Designing a game to behave in ways for which it was not designed
I’d like to start this article by pointing out that it is merely a documenting of my own personal experience and thoughts that led from it, and in no way is a treatise on what I think everyone should do. Please take it with a grain of salt.
Emergent behaviour is something that has really surprised and fascinated me in the past with gaming communities. A particularly clean-cut example is Minecraft. Despite being designed as a sandbox game, the game’s community has grown to accomplish some incredible feats including making games within the game, which – to my mind – is just incredible. Given enough momentum, and given the right design choices in a game project, people will start to play a game in ways that it was not designed for – sometimes to very interesting effect.
So naturally, when this sort of thing started happening – albeit in a less grandiose fashion – within my own game’s community, I really found it astounding, and it led to some interesting revelations and thoughts for expansion, which I will go into later.
My own experience with emergent player behaviour
First, let me explain what happened within my own community to lead to these revelations, and to the eventual typing of this article. Some of you may know me for my main project, Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox. Among those who know and play the game, it has become infamous for its difficulty – which it was designed for – and the sheer effort required just to stay alive in the game when everything in it tries to kill you in the most creative way possible. This factor alone has led to its small, but dedicated fan-base to have a somewhat gleefully masochistic view towards playing, and many community requests for expansion to the game have revolved around this mentality, including making dungeons darker and more difficult to traverse, making traps deadlier, combat less forgiving and primarily the addition of a perma-death option to greatly multiply the sense of risk.
The emergent player behaviour that led from this started out fairly simply. People wanted to know how long they could survive in the game’s hostile environment, which only gets more difficult the longer you stay alive, and so, competitions arose to see who could live the longest. To my mind, this was inevitable and very much tied into the base competitive nature of the modern gamer.
However, it soon escalated from there with the addition of functionality to be able to “claim” locations as being the first to discover it. The game world in Malevolence is infinite, and everyone is in an exact copy of the same world, so people can travel as far as they like to discover new locations which are procedurally generated by the game, but still exist in everyone else’s copy.
The procedural nature of Malevolence means there’s
always something new to find. This makes players feel
a sense of ownership if they’re the first to find something.
This has led to certain players making it their entire goal to just wander the game world claiming as many places as they can get their digital hands on. One player has already found and claimed over 1100 unique locations, and the community as a whole has claimed over 10,000. It quickly became a mark of status on the forums to have claimed the most locations, and certain players would become minor celebrities for their efforts. I marvel to think what people will manage to accomplish once the quick-travel system is implemented later this month.
But this sort of digital achievement was not enough for the community, and – just recently – a forum member posted a challenge request for four others to join. He had found a particularly difficult level and wanted to challenge a handful of other players – on perma-death – to reach the end of the level alive (no small feat, given the difficulty). A section of the forum was dedicated to the exercise, and many hundreds of members watched along eagerly as the characters battled it out to survive (they documented their progress with screenshots and narrated videos). The entire ordeal became somewhat of a grand spectacle amongst fans of the game – a bit like reality TV in RPG form – and people even went so far as to place bets on how long people would last. Play strategies and tactics were discussed at length and equipment was debated over across many posts.
The popularity of this exercise, of course, led to more tournaments – of varying types – being organised and participated in, eventually leading to a thriving sub-culture within the community. This, in turn, led to the most recent piece of emergent player psychology which really caught my attention: Legendary Items.
Many games have legendary items in them – weapons or armour which have phenomenal properties which players actively seek out for their own – however, these items are only legendary because they have been written by a game designer to be legendary. What has been happening in my own community is that certain players are managing, through quite impressive play skill, to survive exceptional levels of in-game adversity, and when they have finished their challenges (to much community fanfare) they have been distributing their (procedurally generated – and thus, unique) equipment to the community through the game’s internal item sharing system. These armour items and weapons have become highly sought-after legendary items not because they have been written to be valuable, but because actual people have made them famous through very public shows of in-game heroism and skill. To the best of my knowledge, this is unique in video games (though I could be wrong – I don’t profess to know every game and its contents). Regardless, it is fascinating to see these purely digital items gain a real sense of perceived value not due to rarity in the game, or clever writing, but by actual achievement by real people.
I am sure that other bits of emergent player behaviour will appear over time, but thus far, the above is what I have experienced. This alone has led to some very interesting thoughts, which I felt that I should share.
Players congregate around well-known discovered places,
such as The View of Inca, because of its abundance of
resources. But the heavy visitor traffic simply begets more
visitor traffic as word spreads.
Designing a game to behave in ways for which it was not designed
It’s no new revelation that a strong community is a valuable asset to an indie game project, but how can one work to strengthen that community?
From my own experience, a community is often strengthened by a sense of ownership over the title. This – at least for me – was achieved by leaving the gameplay style quite open and not pigeon-holing people’s playing angle. An open world with procedurally generated content affords people the feeling that there is always something that only they could have found before – be it an item or location. This makes people feel that it is “theirs”. Naturally, this leads to a desire to show off their “acquisition” to help aid their social standing within the community.
This factor, and the emergent tournaments, has led me to begin serious planning to start implementing in-game functionality which will allow people to set up their own challenges for people to take on and handle for them, as well as showing off their character and gear that they’ve found, but it’s interesting how this could be applied to other projects as well.
If a game project is a solitary experience, then it will remain so in the player’s mind, however, if you add in a sense of unique accomplishment – separate to normal game goals which everyone is doing – and make something an experience for which they can know that no-one else has done, then that makes them want to share it and talk about it. This communication builds community bonding, and the community talks about it, leading to more people hearing about the project. People start discussing their achievements as though it was an actual thing that they, themselves, personally did on the weekend.
In an industry that has an ever-increasing indie push, the importance of marketing and publicity is becoming more and more relevant, and that onus is usually placed on the developer at the early stage, as marketing departments and publicists are expensive for independent developers. As such, anything that can help word spread about a project is a good thing. Talk is cheap, and with a little bit of clever design and forethought regarding emergent player behaviour, this can be turned into a very valuable part of your game’s functionality.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my personal experiences. I hope they’ve helped!
After publishing this I had a developer friend make an interesting point which I thought I’d add to the end of this article.
One interesting observation made about “emergent” behaviour is that players latch onto it due to the very fact that what they’re doing is outside the realms of “what has been designed”.
Case in point:
Look at all the stunt videos for Codename Eagle, Battlefield etc… communities pop up with people breaking the game in marvellous ways. Now compare that to the videos from a game like Crackdown2, in which the “stunts” have been designed into the game structure, ie “park your car here and work out how to flip it to here”… (tip: There probably are none).
By writing that stuff into the game you’ve transferred ownership away from the players.
If Quake 2 came with a tutorial on corner-jumping, how many people would care?
A good developer needs to act as an amplifier… when people do cool stuff, they should use their power over the codebase to amplify the players’ cool stuff. Provide the Lego bricks for them to build with, but be careful not to try and show them what or how to build it.
This is, precisely, what I aim to do, given recent developments on my project, and what I will aim to do for future projects as well :)