Sean Bulger's Column

Community Column: Emergent Gaming


Emerging Content

Last time, we took a look at MMO websites and explored why they are important and what can be done with a website to help enhance and strengthen a community. Interestingly enough, most of that involves giving people the ability to share, have a voice, and generally create their own content. This is pretty much how the internet has been working for the last few years (really, since its creation). It may not come as too much of a surprise then, that giving players similar tools within the actual game environment itself could drive the potential that these principles have even further.

This could appear in several different forms, one of which is known as emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay has been a popular phrase lately. Effectively, it is players doing something with a game that the game wasn’t actually designed for. Races in MMOs, creating pictures with gold in Lineage 2, or using grenades to launch vehicles or players in the air in spectacular ways in FPSs, are all prime examples of this.

In fact, there are some games out there, and in the works, that are built entirely upon the principle of emergent gaming. They aim to give players tools, as opposed to game systems, with which they can create their own gameplay.

Embracing Emergent Gameplay

The games that delve entirely into emergent gameplay do not necessarily provide much of an actual game themselves, but rather they provide extensive tools that allow players to create their own games. Virtual spaces like Second Life are like that, and even to a lesser extent, the upcoming Home for the PS3. These are the most ‘MMO-esque’ (or ‘glorified chat rooms’, or ‘generally frightening places’ as some prefer) of the bunch, but this isn’t a concept held only by games like these. Anyone who has seen some of the information coming out of LittleBigPlanet has seen a game that has truly embraced emergent gameplay, or Raph Koster’s Metaplace (although that is closer to a game development platform than a game at all) is along these lines as well.

Of course, a developer doesn’t need to fully embrace this type of gameplay to get some use out of it – in fact, there are plenty of drawbacks in doing so. You’re left with an unfocused game that only does as well as the effort the community puts into it – of course a major point of it is to create a strong community. Give to much freedom and you could find yourself running into other problems, and not enough and then the game is likely to fail. While it is entirely possible to base a game on emergent gameplay, it can also be something that can be layered over a more focused game.

Really, when creating a game that embraces, but is not built upon, emergent gameplay, it isn’t so much about purposely creating systems that allow players to do various things (as that really defeats the purpose of it being ’emergent’ and just makes it ‘sandbox’), but rather to encourage players who start thinking abstractly about gameplay systems. EVE Online has no banking system. Regardless, players have created one anyway and the developers seemed to be perfectly content with players doing so. There was even an EVE TV episode which spent quite a bit of time on it. While EVE Online is certainly a sandbox title, this is far from an isolated incident in gaming.


Suppose you are running a game where players, for some reason or another, enjoy cliff diving (such as my guild did in EverQuest 2). What do you believe would be the proper thing to do in this case? Leave the game as is? Disallow people from going over cliffs? Reduce fall damage? Or how about highlighting the cliff diving on your website and mentioning cliff diving events set up by players? The first will ensure that it continues as is, the second kills it and ruins some people’s fun, the third may or may not have any effect but may encourage it, and the last one calls to attention something going on in the game world. This is effectively reaching out to your players, giving something new for them to do, highlighting player-run events (which gives players some entertainment at no cost to you), and builds a stronger community.

No, this isn’t really about game design. This isn’t about designing systems for players to ‘break’ or expand upon. Rather, this is about awareness. You have to be aware of what players are doing in your game. What do people find fun? It is certainly a great thing if people find going through your quests, raiding your dungeons, participating in your intricately arranged PvP areas, etc… But, if people like flinging themselves off cliffs, then, heck, encourage them to do so (in-game only!) It is fun for a reason. Find out why. But, most of all, find out that it even is fun to them in the first place.

A good community team for an MMO should be keeping tabs on what players are up to in the game, what they are doing for fun, and what is fun beyond the basic gameplay systems that have been setup by the development team. It doesn’t mean that you need to begin changing your MMO from being a traditional hack and slash RPG into Cliff Diving Online. Rather, you should acknowledge that players enjoy the activities that they do. If they’re paying around $15 a month for a good time, then really, a development company should be providing them with a good time. Just, providing that good time does not necessarily mean that coders need to get to work, artists need to crack out models, and designers need to figure out gameplay systems. Sometimes, listening to players and encouraging them to find games within your game can go a long way.

Being aware of your audience is a major key point in PR and Marketing. By knowing what players enjoy, you can better build them an experience that they will enjoy and they’ll keep giving you money for it. Cliff diving is just one example and this can come in many forms. While not every player is willing to find a game-within-a-game, there are those that are for the pure enjoyment of it. Don’t let their time and effort go to waste. They are able to provide your player-base with more content, memorable events, and more chances to interact with each other in a fun, online environment. All you have to do is do you part and get the word out.

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