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  • Writer's pictureJiajun Tan

Emergent Gameplay Let Players Lead the Game

Updated: May 7, 2019

Last week, I attended GDC and learned a lot from it. Among all the talks I listened, the one talking about Emergent Gameplay from Owlchemy Lab left me a great impression.

According to the talk, Emergent Gameplay is about using simple mechanism with different orders and combinations to create unique, memorable stories for the player.

Their example is The Combinator from one of their game, Rick and Morty Simulator: Virtual Rick-ality. It only has a simple mechanism that takes two input item and generates a seems reasonable output. Because there are so many items in the world and Owlchemy almost made every one of them interactive, the player will always expect to see what crazy thing could actually come out from the combinator.

The Combinator makes me think of another great example of Emergent Gameplay, cooking in Zelda: Breathe of the Wild. It was one of my favorite feature of this wonderful game. In the game, you could use any items you collect in the journey to cook a delicious, or disgusting dish. Different combinations of the items will produce different results, and it actually quite fit the expectation which is really impressive. What makes it even better is that if you accidentally drop your items on the fire it will also get basic grill cooked.

Why Emergent Gameplay is successful in many games? From the speaker of Owlchemy Lab, it is because of player freedom. The real world can get infinitely messy, given that game maybe can't be a perfect replica of reality, proper chaos could still provide special flavor. It's extremely important for a sandbox game, and the concept maybe is applicable for all games.

Besides the reason presented by Owlchemy, I personally think this specialty of Emergent Gameplay is also about personal belonging. It's about let players lead the game instead of the player being the follower of the game.

This idea is quite like what I learned from the Building Virtual World class on the topic of freedom. It is always important to fulfill the player's expectations, and that's why a sword game could be really difficult to implement since you cannot simply cover all the fantasy a player could have with a sword. Emergent Gameplay is a good shortcut to realize a system that makes the player feel totally satisfied with the game, and this is already great to know.

I am not a master in this field since I just heard about the phrase for the first time, but still, I think it is not simple magic that just exist will make the game great, there are many things developers need to focus when implementing an Emergent Gameplay system.

First, it should all about player stories. Which means it shouldn't get out of the whole experience of the game. Instead, everything player attained from this system should become the persistent change that carry the player journey on. Take Zelda's cooking example again, the dishes actually became an important item for a boss fight, which provides health point, extra power and stamina which enhance the player to perform better.

Second, a better system should be inter-connective. One game could have several emergent game events, if each system share some same learning process and even could interact with each other, there will definitely be a lot of "Holy Shit!" moments. Valuable outputs used in other contexts which help grow the possibility of space exponentially, which adding more unique attempts for the players to create themselves. In the trailer of Vacation Simulator, there is this temperature system that different zone connects together. Players could attain a snowball in a cold area and take it to the hot area seeing it turns into the water which can even get into a cup, that's really amazing. (I couldn't find the exact video I am talking about. Watching is never as good as trying!)

Third, don't drown in the ocean of Emergent Gameplay. There could be a lot of details that have the potential to expand to such a system, and keeping all the system consistent could be really hard. Always start from a small part and keep iterating and adding pieces to it. Bugs are acceptable for this system if it acts like a part of the chaos, just keep in mind to value whether a mechanic is worth keeping when compared to the number of bugs it will cause.

And for the last thing, have fun in it. If your creativeness won't make the game more enjoyable, it will be a bad attempt.

Emergent Gameplay is like a completely new field for me, and I will try to absorb it through my game design journey.

Pictures Sources:


Embracing Chaos: Designing for Emergent Gameplay in VR from Owlchemy Lab at GDC@19

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