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How Emergence Changes The Business Model
by Kevin Gliner on 02/14/14 12:30:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s 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 December 24, 2013.

In this final post on emergence in games, I want to talk about how emergence impacts the business model.


Emergent games are inherently social.  The more emergent a title is, the higher the volume of novel content generated by the players:  there are more surprises, more varied progress, and more opportunities for self expression.  As a result, there’s not only more to share, but more that players want to share.

Just look at The Sims:  that product has more shared content than almost any other on the planet despite being single player and lacking built in viral hooks.  Or Minecraft, a game with no marketing budget and a ridiculous amount of commerce and distribution friction.  Giving players interesting things to share — and by interesting I mean things that appeal to non-players — dramatically increases the native viral coefficient for the product and reduces the cost of discovery.

Player Life Expectancy

In previous posts I’ve noted that emergence increases the possibility space for players, which in turn increases their engagement (by reducing the pattern matching problem and increasing the likelihood of finding something interesting to play).  Greater engagement increases player life expectancy, and players who play longer are more likely to monetize.  The data Kongregate has data been sharing the last few years is particularly compelling on this point.

Development Expense

Launching a live service-based product puts you on the content creation treadmill:  you’re in a race with your players to author content faster than they can consume it.  That’s a very expensive proposition for most games if they want to maintain player engagement (it’s not enough to re-skin content or re-purpose mechanics since players will have already pattern matched the play dynamics).

In an emergent game every tiny bit of new content combines with all the old content, refreshing it and exploding the possibility space all over again.  Balance issues aside, both initial and ongoing content creation costs are small and manageable.

The Business of Play

So emergence lets us use the underlying mechanics of the game itself to drive discovery, increase player life expectancy, and reduce development expense.  That’s a much better approach to long term sustainability than optimizing LTV > CPA and trying to re-capture players in another game when they churn out.  In fact, emergence allows us to re-think core assumptions about how we make games.

Our industry is in the business of selling experiences through play.  Traditional game companies make products with a finite life, and they offer players more play by creating new products.  This approach comes with some inherent problems:

  • A short product life cycle means the threshold for success is high.  You need a large audience to return enough revenue to cover expenses, which in turn drives up customer acquisition costs.
  • It’s very difficult to find this level of repeat success, so companies use portfolio strategies to offset risk.  This raises the success mark even higher, since now a few hits have to cover a bunch of duds.
  • Milking the hits you do find can help, but sequels only take you so far (see Eidos and Tomb Raider as one of many examples).  These product lines get tired over time, due in part to the small possibility space that offers little in the way of new play.

This is what we call a hit-driven business, because if you fail to keep making hits, you die.

With emergence, you offer players more play in the same product.  There is more play in one emergent game than in 100 traditional games.  I’m being arbitrary with that ratio, but my point is that the possibility space is so large players never run out of interesting things to do.   As a result:

  • These games last forever.  A long product life cycle requires a smaller audience to generate the same return, thereby reducing customer acquisition costs and making less competitive niche genres viable.
  • With a long product life and a large possibility space, you have a lot of flexibility to adapt your product.  You take multiple shots on goal with one game, not many.  That’s less expensive than building new products until one hits.
  • Games of this type stay fresh for a very long time — there’s less risk of player attrition due to product exhaustion, and there’s no need for sequels.

You have to re-prioritize many of the metrics we use for evaluating success if you’re going to build products this way, but if you’re willing to take the long view emergence can get you out of the high risk hits business and into a safer, more sustainable model for making games.

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Bart Stewart
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Kevin, I agree with much of what you've said in your series of posts on emergent play. With my gamer hat on, emergent play -- surprising content arising from the intersection of different aspects of multiple systems -- is a big draw for me.

That interest, though, means that with my analyst hat on, I can see some of the potential difficulties of emergent content. In addition to the positive consequences of designing a game around emergent play, there are risks and gotchas that need to be understood and addressed as well.

