Emergent game-play is said to be the holy grail among many game designers. In some rare cases, we see examples of it in theme-park MMO’s. But most of the time, you will see emergent game-play in a sandbox MMO. The reason being that unlike theme-park MMO’s where everything is prepackaged, in sandbox MMO’s the developers usually provide a canvas like structure for players to paint on. In this 2 part article, I want to explore what exactly emergence and emergent game-play is, how it relates to the K.I.S.S. school of thought and how I would like to see it evolve in Dual Universe.
Chapter one: Defining emergent game-play and some examples
A cursory look on the internet tells us that emergent game-play 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. You could also say that emergent game-play is a game design that allows the player to invent new strategies not originally intended by the creator. In other words, the resulting behavior is emergent. The games I’ll be using as examples have such a rich background that talking about everything would almost be impossible and beyond the scope of this article so forgive me for any omissions.
I’ll be using chess, checkers and the popular Chinese game go to illustrate my point.
We’ve all heard of chess and most of us have played it at least once. In fact it was one of the first “video” games developed – if playing against a computer counts as a video game.
In 1956, MANIAC (developed at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) became the first computer to defeat a human in a chess-like game. Playing with the simplified Los Alamos rules, it defeated a novice in 23 moves.
In chess the play field consists of light and dark checkered fields in an 8 by 8 square grid. You have 8 pawns and 8 special characters. In video games, this would mean you have 8 basic attacks and 8 special powers that are conditional in nature. The battle is fought on 64 square fields. Chess has the reputation of being a thinking man’s game but the rules are really quite easy. Unlike a table top RPG like Dungeons and Dragons, there are only 9 moves you need to remember. Yet, 9 moves on a 64 square field opens up a world of possibilities.
Chess is infinite: There are 400 different positions after each player makes one move apiece. There are 72,084 positions after two moves apiece. There are 9+ million positions after three moves apiece. There are 288+ billion different possible positions after four moves apiece…I’m going to stop here because frankly I had to google this and I can’t do the math.
It’s true that playing a good game of chess takes some long term strategic thinking. Though it might surprise you to find out that most of the time you can only think a couple of moves ahead. That is because of the possible positions after each move. The ultimate goal, however, is to “lock” the king in a position where every move by the king results in capture. In video game terms I would say chess is like a Turn Based Strategy game with heroes and soldiers, a lot like Sid Meier’s Civilization.
Some dude once said;
“strategy never survives contact with the battlefield.”
That’s because of the 8 special characters who are conditional in nature. This is a perfect example of emergent game-play. You start with a simple play field with simple rules and a blank canvas to paint on. And before you know it, the resulting game becomes more complex as you start using the conditionals. Because of the possible moves or combinations each turn its quite a daunting task to predict how a game of chess will play out. While a player might get a stroke of luck, Chess is not a game of chance, it is deterministic. It’s also important to note that most pieces only have one or two conditionals. All but one special character who has 3 conditionals. Take a mental note of this last piece of information.
Checkers is often seen as the “dumber” cousin of chess. But nothing could be further from the truth. For this article, I will talk about the American checkers, sometimes referred to as ‘English draughts’. With checkers, again we have a square field divided in light and dark squares in an 8 by 8 field. The rules are even simpler than in chess.
A piece can only move diagonally on the dark fields and the objective is to capture the opponents pieces by jumping over them diagonally. Only the dark squares are used. The resulting game is one of locking your opponent down, preventing them from accessing territory. Falling back on video game terms, we can think of checkers as a hybrid. It takes elements from a Turn Based Strategy game and from a Territory Control game. While in chess the meta revolves around locking down the king, in checkers it’s about obtaining more squares than your opponent. The reason we call this emergent game-play is because no 2 games will be exactly the same, unless you want it to be. The 64 squares provide ample opportunities for variation.
In fact it was only in 2007 that a team of computer engineers at the university of Alberta, Canada “solved” checkers. They were finally able to design a software application that could win the game from every possible position. 5 years into the development the program could beat the then reigning champion. But, it took another 13 years to come up with a “never loose” program.
For example, if the computer makes the first move of the game, you have seven different moves. And for each one of those seven moves, the computer has a response ready. In theory, checkers has 500 billion billion possible board positions.
It is quite counter-intuitive really, one would expect that simpler rules would lead to an easier solution. This is another important note to make.
A literal translation of the Chinese name would be; encircling game. It describes perfectly what this game is about. You usually play the game on a 19 by 19 grid, placing the pieces called stones on the intersecting points. The objective is deceptively simple, surround more territory than your opponent.
Wikipedia tells us:
Go is very complex, even more so than chess, and possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe.
From our 3 examples, Go is the only one I haven’t played. When my friends moved from chess to Go, I passed on the opportunity to get sucked into another round of madness. I was too busy trying to get the attention of the girl next door (with success). Playing a game of Go isn’t so much about learning moves and counter-moves although you can play it that way. And someone who plays go will probably have a lot to say about “standard” tactics. Though it is often said that Go is a game of intuition, a game that symbolises life and the struggle of life. And just like chess and checkers, go is a deterministic strategy game. There is no randomness involved to win the game. Although because of the many possible combinations per move, it relies more on instinct and intuition than crunching probabilities.
And then there was AlphaGo…
AlphaGo had played against the winner of the European go championships, Fan Hui, in October 2015 and won 5 to 0 without handicapping the human player, an unheard of event.
This is once more an example of how out of simplicity, we create complexity and this brings us to the next chapter of this article. What exactly is emergence and how does it relate to Dual Universe.