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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.

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Dan Pearson