August 20, 2009

Emergent Game Design still emerging?

Almost a decade has passed since "emergent game design" showed up as a new buzzword in the game industry. Basically who could pull it off was pro, the rest was rubbish. Curiously, "emergence" in games in not ten-years old, it's actually something that's been around since the very early gaming days. It's basically something that occurs naturally, as long as you give the players diverse and natural tools to mix, match and discover new mechanics, be they intended by design or not. That last part doesn't really matter 'coz what gives players pleasure is the learning experience itself, not knowing if what just happened was intended or not. At least not primarily.

The thing is that Players are inventive by their own nature, the simplest challenge makes them think about ways to pull things off easier and faster - and that's where emergence is born from, not at the cold lines of code. So what's been missing is the "diverse and natural tools" part that I've mentioned before. By "natural" I actually mean stuff that work as expected. There's a sad trend of getting gameplay so meticulously under control and plastered that you see large boulders hitting soldiers right on top of their heads and not harming them, just to theoretically avoid "frustration" in a couple whining players that would just learn to place their units away from their catapults' target otherwise. But nah, let's waste them and spoon feed them a "fix" which will just make the game shallower and move it one step away from the much-needed suspension of disbelief. That is probably a dire result of game designers getting less and less secure about their own mechanical designs due to the complexity of modern games, where their ideas rarely get through to the final format as intended.

As for the "diverse" part, that is in fact the gravest point. It's easier and safer to have all enemies, for instance, share the same attributes and functionalities and tweak their values. Yet it'll sure-shot make the game incredibly boring. To add insult to injury, there's the darned massive multiplayer online (MMO) syndrome which has plagued the game industry. It's a suicidal, lemmings-like march of formerly solid companies heading towards self destruction - thinking they'll become Blizzard-mega-rich. Fact is, that MMO games has led more companies to the brink of bankruptcy and closure - and investors at the brink of insanity - than any other game genre in history. Obviously if you want to make massive content to provide for a semi-infinite amount of play time, you're bound to what I call "statistical boredom". How in heck has this contaminated regular games is hard to swallow though. I won't even get started on why on earth does a supposedly primarily multiplayer genre needs so much focus and effort on single player missions and content.

Back to the point, this lack of different functionalities or features for different units were well justified back when making 3D games was extremely hard and cumbersome. Nevertheless, nowadays the odds are completely reversed. Making high-end 3D art is way, way more expensive and time-costly than adding a few new functionalities to the same unit, made extremely trivial by modern and low-cost engines like Unity 3D. Yet spamming new 3D art with the same functionality of all else that the player has already seen results in a much shallower game, and less / short-lived fun factor.

When will designers get a clue and wake up to the new times? In large game studios that should probably start by the producers and game directors, since they're the ones deciding the directions. Since most of these large-format studios are obsolete, dinosaur beasts acting like slow-turning titanics heading to their respective icebergs, where's hope? Apparently in the smaller, agile studios that are popping up, empowered by a fresh vision and no strings attached.

Let them lead the way to better, deeper games, and shall emergence be rediscovered.

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BinAly said...

Very well written. We have recently seen EA suffer from this, and several other companies.

The production of "Triple A" games in every corner is a fairytale at best, unless our Gaming industry reaches something like Hollywood has, and even then, only a few will enjoy success.

I'm betting on smaller and smarter companies, like S2Games and their Heroes of Newerth. Braid and Trine are other shiny examples of what can be done without spending millions of dollars...

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