Ahead of the game

If the internet age has taught us one lesson, it is that when people are connected to each other, they spawn new behaviours. Sharing and collaboration underpin many aspects of the information era – from open source, open innovation and crowdsourcing to social networking, flashmobs and online gaming, they all have their own organic dynamics.

Video games, in particular, have the power to connect large numbers of players in one virtual space. And it is often the creativity of the players, as much as of the original designers, that leads to the most interesting developments in emergent game play and games design.

By linking together, gamers have dreamt up new rules and behaviours that flex a game’s original design and turn it into something else – something co-designed by the players.

Halo 3, a first-person shooter developed by Bungie for the Xbox 360 console, is home to a good example of collaborative play. Texas-based digital consultancy Rooster Teeth Productions customised the rules from one of Halo 3’s existing game modes to create Grifball, agame-within-a-game that has all the elements of a full-blooded, 16-person sport. Grifball has been so successful that leagues are springing up all over the world, Grifball character action toys have been manufactured and Bungie has now included the game in its official community playlist as a permanently available game.

’People like making up rules – it’s our natural game-playing mode,’ says Holly Gramazio, lead games designer at gaming consultancy Hide & Seek and curator of Sandpit, the group’s experimental gaming nights.

’When you’re young you make up rules and decide how to play something. But as people get older, they tend to feel less comfortable doing this. Nobody stops in the middle of a game of five-a-side and says, “Hey, let’s see what happens if we draw three circles on the pitch and if you step into one you have to run backwards for the next 30 seconds.”’

Little Big Planet 2, created by Media Molecule for the Sony Playstation, promises players ’a powerful new set of tools that vastly widen the scope of possibility, [handing] you the power to create whole games’. These tools let players create characters, compose music and direct cinematic sequences, as well as design whole playable environments.

This reluctance to change the structure of play is being broken down by video-game titles that actively encourage people to design their own gaming environments.

Not surprisingly, Lego has also unveiled its ’kit of parts’ video-game offer, Lego Universe, which takes the enduring appeal of block-by-block construction and throws it into a virtual world populated by other players and their Lego contraptions.

Although player design is a key selling point of both Lego Universe and Little Big Planet 2, they still provide plenty of pre-designed game narrative for players to follow.

The real runaway success in design-it-yourself gaming is the ultra lo-fi Minecraft, a title created by Swedish developer Markus Persson in which players ’mine’ polygon blocks from the earth and use them to build whatever structures they can dream up. Aside from a few monsters roaming the territory at night, that’s pretty much all there is to it – you create your own gaming world and share it with the other players and their constructions.

’I realised that a game that is simple, yet dynamic, has the potential to be turned into a really great game,’ writes Persson.

’I believe that I can combine enough fun, accessibility and building blocks for this game to be a huge melting pot of emergent game play.’

This simplicity has netted Minecraft more than five million registered users, 1.5 millionof whom have bought the paid version of the game. In 24 hours alone, on 1 March, more than 40 000 new people registered and more than 11 000 paid for the title.

’Minecraft is fascinating,’ says Max Reyner, insight editor of The Future Laboratory’s trend network LSN Global. ’It’s very lo-fi and you don’t really do anything with the designs afterwards. It reminds me of people who build model architecture in their attics. The difference, though, is the audience that can see the design when it’s completed. Minecraft users can place videos of their designs, complete with audio commentary, on sites such as You Tube, and suddenly there is an audience of several million people.’

This is the big change. Historically, some games shipped with a built-in level editor – a piece of bespoke 3D design software that allowed people to design their own gaming environments. Similarly, games like The Sims and Civilization are built on the appeal of player-as-God, fashioning and controlling their own dominion.

But at the time these were largely solitary pursuits; without other players there was no scope for the emergent game play that is particularly exciting about today’s gaming.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Eve Online are almost entirely constructed from organic emergent game play. Eve’s design, by Icelandic company CCP Games, is rich but also very open: it says, here’s space, some planets and some spaceships – off you go. The sandpit is yours – make your own rules’.

This article was written for Design Week, 24 March 2011.

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