Jul 18

Emergent Play in MMOs - It’s About the Balance

This is a non-sequitur that came up in a recent conversation, and it’s something that many experienced MMO developers and players are well aware of.  

In online spaces, emergent play is as important as social play.

Emergent gameplay behaviors (”unforeseen interactions outside of the original intent, which frequently provide an unexpected result”) can exist between players and the system, between the players and the AIs, between AIs and AIs, and so on.

They can exist between anything that interacts with anything else.

A game system that fosters emergent behaviors is more likely to give users the ability to entertain themselves in your 3d world/2d interactive environment/web based spreadsheet game for many more minutes/hours/weeks/months than you’ll be able to create content to keep them engaged in a way that’s mutually beneficial.

Emergent play lets people experiment “harmlessly” with pushing the boundaries in a way that the same behaviors in social play would be unacceptable or detrimental.  (e.g. NPCs don’t walk away from a product or brand with a negative impression when they’re “experimented upon” by curious players.)

Degenerate gameplay is generally undesirable.  I use that in a literal (not moral) sense: “A strategy/path of action/combination of resources or interactions that is both unforseen and so beneficial that it becomes the sole way to play.  Not partaking in that specific, narrow path of activity either outright precludes “success” in an environment, or drastically reduces the amount of fun a person can derive from an experience.”

Degenerate gameplay is a small subset of emergent gameplay.

Given this relationship, attempts to systemically pre-empt degenerate gameplay frequently have the unfortunate side effect of outright preventing beneficial emergent behaviors.  In a multi-player online environment, this can be a significant contributor to a failure to thrive.

It’s important to address the worst of the worst ahead of time — That’s one place where knowing where to strike a balance comes in — but with targeted solutions, despite the fact that targeted solutions frequently require more effort over time, both in maintaining an awareness and and being able to address the correct problem.  However, that cost is variable, and never guaranteed to occur.

The other place balance comes into play is having a good sense of which potential problems are safe enough to address if and only if they become real problems.  Fixing some problems before they actually exist often comes with an immediate cost that’s best left unpaid until (and if) you need to.

In short - Creating an environment that maximizes its potential to succeed as a whole is far more important than creating one in which all potential for degenerate play is pre-emptively stamped out.

8 Comments so far »


    Winter "Winwin" Mullenix said

    July 18 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    Very well said - the unexpected is often the best.


    Keith Turkowski said

    July 18 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Excellent analysis, especially the relationship between degenerate and emergent behavior. Unfortunately it seems like there is a future trend in game development where poorly designed games are comprised of an uncoordinated set of systems and touted as supporting amazing emergent behavior.


    Wiqd said

    July 18 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    One thing about companies who love to play the “control game” is that they get MUCH less respect from me. From my days in EQ I remember attempting and hearing about others attempting various different things in the EQ world that the devs never intended. Some were seen as exploits, some were seen as “creative use of game mechanics” but however you name your rose and all that…

    One of the clear examples of companies playing the control game is Blizzard. I remember guilds that were banned for splitting a pull that was never intended to be split using only the skills given to them in game. I remember guilds being banned for pulling bosses through an instance without aggroing trash using game mechanics. Blizzard has always been heavy handed in their approach and it’s really a turn off.

    Why would you punish people the first time they do something that way? Sure it’s temporary, but still… Creative use of game mechanics shouldn’t be something devs fear, IMO.


    Almeric said

    July 20 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    Going back to my tabletop days, we always called “degenerate gameplay” “min/maxing.” Of course you want your character to be the best he can be, but it’s sometimes hard to resist the instinct that the way to make him the best he can be is to ignore 95% of the character and make sure that you can one-shot any foe before they get a word in edgewise.

    MMOs often try to provide interesting options, but the players follow their instincts to the most efficient way to level-up/get-the-loot, and (I’ve always imagined) dash the dreams of the devs. The old “Holy Trinity” of classes in EQ1 was only mildly mitigated in EQ2 where - in the end - only the tankiest of the tank classes was considered acceptable for challenging tanking situations. These views are often fallacious, and many other personnel choices would do fine, but players get stuck in their perceptions and lose their capacity for imagination.

