Sunday, March 19, 2006

Paintbox games: Games that serve as augmented creativity tools

In my job, I constantly run across people who claim they can’t draw, can’t write or can’t tell stories. They readily pronounce that they lack a single creative bone in their entire body. Yet when you give such folks the correct tools and the right social support, they produce amazing works of craft and art.

Over the years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of tools to augment the creativity of individuals. The problem of the creatively blocked individual is almost always two fold

  • They lack the technical skills to make the pictures that they envision in their heads. I’ve heard many times the phrase “I can’t draw a straight line” as if such a purely technical skill has anything to do with creative instinct.
  • They lack confidence: Over the years, they have told themselves tall tales about how non-creative they are. In most cases, these are simple excuses and self justification.

How games can augment a user’s creativity
Games can provide solutions to both of these issues.

Populous (1989): A classic paintbox game

First, they can remove the technical limitations by providing an easy to use playground tailored to the skills of an average human being. Learning how to move a stick of graphite in such a manner to render a recognizable human portrait takes years of training. Moving some sliders around to change the color of an avatar’s hair is a technical skill that can be learned in seconds.

Second, games can provide built in feedback mechanisms that can encourage people to continue when they would have otherwise given up. Games don’t laugh at you, at least not in a hurtful way, when you fail to draw a straight line. Instead, they can give you stickers and stars when you do something interesting. Consider the Happy Room Academy in Animal Crossing. It rewards you when you start arranging your furniture and prompts you with helpful tips.

Aren’t paintbox games just sim games?
It can be easy to write off the concept of paintbox games as just another name for the existing simulation genre. There is certainly an overlap, but augmented creativity is really a much broader concept than a single genre. A paintbox game has three characteristics:

  • The player can build or assemble something new and unique to the world.
  • The game provides tools that facilitate and reduce the cost of content creation
  • The game uses game mechanics and feedback systems to encourage players to create.

Examples of Paintbox games
There are numerous paintbox games. Augmented creativity is a game mechanic that crosses genre boundaries and often results in the creation of entirely new genres. Some example games that succeed in dramatically reducing the barriers to entry for creative activities:

  • Pinball Construction Set: One of the first games that I recall that was a blatant paintbox game. This was closer to a pure tool than most with no feedback systems.

  • Populous: Though arguably a strategy game at its core, much of the appeal of the game was the ability to paint your own worlds using a simple landscape sculpting tool. As with many painting tools, the tokens that you place on the map have implicit connections with other tokens in the environment. Your art has meaning within the construct of the game. These feedback systems help guide and tutor the player’s creativity during the critical learning period. Populous remains to this day one of the reasons why I believe that games have a future as a grand artistic medium.

  • Animal Crossing: You can garden, design shirts and redecorate your house with very little effort. The tool interfaces are nearly idiot proof and the options remarkably broad. There is certainly an element of fantasy fulfillment in this game, but the majority of the game is about using a village as a palette for your creativity. Every element of the game encourages you to dabble without the fear of punishment and with the promise future rewards.

  • The Sims: The Sims is another social and environmental paint program. Much like Animal Crossing, The Sims realizes that people not trained in the technical craft of color and light tend to think instead in terms of symbolic objects and relationships. Sims builds this meta data into your palette of objects

  • The Movies: The Movies eases the intricate task of creating movie-like story. You don’t have to hire real actors or develop sets. Instead the game gives you many of these things and lets you play.
Themes in paintbox games
There are several themes in paintbox games:

  • Games that focus on providing easy to use tools
  • Games that focus on the process of creation
  • Creativity that extends beyond traditional visual and audio definitions
Games that focus on providing easy to use tools
Games like Pinball Construction Set and Animal Crossing tend to be pure paintbox titles that give the player very easy to use tools with simple feedback mechanism that encourage them to create. What and how something is made is less important than the fact that they make something.

Games that focus on the process of creation
The Movies and Populous also encourage creation, but they have extensive simulation and feedback systems to hold the players attention during the act of creation. Often the player realizes that they’ve created a unified work of art only after they partially finished the game. The ‘how’ something gets made is critical to the game’s initial appeal.

A title like the Sims provides both easy to use tools and feedback on the process of creation. Sometimes you need the heavy game-like systems that baby step the player through the act of creation to facilitate the player’s acceptance of the act of creativity. It can be the hook that convinces traditional gamers to dabble and play.

Creativity that extends beyond traditional visual and audio definitions
With computer games comes the ability to simulate real world phenomena. The various Sim and Tycoon games allow people to create worlds and situations that are available to only a small minority of the world’s population. The story telling capabilities of the Sims and the Movies allow players to create complex relationships between various characters. This goes far beyond just dropping pretty pixels onto the canvas.

I personally find this aspect of paintbox games highly delightful. No longer does the vision in your head need to come out as rigid visual images. Instead, with the flick of a controller, you can create an entire breathing living world. The evolution of paintbrush games in the decades to come should provide truly magical experiences for the creative spark in all of us.

The urge to create is quite different than the urge to conquer. Adding paintbox elements to your title can help your title appeal to a very different demographic than is reached by traditional competitive or conquest oriented game play. (I hesitate to use Chris Bateman’s terminology here from his audience models since I find it difficult to find an direct match.)

