5.7. Emergence

Another dynamic that game designers should be aware of is called emergent gameplay (or emergent complexity, or simply emergence). Generally, emergence describes a game with simple mechanics but complex dynamics. In other words - it describes a situation where a small set of rules that seem produce game play that is much more interesting and varied that would seem to follow from the simple rules.

Some examples of emergence from the world outside of games:

Here are some examples of emergent gameplay:

Why do we care about emergent dynamics? It is often desired for practical reasons, especially in the video game world, because you can get a lot of varied and deep gameplay out of relatively simple mechanics. In video games it is the mechanics that must be implemented. If you are programming a video game, emergent gameplay gives you a great ratio of hours-of-gameplay to lines-of-code.

It’s important to note that emergence is not always planned for, and for that matter it is not always desirable. Here are two examples of emergence, both from the Grand Theft Auto series of games, where unintended emergent gameplay led to questionable results:

As you can see, emergence is not always a good thing. Because of the complex nature of the dynamics, emergent games require a lot more playtesting and iteration than games that are more straightforward in their relationships between mechanics and dynamics. A game with emergence may be easier to program, but it is much harder to design; there is no cost savings, but rather a shift in cost from programmers to game designers.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)