Emergent Gameplay


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Emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in video games, board games, or role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics. More recently game designers have attempted to encourage emergent play by providing tools to players such as placing web browsers within the game engine, providing programming languages, and fixing exchange rates.

These cases constitute intentional emergence, where creative uses of the game are intended by the designers. Since the 1970s and 1980s board games and table top role playing games such as ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ have featured intentional emergence as a primary game function by supplying players with relatively simple rules or frameworks for play that intentionally encourage them to explore creative strategies or interactions and exploit them toward victory or goal achievement.

However, in games with complex physics and flexible object interaction it may be possible to complete in-game problems using solutions that the game designers did not foresee. ‘Deus Ex’ is often cited as a game responsible for promoting the idea of emergent gameplay, with players developing interesting solutions such as using wall-mounted mines as pitons for climbing walls. Such emergence may also occur in games through open-ended gameplay and sheer weight of simulated content, in ‘Dwarf Fortress’ for example. The Nintendo DS game ‘Scribblenauts’ allows the player to write the name of tens of thousands of nouns within its database to bring that object into a game’s level and have it behave realistically within the game’s engine; the game challenges the player to find as many ways to complete puzzles or reach a goal by using such objects in any combination.

Some rare games don’t use a pre-planned story structure, even a non linear one with many branches. In ‘The Sims,’ a story may emerge from the actions of the player. But the player is given so much control that they are more creating a story than interacting with a story. Warren Spector, the designer of ‘Deus Ex,’ has argued that emergent narrative lacks the emotional impact of linear storytelling. ‘Left 4 Dead’ features a dynamic system for game dramatics, pacing, and difficulty called the Director. The way the Director works is called ‘Procedural narrative’: instead of having a difficulty which increases to a constant level, the AI analyzes how the players fared in the game so far, and tries to add subsequent events that would give them a sense of narrative.

Unintentional emergence occur when creative uses of the video game were not intended by the game designers. For example, emergent gameplay can arise from a game’s AI performing actions or creating effects unexpected by even the software developers. This may be by either a software glitch, the game working normally but producing unexpected results when played in an abnormal way or software that allows for AI development.

In several games, especially first-person shooters, game glitches or physics quirks can become viable strategies, or even spawn their own game types. In id Software’s ‘Quake’ series, rocket jumping (using the concussive force of a rocket to launch yourself higher than normally possible) and strafe-jumping are two such examples. In the game ‘Halo 2,’ pressing the melee attack button (B) quickly followed by the reload button (X) and the primary fire button (R trigger) would result in the player not having to wait for the gun to be back in position to shoot after a melée attack. Doing this has become known as ‘BXR-ing.’ ‘Starsiege: Tribes’ had a glitch in the physics engine which allowed players to ‘ski’ up and down steep slopes by rapidly pressing the jump key, gaining substantial speed in the process. The exploitation of this glitch became central to the gameplay, supplanting the vehicles that had been originally envisioned by the designers as the primary means of traversing large maps.

Thanks to a programming oversight by Capcom, the combo (or 2-1 combo) notion was introduced with the fighting game ‘Street Fighter II,’ when skilled players learned that they could combine several attacks that left no time for their opponents to recover, as long as they were timed correctly. In online car racing games, particularly ‘Project Gotham Racing,’ players came up with a game variation called cat and mouse. The racers play on teams of at least two cars. Each team picks one very slow car as the mouse, and their goal is to have their slow car cross the finish line first. Thus the team members in faster cars aim to push their slow car into the lead and ram their opposing teams’ slow cars off the road.

Completing games without getting certain items or by skipping seemingly required portions of gameplay result in sequence breaking, a technique that has developed its own dedicated community. Often, speed of completion and/or minimalist use of items are respectable achievements. This technique has long been used in the ‘Metroid’ game series and has developed into a community devoted to ‘speedruns.’ ‘NetHack’ has over time codified many such challenges as ‘conduct’ and acknowledges players who manage to finish characters with unbroken pacifist or vegetarian disciplines, for example.

Machinima, the use of computer animation from video game engines to create films, began in 1996. The practice of recording deathmatches in id Software’s 1996 computer game ‘Quake’ was extended by adding a narrative, thus changing the objective from winning to creating a film. Later, game developers provided increased support for creating machinima.

Traders in massively multiplayer online games with economic systems play purely to acquire virtual game objects or avatars which they then sell for real-world money on auction websites or game currency exchange sites. This results in the trader’s play objective to make real money regardless of the original game designer’s objectives. Many games prohibit currency trading in the end user license agreement (EULA), but it is still a common practice. Some players provide real world services (like website design, web hosting) paid for with in-game currency. This can influence the economy of the game, as players gain wealth/power in the game unrelated to game events.

Gambling may occur in online role-playing games. The provision of gambling services in exchange for in-game currency can take the forms of a lottery, card games, event betting, or any number of other variations, most often at least loosely based on established real-world games. Players typically establish a betting facility, lottery etc., create a website for executing the gambling, then accept payment from gamblers using in-game currency to credit the gambler’s website account. Winnings are then paid back to the gambler’s account. Other forms of gambling are commonly used in Massively Multiplayer Online Games, such as betting on who will win a duel.

In games with no financial law game mechanism, players develop financial institutions. Forms include banks or investment schemes launched with an Initial public offering, typically based purely on trust. The world’s first MMORPG IPO was ISS Marginis by the Interstellar Starbase Syndicate (ISS) in ‘Eve-Online’ in 2005. This was for a dividend based on profitability. The ISS followed up with a series of IPOs, culminating in an IPO of the player guild itself promising a fixed return, like a bond. ‘Eve Online’ has no game-mechanism for financial law.

In games with rough economies like World of Warcraft’s Auction House system, some players make a living by buying items that are unusually low priced and reselling them at high prices, or by buying out all competition and creating a monopoly. In the MMO ‘Runescape,’ players can purchase many thousand units of an item then sell them later for a profit just like a normal commodity market. This game includes price data on all items for the last 180 days.

Emergent gameplay appears when there is good game simulation according to Peter Molyneux, creator of ‘Populous’ and other games. Simulated worlds allow players to play around the world and should respond realistically to player’s actions. This is what made ‘SimCity’ and ‘The Sims’ compelling to people. Similarly, being able to freely interact with the city’s inhabitants in the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series adds an extra dimension to the games.

The following is an example of emergent gameplay Molyneux gave with his game, ‘Fable’: ‘He says he watched a 15-year old playtester chat up a woman in town who happened to be the mayor’s daughter. He brought her gifts and flowers, talked to her all the time, started hugging and kissing her… and eventually they married and moved in together. Molyneux says he was delighted that a player was exploring this part of the game. Then the playtester talked to the Mayor and asked him to follow him. He took the mayor out to the woods, got him behind a tree … and killed him! ‘Why did you do that!?’ Molyneux asked. ‘I figured the mayor was rich, and he’d give all his money to his only daughter,’ answered the tester. Of course, now the daughter had lots of money, but didn’t want to share any of it. So the playtester killed her, too. (Then he moved into the mayor’s house!)’

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