Emergent Gameplay and Role Play



All this talk about Zelda, Breath of the Wild, has brought out some great discussions of emergent game play.  I thought I would muse a bit about what some are calling “the future of rpgs”.

As a role player, I have seen emergent game play in many games, especially MMO’s, over the years that I have been playing games. I decided to do a little research to find out how emergent play is defined and I have listed the first four I found.  They are similar but some focus on mechanics and how they allow the player to create new game play and others on how the players change how they use the mechanics to create new game play.

Emergent Gameplay: A title where the mechanics afford the player to create new strategies and utility beyond their original intent or utilization.

Emergent gameplay refers to complex situations in video games, board games, or table top role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics.

Emergent gameplay is a game design term that refers to video game mechanics that change according to the player’s actions.

Emergent gameplay is the concept of placing tools around the player and encouraged them to explore creative strategies or interactions and exploit them toward victory or goal achievement.

The first definition, I think, defines the emergent game play you see in Zelda, BotW. There is no real story but the player is allowed to use almost everything in his environment to create new game play through experimentation. This creates a fun, casual type of game play that can change as one explores and finds new ways to interact.

The last definition seems to me to best describe a pure role playing game, where the tools are there, but the players drive the game play.  Mechanics are important, as they are what provides the tools which the player can use to create their own stories, but it is the creative application of those tools that make the game fun. So rather than using objects in the environment to create new experiences, such as in Minecraft or Zelda, BotW, the player uses events in the environment as the impetus, or force, to drive their own game play or stories.

Emergent game play is really a requirement for a role play game. Much of it can come simply through interactions with other players, or player directed game play.  As villages grow, characters evolve, communities emerge and what happens in those communities creates many stories involving many players. However, mechanics, if done well, can also create situations, maybe a crisis, a danger, or even something exciting, good or amazing like a traveling caravan entering the village.  The game mechanics might drive the environment, creating a drought that affects the village. Or it might drive the animal or npc AI that can create new experiences. The revelation of hidden resources through mechanics can drive a gold rush or cause conflict between those trying to exploit this resource.

In LoA, we are currently testing a dynamic ecosystem that will drive events. These events will in turn create seeds for role play.

An example we have tested in our game is documented below:

Our test world contains specific animals with their own AI. The woods and grasslands contain deer and rabbits. The wolves occupy the same area but have their own specific hunting grounds.

In the valley below, the villagers raise chickens and sheep as well as their own fields of grain along with vegetable gardens. The villagers enjoy a nice venison steak and rabbit stew so they also hunt the animals. They also on occasion crave a nice wolf skin.

Wolves favored food is deer but they will eat rabbits as well if they see a rabbit before they see a deer.The rabbits’ and deer’s favored foods are the herbs of the grasslands and forest. Like any ecosystem, there is a balance between food available and number of animals. So during a drought, there is less food for the rabbits, so less rabbits, and the same with the other animals. Seasonal and weather changes create certain needs for both the villagers and the animals.

Now, let’s look at this as a drive for emergent game play.

Most of the time, the wolves stay in their preferred hunting grounds, far from the human village. They happily cull the deer population and catch rabbits. However, it is fall and the humans have decided to go on a great hunt so they have extra meat to smoke for the winter. They lay out traps, get out their bows, and have a successful hunt.

Unfortunately, the wolves have a difficult time finding food after the hunt. The deer population has moved out of their hunting grounds and the rabbit population is scarce. The wolves move a bit further down the valley, looking for food. If they fail to find food there, they finally move into the village at night, seeking sheep and chickens.

The villagers awaken to find the remains of their livestock. In anger, they go after the wolves, killing some and driving the rest out of the hills above the valley. All is well for a while, but then the rabbits overpopulate. The wolves are gone and they have few other predators in the area.

The rabbits now invade the village gardens leaving much less food for the villagers.

What kind of emergent play arises from this example in a multiplayer/MMO experience? How does this drive role play?

Simply the fact that the villagers need food and furs for food or trade drives the big hunt. A change in the foods available in the winter creates a need for preservation of food. The hunt creates an event that brings together a community with a goal. The “Great Hunt” becomes a story. The interaction between the players before, during and after the hunt can seed more stories.

