Creativity and constraints

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When Shigeru Miyamoto and his team designed the original Mario Bros. arcade game, memory constraints forced them to use identical designs for the first and second brother. This presented a problem: How do you differentiate between two players if their characters look exactly alike?

Their solution, via Rolling Stone:

‘Well even if we have the same character, we could potentially change the color of the character.’ But again we were limited in the color palettes – we didn’t have much in the way of additional colors that we could use. And so we looked at the turtles in that game. Their heads are sort of skin-toned, their shells are green, so what we could do is we could use the color palette from the turtle on this character. And so from those technical limitations we said ‘Okay. We have these two characters. They look the same, other than the fact that their colors are different. Obviously they must be twins.’

Thirty years later, Luigi’s personality is distinct from his brother’s, even allowing him to star (or at least share billing) in his his own unique games. Quite an achievement for a technical workaround!

Miyamoto-san elaborates:

This ultimately is the role of a designer: How do you take those constraints and create something that’s unique and then layer on a story or some kind of a background that explains why those things exist? Ultimately that’s the reason that Luigi is green, but it’s one of those little development anecdotes that I wanted to share and is to me an important facet of designing: how you use what could be a constraint and use that to develop something new.

The romantic notion of creativity as a product of divine inspiration or artistic serendipity is a farce. Peanuts was designed to be a “filler” strip publishers could rearrange into any available space. Jaws was scary because the malfunctioning shark forced Spielberg to emphasize the “threat of the unseen.” Musical genres are often invented to suit a performer’s surrounding architecture.

Don’t avoid a project’s technical requirements. Embrace them. Enjoy the focus they provide and the ideas they inspire.