Now, the Twist: Unforeseen Consequences
Welcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey that will force him to take a long, hard look at game design.
Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.
Last time, we discussed playtests, so we won’t go over that ground again. Instead, we’ll talk about how you use the information you get from your playtests. In some cases, they’ll offer simple flavor advice, like, “I think the dragon should be red!”
In other cases, the data your testers provide is enough to make wholesale adjustments and alterations in your gameplay. In the most extreme cases, they’ll tell you your game is broken, and then, they’ll show you how. Or you might get lucky, and they’ll treat you to a side of your game you never thought possible…
In comments to the last article, my compatriot, former coworker, and fellow conspirator in the Cabaliterati (many apologies for the alliteration), Steven E. Schend outlined a horror story… well, perhaps it was a surprise, but not particularly horrific… about his design on the Blood Wars CCG.
He followed every step in ensuring balance, making sure that the rare cards matched up and that no card was too overwhelmingly powerful. And once he let the game loose to playtest, he discovered that his carefully designed game hid, deep in its depths, the possibility of really, really nasty play against one’s opponents, allies, and pretty much everyone.
For a game about the eternal, savage clash between the demons and devils (or as we called them back then, “baatezu and tanar’ri”), this was an unexpected benefit. At least, I’m assuming it was a benefit. The end result was highly entertaining, so I’m assuming that Steven felt the same way.
This birth of unexpected play styles is what we call “emergent play.” More informally, we call it “what the hell did you just do to my game?”
Can you build emergent gameplay into your design? (This is a rhetorical question—the answer is “yes.”)
You can do it with simple or complex mechanics although the more complex your mechanics, the more likely it becomes that any user-created emergent gameplay will eventually break your system. If you’ve specifically planned for users to uncover aspects of your game through non-traditional play styles, this could more properly be considered “an Easter egg.” If your system engages in complex economic maneuvering and a player discovers a way to rig the market to her advantage using the existing rules, this is more properly called “an exploit.”
Emergent gameplay is not so much breaking the rules or exploring the rules so much as repurposing the rules to change the flavor of the game. It changes the flow of the game without breaking the game or providing an undue advantage to one player or another. It does not reimagine the rules. It does not bend the rules. It simply uses them in a way that provides a different experience.
In some cases, we love to see this, because it means that we have found players who can take our initial ideas and send them flying into the skies, giving the game a tremendous boost of player-infused creativity. In other (and most) cases, we regard it with alarm, because if we haven’t foreseen the changed use of our designs, it means we may have missed significant other factors as well—and that means loopholes, errata, or just plain bad craziness that results in… well, use your imagination.
Alternately, as Steven did, you can try to harness that emergent play from your base mechanics and use it to build the game’s play yourself. This requires rigorous playtesting (and really, if you want to design games, this should be your byword—if you release a game without rigorous playtesting, you’ve only done half your job), and it requires that you interpret the results of your playtests properly. For the purposes of this column, I’ll assume that you’re doing just fine on that: you’re properly filtering the comments of your family and friends; you’re not pandering to strangers but, at the same time, taking their suggestions into account when fine-tuning; and so forth.
How do you do it? By opening the rules where possible. When you rigidly define the rules and make sure you’ve closed off all possibilities of players running around those rules, you limit the possibilities of emergence. When instead you create your game with a multitude of possibilities or when you build roles or goals that encourage interplay among your players, you allow them to use their creativity to improve your game. When they can do this successfully, they’ll thank you for it.
Cosmic Encounters is one such game, and all the various iterations of any roleplaying game are essentially emergent: you need look no further than individual homebrewed adventures, house rules, and other common artifacts of our hobby to see that we’re each playing games well beyond what the rules specify.
Videogames are starting to get into the act of allowing more emergent gameplay. It’s nice to see them discover what we’ve always known.