want my articles to be relevant to a wider audience, I’m separating out the IMVU tie-ins. What follows is the IMVU-centric section of this post, which won’t be relevant to everyone.  For the rest of you, please enjoy the fuzzy kitten.

How can we use this at IMVU?  Our goal is always “To Delight Customers.”  That’s a very broad goal, and can be difficult to answer.  We can try using creativity-fueling restrictions to narrow this goal, and see what new ideas pop out.  That makes brainstorming a two-step process.  First, brainstorm a wacky restriction, then brainstorm a creative solution.  I’ll improvise some right now:

  • How can we delight customers without changing anything that’s visible to them?  Maybe with performance increases?  Hmm.  Not exactly a novel idea.  Let’s try something new.
  • How can we delight customers by extending the emotion system?  Maybe by adding more moods and having them respond more dynamically to events in the 3D scene?  Hmm. There’s some thinking to do down that avenue.
  • How can we delight customers by breaking something they love?  Yikes.  That is a crazy restriction.  Well, what do they love that they shouldn’t?  Nah, I don’t want to tell them what to like.  What do they love that we could replace with something even better?  Well, they love shopping.  Maybe we could make a totally new shopping experience!  What could we make even better about shopping?  That’s a good idea, but it doesn’t qualify as breaking something they love.
  • How can we delight customers with an ugly large blue thing made of wood with three legs?  Hah!  Well, maybe there’s an answer in there somewhere.  One way to get something very large, blue, and ugly would be as a 3d product in the catalog.  Why would a creator want to make something like that?  What if we had theme weeks, where people entered new 3d products into a competition, like the outfits contest?  Hah!  Then we could be putting the creators through this very restrictions-fuel-creativity activity, and enhancing their creativity!  Very web 2.0.  I like it.
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5 Responses to Restrictions Fuel Creativity, And That’s Why Stealth Games Were Invented

  1. The trouble with your first mental object lookup exercise is the color red: I for one don’t have a lot of red objects or eat many red foods. Maybe green, tan, or white would make a better choice to make your point.

    Thanks for reminding me to check out Kojima’s keynote.

  2. Nivi says:

    I like the idea that restrictions are clues.

    Russell Ackoff defines creativity as the solutions that appear when we negate an assumption.

    For example, smoking is bad for you. What if we assume it is good for you?

    We assume the golden rule is true. What if we assume it is false?

  3. Amy Jo Kim says:

    Great post – really enjoyed it, ESPECIALLY the IMVU section.

  4. […] Restrictions Fuel Creativity, And That’s Why Stealth Games Were Invented « Integrable Is A Word (tags: creativity design gamedev) […]

  5. […] Restrictions Fuel Creativity, And That’s Why Stealth Games Were Invented The keynote at GDC was called ‘Making the Impossible Possible’.  It was delivered by Hideo Kojima, who […] […]

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