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Emergent Game Play In Classic Games
by Steve Fulton on 11/15/12 01:33:00 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.

 

A few months ago on one of the forums I frequent, a fellow retro game fan (rimbo) talked about playing "Time Pilot:Pacifist".  This was not a new game, but rather, a different way of playing an old game.  In his version of Time Pilot, he chose to never fire a shot, and instead spend all of his time on level one, picking-up the little parachute guys.   I instantly replied to the conversation because I have played this game too.   We both had created a new game out of an old one, and we never had to write a single line of code to do it.

This conversation sparked some thoughts in my mind about other games that I have played in the past in ways that were probably never intended by the designers.  Unlike moderns games like Minecraft, this "emergent" game play was not designed as part of the game, but came about  because of bugs, and/or alternate ways to play based on the released game.  None of these were hacks.  While I also spent a lot of time using sector editors and cheat programs to edit the values in games and change the difficulty, those efforts always left me cold, like I had suddenly taken the fun out of the game by cheating.   These were not "mods" either. The things I'm talking about were ways to leverage the existing games (glitches and all) to make the intended experience into something else entirely.  All of them were memorable in their own special way.

Creating A Game Out Of A Toy: Etch A Sketch Auto Racing


The first game I recall "editing" was  the Etch A sketch toy.   Wrote about this a long time ago on this site in a post named "Atari Nerd Chronicles: Garage Games Literally", and here is what I said:

"By using scotch tape and the lap timer on a digital watch, we created our own racing games using this seminal drawing toy.   First, one of us would spend the time to lay-down an elaborate track using scotch tape over the Etch-A-Sketch screen.  When that was finished, the other one of us would attempt to ‘race’ (draw a line through the track) as fast as possible without hitting any of the scotch tape lines as he was timed by the digital watch.  It worked fairly well, as long as the players were honest about not hitting the barriers. "

Imagining A Different Game Entirely: Marauder Star Wars


The first video game I recall "editing" was Tiger games' Marauder.   This was more of a "mental" edit, than anything else, as it was less a different way to play the same game, than it was a different mental state in which to play the same game.

Marauder was the first Atari 2600 game I ever bought that I hated.  It was a game a bit like Berzerk, but from an overhead perspective (kind of).  The graphics were designed to look like little people walking and firing guns, but instead, they looked more like grotesque purple triangles shooting square eggplants.  Your own character was seen from the side (I think), which made the whole thing even more bizarre.

Since I had paid $24.99 of birthday money (in 1983 dollars,$56.62 in 2012 dollars based on inflation ) for the game,  I was really pissed off.  It was one of the first games I bought that I hated, but I still played it...because I bought it.  However, every time I stuck the cartridge into the 2600, it was not Marauder any longer, instead it became : Star Wars Death Star Battle.   I imagined that the game was set on the Death Star, and all the little purple triangles were Storm Troopers. My job was to shoot as many as possible.    The items to collect in the game became stolen plans for the ultimate battle station.   Sure, it really didn't make the game any better, but it was a quick way to fill the $24.99 hole left in my heart by the disappointment.

Going Hardcore : Defender : Holy Sh*t! Space Mode

These days, there is a whole sub-genre of game players that go hardcore when it comes to difficulty.   They play on the hardest settings, make rules that you can't reload, or you only get one life.   While I admire these kinds of "rule modifications" in modern games,  I can proudly say that I participated in one of the very first versions of this:  Defender Holy Sh*T Space Mode.

Defender, along with Tempest,  Star Gate and Robotron, were some of the first hardcore video games.   The difficulty level was set very high, the controls were complicated, and the action was blazingly fast.  If the regular mode of Defender was not hard enough, when you managed to kill off all the humans you were supposed to save, the game thrust you into what we called "space mode".  In this mode, the landscape went away, and the game threw as many aliens at you as possible.  It was insane, and usually going into "space mode" meant your game was over.

However, playing games in the arcade in 1982 was an exercise in resource management.  If my mom had dropped us off for a couple hours, and it was nearing the time for us to be picked up, we could not get into any game that might last too long ad have her waiting outside. Because of this, we had to create short challenges out of existing games to fill in the remaining time. Sometimes,  (usually with our last tokens) my brother and I would start a 2 player game of defender named Defender : Holy Sh*t! Space Mode.

We played this game by killing off all our humans as quickly as possible to get in to "space mode" and then tried to see who could stay alive for the longest amount of time.  The game was less about points than play time.   If we could make the game last just until my mom came to pick us up, it was a success.  Of course, playing the game this way was insanely difficult, but it was like icing on the cake: a final thrill to top off a great day playing video games at the arcade.