    Then it follows (or at least it seems to from a player perspective), that devs look at what the players are doing with their world, and start creating new content to be sure to provide challenges to the min/maxers. That, in turn, creates more min/maxers because the new content is too hard if you don’t follow the optimal path.

    FFXI had a really awesome dual-class system, but it quickly became worthless when only certain combinations were allowed to join groups. Anything out of the ordinary was set for scorn.

    Though “classes” are only one aspect of the overall problems (ignoring the fun content of Zone X because the content in Zone Y foolishly gives a tinkling-trifle more exp is another good example), I think a lot of MMO problems could be fixed with a classless system - one where you can’t instantly judge someone by typing “/who Larry” and using “Larry [42] Cleric” as your sole basis for whether or not to send the group invite.


    Moorgard said

    July 21 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    Locked encounters: saving the world from degenerates, (negative) one subscription at a time.


    Jerrith said

    July 31 2009 @ 4:01 am

    Guild Wars has/had two interesting cases related to this:

    There’s one place where they specifically encourage emergent (degenerate?) gameplay: There’s a one on one battle between your character, and a AI controlled version of your character with HIGHER stats. You have to find a way to outsmart the AI, and much of that ends up coming from ability selection - choosing a limited number of abilities that you can use in some sort of efficient / degenerate way, to defeat the AI.

    Then there’s the first “skill” nerf, a Monk targetable AE DOT ability, that stacked, and did not hit the target. Once players realized how powerful it was, the single dominating (degenerate) strategy was to create a team with either 7 or 8 players with the Monk class (as primary or secondary) with the attribute for this skill as high as it could be. Have everyone cast this ability on one team member, and have him charge the enemy lines, resulting in nearly instant death for anyone he got close to. This was resolved, as I recall, by making the ability not stack.

    I think these are nice examples of how Guild Wars was successful along the lines of the original post. Lots of freedom and flexibility, and when a degenerate case did occur, they dealt with it in a way that did not impact anything else in the game.


    Peter said

    June 3 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Well said indeed!

    A few years back I became somewhat enamored with the study of emergence, and read a few books on the subject. I then went on to tinker around in SecondLife with some of my own emergent systems and created some astonishing yet simple visual displays; weird blobs which seemed to be alive and reproduce like bacteria. I was also working on a bizarre mapping system that used emergence instead of direct AI to “map out” the surrounding sims. But, I wonder if intentionally building emergent systems can be done without severely compounding the issue of degenerate gameplay? It seems that no matter how complex the system, when you have thousands of players working together they become a sort of superbrain, which puts a little ol’ dev team to shame. In addition, players in their quest to optimize their own gains, will always discriminate against builds, classes, or specs they feel are “inferior” whether that is true or not.

    In any game which the player is supposed to spend hundreds or thousands of hours over the course of its life, emergent gameplay is the only way to stay entertained. I think that is why the dark side of emergent gameplay is so prominent in MMOs, and why some companies fear it and overreact. They invariably cut into desirable, emergent gameplay.


    Danny Limanseta said

    December 6 2010 @ 2:57 am

    Thank you for this Scott. Very well put.

    I think there’s a fine line between setting the stage for emergent gameplay and controlling the parameters to inhibit emergent gameplay. Using the most successful MMO as an example, Blizzard has chosen largely the route of limiting it. In defense of that, Blizzard is a company that caters to the lowest common denominator, which means if any form of gameplay is considered an exploit that will create a sense of unfairness amongst the critical mass, they would rather take action against it.

    I am, however, interested to see another game taking the other approach, to create an environment that creates emergent gameplay experiences. As such, I do see that approach in Rift, when it comes to customized souls within classes. I think there’s definitely a large group of gamers who loves to tinker and get the most out of their builds, and i am glad to see Rift taking this approach. I’m not in beta but i can see lots of emergent gameplay opportunities for Rift.

    That said, thank you for such insightful articles. I only discovered your blog today and I have spent like half a day reading through your past articles. Very insightful stuff for an inquisitive gamer like me.

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