Players expect more from their games, now more than ever before. Over the past twenty years, the scope, budget and audience expectations of games have inflated, and smaller studios are left seemingly locked in a cycle of diminishing returns on increasingly ambitious productions.
While tools have improved dramatically, allowing smaller teams to produce more graphically and mechanically complex games than ever before, producing equivalent experiences to AAA mega-studios is still prohibitively expensive. Savvy studios seeking more immediate return on their investments might seek other, more cost-effective approaches to game design.
Thrilling as a solo ten-hour-long campaign can be, linear content is expensive to produce. Telemetry and achievements also tell us that many players will stop playing long before the end, or even the halfway point. That’s a lot of development hours with increasingly diminishing returns. While your core audience will stick around to the end, and want DLC, sequels and more, there’s no guarantee that they’ll stick around year upon year for the same kind of experience. It takes additional time and manpower to market these authored experiences to bring in fresh audiences.
One of the best ways to monopolize player time is to create an ecosystem where creativity can thrive
One potential solution is emergent design. Rather than devoting time, budget and talent on single-use setpieces and cinematics that most players will only see once, some of the most compelling experiences in games can be produced on a comparatively small budget by shifting the focus to the player, and giving them richer options to interact with the world.
From survival sandboxes like Minecraft, Subnautica and Ark: Survival Evolved, to extraction shooters like Escape From Tarkov, to construction sandboxes like Space Engineers, these games provide players with a playground with relatively open goals, and the verbs and game mechanics to find their own fun and solutions to the problems presented.
It’s a different design philosophy to standard AAA design, drawing on a separate talent pool. Those who grew up playing mods, creating, experimenting and innovating within these social environments are leading the charge. Many of today’s massive hits came from the modding scene. Counter-Strike was originally a mod for Half-Life. The Battle Royale genre as we know it started out as a mod for military sim Arma 2, and evolved into the world-conquering force that is Fortnite, a game now rolling out its own new set of modding tools. Epic, and other savvy studios understand a key truth here; we’re competing for players’ time, and one of the best ways to monopolize that is to create an ecosystem where creativity can thrive.
Even some of the oldest and most experienced AAA studios are pivoting to systemic, emergent design, and are banking on it for their marketing. When Nintendo put up the first major gameplay video for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, it didn’t show cutscenes, setpieces, new enemies or other expensive, flashy assets; instead, the sole focus was several new physics-driven sandbox elements. Freeform building, crafting custom weapons by sticking gear together and new ways to traverse terrain, all adding multiplicative value to the entire game. Despite graphics that have barely improved since BOTW’s release in 2017, players were buzzing with excitement.
Our own studios are working hard to leverage this style of game design. In particular, Secret Neighbor developer Hologryph is currently working on Sand, unveiled during the PC Gaming Show back in June: an open-world multiplayer extraction-inspired sandbox with base-building, freeform exploration and PvP, making it a rich showcase of emergent design elements.
Here’s a few tips we’ve learned along the way collaborating on this and other systems-driven projects.
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Design systems, not content
It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing content that’s designed only to be consumed once. While cutscenes and scripted events make for great sizzle-reel or trailer content, it’s often better to think about how you might add an additional system to the game for players to engage with. If the player has access to ten different items, consider how each of the player’s abilities might interact with them, or how they might be combined into something new.
Already, you’re looking at exponential increases in engagement, and adding just one more item doesn’t just increase the amount of playable content by 10%, but might provide a whole new set of interesting synergies. If the basic building blocks are interesting enough to tinker with at length, some players may even get dozens of hours of enjoyment out of experimenting with the limits of the systems you’ve built.
With some foresight, and careful consideration of what interaction verbs are available to players, new content can easily be slotted into the framework, even late in development.
Don’t be scared of PVP
Competitive multiplayers can turn an expressive sandbox game into something exciting
While intimidating to some, we believe that player-vs-player gameplay is something that should be embraced. Looking back at early multiplayer sandbox successes like DayZ and others in similar styles, the tension and unpredictability introduced by competitive multiplayer is the secret sauce that turns an already expressive sandbox game into something that’s exciting and fresh every time it’s played. So-called ‘extraction’ games are the perfect intersection of systems-driven design and multiplayer unpredictability.
