Dumping Sand on the Theme Park: Emergence

A few days ago, I wrote about the Trifold Curse, and how that ultimately leads to burnout, both of countless MMOs and the developers who make them. It’s not a good situation, but how can it be avoided when the vast majority of the industry at present is based on building feature-rich theme parks*?

*A sizable portion of players, judging by the number of MMOs made to get their attention, prefer the simpler theme park approach to content over the situations that evolve organically in sandboxes like EVE Online.

Enter what I term emergence:

Emergence is the use of simple, but layered mechanics to create a complex, nuanced, and ultimately unpredictable encounter, while retaining the ability to be comprehended.

Sounds really complex, doesn’t it? Fortunately, elements of this concept already exist in some of the most recent content released for Guild Wars 2, which I will use as a case study for this post.

The Silver(Wastes) Bullet

The Mordrem of Silverwastes show a completely different approach to PvE enemies. While most players will spout vile curses about teragriffs, the truth is that each of the enemies illustrate emergence:

  • Simple: Each enemy does 2-3 moves, tops. For example, teragriffs charge, leap, and slash.
  • Layered: Any event in the Silverwastes presents six enemy types, in varying numbers, locations, and spawn times.
  • Complex: How a player fights changes drastically based on what enemies are involved. Sometimes, the mix is too powerful to even attack without having terrain advantage.
  • Nuanced: 5 menders being spawned will create a much different scenario from 5 thrashers. Also, teragriffs and thrashers are significantly affected by chilled, crippled, and immobilized, while husks will shrug and attack you anyway.
  • Unpredictable: While the insistence of the Mordrem to attack the gates and walls first, then engaging the defense NPC limits this, how enemies engage is ultimately unpredictable, especially if the walls are down. For example, vile thrashers can change target, running in completely different directions than expected.
  • Retains Comprehension: Each enemy type has specific telegraphs for their unique moves, giving attentive players time to prepare an appropriate counter. For example, the leeching thrasher’s slow spiral before laying into a channeled attack.

Breaking the Curse

Guild Wars 2 offers a good look at how emergence can be utilized to prevent staleness. Because the enemies of a zone work together to create unpredictable situations, encounters aren’t quite the same each time they are attempted.

Granted, similar situations will arise, and certain strategies will be effective. But instead of it becoming a race to boredom purely because the encounter never changes, it becomes a much slower (and more muted) boredom of the particular emergent mechanics of an encounter.

Unpredictability is at the root of why sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls, and The Witcher are extremely popular. While each of these games have theme park-type content like missions and quests, the ability to run off wherever, steal a car, or wreak havoc keeps people playing long after the main story gets completed (if people even finish that).

Introducing emergence, and its simple to understand, hard to master approach to encounters, takes that sandbox core and puts it into the theme park. Like sandbox games borrow from theme park (or fixed narrative) games, so theme parks should borrow from sandboxes.

To shift it back to Guild Wars 2 for illustration, consider the specific advantages and disadvantages an emergent approach would have for the game:

Development Advantages

Harder to Fail

Kiss glitchy, corner-case bugs goodbye. Well, they’ll still happen, but with the emphasis on simple mechanics that are layered together one at a time, finding and addressing them should be easier to pull off.

Easier to Build Upon

As the recent dynamic AI presentation showed, an emergent approach vastly simplifies building complexity from the ground up. Rather than having to custom-tailor a huge black box of event triggers and environment mechanics that inevitably break somewhere that’s hard to bugfix.

Simple to Iterate On

Iteration is a core ArenaNet design ethic, and emergence makes it easier. A pile of modular building blocks is comparatively simple to use to get a prototype running, improve based on feedback, and answer “is it fun” sooner.

Simple to Expand

Expanding emergence to events and the environment makes it easier to expand and improve them. Lackluster elements of the original game can be steadily replaced with more dynamic, unpredictable, and ultimately more satisfying versions. All with the same foundational tools.

Also, additional mechanics can be added to existing emergent encounters if they become boring or uninteresting to the player base.

Requires Less Future Development Time

The core promise of emergence is that it creates a partial sandbox in the midst of the theme park. And like any sandboxes, they require additional setup time but less maintenance as players derive their own scenarios from the content presented.

This translates to less time spent developing content that’ll be swallowed up in mere days and followed by “there’s no content to play” belching. There is less pressure to “get something out there for people to play,” and more time available to focus on crafting unique and challenging encounters that morph with each play.