Depending on whom you listen to, upwards of 30% of the population in the US are members of the creative class, people who spend their days creating and corralling complex information. I’m willing to bet that a good number of this demographic is underserved by the current limited selection of creative titles on the market.

A grand opportunity
The paintbox concept is still in its infancy, despite the fact that it has been around for at least 23 years. This is a grand opportunity for a young designer to make their mark on the history of game development. Here are a couple of issues that are just begging for innovative solutions.
  • Often the urge to add feedback systems to creative tools results in micromanagement. This increases the cost of creation unnecessarily and turns off many players. Games need to learn when to back off and let the creative players simply make things. Almost all games in the ‘sim’ genre suffer quite painfully from this issue.
  • Paintbox games have yet to fully tap into the social reward systems: Paintbox games still rely heavily on single player game mechanics in order to provide the player with feedback. These systems can be very rigid and have great difficulty interpreting the wide range of complex and subtle human messages that players can embed in their creations. As such, they often accidentally punish some wonderful creations. Including humans into the feedback cycle as Second Life has done with their player economy can dramatically change the quality of player creativity.
Of all the game designs on the market, a well done paintbox game is perhaps one of the most rare and exciting. They remain one of the main reasons I still play games.

Enough musings for a lazy Sunday night. Hope to see some of you at GDC next week.

Take care

Bizarre References for the Academic Slacker

Pinball Construction Set:

Different people react to paintbox game mechanics in different ways
“Grand Theft Auto lets you steal any car, and depending on the car you steal there may be objectives associated with it. I have the same problem in that case: I don't find unregulated potential liberating, I find it paralyzing. In GalCiv 2, I've got these base ships that are bristling - bristling, sir - with receptive nodes. I can affix parts to these things for longer than is rational, creating original designs to the exclusion of the game proper. Worse yet, my Adam Complex - the obsessive desire to catalog and name - kicks in with every class of sleek craft.

Monast. Sonor. Scintilline. Belial.

If I keep playing the campaign, I'm sure I'll just invent new parts, which will only cinch the noose. I don't think designers have committed some kind of sin. What I'm saying is that my own peculiarities turn those features into a kind of mental cul-de-sac, and by the time I've escaped them, I usually don't return. “

Audience models

The creative class

Edge cases:


  1. Interesting stuff. Of course there is a movement from the other direction too - where traditional 'creativity tools' become more game-like in their approach and aims, I blogged about a few examples of this kind of software art here.

    Of course, the core creative debate - how much tools influence the work produced with them - is huge, and how satisfying a creative experience can be provided by software based on a predefined framework is possibly the feild of enquiry "paintbox games" can explore.

    re: Nethack - the user doesn't actually generate the world. To use a Dungeons and Dragons metaphor - the computer is the Dungeon Master. Examples of games which do allow this level of user input are MUSHes like Second Life.

  2. Davemon makes good points. It should be mentioned that Nethack does allow for quite a bit of world modification - more than most dungeon crawlers I'm familiar with. Second Life is an excellent example of a paintbox game, and a unique game experience in general. I think of Second Life as nearly the exact opposite of MMO games like World of Warcraft; in WoW, I have dozens of externally-generated "task-do-reward" cycles, but essentially no potential to modify the world itself (the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj notwithstanding, since the opening of the gates is essentially inevitable). The world's locations, characters, and plot are dictated to the players by the developer, and essentially no opportunity for player-guided content creation exists. For me, this aspect of the game is a major turn-off; I'm always playing in someone else's world. On the other hand, while Second Life allows for almost total player-driven world modification, the lack of external goals can be discouraging to a player who is looking for the game to give them something to do. My ideal MMO game would be one that could combine the external, developer-dictated goals from WoW with the capacity for individual players to create content and "take ownership" of some aspect of the public game world - with the graphical quality of either Warcraft or Second Life.

    One of my absolute favorite games for the classic Macintosh was a networked combat game called Bolo. While on its surface a simple tank combat and resource-control game, Bolo included the capacity for the players to modify the terrain itself (via a builder who rode in the tank and was deployed when needed). The building engine was robust enough to allow for essentially any land tile to become any other land tile, which allowed for wonderful "build your own base" opportunities. Without terrain modification, Bolo would have been a pretty tame combat game; the paintbox dynamics made it a classic.

  3. mmm, bolo... All night sessions of that and nettrek are some of my only positive apple memories... Well, that and kidpix. ;)

    Have fun at the show Danc.


  4. I'd nominate Rollercoaster Tycoon (by Chris Sawyer) as a great example of a paintbox game. Besides letting you theme your park in a Sims-like way, you could also design rollercoasters to intertwine/race/etc. Doing so actually made park guests happier, and a really beautiful section of the park might even motivate them to snap photos. It was never clear what exactly guests were looking for, which made it even better: the hard-core gamer in me couldn't game the system, so I had to rely on my own design tastes and 'coaster preferences.

  5. As much as I dislike it, Farmville on facebook is a creative "paint" game that does incorporate social interactions. We're on our way!

  6. So is Minecraft. It is very succesful as a multiplayer paintbox game.