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Key Challenges Creating Emergent Games
by Kevin Gliner on 02/09/14 11:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This post originally appeared on Point Line Square on November 6, 2013.

As much as I’ve been touting greater use of emergence in games, it’s a non-trivial problem in terms of execution.  Developers face a few challenges if they go down this path.

Balance

The massive possibility space that’s so beneficial to player engagement also happens to be impossible to balance.  It’s simply too large to test all the permutations.

Talent, experience and iteration go a long way toward dealing with this issue, but a simpler approach is to re-think what it means to be balanced.  If unusual, lop-sided situations are re-cast as part of the experience — and the build-try-fail loop is short — players will find them entertaining instead of frustrating.

Being a live product also helps– anything too extreme can be quickly adjusted if it’s having a large impact on play (and by large impact, I mean it’s driving all players to pursue a single strategy, thereby undermining the benefits of an emergent system).

Noise

Having a large possibility space isn’t much good if it’s hard to find the interesting bits.  Similarly, if players can’t differentiate one approach from another, then being emergent isn’t going to increase engagement.

In both cases it helps to make the core elements of the game — the ones that can be combined during play to produce different results — as orthogonal as possible.  Having a +1 sword, +2 sword, and +3 sword as options is not being orthogonal.  A better approach would be attributes that are more binary in nature:  sword vs. not-sword, AOE vs. not-AOE, DOT vs. not-DOT, ranged vs. not-ranged, etc.   The ability to combine any of those together creates a much more discrete, understandable and useful set of permutations for the player.

Representation and Visual Fidelity

Emergence works by combining core elements in many different ways, but in a large possibility space it’s not possible to create unique assets for all permutations.  Emergent elements are often represented by simply visually stitching together smaller bits.  The challenge is making the combined element quickly understandable, even if the player has never seen that particular combination before.

Having only a handful of core, orthogonal elements helps, since the player only has to learn their function and not all the permutations, as does limiting the number of elements in any combination.  Really strong art direction makes a big difference too, particularly on smaller gaming devices where core elements might be very small.

Take poker as an example.  The individual cards are core elements, and a hand is an emergent element.  The uniqueness of each hand comes from stitching together a few cards, not a new asset.  The number of cards in a hand is constrained, each card is visually distinct, and the number of possible hands is very large.  But the player can immediately recognize what they have, even if that particular set of cards is new to them.

As much as I’ve been touting greater use of emergence in games, it’s a non-trivial problem in terms of execution.  Developers face a few challenges if they go down this path.

Balance

The massive possibility space that’s so beneficial to player engagement also happens to be impossible to balance.  It’s simply too large to test all the permutations.

Talent, experience and iteration go a long way toward dealing with this issue, but a simpler approach is to re-think what it means to be balanced.  If unusual, lop-sided situations are re-cast as part of the experience — and the build-try-fail loop is short — players will find them entertaining instead of frustrating.

Being a live product also helps– anything too extreme can be quickly adjusted if it’s having a large impact on play (and by large impact, I mean it’s driving all players to pursue a single strategy, thereby undermining the benefits of an emergent system).

Noise

Having a large possibility space isn’t much good if it’s hard to find the interesting bits.  Similarly, if players can’t differentiate one approach from another, then being emergent isn’t going to increase engagement.

In both cases it helps to make the core elements of the game — the ones that can be combined during play to produce different results — as orthogonal as possible.  Having a +1 sword, +2 sword, and +3 sword as options is not being orthogonal.  A better approach would be attributes that are more binary in nature:  sword vs. not-sword, AOE vs. not-AOE, DOT vs. not-DOT, ranged vs. not-ranged, etc.   The ability to combine any of those together creates a much more discrete, understandable and useful set of permutations for the player.

Representation and Visual Fidelity

Emergence works by combining core elements in many different ways, but in a large possibility space it’s not possible to create unique assets for all permutations.  Emergent elements are often represented by simply visually stitching together smaller bits.  The challenge is making the combined element quickly understandable, even if the player has never seen that particular combination before.

Having only a handful of core, orthogonal elements helps, since the player only has to learn their function and not all the permutations, as does limiting the number of elements in any combination.  Really strong art direction makes a big difference too, particularly on smaller gaming devices where core elements might be very small.