Exploring The Landscape: Intellivision Auto Racing Offroad


The Mattel Intellivison was an odd beast of a game system.  The games always seemed to play in slow-motion, the controllers were bizarre at best, awkward at worst.   However, one advantage the Intellivision had over the Atari 2600 was bit-mapped graphics.   While Atari game designers had to program by TV electron-gun scan-line (which is also one of the reasons you can't hook a 2600 directly up to a modern TV), Intellvision programmers had the luxury of laying out giant scrollable, bit-mapped worlds.   No game displayed this ability more than Auto Racing.  (on a side note, it's odd that this game was not Hot Wheels branded because Mattel owned that brand, but I digress).

Auto Racing was a very cool, scrolling racing game, but the best part of the game was that you did not have to stay on the roads at all.  There were gaps between the trees and buildings big enough for your car.    It was enticing, and enjoyable, to simply take-off road and explore the world on your own.  You could not win the race this way, but it did not matter.   For the first time playing any racing game, it seemed more fun  to drive through backyards and groves of trees than staying on the track.    It always appeared that we would discover something really cool and secret if we just kept going off the track.  While we never did find anything out of the ordinary while going off road, it wasn't from a lack of trying.

Data Manipulation : Microleague Baseball Superhuman Stats


When we were kids, my brother and I loved baseball.  We could list the starting line-ups for both the Dodgers and Angels in order by first and last name, and we watched every game that was on TV.     We played in Little League, and collected baseball cards, and consumed Big League Chew" like it was the coolest thing around.

One of the first computer video games we devoured was Microleague Baseball  .   This was not an action game but a stats based baseball simulation where you played the manager.   The game featured dozens of teams from the history of baseball, including teams that could have never existed like the America League All-Stars featuring great players from most of the 20th century.

One of the joys of the game was playing a team like The American League All-Stars against a relatively recent team (at the time) like the 1981 Dodgers.     In fact, it was during one of these games that we noticed something interesting.   After the American League All-Stars clobbered their opponent in shut-out by a 25 or so run margin, the game ended and, like always, it asked if we wanted to "compile the stats" for the game.   "Compiling The Stats" for a game meant the stats for the current game would be added to a new team.   We did this, and then the game asked if we wanted to compile them again.  So we did, and again.  The same stats over and over again.

Soon, we had a team with a pitcher that had won dozens of shut-out games, and players who had dozens of hits, RBI and home runs, all based on that one game.  Sure, some players compiled crappy stats, but most became inhumanly good at baseball.

Next we took that same team, and played it against the same, sad opponent.   I believe the first inning took almost 2 hours.  In fact we had to put the game in "fast play" mode and let it play out itself to get to the ending.  That game ended with a score of about 102-2.  Of course, we compiled that one multiple times, and continued.     The result were bizarrely out of whack baseball teams.  Some players hit home runs at every a bat, while other could not hit the ball at all.  If a player had made an error in a game that was recompiled many times, all of sudden he became a total clown on the baseball field, missing everything that came to him.    It didn't make the game any better, but it was a fun time while it lasted.  It also showed that basing a game like baseball, completely on stats, can have some serious drawbacks.


Atari ST TOS Icon Football

Right after we bought our Atari 520 ST computer in 1987, the disk drive failed. I mean right after, like the same day.   However, since we had bought it out of the trunk of a guy's car (the same guy who would one-day open the store Computer Games Plus in Orange California), we really could not return it right away.  In fact, it took about 4 weeks to get a replacement.  In the mean time, We came up with sad game named TOS Icon Football.  The game was played on the TOS desktop.   One player would move the icons around, trying to protect the trash can (the ball).  The other player would take their turn making moves to try to steal the trash can.   In reality, the game made no sense at all, and I can't even remember the rules.   We just needed to find something to do with our $700 door stop while we waited for a disk drive to arrive.  The main thing I remember is the remorse I felt after selling my Atari 800, and all our disks (including all the  BASIC games and  programs we had written--what the hell were we  thinking?) to help pay for, what amounted to, an expensive tan box that displayed a green field of nothing.

By the way, the mouse failed on the Atari ST not too long afterward, and we took it to Federated Group (Atari had bought the chain) to try to get it fixed.  9 months later,  after multiple attempts to get it back, fixed or not, a call from the Bureau Of Consumer Affairs to the manager of the Federated Group was the only way they would release their steely grip on the device.

Yeah, owning an Atari ST in the 80's took a lot of patience.   There were some great games (Dungeon Master, Lost Dutchman Mine, Kickoff) that clouded the issue.  However,  it was only in hindsight that we realize we should have bought an Amiga.

