Applying Emergence: A Case Study

To conclude this short series on emergence, and the potential it has to keep theme park MMOs from an unsustainable treadmill of content creation, consumption, and complaints, I’m going to look deeper at how emergence can apply in Guild Wars 2, particularly with its brand new shiny dynamic AI system.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. A Theme Park MMO’s Bane: The Trifold Curse
  2. Dumping Sand on the Theme Park: Emergence

Emergence can apply everywhere, even if a dynamic AI system isn’t readily extensible to events, the environment, and the like. To show this, I’m going to overview the phrases of the emergence definition, and how they can apply to enemies, events, and the environment.

As a quick refresher, here is my definition of 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.

Simple Mechanics


Simple mechanics are easy. Instill 2-3 moves in a regular mob, a half dozen or so in a solo boss, add appropriate tactical AI, and done.


These are already present in the vast majority of the game. Kill these mobs, escort that bull, etc. It’s too simple, but I’ll get to that later.


Unique mechanics are missing in most of the game, while dungeons and fractals have them in high supply. Adding them in can offer a lot of additional depth. It’s one thing to avoid a teragriff charging around an arena. It’s quite another to do it while crippling vines sprout in a dozen locations.

Silverwastes also shows the power of environmental mechanics with the interplay of siege, doors, and walls against the Mordrem hordes. While many players may ignore them, they are very effective at handling masses of enemies with fewer total people.



Adding a layered approach is simple: add different mob types. It can also be done by giving a boss mob additional skills or interactions, or maybe even additional phases based on health or other triggers.


There’s generally only one mechanic in a given event, and often killing anything with a red nameplate dead is sufficient. While this is great for establishing the concept of a dynamic event and making cooperation simpler, it does not lend to challenging circumstances.

Deliberately challenging content needs to ask 2-3 different things of a group of players, requiring them to divide their efforts to cover all of the bases. This simultaneously decreases the sheer effectiveness of zerging content down, because everyone in one place causes failure.

The Vinewrath meta event gets close to this ideal, with a half-dozen different things going on all at once in three separate locations. But the tendency of players to afk range attack in a lane shows that the failure condition is too easy to stave off. Tequatl and Triple Trouble get closer.


The original weapons test encounter from the Molten Facility is a fine example. Three separate mechanics, on top of enemy mobs, and an object in the center to destroy. Layering them on top of each other amplified the challenge*.

*Even if it was fairly simple to bumrush the core to knock it the rest of the way down, ignoring the mechanics entirely.

Nuanced and Complex


Both of these characteristics simply require unique move sets from enemy mobs. Well-themed mob concepts ensure this. See again the Mordrem.


Nuance and complexity can be achieved through unique combinations of enemies and environmental mechanics. Doing much more makes a given event esoteric to the point of being impossible to explain*.

*Which also fails the event on being comprehendable.


Unique mechanics gain much of their complexity in their ability to synergize with what enemies are doing actively. Their nuance is in creating additional elements that the enemies don’t create natively.

For example, a radiation field that must be turned off with a 3 second channel, in a room with an enemy who loves to stun. The danger is in letting the radiation field run, but the enemy’s stun cannot be ignored.



Unpredictability can be a natural consequence of dynamic AI, but it can also be a consequence of subtle meddling with a given mob’s available ability pool. Rather than every time a given boss fights with four specific moves, only equipping three at random changes what players have to execute in a fight.


Unpredictability can be implemented in practically all fixed points of an event. Silverwastes events appear to function on a rough RNG when it comes to the enemy mix spawned, while the dynamic scaling system defines the level, strength, and number of them.

This also can mean that sometimes an event spawns Horrid Boss Duo one time, and the next time it spawns Terrible Boss Trio. Their overall abilities might be similar, allowing informed preparation, but the precise parameters of the event aren’t known until the fight is on.


Unique mechanics can shift similar to how events might change what precisely spawns. One encounter has dripping acid plants to avoid, while the next randomly picks vine walls that cripple when passed through.

Retains Comprehension


Mordrem mobs show this done effectively. They each have clear tells prior to doing their signature moves, or predictable enough behavior to know what to do. And if all of them end up together obliterating a player, breaking down why one dropped dead can be traced back to the root causes.


In overall objectives, events have to remain fairly simple, relying on the enemies and environment within them to carry the lion’s share of the emergence. Without a clear objective, players (like armies), inevitably get confused and fail.

This does not mean that events can’t have multiple objectives, but each of them must be clear. For example, Tequatl requires turret operators, “the zerg” hitting Tequatl’s feet, and defense groups both before and during battery events. Each of their objectives is clear, even if the overall interplay of them is emergently complex.


Classically, Guild Wars 2 has had no problem communicating visually when a unique, environment mechanic is in play. Volatile blossoms emit a large poison cloud, letting a player know they’re spewing death at machine gun speed. Old Tom’s chamber gases up a ghastly green when the fan isn’t running.

But in a larger open-world environment, signals need to be clear, like is present with the newer orange AoE circles. Otherwise, the effects of other players risk covering over the signal that vine-assisted homicide is on the way.


Emergence holds a high promise: content that rarely feels stale. This promise is backed by its focus on layered, complex, and unpredictable enemies, events, and environments.

While the initial investment in development time is substantial, I firmly believe that emergence is the key to not just challenging group content, but crafting worlds that feel genuinely alive.


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