Ed Fries: Creativity and constraint, Halo 2600 and a Donkey Kong haiku

Hardware pioneer asks industry to apply constraint to encourage creative thinking

Ed Fries, charismatic ex-Microsoft executive and now freelancing consultant and travelling board member, spoke at the opening of Nordic Game 2011 yesterday, giving a passionate keynote which examined the nature of the relationship between creativity and constraint.

Far from portraying that relationship as a negative one, however, Fries argued that, in fact, creativity can be fuelled by constraint - with new and interesting ideas formed from design decisions forced upon people as the result of limitations in their milieu. Central to Fries presentation was a quote which summarised this position: "what is not constrained is not creative."

It's a quote which Fries himself admits he would have found confusing not too long ago. At first it seems unnatural, contrary, to claim that a reduction of resources can incubate greater experimentation, but Fries' recent experience in programming Halo 2600 for the Atari 2600 taught him a great deal about how much can be learned from operating in a severely limited framework.

Machines are getting faster and faster and faster, so we must be making better games, right? Or are we?

Ed Fries, Nordic Game 2011

That experience gave rise to Fries' keynote, in which he spoke extensively on another of his hobbies - archaeology - spinning an analogy from the methods of pottery glazing used by ancient Mediterraneans, an art form which Fries believes reached its apogee around 400 BC. At that time, the predominant method of vase production was using black paint on a red glazed base, producing artefacts which Fries refers to as "some of the most beautiful objects ever produced by man."

Around 100 years later, when technology had progressed sufficiently to allow multiple colour glazes, much of the elegance, the simplicity and beauty of those vases, had been lost.

That process of degradation through over complication, Fries claims, is as easily observable in the games industry as it is in historical glazes.

"We're in a very weird time, historically," Fries told the Malmo crowd. "We live in this time where progress is just creeping forward - science is changing the world, technology is changing the world, really fast. We're in a time where we just naturally assume that things get better all the time.

"Because things are getting better, because our cell phones are getting smaller and cheaper and faster, it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that applies to other things, too. Like that politics is getting better, or that art is getting better, just because technology is getting better.

"We have that in the game business too, right? Machines are getting faster and faster and faster, so we must be making better games, right? Or are we?"

From a man who's spent the last year programming an Atari 2600, it may sound like rose-tinted spectacles, but Fries is also the man who was the driving force behind the original Xbox project, a technical pioneer with a vested interest in that progress. His fascination with the trying and often frustrating process of programming Halo 2600 wasn't rooted in a desire to see gaming become retrograde, or in limiting the capabilities of machines, but in the ingenuity, creativity and satisfaction which that process gave rise to.

"It felt more like writing poetry than it did like writing regular code," said Fries. "It felt like everything had to be so tight, so perfect. If even one of these tricks didn't exist, if I didn't have this incredibly clever way of drawing this sprite, or if I didn't have this incredibly sick code for drawing the missiles, I wouldn't have been able to fit it in. I couldn't have made the machine do what I wanted it to do.

"I was really struggling with this, just trying to understand it myself. I was at a game conference, talking to one of the guys from Riot, telling him about this experience. I was telling him 'I write code for different machines, but it just doesn't feel the same as when I write it for this machine - why is that?

"He said, oh that sounds like that book, 'Godel, Escher, Bach'"

That book, which Fries had read in college, talks partly about Bach's work with Fugues - musical arrangements where the same patterns of notes are layered over one another, overlapping in the way singers do when singing songs in the round. Bach created a fugue with six of these layers, stretched, compress or reversed, in different synchronisations, to create a far more complex rhythm - a prefect example of an elegant solution to a problem of constraint.

"My question to you guys," asked Fries, "is why did he do that? Why would you do that? In the game business we're all about taking constraints away, making machines faster and faster and faster. We want to make it so that, as a programmer I have more and more memory, more and more power. The last thing I want to do is to put these restraints on myself.

"And yet you look at these other art forms, and you start to see other people doing it on purpose. And this is what started to really puzzle me. So I went and tried to look for other examples. And one of the things I found was this. This is a dragon made from paper.

