Designing Play: Level Creator Games

There’s been a recent trend in gaming for the past few years; games that give players the ability to design levels are more prominent than ever before. Games like LittleBigPlant, Modnation Racers, Project Spark, Super Mario Maker, the upcoming Dreams and of course Minecraft all allow gamers to build levels/environments just as complex and deep as the game developers. While most games add in creative tools to supplement an existing game, Minecraft stands out in that creation IS the game. There is very little to do other than design your own environment. Naturally these games appeal directly to my interests as they walk the line between architecture and video games.

In many ways the social aspect of these games (players uploading their own created levels online and allowing anyone to play them) is a brilliant move for developers. LittleBigPlanet (LBP) started this trend and it was revolutionary. Gamers are constantly evaluating value in games in terms of dollars spent to hours played. What LBP started was a method of level distribution that essentially ensured the longevity and lasting value. You could play the LBP series until the day you die and never play the same level twice. There is a massive amount of user created content and it will always be available for the players. Super Mario Maker (SMM) followed this trend and applied it to an IP that already had a massive following. SMM is like having a never ending well of Mario games are your disposal. Who wouldn’t want that?

Super Mario Maker is allows players to craft worlds in the most iconic franchise in the world

What these games do is give players the keys to the car, they are in control of the developer tools and given free reign. What many players then realize is how truly difficult game design and design in general is. The reason most people play around with designing a few levels before becoming bored and/or frustrated and abandoning it is because of a misunderstanding of the methods of design. Creativity—whether in game or architectural design—is not the mental spark of brilliance that Hollywood would have you believe it is. Creativity is an iterative process. Any finished product, game or building, is the result of hundreds of steps. Ask any architect or game designer about design and they’ll tell you that there are dozens if not hundreds of iterations that never see the light of day. If you get frustrated and quit a level creator it is not because you’re not a creative person, it is more a matter of patience. The people that we label “creative” are no different than the average person, they simply understand that nothing is perfect the first time, that you need to fail (a lot) before you succeed, that grinding for loot or XP is nothing like the grind to create something and that the reward is infinitely more satisfying.

LittleBigPlanet boasts such a large creative tool kit that players can create other games within it.

When LBP released in 2008 it adopted the mantra, Play. Create. Share. Media Molecule, the game’s creators wanted to send a message that players were free to play the game and all its available content, create new environments and levels, and share those levels with the community. It was a comprehensive approach but a little isolating. At Paris Games Weeks, Alex Evans, Art Director at Media Molecule, said “One of the more frustrating aspects of building in LittleBigPlanet was the separation of ‘play’ and ‘create.’ In Dreams we’ve combined them.” While at the surface level this statement comes across as a normal PR line that describes Media Molecule’s hope for Dreams, it is in fact much more. Media Molecule is attempting to combine design and play. Take a second and stop reading this and try to define what a video game is in your head. This may seem like a silly exercise but try it. What makes something a video game? Must it be interactive? Must it be something that is played? What is the difference between interacting and playing? Does it have to be fun? How does one define fun? Where does the play part come in to the design? I ask these questions because by combining play and create, Media Molecule is playing fast and loose with our idea of video games. If I have fun designing a building in Rhino or AutoCAD am I playing a video game? Where is the line drawn? LBP had a distinct line in the sand, you were either playing the game or creating the game. When that line is no longer there what separates a video game from design software? What separates the player from the designer?

Shrouded in a bit of mystery, Dreams promises an experience unlike anything else in gaming.

Media Molecule has a strong pedigree and while Dreams is still more than a bit of a mystery it is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing upcoming games. Minecraft has already proven that creation is enough to keep players entertained. Will Dreams be able to capture that same magic of design as play or will it attempt to conflate the two in an entirely different way? Either way, I look forward to discovering more about Dreams.

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