User-generated content (UGC) has become a popular trend in gaming. The most successful UGC platforms in this space have included a core creative aspect called “emergent gameplay”, while the less successful platforms have taken the blank canvas approach.
To start, let’s explain what we mean by emergent gameplay and a blank canvas. A blank canvas UGC platform can be viewed as a creation platform without clear direction. Users are given an engine and an empty environment to create whatever they want. The below helps explain emergent gameplay:
“[Here is] a quick example of what is and what isn't emergent gameplay. Let's take two games that allow the player to specialize in super strength. In game A, super strength simply acts as a key; allowing the player to break down select walls defined by the designer.
In game B [emergent gameplay], super strength is a modifier to the player's attacks and grab and throw mechanic. Here, the player could pick up a container that has several teammates inside of it, throw it over defenses or enemies and create a... variation on the Trojan horse strategy.
In game A, the use of super strength was predefined and had set options by the designer. Whereas game B gave the player a basic tool and then let them figure out ways to take that further.
Emergent gameplay isn't about complex mechanics, but simple forms of interaction that add up to big things.” (Examining Emergent Gameplay)
Many UGC platforms employ the blank canvas gameplay mechanic, yet the best ones employ the emergent gameplay mechanic. While it may sound great in theory, giving gamers endless options to create with little guidance is actually not the way the greatest game platforms have thrived. Limitations arise as users are left with more questions than answers due to a lack of direction when using the platform. It can be argued that true creativity arises without direction, but we believe that there is an argument for guardrails and a semblance of guidance that can help creators take the first step.
Emergent gameplay is a trend to be excited about because we believe it will encourage more creativity than blank canvas UGC experiences can - a blank canvas is not always the right answer when it comes to creativity. We believe that a lot of UGC gaming companies are overthinking the future of gaming. Instead of trying to make creation easier, gaming companies need to make creation feel like playing.
Creation as Play: At its core, emergent gameplay is where the mechanics afford the player to create new strategies and utility beyond their original intent or utilization (Examining Emergent Gameplay). This allows players to explore pre-made experiences and environments while getting a grasp of game mechanics and underlying game logic. After that, the user can slowly figure out what can be manipulated or used in a way not previously intended. Games like Minecraft, Half-Life 2, Dungeons & Dragons, and The Sims have all thrived on emergent gameplay (16 Best Games With Emergent Gameplay).
Emergent gameplay becomes a driving factor of adoption, and some games are very intentional about this mechanic. While it can be unintentional (ie. leveraging game mechanics for unexpected gameplay), creating experiences that are designed to be built on is where creativity can be truly harnessed. Tabletop roleplaying games have some of the clearest forms of emergent gameplay, as the campaigns (storylines played) are just a broad outline to offer the Game Master and players a goal without a clear way to get there. Anything from the story to the characters can be changed to alter the experience.
Loot Project: There have been some interesting projects building on this theme recently. The most recent is Loot Project which released 8,000 NFTs, each with adventurer loot metadata that could be leveraged by anyone else to build on. This spawned countless derivatives of the project including a token economy, character mock-ups, ability scores, and even generative art. No one was told what to do, but even simple lists of physical items was enough to open people’s imaginations and foster creation. They were given an initial framework and told to go build.
Loot Project is a simple version of emergent gameplay and we think developers will lean heavily into this theme. While it’s important that the gameplay is initially engaging, arming the community with the ability to mix and match and create what they want from the game is far more valuable than viewing the game as a proprietary ecosystem that can only be altered by a centralized entity. Communities build successful projects all the time; this includes mods like Dota, CS:GO, or the thousands of servers on Minecraft that support millions of players every day. These weren’t built by the original game/platform owners, but instead by creative individuals that were given the tools and infrastructure to turn the game or platform into what they wanted it to be.
Takeaway: UGC shouldn’t be viewed as creating from nothing. Giving creators the ability to leverage pre-existing resources and mechanics allows them to spend more time tinkering with things and expanding the current possibilities instead of building new experiences from scratch. Emergent gameplay, when executed well, will become a powerful tool for game developers going forward. Along with creating a more engaging experience for both creators and players, it also provides a constantly expanding pool of content to retain a community over time.