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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Rise of the Systemic Game | Game Maker's Toolkit

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When it rains in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, everything changes.

Rocks become slick, which makes them difficult to climb.

But Links footsteps are hushed, making it easier to sneak about.

It dramatically boosts the damage of electrical attacks, but it turns fire and bomb arrows

into regular arrows.

Certain plants and creatures, like the electric darner, only appear when its raining.

Human characters run for nearby cover.

Campfires sizzle out.

And youll even find massive great puddles in certain areas - which then evaporate when

the sun comes out.

The rolling weather system in Breath of the Wild is not just a nifty visual trick, but

something that can reach out and influence almost everything else in the world.

And this is the definition of a systemic game.

As Aleissia Laidacker, a former lead programmer at Ubisoft puts it:

ALEISSIA LAIDACKER: Systemic means theres a link between all the systems in your game.

Theyve been developed and designed with the intention that one can influence the other.

And in the last few years weve seen an explosion of games that have this sort of

interconnectivity - from Japanese titles like Metal Gear Solid V and Zelda, to ambitious

European games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, to smaller indie titles like Mark of the Ninja,

to pretty much everything Ubisofts making at the moment.

Take Far Cry, for example, where much of the joy comes from the fact that not only do you

fight enemies, and not only do you fight wild animals - but enemies can fight animals.

And vice versa.

This is not a scripted encounter, hand crafted by the developer.

Its just the enemy system and the wildlife system interactingas a tiger mauls a guards

face clean off.

This works thanks toawarenessandrules”.

In super simplified terms, every entity in the game has inputs, which are things it canlistenfor.

In the case of the Far Cry tiger, that might be the player, bait, fire, and enemies.

And entities also have outputs, which is when they broadcast their existence out into the


If the input and the output match, and the entities can see or touch each other, a connection

is made.

And thats when a rule is followed.

In the case of the tiger and the enemy, that rule is face mauling.

But for other games, it could be that if a flame touches a wooden arrow, it sets on fire.

Or if an orange tree frog explodes near a floor tile, its destroyed.

Or if it rains on a camp fire, it sizzles out.

So systemic games work by having all sorts of objects, characters, bits of the environment,

and game systems be aware of each other, and have rules for how to interact.

But why should we care?

What makes this style of design more interesting than games where the systems arent so connected?

Well, one huge advantage is that the player can make interesting plans.

In a lot of traditional games, entities are only really aware of the player and not much else.

Meaning the only way to interact with an enemy is through very direct means.

A.K.A shooting them.

But because entities in systemic games are aware of so many more things, we can get to

enemies through indirect means.

Like, releasing a caged animal to have it attack nearby guards.

So a defining trait of systemic games is that you can exploit those relationships between

different entities and systems, as part of plans - which make you feel rather smart when

they come together.

Heres a good one from Watch Dogs 2.

I was getting chased by the cops, so I lead the police into gang territory, hid on a rooftop

and watched those opposing factions fight it out, and then used the distraction to high

tail it out of there and lose my wanted level.

That felt great, and a lot more interesting than just shooting a bunch of cops.

Another massive advantage of systemic design is that these games can create moments of

drama and surprise.

Such as a wild three-way tussle between the royal army, the golden path, and an angry


Again - this wasnt scripted, but something that occurred organically from a bunch of

different entities that are all aware of each other, have rules for dealing with each other,

and have found themselves in the same place.

And I think these anecdotes are cool for two reasons.

For one, they often follow a really interesting story structure as you devise a plan and try

to execute it, but a surprising chain reaction of events scuppers your plan and you must

react and adapt.

And because these anecdotes are completely unique to your experience, I think that often

makes them more special and memorable than the ultra epic moment that every single player

is going to see happen.

No ones tweeting about that, are they?

So systemic games allow the player to come up with interesting plans.

And they lead to surprising anecdotes.

And we call this stuffemergent gameplay” - things that werent intentionally designed

by the games makers, but solutions and situations that emerge thanks to the meeting

of multiple systems.

That doesnt let game makers off the hook, though.

Theyve got to set all this stuff up, to create the possibility of emergence.

So to make this work, we need to create awareness between lots of different entities in the


The more things that are aware of each other, the better.

Having characters be able to fight amongst themselves is one thing, but we can also have

enemies be able to damage the environment, have entities be aware of systems like the

day and night cycle, or - in the case of Zelda - invent a whole chemistry engine with wind,

fire, ice, and so on.

Next, we need rules that are consistent.

Because - as I talked about in the AI episode - you can only make good plans if you have

a pretty strong idea of how the system will react when you push on it.

But that means we also need rules that are universal.

Like, if some wooden objects catch on fire, then all wooden objects should catch on fire.

Any time a rule like that is broken, the believability of the world is reduced and the player is

bit less likely to experiment in future.

So to make this sort of universal connectivity easier, perhaps take this advice from Dishonoreds

co-directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio.

They say that instead of having entities be able to listen for specific objects and characters

in the world, they let entities output general stimuli - like fire damage, piercing damage,

or explosive damage - and then have other things in the game be aware of those.

This layer of abstraction makes it easier to add and modify entities, and even allows

players to find connections that the designers never even thought of.

