Philosony - The beauty of problem-solving

Being the upstanding PSFanboy that I am I have been devotedly playing, creating, and (not quite) sharing since I got my grubby, cotton-filled sack paws on a copy of LittleBigPlanet. As we are all well aware this season is particularly pregnant with A-list new releases, but I think it safe to say that Media Molecule's monster is the game to play if you want a uniquely PS3 experience (sorry Bioshock, Fallout, and Dead Space - there will be time for you in the next life I suppose).

We all know the selling points of the game. It's not just a cute, side-scrolling platformer and despite it's graphical style and E for Everyone rating it's not necessarily a targeted "kid's game". The real appeal of Sackland is in creation, making us as much game makers as game players. But here's the rub: how is it feasible that there is market among consumers for something that essentially makes them producers?

We all have our armchair critic moments - bashing games and explaining what we would have done differently had we been in charge - but that sort of criticism rarely turns into action for other hobbyists. Liking music doesn't necessarily imply being musical; one can love to read but be terrified of writing. So while Media Molecule may be trying to sell us on creativity and imagination, these things alone would probably appeal only to a niche market of gamers (ahem, you know who you are Mario Paint owners). However, what universally appeals to us about the challenge of creativity coded into LittleBigPlanet is the same thing that draws us to play games in the first place: the desire to problem-solve.

One of the things we love most about games is that they provide us with challenges along with the tools necessary to overcome them but leave it up to us exactly how. In my last post I wrote about the willingness with which video game players learn new games and control systems, even if they are variations on some basic themes. We learn these new controls and game mechanics so that we can face a variety of puzzles that put our new found knowledge to work. Whether we're contemplating moves in Puzzle Quest, re-wiring our knowledge of 3D space in Portal, or refining the attack and defend dynamics of capture-the-flag scenarios in most first person sh

ooters, we have a goal and and obstacle to that goal. The mark of a broken game in one in which all of the problems can be solved with one fool-proof solution - a particular character class that is too powerful, or a zerg strategy that never fails to overwhelm the enemy. We want the challenge of figuring something out and the satisfaction of achieving victory despite opposition.

As open ended as it may seem, creating a level of LittleBigPlanet is as much about problem solving as any other game. To better envision this imagine if the game included, as part of its creation tutorials, a series of challenges that task you with recreating many of the objects used in the developer levels. They would start you off small - see if you can make the Queen, peacock feathers and all - then gradually ramp up the difficulty, from building Mags' car to replicating the boss fight against Terrible Oni. You've got a practically limitless combination of tools at your disposal, can you figure out how they did it?

I don't know about you, but that sounds like a good deal of fun all by itself - especially if there are Trophies involved! The activity of problem solving is the common denominator among gamers. Provided you're willing to meet the game halfway and set goals for yourself, even the most unimaginative gamer could get a hoot out of the "create" portion of the game. Of course the real selling point is in creating levels from scratch and that requires a bit of an artistic vision in addition to problem solving: creation = (imagination + problem solving) x patience. Are we prepared to flex those artistic muscles in addition to our problem solving skills?

The number of quite decent user-generated levels already on the servers suggests a resounding yes. But really, are problem-solving and imagination really that different? Any mathematician, logician, programmer, or chess player will tell you that their vocation is as much or more an art as it is a reasoning process. The nature of solving problems is something that humans, but not computers, are good at. Computers can use brute force processing, sure, but that means looking at every possible option, not just the most promising options. This is why good, human-like A.I. opponents are hard to come by. We can make your opponent difficult by making it stronger, or cheating and having information or reflexes that no human could have. But it's difficult to make it reason smarter, come up with novel approaches to defeat your novel strategies.

All of which suggests that perhaps we're exercising our "creative" muscles just as much when we play any game as we do when making levels for LBP. We certainly have the patience to both learn and master new games and we consistently solve problems. And sometimes, just sometimes, we develop a strategy or tactic that's more than just a response to a problem. Sometimes we play games with the very human spark of imagination that borders on the artistic.

Post: Having re-acquired a taste for problem solving through programming I really want to revisit Carnage Heart, a game that never really took off, probably due to the lack of online functionality in the PS One days. Maybe it's time to revise the franchise, and the success of LBP shows that there might be at least a niche market for such "programming games".