"So you think, that's cool. Somebody had a lot of free time on their hands. But this is an origami dragon. It's made from a single sheet of paper, only folded, never cut. Does that change how you view that dragon? It does for me.

Monkey throws barrels. He has stolen Princess Peach. For love, I must climb

Ed Fries Donkey Kong Haiku, Nordic Game 2011

"Something about the constraint itself makes that activity interesting. Something about looking at that dragon when I tell you that it was made under this bizarre constraint that makes it interesting to you. More interesting, more beautiful. Why is that?"

More examples of constraint creating interest followed, in the form of more incredible paper creations and a self-composed Donkey Kong haiku.

"You can look at this," said Fries of his poem, "and say, maybe he's talking about Donkey Kong, but maybe he's talking about something else too. Maybe this about more than just Donkey Kong now. Something about working within that constraint, created that space."

Fries final analogy was to speak about the Cambrian explosion, a period 500 million years ago which saw a massive proliferation of multi-cellular animals. Specifically, Fries spoke about a book by Stephen Jay Gould on the period, called the Burgess Shale, which offers an interesting interpretation on that evolutionary process.

That period, Stephen Jay Gould believes, represents not a sudden diversification of life, but actually a narrowing. A winnowing of experimental forms down to largely bilaterally symmetrical creatures with eventually became the creatures in the world around us today.

"It's not that life became more and more complicated. It's actually the opposite," said Fries. "It's like there was this big battle, 500 million years ago between all of these different forms of life, only a few succeeded. What Stephen Jay Gould says, is that if you rolled that clock back and ran that battle again, it'd be completely different. What we think of as survival of the fittest, that what came out of that battle were the best life form, but that's not necessarily the case. There was a lot of randomness in what succeeded down there and what did not.

"So for me, that gets me thinking of the videogame business. The console business. Where we are today. Maybe I'm the only one that feels that way, but in the high end console space games are so big, so complicated, so expensive to make that they've pushed out everything else. Instead of being a point that where we are now is the most creative, the most interesting part, it's actually not true. The most interesting period was during our Cambrian explosion. What's happened since then is a winnowing down of genres."

But Fries sees hope for those lost genres, a new chance to re-roll our pre-Cambrian dice to see what comes up. New platforms, he said, like handheld and touchscreen, have created a space where barriers to entry are low enough for new genres to evolve.

"We have these new battles happening, and who's going to win? Maybe it'll be the traditional genres we know, like RPG or FPS or RTS. But maybe it'll be something different. Maybe giant birds shot out of slingshots will become the new genre, something crazy like that!

"So when was this Cambrian period for the games industry? Maybe it was back around the time of the Atari 2600. When you look at the thousands of games that came out during the few years when it was popular, you can't even put most of them into a genre. That leads to the question, why?

"Was it that, pre-Cambrian explosion, there was this whole world for these animals to conquer? It hadn't been conquered yet, so anything which could do better could go out and get more of that world and have that battle. Or is something to do with the constraint itself that caused that creativity? That's a wackier thing to say."

Wacky it may be, but Fries drove his point home with an array of comparisons between games and the art of painting, tracking the progression of pointillism, impressionism and cubism as methods of self-imposed constraint which gave rise to incredible creativity after a period of stagnation brought on by the near perfection of the art of realism.

"This, I think, is the point we've got to in the games industry. We have machines which are so powerful that they can render anything, we really have to be careful. It leads us to a place where everything starts to look the same. Everything looks really blah. Maybe a way to look at what's happening now is that people are putting these constraints on themselves.

"Maybe that's something you can do as game designers, think 'what constraints can I put on myself to encourage my creativity'."

For an interview with Ed Fries, which took place before Nordic Game, 2011, click here.

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Latest comments (1)

Richard Westmoreland Senior Game Designer, Codemasters Birmingham11 years ago
Good article, but the last part struck me as odd:

"Maybe that's something you can do as game designers, think 'what constraints can I put on myself to encourage my creativity'."

Most game designers are working under lots of constraints already - Budget, Art, Time, Technology, Demands from Clients etc... Suffice to say our creativity is always being encouraged.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Westmoreland on 13th May 2011 12:52pm

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