Player Advantages

Where emergence really shines is in what it gives players. Implemented well, emergence can dampen staleness caused by doing the same thing over and over again.

Genuine Challenge

With the layered, synergistic approach of emergence, challenging group content is much easier to accomplish. Coupled with dynamic AI, tailoring an encounter space to push players to their limits is more than possible.

Further, it replaces the false challenge checks of one-shot boss mechanics or mob hordes with actual challenges emphasizing positioning, survival, timely skill usage, and proper preparation.

Builds a Curve

Presently, open world PvE lacks a difficulty curve. Either it’s laughably easy (pick a centaur, any centaur), or extremely hard without solid knowledge of the encounter (sure, attempt to solo Triple Trouble, we’ll wait).

This, I feel, is why many players drop dead when faced with more complicated encounters. There is nothing, short of self-drive or competitive play, to bridge the gap between those two extremes.

Since emergence starts with simple building blocks and builds into a complex end result, applying grades of complexity throughout the game can create a functional difficulty curve.

As a (likely imperfect) example, consider an encounter with everyone’s favorite thing to outrun, centaurs:

  • Early Queensdale – Warriors charge and attack in melee. Archers attempt to stay at range, but fire when stationary.
  • Late Queensdale – Warriors charge, but also block when attacked with strong ranged damage. Archers fire while moving, requiring ranged response or movement-impairing conditions.
  • Kessex Hills – Warriors cover the archers, blocking projectiles with their shields when they come under attack. They also move to put themselves between threats and the archers. Archers likewise move to retain cover.
  • Gendarren Fields – Warriors are joined by commanders, who can mark a target for additional focus fire damage. Archers use a rapid fire attack on marked targets. They retain the formation approach to fighting.
  • Early Harathi Hinterlands – Commanders and warriors now have rock dog pets, which inflict a mark on attacked targets for extra damage by other centaurs. Archers gain additional range and the ability to dodge away from melee attackers.
  • Late Harathi Hinterlands – Commanders can order area denial as well as focus fire. Archers barrage in response to commands.

Notice how the additional mechanics reflect emergence, while steadily increasing the challenge that a player has to overcome when fighting centaurs as the game increases in level (and difficulty).

Predictable in Theme, Not in Play

Emergence can be readily extended to include an element of randomness in structure, as well as execution. By that I mean, a given encounter, or enemy type, can have a pool of abilities to draw from, and only a portion of them are “picked” for each instance.

With enough things in an encounter functioning under a “pick pool,” the exact encounter that people play is different each time. Staleness is very unlikely to result from a fight that’s never the same thing twice.

The key element to this is that whatever is in a pick pool needs to be of the same, predictable theme. For example, consider a boss that is focused on massive CC and relying on environmental hazards to finish players off.

The boss:

  • Can knockback, stun, or pull, but only two in each encounter.
  • Has a powerful attack that either immobilizes or launches, but only one. The ability can be defiance-broken to reflect the attack back on the boss (immobilized, or gets launched toward a hazard).
  • Has access to a damage boost channel or a healing channel.

The event objective can be:

  • Kill the boss
  • Outlast the boss for a set period of time, with the frequency of attacks increasing
  • Steadily eliminate the environmental hazards, defeating the boss (a la Fritz in Aetherblade Retreat)

The environment can:

  • Consist of constantly-active gas vents that damage and blind
  • Be littered in crippling spikes that inflict bleeding and torment
  • Be subject to rockfalls in random locations, knocking players down and dealing damage

The overall theme of the encounter is the same, but exactly how it executes changes with each play. The above encounter has a potential 108 combinations*.

*Assuming each bullet point of boss moves has only one selected set, the event is only one objective, and the environment only has one hazard. If the boss gains more moves in a higher difficulty version, or the environment gains multiple hazards, that both increases the complexity and the total combination count.

Scales in the Open World

Building from both the genuine challenge and building a curve advantages, emergence has the ability to inherently teach players how to tackle tougher challenges.

For instance, if a player knows that a Mordrem Wolf will try to attack from behind, and a Mordrem Husk will try to immobilize him, he will figure out that getting immobilized around a wolf is a bad idea. Especially after a wolf takes half his hit points on the first hit.

Because the initial mechanics were simple to describe and react to (avoid immobilizing, don’t turn one’s back to a wolf), figuring out a good response when faced with both is a simple deduction immediately reinforced by the negative result of giving a bad response (taking the immobilize and getting gibbed).