Glitches That Makes Games More Competetive: Micropose Soccer/FIFA '94 Goal Storm


My brother and I played a lot of soccer video games while growing up.   Some of those games had great special effects, but played terrible soccer (i.e Pele's Soccer for Atari 260), while others have never been outdone (Anco Player-Manager for Atari ST).    The best games were the ones that allowed for an almost unlimited array of ways to score goals.  However, some games had particular areas that, when the ball was shot by a player, a goal would be scored no matter what else was happening on the field.   Two such games were Microprose Soccer for the Atari ST, and FIFA '94 for the Sega Genesis.    However, instead of dismissing the games outright for being glitchy, we instead created our own contest from their relative shortcomings:  Goal Storm!

The object Goal Storm! was  to see who could score as many goals as possible in the longest game, without giving up out of boredom. Both MicroProse Soccer and FIFA '94 had similar features that made this game possible.   First, you would select the longest play time possible.   Neither game played in real-time (90 full minutes) but you could get very close.  Then you would select to play the best team in the game (usually Brazil or Germany) and play against the a terrible team (usually Oman, Japan, or the USA).  This was before the USA  or  Japan were recognized as playing a decent game and that was reflected in these games.   Then, it was time to score as many goals as possible.


In FIFA '94  the key was to get the ball to just outside the 18-yard box a bit right of center, and make a lob shot into the goal.  In Microprose Soccer, you needed to sprint down the right-side of the field, just to the right inside of the goal box, and make an angle shot.     Since you scored EVERY TIME (as far I can recall anyway) with these methods, your goal was to steal the ball as quickly as possible from the other team, sprint to the box and shoot.     I don't believe either my brother or I ever finished the longest games, but the shorter ones were great fun.   In an alternate version of this game, we would play as the disrespected USA team, and use the goal storm methods to trounce the best teams in the world.



Command And Conquer Wall Wars

After devouring Dune II on the PC,  I could not wait for the release of Westwood's Command And Conquer.  However, when it was released I realized that the game was much harder than I anticipated.  While it used a lot of the same  ideas as Dune II, some of the unit powers and combos made my (albeit very basic) strategies and tactics learned from Dune II fairly toothless.

That was, until I discovered walls.  Apparently, this was a bug, but I did not know it until much later.  In the first version of Command And Conquer "walls" counted part of your base, no matter how far you built them one of your buildings.   At the same time, enemy units, more often than not, would not try shoot at your walls. When I found this out, my strategy became the same on every level.

First, I'd send out scouts to locate the enemy base.  Next, I would build a long wall from my base, all the way to the enemy base, and surround it.  The enemy units were now trapped in their base, and their harvesters could not return.    I would then build towers around the enemy base that would shoot at their units as soon as they were created.   Lastly, I'd send up my tanks to finish off the buildings.      It turned a semi-complex strategy game into a game of shooting fish in barrel.   Unfortunately for me,  In later versions of the game, this glitch was fixed.  After that, RTS games were ruined for me, as they never gave the intense satisfaction of a game of Command And Conquer Wall Wars.

I'm sure there were tons of other classic games that allowed for this type of emergent game play, but these are the ones I still hold dear to this day.   The fact that I still remember these things tells me that emergent play is a great way to make games memorable, even if you can't control exactly how those memories are made.


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Comments


Maurício Gomes
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I used to play Age of Empires II multiplayer with my cousin.

We two (but sharing a single color), against a single computer in deatchmatch mode with the highest resources and highest difficulty.

Most of the time we lost, but that mode required some... inventive tactics.

The computer opponent in Age II could cheat (a lot actually), also it could act faster than any human, so the only way to win was do things it totally not expected.

One best attempt was when my cousin took care of playing the game properly, and I took care of... THE WALL.

THE WALL was a massive wall, first a layer sorrounded our base, then I made a second layer with holes, then in those holes I put trebuchets in attack position, then another layer to close that, then another layer with holes, filled with ballista, then another closing layer, then another layer with holes, filled with archers, then another closing layer.

And as "tower" we used only castles.

The AI opponent had a stupid flaw: it attacked with some usually simple teams, usually it sent a trebuchet, 2 catapults, some footmen with ranged and melee weapons and some cavalry, then it went for hit and run tactics.

Of course that do not worked at all against THE WALL, whatever came close, got butchered without even damaging it.

that is, until the CPU decided to kill the archers with trebuchets :/
And then kill the ballista with trebuchets...

And then kill the trebuchets with archers.

Then it started to break the innards of the wall, that was unreachable to repairmen.

:(

Yes, in the end the computer still won actually... But THE WALL was awesome.

Tont Voles
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Brilliant piece, Mr Fulton!

Stephen Molyneaux
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I'd actually forgotten about doing this. When I was young (age 5) in Super Smash Bros. for the N64 I would set-up a game with four computer players, all Donkey Kong, with the maximum number of lives and have them fight. I thought this would help me become a better player.

In Melee my brothers and I would play sudden death with 99 lives and only explosive items.

In Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, my brothers and I would compete for how long we could keep our combo going after the match ended.


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