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In Defense of Surprising Gameplay

Game developers often try to find and remove all unexpected interactions in the belief that anything not intended is likely to be a bug. But this may be unnecessarily preventing the development of games in which surprise is a necessary feature.

Bart Stewart, Blogger

August 20, 2011

3 Min Read

Major game design studios these days seem to be dedicated to the utter and absolute elimination of all surprise from games.

On the one hand, many developers apear to be terrified that if a game allows for surprise -- if any unexpected emergent interactions between systems are permitted -- that some player somewhere will wonder for a microsecond what he is supposed to do next. At that point (the thinking appears to be), the player will conclude "this is boring!", quit playing the game, and insist to all his friends that the game is broken.

So these developers are now doing everything they can to make sure that every possible system interaction is 100 percent controlled. There must be no moment in which the player can see or do anything other than what the developer intended... even if that means limiting the number and span of gameplay systems to the point that games become nothing more than "walk" and "shoot enemy" with different textures.

But these developers aren't alone. Some players don't like surprises, either. And many (most?) developers have decided that these players -- and no others -- should be given what they want. So the developers obsessively design and playtest and focus group gameplay scenarios to insure that as long as players do the "right" steps in the "right" order (often substituting player skill for in-game character abilities, even in RPGs), they win. There's nothing wrong with having games like that... but why stop there?

What bothers me about the games being made based on these rejections of surprise is that not all gamers appreciate having every possible in-game behavior locked down. Some of us enjoy being surprised! In particular, surprise is a critical element of simulation play. If events can never vary between runs, then there is no opportunity for players to make interesting choices as inputs to produce outputs that are enjoyable for being unanticipated.

So why is it that it's almost exclusively the gamers who want gameplay they can be guaranteed of winning who get attention from developers?

Of course it's not much fun to lose because of randomness. But that's not the same thing as emergent surprise, which is what I'm really talking about here. Surprise doesn't have to have direct gameplay consequences; indirect effects may be enough. And of course games should be tested and modified to prevent game-breaking surprises, such as fires that spread unchecked across the entire gameworld. There can be surprises due to untestable interactions between many complex systems that do not result in a broken game, but instead contribute toward the presentation of gameworlds that feel alive in many small but meaningful ways. What is preventing developers from making games like this?

I believe the trend toward eliminating surprise from games needs to be countered in order to prevent games from becoming utterly banal snoozefests that nearly play themselves. Procedural content generation -- particularly in the area of object behavior -- is one possible path toward achieving that goal.

So I strongly endorse what developers like Andrew Doull and Miguel Cepero are doing with procedural content generation. And I hope their work will inspire other developers to embrace the idea that a little more surprise in their games, where appropriate, can actually be a good thing.


"A nice blend of prediction and surprise seem to be at the heart of the best art." --Wendy Carlos

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Bart Stewart


Bart Stewart is a senior Technical Project Manager with a major aerospace firm in Fort Worth, Texas. His encounter with the BASIC simulation game "Hammurabi" led him to earn a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, to work for thirteen years as a software developer for a large systems integration company and eleven years as a manager of several complex software development projects, and to a lifelong passion for player-oriented game design. Bart is presently compiling a field guide to personality styles in the workplace. He has also created several game designs (currently looking for the right development platform) that consciously provide content for different play styles.

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