Do you remember what it was about Legos that you really enjoyed as a child? For many, it was perfectly re-creating the picture on the box. You would painstakingly follow the booklet, step-by-step, until you reach the very end and you have a perfect Lego creation, just as the makers intended. For the rest, there was a whole different kind of joy — you saw something greater, a chance to take these pieces and build something on your own. You built rocket ships, cars, and entire lego cities from nothing but the blocks they gave you. They gave you an opportunity at creativity, and you thrived in it.
Maybe it’s time for video games to do the same. We are in a time where gamers have seemingly more power than ever. Sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza, and Far Cry give you endless options and activities aside from the story. How you choose to approach every time you start up a save file is up to you. Sports games like Madden, NBA 2K, and FIFA give players the ability to create their own teams and logos, and fill them with their own players. In Fortnite, you can currently play as Iron Man and go eliminate She Hulk with Dr. Doom’s gauntlets.
But what if we could do even more? What if games just gave us the tools right away to do whatever we wanted? Forget giving us endless options in the constraints of the game itself, give us endless options with what we can build within those games. Imagine if in Grand Theft Auto 6, you could not only explore whatever fictional city the game had for you, but you could create your own? Think of a Battle Royale like Fortnite where you can change the rules or make your own map to fight it out on.
The truth is that there are games that are already doing this, while others have been doing this for as long as they have existed, but the technology is there now. Plus, the internet gives us the ability to share creations instantly. Gamers have endless creativity at their fingertips.
Ever since games were invented, players have been trying to push them to their limits by taking the tools and making something greater. Entire communities have been built around this. They even inspired one of the most popular games of the current generation of consoles: Mario Maker.
When emulators started to get popular in the mid-to-late 2000s, there were a lot of fans who just used them as an opportunity to play old games they missed out on during the NES and SNES era due to low carts produced or were seeking out the nostalgia from those old consoles that had been sold or broke over the years. Then there was another group: Hackers that took these old games and made their own creations with them, especially in Super Mario World.
For as popular a game as Super Mario World is on its own merits, it may be even more popular for what it did in the rom hacking community. Hackers took the game and made insanely challenging levels out of it to test the skills of themselves and their friends. One of the most famous of these is “Kaizo Mario,” a ridiculously hard rom hack that seemed impossible to beat without save states and some luck. Some people even went viral for their play-throughs of it.
As time went on, these hacks became more well known for not having particularly good level design in mind. Everyone was trying to make the next “Kaizo.” Eventually, the fad faded into a smaller community as fans at large explored other interests. Then, E3 2015 and the return of the Nintendo World Championships happened. It was something of an open secret that this sort of Mario game would be released, but its unveiling at E3 finally put things on display. Then, the World Championships featured a pair of players on going head-to-head on a Nintendo-built level, which captivated onlookers.
Mario Maker 1 may as well have been rom hack maker. But instead of hacking the game, Nintendo gave fans the tools to make their own levels. It was a level of freedom with their mascot franchise that Nintendo had never given fans before. This resulted was some truly creative levels by long-time fans of the series. It gave them an opportunity to explore their level creation skills and make whatever they wanted to appeal to whomever they wanted.
Nintendo makes Mario games that everyone can enjoy. Fans make games that their friends can enjoy — this has been the case since the first Mario game dropped decades ago, and it’s been the case ever since. Mario Maker 1 allowed everyone to take Mario to a new level and thanks to its emphasis on level creation has arguably led to one of the best tools in video games today.
Ever since Mario Maker‘s release, we have seen more publishers embrace the idea of letting fans create what they want with their video games. Think of games like Dreams, where the entire concept is built around players having close to free rein to do what they want. In Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+ 2, Activision brought back the skate park creation tool that was originally unveiled in THPS2. The key difference here was that players can now share parks with each other, and the results are fantastic.
Eventually, those old lines get, well, old, and the high scores become impossible to reach if you continuously play the old courses. But with the park creation tool, there is now endless fun with the Tony Hawk remake. You can be done with it right now, but in two months, you are guaranteed to find some brand new courses to skate through. It has given players near-endless freedom to do what they want with their own parks.
This applies to the simulation worlds as well. The new PGA 2K21 only has so many golf courses you can master, but the course creation feature allows you to play as many as you want. Make a course of all Par 5s, or a course with nothing but hazards between you and the green. The ending point is really up to the player.
Animal Crossing has been moving towards giving the player more freedom to make choices for years and the Nintendo Switch version finally just went ahead and told the player they could design their island however they want. Roads, dirt paths, cliffs, waterfalls, rivers, and building spots are all completely up to the player. The only part of the game’s overall design that seems to be out of the player’s hands is where the town hall is. Everything around that is free for customization. This has resulted in every town being a unique experience for every player.
Perhaps nobody went as deep as Overwatch did when they unveiled their player creation tool, Workshop. Blizzard has a long history of allowing player creation. Anyone that played Warcraft when it was a real-time strategy game likely has years of memories creating their own maps to fight on and using other players’ created maps in online matches, but Overwatch took it a step further. The tool itself is difficult to understand and requires a lot of trial and error. Even some general idea of how basic game design works. As a result, the mode is difficult to master, but the possibilities with it are almost endless.
We all make our own stories through these creation tools, endless opportunities to experience and endlessly replay these games. In a world where developers seem to constantly be trying to find ways to keep players engaged, maybe giving them the freedom of a painter with canvas is the way to do it. Give players the tools to make something spectacular. It started with rom hacks, and now, the developers are intentionally putting the tools in the hands of the players. They’ve dumped the Legos on the floor and are telling them to go make whatever they want. Maybe it’s time every game gives this a try as well.