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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Emergent Gameplay, Cheapness, and Bugs, Part 1

“That move is cheap,” we all said this at some point in our life, probably when we were young, playing with a friend and that friend had just discovered Ryu’s fireball or E.Honda’s slap and basically just chained it repeatedly to victory (oh memories of Street Fighter 2 Turbo…). I was once that child, and I recall that my hating was because it felt as though there was no counter, I was too young to understand or discover the mechanics beneath or how to beat it.

Emergent gameplay, for better or worse, is responsible for some of the mechanics and gameplay that has elevated games towards competitive interest…not all of them, but some.

Combos in fighting games; if you know them you enjoy them, if you don’t you probably loathe those that use them. The irony is that “combos” in fighting games were originally the result of an unintended AI bug in Street Fighter 2. (LINK: However the developers and players liked this functionality, so it was incorporated into the game design and has continued to this day.

In a completely different genre, RTS games, where micromanagement, or “micro” was also an unintended factor that turned out to spawn a new form of gameplay. In Starcraft, the importance of Micro was mainly due to poor AI. Certain units would completely ignore that they were being attacked, or would make poor choices in combat, thus requiring the player to direct them individually. In many cases, the difference between units who are being micromanaged and units who are not is black and white. While I cannot categorically say that this was unintended in the original Starcraft, it clearly was in Starcraft 2. Either way, this, like the combos in Street Fighter, became “emergent” gameplay and is a major facet of those game’s competitive communities to this day.

Note the probes sitting into the psychic storm; they will do nothing to preserve their lives
However, despite the categorical determinations of some others, this has spawned a discourse on what is “cheap” what is “emergent gameplay” and what is simply a “bug”. I’ll deal with cheap in a future post. There is often disagreement as to whether certain things should be banned or not. In all fairness, banning certain things would be nearly impossible; such as micro in Starcraft…you’d have to have a thousand referees and judges determining whether a player was micromanaging. Or try policing whether someone is “camping” in an FPS…many a LAN party has ended due to arguments about that. Emergent gameplay almost universally involves doing something the developer did not necessarily intend in order to gain an advantage.

But not all emergent gameplay is good for a game, and not all of it should be left untouched by the developers. The most successful examples of emergent gameplay (such as the two aforementioned) are those that might not have been intended, but actually enhance the gameplay and are consistent with the “spirit” of the game. Combos seem to make natural sense in a fighting game after people have watched Boxers and MMA fighters string punches together; or watched Jackie Chan perform a series of kicks and punches that all seem to naturally flow from one to the next uninterrupted.  Micromanagement (though more hotly disputed) at least can justify itself as being like the Sergeant giving orders to specific soldiers.

What if instead there was a bug in a “modern” FPS game like Call of Duty or Battlefield that rendered most of the weapons obsolete and caused everyone to run around with just their knife or a crossbow or something extremely strange. People would hate these because they would break the “feel” of the game. Even games that are not meant to mirror reality immerse us in some ways because they present us with a paradigm of how we should view this game. Call of Duty and Battlefield want us to be soldiers shooting at each other, so when that paradigm is shattered it feels like the game is somehow “off”.

In my opinion, when it comes to emergent gameplay, what in part matters was developer intent and the spirit of the game. Did the developers intend for a specific tactic, weapon, or item to be too powerful? Does this emergent gameplay forward the spirit of the game? If either is “No” then it’s probably not good for the game….if yes? Game on my friend.

Below I have included a list of examples of “emergent gameplay” I could come up with off the top of my head; I’ve provided my opinion about each after the list, but I encourage my readers to ask themselves what they consider each to be. There are no right answers really, because when we’re talking about what is within the “spirit” of a game it’s usually a matter of opinion.

Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer – “Reload Cancelling”

This is accomplished by dodging or using a power while the player’s character reloads a weapon. You see, the animation takes longer than the actual reload, leading to the ammo counter ticking up once the character appears to put the heatclip into the weapon, rather than when they finish the whole animation cycle. Players discovered that by using abilities that interrupt other animations, like dodging and certain powers, you could skip that last animation and thus reload faster. I personally think this one lends itself more towards “unintended bug” that should be fixed in future iterations…it seems odd to have people randomly dodging to the side when they don’t need to just to reload faster.

Assassins Creed series Multiplayer – Last-second Wall Grabbing

This is one that I personally just dislike because it breaks the immersion. AC multiplayer is supposed to be an immersive experience involving a group of stealthy assassins going after each other. However, since the introduction of the stun/contested kill mechanic, people discovered that by running onto a wall briefly before making a kill, you could prevent players from contesting them or stunning you, thus getting more points. It is not game breaking, and I know how to do it, but it feels “wrong”. I admit, if implemented truly it would be cool to see a character run a few steps up a wall then leap off to kill, but as it is it looks very awkward and breaks the flow. They alternatively could fix it by allowing stunning people on walls or contesting aerial kills (both have their own disadvantages).

In Smash Bros games you are able to grab the ledge of the stage to avoid falling to your death, it was meant to save players who almost made it back but not quite. However, the game only allows one person to grab an edge at a time, so some players realized that once they’ve sent others to the side, they can jump off and grab the edge to keep the person from using that. Personally I am not a fan, it seems odd that you couldn’t just grab the other character. It also does add a skill component, because you are potentially vulnerable when holding the wall. However, the community seems to like it, so I’ll leave that to their judgment.

This particular form of emergent gameplay is one of the most controversial; so much so that some games of the same genre have eliminated it entirely (League of Legends). Denying involves killing your own creeps or towers to prevent enemies from getting gold and experience from them; and this at first blush does sound like a strategic option. However in a game built around teamwork and a sort of fantasy good-v-evil trope, it seems odd to have good guys taking out their own defenses. Either way, it can work if handled properly, but I am in the camp of “ditch it” because it just sticks out as not feeling “right” in the situation. In this case, it emerged because the original Warcraft 3 and Starcraft engines allowed you to force your soldiers to attack friendlies and IIRC it was hard-coded into the UI. Thus, like last-hitting, it was a mechanic that Guinsoo, Icefrog and Eul (basically the original three, with Eul creating the first map, and the latter two improving on it) could not get rid of.

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