1. Not everyone likes emergent play. A lot of people --maybe most people -- playing games today prefer well-understood rules and outcomes. They don't *want* to be surprised.

For example, consider the players who think of "crafting" in a MMORPG as manufacturing lots of identical widgets to compete in a sales game. If you implement crafting to have emergence, you're saying that you won't always know exactly what you're going to get... but that's pure evil to the manufacturing/sales-oriented player because it means that they're "losing" resources every time something gets made that isn't exactly what they expected.

Another example is Minecraft. Minecraft certainly has emergence -- the time my niece rode a pig into a lava stream and set both of them on fire wasn't something I ever thought I'd see. So Minecraft is great fun for people (like me) who enjoy being surprised. It's also fun for the gamers who enjoy the sensation-oriented survival challenge. What it isn't so much fun for are the gamers who prefer clearly rules-based games with clear win conditions. These are the players who, since Minecraft launched, have expressed unhappiness that "I don't know what I'm supposed to do" and wanted things like character levels and "adventure mode" rules-based play. As Minecraft's developers have added those, Minecraft has now been said to have passed WoW in terms of total revenue... but it might not have done so without understanding that emergent play alone would not be enough to satisfy the gamers who like clear rules and win conditions.

It's OK to make games with emergence. But it's important to recognize that by doing so, you're limiting the audience for your game. If you're fine with that, awesome; if you think that emergence by itself will make your game broadly popular, though, that might need a re-think.

2. Emergence is optimal for exploratory play. It's also good for cooperative play. It's not good for competitive play.

Competitive play demands fairness, or at least the perception of fairness. Emergence works against that because it allows one player to experience content that another player probably won't. Emergent content lets one player "get stuff" that another can't. That creates a perception of unfairness, and that snuffs out any willingness to compete.

So it's important to understand that if you're determined to make a competitive game, then you either should not try to include emergent content, or at least be extremely careful in how you include it. If the world can generate things that one player might get that another might not, the typical competitive player will probably find that very annoying. There are ways to try to address this; the important thing is to recognize that it's a potential issue.

3. I'm not 100% convinced that increasing emergence increases engagement.

The word I usually use for this effect is "investment." Players who stay -- and keep paying -- are those who become invested in the world of a game -- it becomes a place they enjoy being in, and want to come back to, and want to see more of. I think emergence can contribute to creating that sense of place; I'm just not sure it's the primary cause of investment.

So, as one way of increasing the "feeling of place," I could agree with a judicious enhancement to emergent play. But I would suggest looking at it as just one component among several for helping the world of a game feel more dynamic in a distinctive way, and thus increasing its ability to foster investment by more players.

4. On monetizing games with emergent play, it's crucial to understand that by making an emergent game, you're choosing to put all your eggs in one basket.

You can either make multiple non-emergent games with static content, or you can make one (or a very few) emergent games with dynamic content. But making just one game that players can happily play in for years (because new content keeps emerging) means you get one shot at their money as an initial sale, versus multiple opportunities if you make a larger number of smaller, fixed games.

This is why I feel pretty strongly that monetizing an emergent-play game needs to be done by putting a price tag not on the base game itself but on additional developer-created system expansions (things that add more dynamic elements into the world), and on player-created content that can be purchased by other players (for which you as the developer get a cut of each transaction).

If you're just going to sell the one game -- because it has emergent content -- then you need to plan to make your money on long-term, ongoing improvements to that game, not just on initial sales of the game itself. Frankly, I'm inclined to think that the best way to monetize a game like this is to give away the base game for free (to seed it as widely as possible into the general game-playing public) and plan to make all my money from nominal charges to download new dynamic elements and scenarios created by you and by other players.

I hope it's clear that these comments aren't just objections to designing games to have emergent content. I like emergent content!

I do think it carries some potential gotchas, though, and that it's useful to consider those along with the possible benefits of making a highly emergent game.

Thanks again for an excellent series.