After the hunt, when their livestock is killed by the wolves, the players must band together to protect their stock. Again, stories are created, this time based on protecting what belongs to them. Once they realize that the ecosystem has been affected by their actions, the next story will be to solve the problem. This means seeking out solutions that will maintain the balance.

Solving problems in a community can bring out all sorts of emergent events, such as new leaders, conflict between those with different ideas or views, and possibly creative solutions that go beyond anything the developers considered.

The game play is no longer about killing for experience or eating for buffs, but about maintaining their community. It becomes personal rather than just a game.

How does this drive role play?

Let’s start with a definition of roleplay that I think embraces how the majority of players actually role play. I do not include the script type role players in this.

A roleplaying game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories.

When you consider the best sort of role play is one that emerges from the experiences the of the players, then you can see how the above example can enhance the role play. In a pen and paper game, the best moments happen when someone suddenly discovers a way to solve a problem that is unexpected, or difficult to find. The players get excited, their voices raise, and in the end a cheer erupts from the table.

The same is true in a video game environment. Experiences change the dynamics of the players’ communities. It creates villains, heroes, victims, and innovators. While the mechanics are certainly a huge part of what drives the game, the players reactions drive the role play. I can imagine all sorts of emergent play from the ecosystem example. Some players may defend the animals, fighting to protect them. Others may be angry about the loss of their own stock and fight to kill or chase away the wolves and/or rabbits. Others may use this as a way to earn money, offering to guard the sheep or the gardens from predators. Still others may become player quest givers, hiring other players to help out.

Stories can emerge from this type of game play, stories that impact more than just the tiny village. Maybe the wolves head off to find chickens in other villages. Possibly, the lost grain that might occur from a similar situation, such as an explosion of the deer population, might change the price of wheat or flour or even affect trade.  Areas with an excess of grain might be able to charge higher prices to sell to the suffering villages.

Wars over food resources could erupt. Bandits, both players and npcs, could find it worth attacking wagons carrying food or grain and then sell for more on the black market, so one might find an increase in highway crimes. Entire villages could migrate and even animal populations might migrate to areas with more resources.

This is just one example. Emergent game play driven by players’ reactions to mechanics could include all sorts of scenarios. The important thing is to make sure those mechanics are tools that encourage players to explore and interact with the world and each other instead of an impediment to creativity and innovation. As long as the players are the ones who are creating the emergent game play, the world will be vibrant and dynamic.

Not because of physics, not because of flashy mechanics, but because of mechanics that make sense and give players the ability to use them to create their own stories. Stories emerge from the game play, not like Zelda, BotW, but through the players themselves, the role players.

The video at the top of the screen is a developmental video showing the AI creating a situation where the players can react. Wolves avoid fire but will attack when the fire goes out. Players react by lighting torch to chase wolves. A story emerges.






This entry was posted in Artificial Intelligence, Emergent Gamplay, Roleplaying and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Emergent Gameplay and Role Play

  1. BartMamzer says:

    You’ve probably seen it, but there’s a cool video about Ultima Online ecology with similar ideas you described here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFNxJVTJleE


  2. teilasblog says:

    Great video!! Very interesting War Story about Garriot’s design for Ultima Online. I am not surprised that the players completely destroyed the ecosystem. Unfortunately, as some folks posted in the comment section of the video, they set it up so that the players had no consequences if they killed all the herbivores. Also, an inherently grindy game required that they continue killing everything in sight in order to level up. This is not uncommon in games I guess, but to add the ecosystem with the idea that this would not happen seems like an oversight. Of course, we have a lot more exposure now to different games so we can see in hindsight what he could not see then. Loved watching the video and it may inspire to write another blog post. 🙂 Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bart Mamzer says:

      Glad you liked it. Yeah, now we can learn from all those old games. Now it’s rather obvious that players kill everything they can:D, but back then mmos were just starting out, so they probably just didn’t expect it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. teilasblog says:

    Yeah, I wonder if there is anything unexpected to be seen in MMOs. 🙂


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