Designing a game to behave in ways for which it was not designed

Original Author: Alex Norton


I’d like to start this article by pointing out that it is merely a documenting of my own personal experience and thoughts that led from it, and in no way is a treatise on what I think everyone should do. Please take it with a grain of salt.



Emergent behaviour is something that has really surprised and fascinated me in the past with gaming communities. A particularly clean-cut example is Minecraft. Despite being designed as a sandbox game, the game’s community has grown to accomplish some incredible feats including making games within the game, which – to my mind – is just incredible. Given enough momentum, and given the right design choices in a game project, people will start to play a game in ways that it was not designed for – sometimes to very interesting effect.

So naturally, when this sort of thing started happening – albeit in a less grandiose fashion – within my own game’s community, I really found it astounding, and it led to some interesting revelations and thoughts for expansion, which I will go into later.


My own experience with emergent player behaviour

First, let me explain what happened within my own community to lead to these revelations, and to the eventual typing of this article. Some of you may know me for my main project, Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox. Among those who know and play the game, it has become infamous for its difficulty – which it was designed for – and the sheer effort required just to stay alive in the game when everything in it tries to kill you in the most creative way possible. This factor alone has led to its small, but dedicated fan-base to have a somewhat gleefully masochistic view towards playing, and many community requests for expansion to the game have revolved around this mentality, including making dungeons darker and more difficult to traverse, making traps deadlier, combat less forgiving and primarily the addition of a perma-death option to greatly multiply the sense of risk.

The emergent player behaviour that led from this started out fairly simply. People wanted to know how long they could survive in the game’s hostile environment, which only gets more difficult the longer you stay alive, and so, competitions arose to see who could live the longest. To my mind, this was inevitable and very much tied into the base competitive nature of the modern gamer.

However, it soon escalated from there with the addition of functionality to be able to “claim” locations as being the first to discover it. The game world in Malevolence is infinite, and everyone is in an exact copy of the same world, so people can travel as far as they like to discover new locations which are procedurally generated by the game, but still exist in everyone else’s copy.

The procedural nature of Malevolence means there’s
always something new to find. This makes players feel
a sense of ownership if they’re the first to find something.