Sam Stephens
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I think it is very difficult to make a game that isn't emergent to some extent. When people talk about emergent games, they tend to only think of open titles with many options (Dishonored, Minecraft, Deus Ex). They think of emergence as a space where a lot can happen, where no two playthroughs will ever be the same, but emergent games can also be extremely linear and simple. Super Mario Bros. is one of the most emergent games of all time. There is a vast amount of content in that game made only out of a few variables. Rock Band is certainly emergent despite its strictness. Most puzzle games, even ones that only every have one solution, are emergent.

This is not only true for single player games, but multiplayer too. Halo, StarCraft, Pokemon, Street Fighter, and Go are just a few highly competitive games that are very emergent. In fact, I would say that games cannot get more emergent than competitive multiplayer.

Kevin Gliner
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I think it's important to distinguish between emergence at the player level vs. the designer (or developer) level. We could abstract things even further and say a programming language is an incredibly emergent system from which an infinite number of games can be created, but the choices we're referring to here lie with the programmer not the player. Most puzzle games have a very limited solution set and there's very little range for the player to operate in.

All games are emergent to some degree, but there's a big difference in how many meaningfully different ways one can (or must) play Super Mario Bros. and the game of Go.

Kevin Gliner
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Hey Bart, glad you liked the series. And thanks for the great comments. Here's my take:

1. If, as a player, you understand the parts of the system you do have a rough expectation of outcome even if it’s a bit fuzzy. And for the outcomes you like, particularly in a crafting system, you can then repeat the process. In fact, for crafters there should be tremendous reward in the discovery of something new that they can then replicate to either use to their advantage or sell to others.

I don't actually think emergence has anything to do with clear rules or win conditions. Games like Go and Magic: The Gathering have very clear targets but are deeply emergent and have an infinite number of ways to get there. Sandbox games tend to be highly emergent, but they do suffer from an open-ended nature that, as you note, some players don't like. That has more to do with being a sandbox game than being emergent though.

As for audience, emergence can potentially make a game more accessible because the player only has to understand a small set of things from which an infinite number of combinations can be created. I don't actually think emergence expands the potential audience for a particular game, but I do think it can increase the portion of the potential audience that will play (all other things being equal). In other words, emergence isn't going to get someone interested in Go if they don't like abstract strategy games.

I will say there's an open question whether a broad range of strategic and tactical choices, even if they're all valid, is overwhelming to the player. That's less about not knowing what to do and more about not knowing which thing to do.

2. I'm going to have to disagree on competitive play. In fact, competitive play is one of the best ways to introduce players to parts of the possibility space they haven't encountered or considered. Player A develops a winning strategy, so player B has to come up with a counter strategy, which player A then has to find a counter to, and so on. In a large possibility space there are many of these strategies to discover. I'll reference Go and MTG again as examples.

And since both players have access to the same small number of things, things are perfectly fair. Of course, many games restrict access to all the parts for commercial reasons (e.g. MTG, but not Go), which creates a degree of unfairness, but that has little to do with emergence.

3. I subscribe to the belief that games are primarily about learning, and once you figured them out (solved the puzzle, figured out the winning strategy, etc) you get bored and move on. Up until that point you're engaged, so to the extent we can provide a large possibility space in which the player does not get bored, emergence is a great tool for increasing (or perhaps more precisely, extending) engagement.

I do agree with you that investment is also a key piece of player engagement, and that this is part of a positive feedback loop in which the longer the player plays, the more they feel invested, and the more invested they are, the longer they are likely to continue playing.

4. Agreed. The details can be very game specific, but free-to-play with various forms of micro-transaction purchases is probably ideal (additional content, player to player transaction fees, energy/time gates, and so on). Of course, that's true of many games these days, emergent or not.

Sam Stephens
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"I think it's important to distinguish between emergence at the player level vs. the designer (or developer) level."

You are right, I am talking from the perspective of a designer and not a player, but I think you underestimate just how emergent even a simple linear game can be and how much there is for players to learn even after completing the game. Mastering even a simple game is probably impossible due to the nature of emergence.

