In my last post about minimalist design, I didn’t go very deeply into the implications of minimalism in MMO design. I’m going to work on the idea of minimalism and emergent behavior over the course of several posts exploring what emergent behavior is, what it means for MMORPGs, some suggestions how to make it happen, and the new problems it introduces. This post is about what emergent behavior is, how it manifests itself, and why theme-park MMORPGs don’t make it happen.
This article on emergent solutions in interactive fiction fascinated me. This is exactly the kind of things I’d like to see in MMOs. Instead of having the goals be resting points set by the developer, though, I want players to set goals for one another and interact to find solutions to the problems that stop them from reaching these goals. This goes much deeper than “I want to be more powerful. I guess I’ll kill a thousand rats. I’ll do that by swinging my sword at these rats until there are corpses on the ground and experience points on my character sheet.”
An emergent solution is a solution that the developer did not premeditate as being a possible solution to a problem. You allow emergent solutions by providing a rich game world with sets of interrelated operations that players can perform on different items in the world, modifying their properties and allowing an explosion of possible paths of action. The author of the article I linked to earlier mentions a great example of an emergent solution: to get the seeds out of a seed bag, the player killed a rat, cut off its tail, froze that tail in liquid nitrogen knowing that it would become brittle, shattered the tail into sharp shards, then cut open the bag with one of the shards.
Exploitation as an Emergent Behavior
The primary kind of emergent solution behavior in the current generation of MMOs is actually exploitation. The game puts the players on rails towards completing certain tasks that are supposed to be at a certain challenge level; to compromise the tasks by reducing the challenge level through exploiting the flaws in the game logic surrounding them is exploitation and poor behavior. The designers have thought up the problem and the solution and you had better solve that problem with that solution! It doesn’t matter if there are other feasible solutions, because the game isn’t about actually solving problems, it’s about receiving the rewards—or at least that’s what the developer is telling you through his design.
But exploitation is emergent behavior. If you see game systems only as arbitrary sets of rules that stand in the way of accomplishing what you desire, then there is no difference between using a wall hack in Darkfall to farm mobs imperviously and cutting off a rat’s tail, dipping it in liquid nitrogen, shattering it and using the sharp shards to puncture seed bags so your character can feed itself. Game rules do have meaning, though, because they relate to what we do and what we’ve seen done. People can’t walk into walls to avoid being hit by missiles, so this is considered an exploit. A person could conceivably use the shards of a frozen rat-tail to cut open a seed bag, so it’s considered an emergent solution.
The Leakiest Metaphor
It’s important to understand game rules as metaphors for real life causal relationships. In MMORPGs, this relationship can become obscured by the gulf that currently exists between what a player should be able to do if the metaphors hold and what the game allows the player to do. MMORPGs have extremely limited player-world interaction schemes. The player has a tiny vocabulary of actions he can perform and few of them have any lasting effect on the game world. The metaphors only apply at a very abstract level: you can fight, make stuff, and get raw materials out of the earth. Those three actions vaguely mirror their real-life counterparts if you squint very, very hard.
The good kind of emergent behavior occurs when you seal up those places where the metaphors squirm and fail. You don’t have to directly model every single part of a real-life process to seal these gaps. You just have to do a good enough job of designing and implementing with minimal-impact bugs a metaphor that is uniform in its depth and actually engaging to play through. If the metaphor is inconsistent or too shallow, players will rub up against those things that it seems they should be able to do but they can’t because the game arbitrarily seems to frustrate their attempts.