Emergent Complexity in Games

Game developers try extremely hard every time they make a game to make the “holy grail” of video games.  This is a rather hard task, but some say there is a way.  Emergent complexity, when complex systems arise out of relatively simple interactions, is sometimes considered the key to making the “holy grail.”  However, there are different types of emergent complexity, intentional and unintentional, that exist.

Some developers give player a set of tools and systems that they can work with to create amazingly complex situations.  This is called intentional emergence.  Scribblenauts, a game that came out in 2009 is a brilliant example of intentional emergence.

scribblenauts screenPlayers, who control the character of Maxwell, are given one thing and one thing only, a notepad.  The game then allows you to write any words that fit within the game’s massive dictionary into the notepad, which in turn will create those objects and place them in the game’s world.  The players can then use these objects to interact with other characters and complete tasks.  Although this may seem simple at first glance, it can get as complex as the player wants it to get.

An example of a task would be to get a cat down from a tree.  Now, there is a simple solution to the problem and a billion non-simple solutions.  The simple solution would be to create a simple ladder that would be put up against the tree, allowing Maxwell to climb up and grab the cat.  But what fun is that?

When the developers were making this game, they knew that players wouldn’t be able to resist their imaginations when completing these tasks.  Instead, you could create a building next to the tree.  After that you could put a fisherman on top of the building.  Then give him a fishing pole with a fish on the end of it.  To make sure you don’t hurt the cat, you have to put a trampoline below the branch to catch the cat’s fall.  Then use the fisherman to lure the cat from the tree so that he falls down to the trampoline below, all safe and sound.  Much better than a simple ladder right?372662018-super-scribblenauts-8

It got to the point where players would create these really complex scenarios that would somehow trigger the success state of the different tasks.  It was an incredible concept that wasn’t really seen in games before that.  Later versions of Scribblenauts have been made that have improved on this mechanic, making it even more emergent than before.  5th Cell, the developers behind the game, really had a light bulb of an idea.

However, not all developers create a game with these emergent situations in mind, which is where unintentional emergence comes into play.  Players can either find glitches in the game that alter the core gameplay mechanics or they can mess with the games economy in a certain way, or basically anything that changes the direction that that developers first intended.

Glitch_Pokemon_Episode_2_4A specific example of this would be Pokemon Crystal Version for the Gameboy Color.  It was discovered that there was a way to clone pokemon and items by taking them to a pokemon center.  From there,  if you went to the PC in the corner, you could clone pokemon and other items by doing a series of actions, including turning your system off entirely.

This allowed people to clone master balls (for all you people who haven’t played pokemon, they are items that allow you to catch any pokemon without a question) which in turn led to people catching a ton of really powerful pokemon like legendaries and rares.  People would then turn this into a business, taking advantage of the people who haven’t found this glitch yet.

This would also make way for people going into online matches with six of the same pokemon that were at an extreme level, which basically would make it impossible for the other player to even win the match.  This hidden glitch of cloning really did a lot to break the game’s “economy” in a sense and it really started to change how people played the game.84-capture_27052010_192821

In future iterations of Pokemon, this glitch was obviously taken out and fixed, but it is still amazing how a simple glitch went through the debugging process without being found, causing the game to be changed in a significant way.

Emergent complexity, whether it is intentional or unintentional, is the sign of a great game.  Sometimes this emergence can enhance a game and make it way better than it was originally or it can break a game to a point where the fundamental concept is changed.  Either way, it is something that most developers should strive for on their quest to make good games.


One thought on “Emergent Complexity in Games”

  1. This is another really good blog post. I hadn’t thought of Scribblenauts as an example of unintentional emergence. But you’re right that it’s an a great example. I played through it with my daughter. Often, because she was so young, she wouldn’t see the obvious way to solve a problem, and she’d come up with some insane, surreal approach, like creating a medusa, a garbage truck, and a sled. I’d be convinced that nothing would happen, but then, inexplicably, it’d all come together into some completely unexpected solution to the puzzle.

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