Using Constraints.

Constraints encourage creativity. If you've never heard this expressed before you might think it sounds wrong or if you're feeling generous; counter intuitive. But it's true. If you feel blocked or frustrated about not taking action then you should consider adding some constraints to what you're doing.

The Power of Constraints

There's a friction to creation. Every day you have to move forward; a blank canvas can be intimidating because where do you start? It could turn into anything! This is where constraints help. Constraints reduce the choices you have to make. This makes the task more manageable and easier to move forward with.

The novel, "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K Dick used Chinese divination based on the I Ching to help determine character's decisions in the book.

VERTEX: Do you use the I Ching as a plotting device in your work?

DICK: Once. I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.

Austin Kleon created a series of black-out poems by taking a news article and blacking out all but a few words. This is creation by subtraction, the space for the poem to exist is far more constrained than that of a blank sheet of paper.

Using constraints to create poetry.

How does this apply to game development? Well, game-jams are good example of constraints, they usually impose a time constraint, such as a weekend and often a theme. Many small commercially successful games first got their start at a game jam (such Super Hot). Similar events are held inside larger companies to brainstorm new ideas, for instances as Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight.

Why do constraints help? Research on creativity and constraint demonstrates that, when options are limited, people generate more, rather than less, varied solutions — apparently because their attention is less scattered.

Constraints can force you to try out new ideas and explore new areas.

Constraints to Consider

Medium constraints - low-res, black and white, one room per screen, written in an engine such as Twine, Pico8, PuzzleScript, text only, no text, no avatars, game ends after 1 minute etc.

Production constraints - one day, a weekend, a week, the hour of midnight three days in a row, you pass it between a group of people

Content constraints - take a look at previous Ludum Dare themes,

If you don't want to create your own constraints then try out a gamejam as a way to test out the concept.

Leading Constraints

Constraints make it easier for you to create but they can do better than that! You can design constraints to improve your final work. Everyone wants to write a 2d pixel-art procedurally generated Metroidvania platformer, right? But what if you could make something just as satisfying to write but would also stand out from the crowd? That sounds like a win-win.

Recently I was listening to an interview with Brian Eno, best known for creating electronic music. He mentions, early in his career he wanted to write new types of music. This is an aspiration of many creators. In order to write novel lyrics he distilled what was common to contemporary music and then restricted himself in three ways:

  1. Never use love
  2. Never use I
  3. Never use me

This cut down the areas his songs could touch and therefore forced him into more interesting areas.

When I was reading about the development of Tom Francis's Gunpoint for the article You're Destined To Fail, Tom mentions the things he wants to avoid:

  • Existing games tend to be divided into ones where guns go off constantly, and ones where guns don’t exist. The latter don’t have enough guns for my tastes, and in the former guns become meaningless.
  • In most games, you do what you’re supposed to or you die and retry. Even if you don’t physically die, failure means a restart. I want a game where life goes on if you fail the mission.

The lesson to take from this you can use constraints to force yourself into novel territory. Look at what most games do and decide the two or three things you're game definitely won't.

For instance:

  • Most games are about killing in someway.
  • Most games have win conditions.
  • Most games include a sci-fi or fantasy element.
  • In most games you control a single character.

And then more genre-specific:

  • In many games your play is heavily-scripted; there's one "correct" path, otherwise you'll die.
  • Character size in 2d platformers is very close to the early metroids
  • Character size in tactical rpgs are taken from the early X-Com games
  • Most platformers are about moving left to right across a landscape
  • Most FPS games are about move from one point to another to advance the story

Come up with your observations and then think of fun ways to subvert them.