Emergence vs. Progression
June 4, 2015 by Corey
I’ve recently been thumbing through Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design by Earnest Adams & Joris Dormans. So far it’s been a great resource for learning about the inner-workings of game design. I’m learning a ton of new terms!
I want to talk about two concepts that have caused me to reevaluate the games I’ve played over the years, and attempt to cement the concepts in my brain. These concepts are Progression and Emergence.
Games based on the Emergence concept were the easiest for me to understand and to hopefully explain with some clarity. Games under this umbrella refer to systems in which behavior cannot be derived directly from it’s parts, but by the interactions of these parts. In other words, the gameplay experience EMERGES from rule and player interaction. Hearthstone is a good example of a purely Emergent game. The game’s main rule is clearly defined: reduce your opponents life total to zero. Along with this, there are a number of simple sub-rules governing the effects of the cards themselves:
- Deathrattle – do something when this card is destroyed
- Battlecry – do something when this card enters the field
- Taunt – enemy minions must target this card when attacking
These rules interact with each other in order to create the main experience of the game. Strategies are developed as each player analyzes the game’s board state, and take turns deciding which rule or rule set would be the best to take advantage of.
Hearthstone also houses characteristics from the Progression school of thought which round out the game such as the ranking and virtual currency systems, but these do not define the play experience. Hearthstone is Emergent all the way.
After reading about this concept, it turns out that this would be my personal favorite. Progression games refer to systems in which the experience is defined by the player’s progress and prioritization of mechanics that drive the player towards a goal. In an Emergent game, the designer largely takes a backseat to the gameplay after making up the rules of the system. However, in a Progression game the invisible hand of the designer is ever present, and it guides the player towards his/her goal. <shameless promo> A great example of a Progression game would be a game I created called Prison! </shameless promo> This game is a text adventure in which you are given a few options a time and the player is guided through the game by its narrative.
Prison has clear states and it guides the player to the end. Not actual Prison…actual Prison is probably more Emergent.
The games above were examples of the two concepts in their purest form (Hearthstone without a ranking system is still Hearthstone.) Think of Emergent and Progression as two opposite sides of a spectrum when evaluating a game. Most games these days lie somewhere in between these two sides. I’m thinking of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance which uses Progression style narrative and a mission system to drive the player towards completing goals, and Emergent style combat to handle individual conflicts and player tactics. Admittedly my heart lies in the Progression-heavy; those were the games I remembered and I love me a good story. But I’m also a huge fan of games that skim the line between the two, and do it well.
Anyways, that’s all for now. Keep playing games.
P.S. Let me know if there are any typos. Creative work is iterative and the debugging is part of the process ;).