Gaming Literacy: What is emergent gameplay?

“This game is broken. This game is unbalanced! You can beat this game by spamming it! What were they thinking?”

Do these complaints sound familiar? They’re complaints about the same thing, the greatest boon and bane of game development: emergent gameplay.

Emergent gameplay refers to anything discovered by game players that wasn’t explicitly planned and designed by a game’s creators. When someone says a game is broken, they are usually talking about glitches and bugs that game developers didn’t catch but that players did. This is emergent gameplay.

When someone calls a game unbalanced, this is usually because a certain character or strategy is being used in a way the original creators didn’t foresee. And it also likely has to do, on some level, with emergent gameplay.

When someone says you can beat a game by spamming a single move, this refers to a mechanic programmed into a game being used in a way that the creators didn’t foresee (in this case, repeatedly) that is emergent gameplay.

When someone asks “what were they thinking?” the answer is: they weren’t.

Every single game in the universe has emergent gameplay. Emergent strategies arise from games as simple as Tic-Tac-Toe to as complex as Europa Universalis and everything in between. Most games with major flaws only have those flaws exposed as a result of emergent gameplay.

How does it happen?

Many people are quick to say that flaws like these should have been caught in a game’s QA (Quality Assurance) period, when a bunch of people play through games in various states of development in order to hunt for glitches and exploits. Unfortunately, the math just doesn’t work out that way.

Let’s say you have an absolutely massive QA team of 500 people. You somehow get the money together to contract this team to test your game for a month. That’s about four work weeks of eight hour testing days. With five days in a workweek, you are looking at approximately 80,000 hours put into playtesting your game.

Now let’s look at a game that didn’t even sell that well, like Marvel versus Capcom: Infinite. When Capcom last reported their sales figures, MVCI had sold around 1 million copies. If those 1 million players each play MVCI for five minutes, Capcom would have already amassed 83,333 hours of gameplay, more than that huge QA team. And people play new games for much more than five minutes. In just the first week, you’re looking at tens of millions of hours put into a game. Someone, somewhere, is going to catch something the QA team didn’t. There’s no getting around that.

This is why QA teams can never successfully catch every bug or exploitative strategy.

Sometimes, it’s good

Emergent gameplay isn’t always bad.

In fact, many areas of gaming rely on emergent gameplay to function. Fighting games, for example, are mostly emergent. The best mix-ups and combos are always developed by the players, not pre-programmed in by developers. Developers will always intended uses for different moves in mind, but it’s the players that eventually bring out their potential. This is why post-launch balance patches are nearly unavoidable.

This applies to nearly every competitive game on the market. Quickscoping was an example of emergent gameplay. Any time a deck dominates the meta in Hearthstone that’s emergent gameplay. The emergence of the tank meta in Overwatch, also emergent gameplay. All of these were things that the developers could not foresee, but that came about as a result of players exploring a game’s mechanics.

The definition of emergent gameplay has gotten somewhat fuzzy due to something called “intended emergence.” Intended emergence is emergent gameplay that a game developer did not foresee, but did plan for. It’s this type of gameplay that many of our latest favorite AAA titles have been designed around.

Let’s look at Super Mario Odyssey for example. Nintendo placed huge piles of coins in areas that would normally be considered out of bounds. They didn’t plan for gamers to find ways into these areas, but they didn’t ban them from entering these areas either. They simply let players fool around with Mario’s jump mechanics, and if they managed to use them in a way that “broke the game,” they were rewarded.

Breath of the Wild is another game designed with intended emergence in mind. Presumably, Nintendo did not plan for things such as the magnetic hoverboat, the boomerang buzz saw, rocket propelled boulder trolleys, or the all mighty bow-spin. Nintendo hasn’t patched any of this out, because they intended for this experimentation. They intended for players to fool around with the big toy chest of mechanics that BOTW gives you, and come up with their own unique solutions to the game’s problems. The majority of BOTW is emergent, and it turns out gamers like things that way.

Emergent gameplay always walks a line. Figuring out exploits is fun by its very nature. Much of the speedrunning community exists because all world record runs use emergent strategies. Figuring out optimized combos in fighting games is a necessary piece of emergent gameplay for high level play.

However, emergent gameplay can just as easily make games crash, soft-lock them or take all the fun out of their combat. After all, emergent gameplay by its very nature is something that a developer cannot predict.

These days, developers are mitigating potential damage from emergent gameplay by limiting the amount of things that can go wrong. For example, when Nintendo rewards you for going out of bounds, suddenly the game isn’t broken, you've just found a cool Easter egg. When infinite prevention systems are put into fighting games, optimized combos aren’t game breaking, they are part of the game.

But even so, we won’t ever be able to fully predict all the ways that emergent gameplay can go wrong. That’s just part of its nature. Maybe this is why huge open world sandboxes are so popular these days. Because when everything is emergent, then emergence can’t be wrong.