Emergent Gameplay R&D: Example of Thinking by Building

Jun 2, 2014

I’m a huge fan of the idea that you can (and should!) think by building, and build to answer questions.

Granted, sometimes the purpose of building something is to bring something specific into existence that we understand fairly well ahead of time. Especially when first studying classic game design deeply through remaking classics, we have the luxury of implementing against a proven gameplay pattern.

However often for more original designs the act of building has to become a partly exploratory process. In these kinds of cases we can’t wait until the design is fully understood (as it is when cloning a specific existing classic) before we start implementing it.

In order to even tell what parts of the mechanics are working out or not we have to take a crack at implementing the aspects of it that are most relevant to our current thinking. This enables us to try playing it, and from a development perspective it empowers us to iteratively play with it.

As another major benefit, this act of exploratory creation takes otherwise complex ideas and turns them into concrete examples that can be more easily discussed on a team.

Unfortunately, it’s usually difficult to expose and share what that process really looks like in practice. When all is said and done, directions or features that were attempted but not kept don’t ever see the light of day, or make it to the player. By design, those paths not followed get tossed out or gated off well before the work ever gets polished enough to share in a way that will make much sense to people outside the team.

Aside from when I went crazy for 7 months and binged on exploratory prototyping by making an experimental interaction/gameplay project every day, it’s tricky to show clear examples of what I really mean by building as a way of thinking through (and about!) design.

However this past year on a research team at Georgia Tech, led by Kyle Blevens (@sikori17 on Twitter) as part of Celia Pearce‘s lab, we studied the subject of emergent gameplay. Our approach began by finding and discussing past examples in commercial games, and then turned toward implementing some isolated manifestations of the gameplay patterns that we thought seemed to be underlying the emergent gameplay in some of those other games.

The work was completely a group effort. I was working as just another member of the team. Since I have more practice at putting videos together, I helped record and edit this short video to summarize highlights of the research:

Even when just studying or talking about videogame design, I absolutely recommend considering ways to incorporate building into the thinking process. Playable prototypes keep the conversation grounded. Although they of course don’t serve as any kind of rigorous “proof” any more than a MythBuster’s attempt – that’s not generally how game design works – they can really be a great way to bring specifics into the conversation and get everyone on the same page about terminology, goals, and challenges.

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