"All games are emergent to some degree, but there's a big difference in how many meaningfully different ways one can (or must) play Super Mario Bros. and the game of Go."

I think you would be very surprised by just how many different and distinct ways one can play any single level of Super Mario Bros., perhaps in many more ways than Go, as Super Mario Bros. has more complexities.

Kevin Gliner
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Mastery is a problem, except in the most temporary sense. It leads to boredom and causes players to move on to another game. Linear games require a heavy dose of new content to keep filling the void after a player has mastered previously authored levels/puzzles/etc. And new content isn't itself enough if it's not meaningfully different (i.e. I have to adjust my play, at least a little, to finish it).

Each level in SMB, once completed, no longer presents a challenge to the player (I'm leaving out the small percentage of dedicated fans who are interested in perfecting play or inserting their own challenges into the equation). Mastering SMB for most players is simply a matter of completing it. If you choose to play again you will be presented with the exact same challenges as before. That's a small possibility space and there's very little emergence at work here. Yes, you can choose to kill enemy B before enemy A the next time around (as one example), but that's just re-arranging the deck chairs and isn't meaningfully different.

Go, by contrast, plays differently every single time. You have to adapt, explore new ideas and approaches, to keep winning. It's impossible to master. People can play Go for a lifetime because they never run out of new challenges. You can't say the same for SMB.

I don't want to sound like I'm denigrating linear games. They have a different set of advantages -- for example, they don't suffer from balance, noise and representation issues that plague emergent games. As a result, they can be wonderfully polished and fun to play. SMB is a premiere example of that.

Sam Stephens
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"I don't want to sound like I'm denigrating linear games. They have a different set of advantages."

I thought you were implying that emergence > linearity. Sorry if I misunderstood you.

Ben Larkin
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I found this analysis to be quite insightful. My take on the commercial viability of emergence is that it seems to be the most appropriate direction for game developers to take. Based on my observations over the past few years, markers of true success in gaming seem to hover around games like Fallout, Skyrim (Bethesda) and of course Minecraft. There certainly exist players of different types, in the sense that different social needs are satisfied for these players by playing games, but considering that the majority of those players will also test the water with the likes of Minecraft suggests that there are elements of play within these games which attract any or all types of gamer. From my own experience, it comes down to a game's presented set of mechanics. If, at the outset, you purchase a game believing it to be a reward-based, linear platformer, then--with perhaps some diversion--it should conform to that model. The all-in-one games such as popular MMOs try to give players the freedom to explore, to follow a specific storyline, as well as to pursue goal-based activities such as quests. But even in their case (FFXIV comes to mind), there is a logic to them, a level-and-grind mentality which typifies the genre.

I believe that, for better or worse, games should attempt to shape the social lives surrounding them, and that more emergent mechanics are the way to go. Dynamic environments, freedom of expression and exploration, looser goals, etc. This certainly gets boring for some. People complete all the quests, due to their insatiable desire for novel content. So they rush around Skyrim talking to every NPC imaginable until they've quite literally done it all. On the linear side of things, similarities exist. In Dark Souls, for example, completing the main story doesn't take that long, assuming you avoid dying. True mastery of such a game is learning to navigate a linear environment which itself is emergent through its enemies (at least on your first playthrough). Subsequent playthroughs are made novel through the New Game+ method, making enemies more plentiful, more powerful and generally more menacing for players. So although developers usually aim to place their games on one side or the other, the happy medium is to either promote the standard style, and provide options for more linear gamers, or to attempt to reinvent the nature of linearity (as From Software have done).

Here at Haunted Planet, our games are emergent to the extent that they offer both a standard mode, to be played at the original site (Bram Stoker's Dracula in Trinity College, Hurkelheimer's Transfabulator in New Zealand), as well as Random Mode, which can be picked up anywhere, so although the characters will be the same, how they interact with their environments will be different. Anyway, great article.