Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Emergence in Games

Today I’ll give you a little bit of an introduction into the concept of emergence in games. I won’t go very deep as there is enough steam in the topic of emergence to write books about. What I’ll try is to tell you about the basics, because I will refer to those in a post next week which will have a specific practical application of the topic as its focus.

Emergence, according to Steven Johnson (author of the aforementioned book) is the “movement from low-level rules to high-level sophistication”. The classical example here is the way that ant colonies work. Ants don’t really communicate with each other on a high level. Instead they have a very simple system of rules that leads to the construction of complex colonies and to highly effective food gathering.

A simple example in gaming would be Half-life 2. Valve didn’t give Gordon Freeman an ability that builds stairs to climb fences. Instead they implemented a physics engine that allowed Gordon to move objects if they weren’t too heavy and to stand on objects. These two low-level rules allow the player to stack up stuff and jump on it to cross the fence. In this case I’m sure the interaction was planned, but that absolutely doesn’t have to be the case. The more tools and low-level rules you implement in your game, the more possibilities for interaction between these will exist.

Portal is another example of a game in which simple rules create higher-level interactions.

If you immediately thought “sandbox” here you would of course be right. Sandbox games are designed with exactly this concept in mind: Give the players a bunch of tools and let them do with those whatever they please in the hopes that they’ll find a way to amuse themselves. But traditional sandbox games are far from the only ones that can exhibit emergence (and benefit from it.)

The other day I played a ranked game of Starcraft II – my Terrans against a Zerg opponent. Neither of us players was very aggressive and the game quickly developed into a state in which both of us had a high-tech army at our disposal. In the inevitable crash of those armies they turned out to be roughly equal in strength and obliterated each other. This was repeated a couple of times and the resources available on the map started to dwindle because our war efforts simply cost so much. An interesting change could then be observed in the structure of the armies: There were less and less expensive high-end units to be found. Instead we both shifted back to basic, efficient, and versatile units.

This shift in army composition was not forced on us by some high-level rule; instead there were some simple low-level mechanics at work. For one, resources in the game are limited, meaning one can’t just endlessly create expensive units. That alone wouldn’t have caused this shift though if the most expensive units were strictly better than cheaper units. As it happens you can always answer you opponent’s units with cost-effective answers of your own if you have the appropriate buildings available. Over the course of the game both of us had switched unit compositions again and again to counter whatever the other player was doing so that both of us had all pretty much free choice of units. Whatever army one player would build to attack with would meet an army designed to counter it when reaching the opponents base. Therefore both of us went back to units that were decent (but not great) against pretty much anything the opponent could bring.

These footsteps indicate a spot in which Kratos can run up the wall. Very convenient for the game designer, not very interesting for the player.

Games leave more room for emergent gameplay when they don’t offer many high-level mechanics. Looking at Hermes’ boots in God of War III, for example, we can see a very high-level mechanic. These boots can be used to run up (and along) walls in very specific situations. “Use boots to run up wall if in the right place” would be a description of the ability. The same effect could be reached with a lower level ability and some rules pertaining to the physics of the game world. If the boots would only make you run faster and the game had a concept of grip and gravity you could still run up walls – but you could do so everywhere. You could also use the boots to simply move to places faster or jump across large spaces.

Clearly, emergence can be problematic  for a game. Unforeseen interactions might break the game completely, be extremely unfair in any sort of competition, or make a game way too easy. In the boots example from above, level designers would suddenly have to be very careful that their complicated puzzles can’t simply be solved by using the boots in some creative way. On the other hand, allowing for emergence means allowing the player to be creative – which is a good thing in my eyes. There’s an interesting article by Mike Stout over at Gamasutra on the topic of evaluating game mechanics for depth which touches on a lot of similar subjects and makes for a good read. You might want to check that out even though it doesn’t directly deal with the topic of emergence.

This shall be enough as an introduction to the topic, there is a ton to read out there if you are interested. Start with excellent Johnson’s book for the general concept of emergence, then simply use Google to delve deeper into emergence in games. Next week I’ll write about a type of game were emergence is rare but absolutely needed in my opinion. Stay tuned.

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