Written by Craig Beddis

3 min read

Emergent Gameplay: Designing for the unpredictable

Video games are fast becoming interweaved with our culture and they’re shaping how we behave. There is a social power and societal need for video games which we can see from groups of people coming together and behaving in unexpected ways.

The realm of video games is the perfect ecosystem in which we can examine how emergent behaviours arise. Very simply, emergent behaviour is a behaviour that occurs within a system outside of the system’s original design, intention, or purpose. Think about how groups self-organise - the way that birds intuitively flock together, or how neighbourhood communities organically emerge within cities over time. These behaviours aren’t predicted or intended by any individual, authority, or biological or geographical design, but naturally emerge in specific contexts. Most societal creatures display emergent behaviour, so it’s not that odd that there’s a study that compares the emergent behaviour of software developers to that of wasps.

Unsurprisingly, we are also seeing this in gaming. Recently, players of the popular Battle Royale multiplayer title, Fortnite, banded together in a way the game had not predicted, to try to destroy a landmark of one of the multiplayer maps known as the Tilted Towers. Epic, the creators of Fortnite, have creatively used Easter Eggs and visualisations to spark conversation and community interest - in this case, by way of a mysterious meteor spotted in the sky. Players theorised that said meteor would destroy Tilted Towers, but when that didn’t fully come to pass, a group of these Redditor theorists banded together to carry out the destruction of Tilted Towers themselves.

Within this emergent event, a subset of behaviours emerged where other players, posing as people helping out with the renovations, would quickly kill other players before reverting back to innocuous patterns - until they were discovered. As one player stated on Reddit, “I was breaking down my first building when I was killed by a guy. As I spectated him, he switched to his axe and started breaking things until he was close to another guy. Then he switched to shotgun, killed him, and switched back to his axe and blended in again. He had six kills before someone finally caught on and dealt with him.”

More recently, Epic launched another scripted event following a similar tease - a one-off only viewable to players at a specific time if they were logged into the game in which a rocket launched out of a base, with part of it falling and landing in the multiplayer map. As players clamored in-game to view this event, however, a player with the handle Elemental_Ray took the opportunity to destroy a ramp holding 48 people watching the launch to set the game’s all time kill record.

Emergent behaviour is being fostered by game design and game developers, as seen in the aforementioned nudges that Epic is cultivating within Fortnite. But they now have to account for offshoots of emergent gameplay and behaviour. The two Fortnite instances mentioned above arguably fall into the category of “griefing”, or the act of deliberately irritating and angering people in video games. It’s a popular phenomenon in multiplayer games - particularly in survival titles such as Rust or the recent Conan Exiles, in which new players are mercilessly slain by more advanced players without the chance to attain any progress.

But what is an accessible threshold between protecting an enjoyable player experience and letting players organically test the limits of the gaming experience? That’s a significant and ongoing challenge of the industry at large right now. As computing resource becomes more democratised and developers are able to build larger and more complex worlds, this will be increasingly exacerbated.