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Emergence in ROBLOX: Hard to Define, Easy to See

April 28, 2012

by Andrew Haak


Emergence in ROBLOXIn gaming, emergence happens when players use a game’s basic systems in a way that is unexpected, unpredicted and unique. It’s built into the entire ROBLOX platform; users have the freedom to create almost any type of game, experience games, moments and physics that rarely – if ever – play out the same way twice, and even discover emergence in ROBLOX’s social space and virtual economy.

Depth of creativity

One of the beauties of ROBLOX is the creative freedom it gives users. Builders start out with a blank canvas and can build anything, from architectural displays to complex vehicle models to competitive, multi-player arenas. While the sophistication of a game or place depends on its creator’s abilities in both construction and scripting, ROBLOX offers users a free-form tool that lends itself to discovery, what-if scenarios and experimentation.

That experimentation emerged early in ROBLOX’s life, when users took advantage of our Lua scripting framework to create airplanes and, in turn, spark the ever-popular and evolving flight-combat genre on ROBLOX. It was emergence in a classic sense; users created totally new gameplay and content using nothing but our standard tool set.

While most builders start simpler than planes, a little persistence and learning open a lot of doors to emergence.

Personal Build Server "Island" Screenshot

ROBLOX’s Personal Build Servers, too, encourage emergence by allowing up to 30 users to join a single server and collaborate on large-scale building projects. While users can build anything they imagine and even wire up interesting, unique contraptions using customizable triggers, levers and timers, it’s the player interaction occurring in the Personal Build Server that’s especially emergent. For example, ROBLOX users have created sprawling cities, complete with custom houses and towering, decorated buildings, where role-playing and socializing tend to take place during and after the construction.

Real freedom, simulated physics

According to Penny Sweetser, a game designer at 2K Australia and emergence researcher/author, emergent gameplay registers with players because it puts them center-stage. It gives them “the freedom to experiment, greater control over the game, a sense of agency, and less of a feeling of uncovering a path set for them by the designers.” 1

While some ROBLOX games funnel players through a scripted experience or change ROBLOX into a closed-off, single-player experience, ROBLOX games are usually open spaces where users congregate and play within the game’s mechanics and ROBLOX’s systems – our so-called “magic circle”.

ROBLOX Game ScreenshotWe’ve asked ROBLOX players for their interesting in-game experiences and, for the most part, they involve more than one person, open-world freedom and some aspect of our physics simulation. With a formula like that, emergent gameplay is almost inevitable. One ROBLOX user recounted this memory, in response to our recent call for interesting ROBLOX stories:

“Playing Heli-Wars: Desert Attack, a guest got in my jeep. I drove it half way to the other team’s base and jumped out, but the guest and jeep kept rolling into the base. The guest got out and started shooting, but was killed. The jeep came out of the other side of the base so I jumped in as it was moving and drove it back to my base.”

Another had a similar experience on the battlefield:

“I was in a war group; we were in a helicopter flying to a raider base and our boss said, “deploy parachutes but don’t jump!” When we arrived at the raider base he said, “Jump! Go go go!” We parachuted in but were outnumbered by the raiders and the helicopter was shot down. Our next plan was to get in a heavy jeep. It was white and had no windows except in the front. There was a door in the back, our boss was driving. When we arrived again there were only two raiders. We fought them and left for another fort.”

Then there’s ROBLOX user Lucariobeam, who recently played Natural Disaster Survival and “rode a falling building into the ocean, and somehow, miraculously, survived.”

These are bits of the greater narrative a ROBLOX game can tell, driven almost entirely by the player’s freedom and ROBLOX’s flexible engine.

“I just love how ROBLOX’s physics engine can create different scenarios … It makes the game so much more interesting, not to mention addicting,” said ROBLOX user navysealsnake.

Emergence in ROBLOX’s web services

Many massively multiplayer games have virtual economies and social systems that allow players to purchase and sell items using an in-game currency. ROBLOX’s virtual economy, for example, allows users to earn and spend Tickets and ROBUX.

As noted by Sweetser, “virtual economies are emergent systems that change dynamically with supply and demand, based on the trading patterns of the world’s inhabitants.” 1 This is what we’ve seen in ROBLOX’s virtual economy with limited-quantity items. ROBLOX users who are vigilant of newly released gear (or just lucky) can snatch up rare items and sell them for a profit to users who didn’t get them during the original sale. There’s only so many to go around, so users can charge a premium. It’s supply and demand at work.

Emergence in ROBLOX QuoteSince ROBLOX uses its website as a distribution channel for users’ games, we’ve even seen emergence in game promotion. Cunning users have learned to market their content not only through effective game design, but also competition: being the most responsive to user feedback, persuasive in use of text descriptions and screenshots, and successful with on-site advertisements.

Emergence manifests itself in all the major facets of ROBLOX, from creation, to sharing and gameplay, to the economy and community running behind the scenes. From a gameplay perspective, it’s not guaranteed, since our users are capable of creating scripted, linear experiences. But there’s no denying that, from front to back, ROBLOX encourages discovery, experimentation, freedom and, with all that said, emergence.

There’s plenty of room to dig deeper, so stay tuned to our blog for detailed explorations of emergence in ROBLOX.

1. Sweetser, Penny. Emergence in Games. Charles River Media, 2008. Web book.