I was a nerd in High school. (Hell, I’m still a nerd) This meant that a lot of my friends, whether they were people I played video games with, Magic the Gathering with or Dungeons of Dragons with, were also nerds. Although I do not subscribe to the idea that people are divided into either mathematics or creativity-oriented categories, a majority of my friends were very interested in math and science. One of the most common things I heard among my mathy friends was that they loved mathematics and the hard sciences because they loved solving puzzles. Each math question was an obstacle to overcome through the understanding of a set of rules, which appealed to them. While I understood the appeal of solving math problems, I never felt the same way about math as my friends did. While they took Advanced Placement Chemistry, I took Independent Study in sculpture and listened to Bob Marley on loop for hours on end. If people could only be sorted into two categories, I was obviously a ‘creative’ type.
I knew I wanted to create for the longest time; I wrote stories, drew , sculpted and told jokes as a kid, but never really understood that that wasn’t something everyone did. That’s not to say that solving math problems or discovering scientific solutions to issues aren’t creative endeavors, but they do follow very different rules from more art oriented activities. What surprised me in my late teens and into early adulthood was just how similar the results of my creativity were to those of my scientist friends. I realized that, although I sometimes draw or sing or dance spontaneously, without focus or purpose, most of the enjoyment I get from being creative is from how similar it is to solving a puzzle. Most every time I sit down to write a story or design a video game or draw a picture, I first establish what boundaries and restrictions that I must work around to accomplish my goal. The puzzle becomes how I am able to dodge the many obstacles that are in my way, whatever they may be, before finishing my project. For example, how could I write a science fiction short story without using cliche as a crutch about robots and the philosophy of the mind; there are lots of different answers, but only a few that really fit well without those parameters. I often marvel at the beauty of designs from other people and wrack my brain trying to reverse engineer their creative process, visualizing how they dodged bullets to create something impressive.
My favorite part of design and creativity is how they show off the beauty of simplicity. Anyone who watches the british television show Countdown will know that there are very many ways to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers to get another number. Given enough time, I’m sure I could solve many of the math problems presented on the show, but that’s where the name’s sake gimmick comes in. Contestants show their mental skill by solving their math problems quickly, which is often synonymous with in the most simple fashion. Similarly, the beauty of design is not in accomplishing a goal, but rather in how simple and elegant the solution is. Take, for example, my new favorite Magic card: Guard Duty.
I’ll spare those who don’t know much about Magic the trouble of explaining the entire game, but it is important to understand a few things about this card. First of all, the card was created to fill a very specific hole in the design of the Rise of the Eldrazi set, which was that the white color (a subset of cards) needed a good way to deal with the large creatures of the set (the series of cards printed with this card). One very popular effect for cards that were used to fill that role is exemplified by a card called Pacifism, which says that the creature that is attached to the card can’t attack or block. Although I don’t know the intentions of the research and development teams over at Wizard’s of the Coast, it is plain to see for the average Magic player that Guard Duty is just a cheaper (it costs one white mana instead of a white mana and a colorless mana), less effective version of Pacifism. If the design of the card stopped there, Guard Duty would still be a good card, but only in function within the design of the game. The wizards at Wizards of the Coast took a functionally perfect card and brought it over the top. Instead of simply removing the “can’t block” clause from Pacifism and renaming the card, Wizards’ R&D took a chance to cleverly retool a very popular mechanic from the game of Magic. Defender is a keyword ability (a phrase used on cards instead of fully explaining an effect or mechanic). Normally, the keyword ‘defender’ is used on cards that are meant to be used defensively, which allows the designers to focus their efforts on making the card worth casting, despite the downside of not being able to attack. When a player sees a card with defender, it is often appropriately costed (made easier to cast thanks to the downside of defender) or very powerful despite defender, making the keyword seem less like a downside and more like a hint to the player: “Hey, this creature should be used defensively!” Guard Duty instead shows just how painful it is to have defender, twisting what was once only a mild downside on otherwise good cards (mostly) into a huge problem that a player could inflict on his or her opponent.
The combination of a witty name, creative reuse of a keyword ability, fantastic artwork and incredible flavor text (a description or quote underneath the cards rules text) meant that Guard Duty didn’t just stop an opponent’s creature from blocking. Casting Guard Duty became a huge slap in the face that not only functioned as a very playable Magic card, but also told a story of forcefully enlisting a mythical creature to guard a building with improper equipment. Imagine Cthulhu being forced to be a Walmart greeter and you may come close to understanding just how funny Guard Duty is in the context of the Rise of the Eldrazi set. The best part of the card is that it is all so simple (once you understand Magic the Gathering, that is). The use of the defender keyword ability is not only incredibly clever, but also an amazingly simple way to describe to any Magic player just how the card works. This is precisely where Magic shines so often; the designers at Wizards of the Coast create relatively simple mechanics (yes, I know this isn’t always true *cough* banding *cough*) and allow players to discover the complexity within the game through the use of those individually simple tools.
Skullgirls is another great example of mastercraft game design at work. Each character fulfills a specific fighting game character archetype, while also maintaining a specific aesthetic theme that perfectly matches the game play. Throw in a decent amount of cultural and fighting game references and you have an amazing fighting game. This is best exemplified with the near-completion of Skullgirls’ latest fighter, Beowulf.
Mike Zaimont’s mad scientist approach to game design is clearly unmatched, as Beowulf seems true to the grappler archetype, plays more like a beat-em-up character than a traditional Zangief carbon-copy, references older fighters, as well as wrestling pop culture, and stands out among the cast of already very strange characters. While Skullgirls has its flaws, it does paint an interesting picture of game design being all about creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts. A run of the mill fighting game might have a pretty solid engine or a cast of interesting characters or great artwork and music, but creating a game that combines all of those qualities into one, while, at the same time, making it seem near effortless is an incredible feat.
Design is all about guiding one’s creativity towards accomplishing a goal despite any possible restrictions; the more restrictions, the more refined the design. Artists, designers, authors and singers dig into their work with the plan of finding the path of least resistance towards solving the puzzles created by their own projects. The best examples of genius design take each part of the creative process and mold them together to create something bigger and better than the sum of those parts. There’s something unique about the human mind that loves solving puzzles, but mathematics and hard science are not the only fields of study and expression that allow people to scratch that itch. These similarities between the ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ activities make me think just how silly it is to try and define people in such strict binary ways. Creativity comes in all forms and people are capable of creating and exploring whatever they set their mind to.