Take poker as an example.  The individual cards are core elements, and a hand is an emergent element.  The uniqueness of each hand comes from stitching together a few cards, not a new asset.  The number of cards in a hand is constrained, each card is visually distinct, and the number of possible hands is very large.  But the player can immediately recognize what they have, even if that particular set of cards is new to them.

- See more at: http://pointlinesquare.com/#sthash.huUAEfXM.dpuf

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Comments


Sam Stephens
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Excellent post. I agree with pretty much everything you say here.

"Having a large possibility space isnít much good if itís hard to find the interesting bits. Similarly, if players canít differentiate one approach from another, then being emergent isnít going to increase engagement."

This statement seems very similar to Sid Meier's concept of "interesting decisions" where the player can clearly differentiate the function of one choice from another and understand the benefits of one over the other through context.

Kevin Gliner
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Yes, agreed, although there's really two different problems. The first is one of differentiation (per Meier). The second problem, particularly as a system becomes more emergent, is that there may indeed be plenty of interesting choices -- they're just impossible to find because they're completely overwhelmed by the even higher volume of uninteresting ones. In this case differentiating the function of each choice may or may not be an issue, but examining and discarding the infinite number of uninteresting ones is.

Sam Stephens
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Yes, a game can be far too complex for it's own good (most RPGs come to mind).

Darius Drake
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Those are interesting points, thanks for the article. By emergent games, you are referring to games like ROBLOX, Minecraft, and other such games where a player can contribute their own custom content, right?

Can you explain exactly what you mean by this statement:

"If unusual, lop-sided situations are re-cast as part of the experience ó and the build-try-fail loop is short ó players will find them entertaining instead of frustrating."

Thank you.

Kevin Gliner
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Other games that are deeply emergent include Magic: The Gathering, Go, Chess, etc, which are light on UGC. Sim City and The Sims, which fall in between, are also very emergent. A large possibility space can be generated a number of ways, of which user generated content is but one method.

As for recasting the experience, investing a lot of time in something that results in failure is frustrating. A shorter time investment means we care less if we fail and might even appreciate or find entertaining how we failed (particularly if we design to encourage this reaction). The counter to this is that deeper investment can also produce greater reward. I'd argue that its better to have the core game loop have a short build-try-fail cycle, and design for deeper investment in the various meta loops around it.

Darius Drake
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Okay, I see. New content is the heartbeat of video games. Once the learning curve levels out, most of the game's appeal is gone.

I see what you mean about the build-try-fail loop. You make a good point. We would probably find it entertaining how we failed if we're convinced that the game is right and we're wrong; in other words, if the game's "laws" seem believable and stable.

Lihim Sidhe
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"Other games that are deeply emergent include Magic: The Gathering..."

The only time assets are banned from being used in this game is when they prove to overwhelmingly powerful. Overwhelmingly being the key word. Other than that players are left free to draw from a large pools of assets in which to invest their time and skill into.

More and more I find myself drawn to the idea of a game adheres to the above design principles. If a great narrative and world is built and a game's mechanics faithfully follow said narrative and world....

...I don't care if something is balanced or not. Let new content and player investments bring down those who have power. A dangerous caveat being a never ending escalation of power.

For instance I hear a lot of game patches nerfing abilities. Instead of nerfing why not instead release game content that is more able to oppose players if they have abilities that are proving to be dominant? (Example: MMO Class Combination X is uber powerful. Instead of 'nerfing' release enemies that 'feed' off of Class Combination X').

M:tG does this to great effect by releasing assets that deal with assets.

So I suppose what I'm trying to say is I'm more a fan of a trinary approach instead of binary. Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Darius Drake
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Here's an interesting way to look at balance: the game itself could be looked at as the real world, while developer intervention (like adding patches to "nerf" or add content) could be thought of as government assistance.

When you "nerf" an ability as you say, that would be like government regulations on that particular Class's business; on the other hand, if the developers were to create enemies that "feed" off of a superior Class, that's kind of like taxing the rich because they're rich. But I think releasing enemies is a better idea than eliminating abilities.

My point is that in a capitalist nation, like the US or Canada for example, the market would function solely on people's decisions and natural laws if there was no government intervention. Maybe MMOG's should operate like that (their "natural laws"--how the game is programmed--would have to be stable).

Terry Matthes
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Wow. That Point Line Square site have some great articles on their site. Totally worth checking out more :D


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