Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

LEARN1: Innovative Constraints in Game Design

As a computer game level designer, and designer of games in general, this is the truth that rang clearest in my mind - constraints are what cradle the genius. When designing a level for a game, you would imagine that being told that you can make any level at all would be the best way to work - but it's far from it. A good level designer thrives on being given a restraint or several - maybe it's how high the player can jump, maybe it's that the level needs to be set on the back of a giant sea turtle, or maybe it's that the last three minutes of the level need to be done in a vehicle.

These restraints might seem like a problem, but it's only once you KNOW what the constraints are that you can start to really get innovative in working with them, around them, and in spite of them.

  • With a restriction in jump height, the greatest platform levels can be created - which would be meaningless if you could jump as high as you wanted.
  • Setting a level on a giant sea turtle might seem restrictive, until you decided that there's a wh*** mutually beneficial micro-society of sentient barnacles attached there, concerned for the wellbeing of the turtle.
  • Given a driving level to do? Don't despair - consider doing the driving level in a new way - through the sewers of Tokyo or through collapsing skyscrapers during an apocalyptic event.
The restraints of a game are what MAKES the game - and how players work within those restraints determines a good player or a poor one. It's the same with making games, or with solving huge problems. Sometimes infinite possibility won't fit in your head - but with just the right window of opportunity, you can soar for the skies!

"Innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)"
Ethan Zuckerman's post, "Innovating from Constraint".

Views: 26

Comment by Sean Carney on March 4, 2010 at 2:49am
It is only when you have constraints to work around that you need true creativity.
Comment by ninmah on March 4, 2010 at 4:43pm
Hi Amanda -- I'm glad to know you. You are so right about constraints and creativity, though sometimes it's difficult to remember that when the constraints first appear. So true though!
Comment by Marcus Tracy on March 4, 2010 at 4:50pm
The nice things about constraints is that they are abundant in our world. This increases the value of creativity in the problem solving process. Good examples!
Comment by Ian Tuck on March 5, 2010 at 4:32am
I wonder if there is an ideal number of constraints at which the degrees of freedom denied become so great that they stifle the creative impulse? Not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, but a general principle. As a game designer, do you have any thoughts on that? I enjoy your perspective, Amanda - thanks!
Comment by Jeff Brain on March 5, 2010 at 2:41pm
Constraints are an interesting concept on not just game design, but also in what I do as a teacher. Some things we just can't do in a classroom…


Search the archives for great white papers on ethics in gaming. Fantastic stuff.
Comment by John D. Boyden on March 6, 2010 at 7:07pm
Yes constraints provide "safety" in the real world. They provide routine, trust, expectation that you know what comes next and how to proceed. Through it's sad side comes dictatorship, control, domination, we can't do anything. The 4 walls of our lives close in tighter...and tighter... There is no choice to be seen. Desperation rules. Then comes change, a blowout of constraint, a re-creation, or perhaps discovery of hope, possibility, creativity, wonder and advancement. After a period of freedom, excitement, and facing the fearful unknown..humans rebuild those 4 walls seeking comfort and safety. Thus is the march of history +1 knowlege share
Comment by F. Blaine MacKinnon on March 8, 2010 at 1:26am
A design prof. of mine once told us "restrictions are your greatest freedom". Once you know your restrictions, you are freed from wasting your time trying to figure out the problem parameters.on things that won't work and can focus you creativity. Example don't waste time exploring what wood construction when masonry is all that's available.


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