Likewise, building mechanics up as the level and difficulty of the game increase allows players to steadily gain skills in how to react to increasingly complex scenarios without throwing them into the mechanical deep end.

This means that open world content can be built to be actually challenging, rather than there being a temptation to nerf content so more people can complete it. Because players are “built up” to tougher content over time, they are less likely to be clueless on how to approach a tougher encounter*.

*This isn’t to say that players will be instantly successful on a tougher encounter, only that they will have enough knowledge to steadily figure out what they should do.

Avoids Staleness Over Time

The primary cause of content staleness is the feeling that players are doing the same thing over and over again, with minimal changes. There are only so many times a skill rotation can be optimized and positions adjusted before it’s a matter of muscle memory.

Emergence avoids this cause completely, because of its reliance on unpredictability. The initial conditions aren’t set in stone, but are rather guiding principles that the encounter will revolve around.

Under such a scheme, a player might tire of the type of approach with time, but it shouldn’t feel outright stale like fixed content inevitably creates.

Disadvantages

Requires Testing at Scale

Because of the deliberate complex interactions of emergence, simply cobbling together a bunch of mechanics and releasing it is far less likely to work. And by work, I mean “be enjoyable for players.”

Further, the exact level of complexity, and thus difficulty, is hard to pin down without testing at scale. While a select subset might get it close, further adjustments will need to be made with a much larger pool.

This can take the form of a public test realm (like the Heart of Thorns closed betas imply is a possibility), or coming back to tailor the approach after the content has been live for a short period of time (1-2 weeks).

More Complex than the Existing Framework

Emergence takes a lot more initial work. It’s no longer the relatively simple process of plopping down some enemies, a few chained encounters, some dynamic scaling code, and calling it a day.

Enemies have to be capable of more, encounters have to adjust to what they can do, the whole nine yards. This amplifies if encounters are built to draw from a pool of possibilities, rather than a fixed set each time.

Fortunately, based on the Dynamic AI presentation, the AI tools were built from the ground up to be very easy to use, especially when it comes to templating new enemy types off old ones. A similar approach could be done with events and environment mechanics.

May Be Too Unpredictable

The core weakness of emergence is its core strength: it is unpredictable. It’s altogether possible to roll the dice of emergence a thousand times and never find the edge case that is virtually impossible to deal with.

But like monkeys on typewriters nailing Shakespeare, the live community will find that exact edge case the day of release. As well as the edge case that might as well be an exploit for how much simpler it is than 99% of the other possibilities.

And since emergence is designed to be unpredictable to decrease how stale things feel over time, those 1% cases can be extremely difficult to bugfix or otherwise alleviate.

Also on the player side, speedruns and other semi-competitive PvE approaches won’t be realistic. Because conditions change each and every time, there is nothing consistent to compare against with speedrun records. Especially with 1% best/worst case outliers.

Can Be Trivialized

Recall that masteries can make an otherwise-difficult encounter simpler, like flying a glider off a hill rather than trying to avoid a bunch of toxic mushrooms. This is good, and a designed intent of the mastery system.

But by the same token, encounters run the risk of being too easy to shortcut with sufficient mastery points. And if the shortcut is too good, players who attempt “the hard way” can scale the encounter and draw the ire of players wanting to finish quickly*.

*This particular case can be alleviated by having the hard way give more credit per completion, while the easy way is faster to accomplish and awards less. Between the two, skilled players doing either roughly match up to the same amount of credit.

In this light, masteries can be viewed as simplifiers, reversing to some extent the layered complexity of emergence. Some masteries will deliberately remove a layer that makes an encounter impossible (aforementioned soft gates). Others will remove an annoyance (glide to avoid mushrooms).

What should be avoided are masteries that trivialize the vast majority of the encounter. Encounters should retain some level of challenge, even if a maxed-out mastery completionist is participating.

Conclusion

As I’ve illustrated, emergence has a lot to give theme park MMOs to reduce their staleness woes. Further, it increases the level of challenge presented to the player base, without making how that challenge is being created impossible to figure out short of looking up a guide.

And switching to the development side, it slows the treadmill down substantially. Emergent encounters by design “last longer” than their fixed counterparts, reducing the unsustainable drive to produce more content to keep people playing to a more manageable pace.

Between the two, it provides a good answer to the Trifold Curse, and the negative consequences it creates.

To conclude this series, I am next going to look closer at emergence as it would apply to Guild Wars 2 in detail, applying the core principles of the concept to the core areas of the game. You can read that case study here.

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