A former classmate and I were reminiscing about some of our favorite design classes. One thing leading to the other, we ended up discussing Emergence. Every industry has its buzz words. In video games, Emergent Gameplay is definitely one of them. Essentially, it's when a new, totally unintended gameplay suddenly appears in game. Or in other words, when players make an unintended use of the game mechanics to achieve a goal. Does that description sound familiar?
For the longest time, I thought of Emergent Gameplay as a fancy word to describe an Exploit. In many cases, the games where emergent behavior was noted were combat or FPS games. The unintended behavior was labelled "strategy" and was not only condoned but encouraged. In fact, in the majority of our design assignments, our teachers often asked what elements of our design would help promote emergence.
So what's the difference? An Exploit is detrimental to the game, gives an unfair advantage to the user, creates imbalances and/or has a negative impact on the community. Whereas Emergent Gameplay enhances the game, creates new opportunities, adds gameplay and is generally beneficially to the overall gaming experience.
For example, a player finds a loophole that allows him to dupe infinite amount of gold which ruins the economy. Another realizes that combining certain skills, certain equipments and performing certain actions in a specific sequence allow him to one-hit kill everything and everyone, making it impossible for anyone to compete against him. In both cases, on a stand-alone game (PC, Console), we would just call it a cheat because frankly, the NPCs could care less. But on a multi-player game, the response is quite different as it hurts the player base.
But with Emergent Gameplay it's quite the opposite and in a game like UO, it can be a really beautiful thing. Once I wanted to have a talking dragon for one of my player run events. And it was Soar (founder of the QuestMasters) who gave me the perfect solution: 1) we have communication crystals which allow a player speaking through the emitter to be heard by anyone within range of the receiver, no matter how great the distance between emitter and receiver; 2) back then, white wyrms and dragons shamelessly looted anything they killed; 3) tamed pets can be made to follow anyone, even if they are invisible; 4) players with high hiding skills and stealth can move around unseen.
Four completely independant, unrelated game mechanics combined to create a new one...
So I put a receiver in my backpack and attacked the white wyrm who chewed me up in a blink and looted the crystal off my corpse. The tamer then told the white wyrm to follow our stealther who then hid. I got resurrected and ran off inside a house a few screens away. When the players taking part in the event arrived at the wyrm's location, the stealther moved towards them unseen, followed by the pet. All the players saw was a white wyrm coming towards them at a slow pace as if of his own free will. When the stealther reached the designated location, he informed me in party chat and I began talking through the communication crystal. The players saw my words appearing above the white wyrm as if it was the one talking to them.
House decorators in UO are also phenomenal in their ability to use game mechanics in unexpected ways to create amazing illusions. It's surprising what an axe, the right mix of items inside a to-be-axed crate, clever item stacking, cloth/item dying/cutting, funky combinations and unusual house customizations can turn into. As an EM, I ran a couple house deco contests and some of them just knocked my socks off. In the Halloween contest, Sarmi's Whimsy Witch just blew my mind, from the stacked black and white pearls to create peeping eyes through the roof, to the amazing witch and vampire. The tanks in Demented Pleasures were also very clever. (Sorry if the pages aren't sexy. They were quickly slapped together so the other EMs could help me pick the winners). But I'm still speechless from the Christmas Deco contest again from Sarsmi, her Winter Wonderland. I personally had the greatest time turning my own houses into puzzles thanks to house customization like the stairs/teleporter maze and the clock puzzle from my Wheels of Time event (did people ever suffer in that one! LOL).
The more you create game mechanics that interconnect, the greater the chance of seeing new unexpected gameplay emerge. It is both a wonder and a concern, especially in an online game. But it certainly helps take it to a whole new level and give it a life of its own.