Attention and Emergence

March 19th, 2013 — 4:55pm

This is the second part of a two part series on games and attention.  The first part can be found here.

 

Last week I talked about how games compete for a consumer’s attention, and how existing casual and hardcore products represent flawed solutions to this problem.  We ideally want to enable casual and hardcore play in the same product, but doing so means taking a different approach to game mechanics.

How?  Make better use of emergence in our designs.  To enable emergent play, a small set of core components are recombined to produce an unlimited number of novel play dynamics.  Here’s what we get with this approach:

  • Simple and easy to understand game mechanics (ideal for casual play)
  • A massive possibility space, with complex dynamics (ideal for hardcore play)

Games of this type avoid rule complexity (and burdensome learning curves/commitment) by working with only a few mechanics.  The rich output gives the game legs and enables deep, engaging play.

The classic example is Go, a game with only two rules but an incredibly varied output in terms of games and play styles.  A modern example would be Magic:  The Gathering and other CCGs.  More recent:  Little Big Planet, Minecraft, The Sims.

Examples of games that are minimally emergent, if at all:  Pac-man, Heavy Rain, the board game Life.

Most game designers are already familiar with emergent concepts, and indeed, all games have some degree of emergent play.  But we tend to shy away from designing heavily emergent systems because the large possibility space is difficult to balance (many designs introduce top-down constraints to control this, like classes in RPGs, but that simply reduces the possibility space and undermines the benefits of an emergent system).

It’s also important to recognize that emergence by itself will not help a game attract players interested in both casual and hardcore play.  To be effective:

  • You really have to constrain the number of core elements and their respective functions.  Many games are deeply emergent but they get there with a crazy amount of rules and systems that undermine any potential for casual play.
  • More output doesn’t mean more choice.  Farmville has great emergence in terms of user expression, but it’s functionally meaningless.  Backyard Monsters’ non-orthogonal design elements lead to a relatively small set of strategic choices (a few dominant play strategies).
  • Emergence doesn’t automatically mean accessible and deeply engaging.  You still have to avoid other annoying frictions (like bad UI design), and a large possibility space isn’t much good if it’s boring.

Ultimately, making stronger use of emergence won’t expand the potential audience for your game:  a player still has to like abstract strategy games if they’re going to play Go.  But it will increase how many of those potential players choose your game over all the other media choices they have at their disposal.

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One Response to “Attention and Emergence”

  1. How Emergence Changes The Business Model — Point Line Square

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