Setting players loose on an ostensibly PvE mission, knowing that at any moment another player could interrupt and raise the stakes makes for a thrilling experience. It also changes the definition of what it means to ‘win’. With other players around, completing the mission might become secondary to surviving, evading or looting from your rival players.
By allowing the PvE sandbox systems to interact unrestricted with the PvP (in the case of most extraction-style games, that’s by allowing players to loot each other, or have NPCs unpredictably interrupt PvP encounters), you create opportunities for emergent storytelling, and the kind of dramatic tales that players desperately want to share with friends.
Player skill is progression
Perhaps inspired by the rise of higher-budget multiplayer sandboxes like Fortnite, we’ve observed that many younger gamers prefer not to have a game tell them when they’re doing good or bad. Instead, games with high skill ceilings allow players to express themselves and showcase their abilities against their peers. While a complex leveling system seems like an intuitive thing to include in a game, having player power determined entirely by hard-earned gear means that a player’s skill might be visible at a glance, far more than any stat sheet.
Having a character kitted out in the best equipment, controlled by a player that knows the game’s systems well enough to properly leverage it all makes for an immediately engaging experience (especially when everything’s on the line against other players), and helps make the player feel closer to the character they embody. Gamers also love the feeling of winning against the odds, using skill, cunning and lower-tier gear to defeat otherwise impossible-seeming odds.
Don’t define what it means to ‘win’
If your game has a flexible definition of victory early on in the process, you’re already halfway to designing something emergent. While especially evident in sandbox games, this can also be applied to other genres. Never tell players that they’ve won. Instead, encourage players to define their own victory conditions, although providing systems to make such goals seem ‘official’ can go a long way to supporting this concept.
Letting players define their own victories is the heart of emergent game design
Rewarding particularly impressive player feats with rare loot, trophies or accolades that can be shown off to other players or displayed in player-made buildings create immediate emotional attachment to those spoils of war. Something as simple as the option to display weapons on a wall might seem like a relatively trivial feature to add, but can add a whole new layer of satisfaction for players that have found success in mastering other areas of the game.
A dramatic boss fight and final cutscene has its own impact, but systems to let players define their own victories then share and celebrate on their own terms is the heart of systems-driven emergent game design.
Implement procedural generation sparingly
One of the biggest cost-saving design decisions in a systems-driven game can be procedurally generated content. Whether it’s something as small as randomly placed monster spawns to complex multi-biome world generation ala Minecraft, algorithmic, procedural generation can provide players with a fresh experience every time they return. But overuse can lead to a game feeling directionless. Even in the most randomly generated of environments, some hand-crafted content (distinct and memorable environments, dungeons with puzzles, etc) goes a long way.
In the upcoming Sand, Hologryph have opted to only use procedural map generation for the sand-sea ‘overworld’ to make each expedition nominally distinct and provide some unpredictability to the most repeated actions in the game. But for the towns where players will be congregating and fighting for loot, they’ve opted to hand-craft each environment.
In a competitive environment, other players become the dynamic and unpredictable elements within a game map, and having a static environment that can be learnt provides experienced players room to improve their skills and knowledge over multiple sessions.
While it requires a design skillset all its own, and a lot of foresight early on in production, emergent game design can be an extremely cost-effective approach to development, and immensely satisfying for an increasingly broad audience of players willing to ‘make their own fun.’
With some foresight earlier in production and structuring the game for potential expansion, new systems, content and environments can easily be added well after launch, adding value for existing players, and making your game tempting for new customers.
Define the rules of your game’s world, but let players decide what game they’re playing within it
Emergent game design presents its own set of challenges, and cannot be easily pivoted to from a game already deep in production. From the very first design meetings, a clear vision needs to be established for what kind of experience an emergent game design is presenting to players, and what their aspirational goals will be. ‘Find the fun’ is a core tenet of game design. While an enjoyable five-minute gameplay loop is absolutely key to aspire to, long-term engagement in systems-driven games requires careful planning, defining long-term hooks.
Give players something to aspire to in their first hour. Then their first ten. Then fifty. Then give them a goal to shoot for in a hundred or even two hundred hours of play, then give them the tools and the means to achieve it by their own choice of path. The players that rise to the top will be the ones to showcase the true potential of your game, and the ones to bring more players into the fold.
Define the rules of your game’s world, but let the player decide what game they’re playing within it.