Like in Harvey Smiths most famous game, Deus Ex, where you can exploit the fact that

MIB enemies explode upon death to blow your way through doors.

This is also why you can lay metal objects on the floor in Zelda to conduct electricity

and solve some of the shrines in your own way.

It might feel a bit like cheating, but thats what makes systemic games fun.

Instead of finding the single, authored solution to a puzzle, you can use the inherent behaviours

of the games systems to find your own way to overcome the problem at hand.

And then, if you want surprising events to happen on the regular, its important for

the system to be somewhat unstable.

To not be in perfect equilibrium until the player comes along and pushes on it, but capable

of moving and shifting all by itself.

This can be achieved with automated systems like how the rolling weather in Breath of

the Wild can create unpredictable thunderstorms.

Or by giving AI their own goals and needs which will push them to move about and, hopefully,

into conflict with other entities.

Okay. So youve made a systemic game.

Youve created connections between all the entities in your game, and they follow consistent

and universal rules of interaction.

But theres still work to do, because its easy to screw these sorts of games up.

Many fail to truly encourage players to find these emergent solutions.

Because, despite all of the exciting opportunities afforded by a game like Metal Gear Solid V,

I ended up finishing a lot of missions by abusing the silenced tranquilliser gun.

Why risk some ridiculous plan if theres a much more reliable solution to the games


Hitman pushes you to be imaginative by making Agent 47 weak in a straight up firefight.

And Zelda, controversially, makes your weapon turn to dust in the hopes of pushing you to

try more creative solutions.

Its also important to give the player a whole range of ways to interact with the world,

that go beyond just killing everything.

Killing enemies essentially removes an entity from the space, which most often reduces the

possibility for systemic fun.

You want to give the player tools that let them change, or even add entities - not just

remove them.

That might mean hacking a security system to change its allegiance, or creating an inflatable

decoy to distract enemies.

Other games screw up by constraining the players options in really linear missions.

Grand Theft Auto is a right pain for this.

Those games are filled with good systems, to ensure that the cities feel alive and realistic.

And the police wanted level is an absolute stroke of genius.

Without it, killing a civilian in GTA would have no interesting impact on the world.

But because your murder feeds into this wanted system, which sends cop cars after you, your

action actually has consequences that ripple out into the different systems in the game.

Its terrific.

But the games main missions are often incredibly linear with scripted sequences and have all

sorts of fail states for not perfectly following the commands on screen.

Far Cry has this problem too, where the main missions are often nowhere near as much fun

as the camps - which are just open-ended testbeds for the different systems.

Making levels for systemic games is more about giving the player a goal, and not caring how

they achieve it.

They require open areas, and lots of entities that are aware of each other to create the

opportunities for good plans and memorable anecdotes.

Also, some systemic games fail to create a unique experience.

Ubisoft, bless their hearts, are trying to fill all of their games with the ingredients

for emergent thrills but the camps in Assassins Creed Origins feel remarkably similar to those

in Far Cry 4.

So its important to set the systems up so they deliver their own experience.

Look at the rather different Far Cry 2, where it feels like the systems - such as fire propagation

and roving bad guys - are designed primarily to whip up moments of peril and danger for

the player.

Whereas assassination simulator Hitman goes completely in the other direction, with the

focus being more on having a perfectly choreographed system, where the player becomes the spanner

in the works.

You can even imbue systems with a message, like in Mafia 3 where the police react to

crime less quickly in a black neighbourhood than a white neighbourhood.

Thats a game speaking through its systems.

Now, this sort of systemic design is really nothing new.

For decades, simulation games have been using this sort of interconnectivity to mimic real

world systems.

They just happened to be games where you play as some sort of omnipotent being, looking

down on things.

And were still seeing this sort of stuff today with games like Rimworld, and the absurdly

interconnected Dwarf Fortress.

In that game, you can have an emergent situation where cats wind up dying - because dwarves

splash wine onto them while drinking, the cats drink the wine while cleaning themselves,

and then end up dying of alcohol poisoning.


Watch this episode of Eurogamers Heres A Thing for more on that.

But then there was the immersive sim - the genre of games like Thief and Deus Ex - where

the whole point was that they took that simulation design and put it into an immersive, first-person

game where you control a single character.

Hence, the name.

And this is a big reason why I was stoked for the comeback of the immersive sim - with

great games like Prey and Dishonored 2 - but pretty bummed out when it seemed like those

games werent connecting with a lot of people.

Sales wise.

But now its starting to become clear that this sort of design is popular, it just doesnt

have to be limited to that very specific legacy of games that stretches back to Ultima Underworld

and System Shock.

Whether its big budget experiences.

Or janky European games.

Or indie titles, made by immersive sim fans.

Or - absolutely weirdest of all - the latest Legend of Zelda game, were seeing systemic

design and emergent gameplay rise up and appear in all sorts of games.

And as someone who loves this sort of stuff - for the opportunity to make plans, and then

see them go horribly wrong - Im very excited to see where this trend goes next.

Thank you for watching!

Systemic game design is a super complicated topic so Im only scratching the surface

in this video.

But check out the description below for links to loads of resources from experts in the field.

The Description of The Rise of the Systemic Game | Game Maker's Toolkit