Vague Patch Notes: Emergent gameplay in MMOs isn’t a defense of awful behavior

Bad people.

To the surprise (or at least disappointment) of many, it turns out that some players in Elite: Dangerous found an exciting and fresh way to do something beyond the pale. These players managed to find a way to build a form of indentured servitude or slave labor into the game starting from first principles, which is kind of an unexpected way of using the game’s mechanics to build something. You could even get lost down the rabbit hole of “wow, someone built something unusual using game mechanics” before you remember that what was built was an operation that lied to and gaslit newbies and exploited the heck out of their labor.

Let’s be unambiguous about something. If you are cheering this on, you are slavery cheerleaders, since that’s the actual gameplay that has emerged here. Naturally, we have certain people eager to defend this as emergent gameplay, which it technically is. But just the fact that something is emergent does not change the fact that awful behavior is still awful. People finding new ways to harm, deceive, or create misery is not a new or revolutionary concept in MMOs, and we shouldn’t be celebrating that just on the basis of its being player-built.

Taking a step back, it’s worth considering what “emergent gameplay” even means because it’s a fuzzy term. Strictly speaking, it refers to any sort of gameplay that the game permits but isn’t set up to reward or facilitate. A fine example of that are specific player-created challenges, like finishing an RPG without ever using a certain common ability or leveling up.

However, the colloquial use of the term in the MMO sphere tends to refer to the interplay of systems behaving in a way not intended by the developers but still entirely valid within the game. In an open PvP game, for example, the game may not explicitly have mechanics to take over roads and declare that those roads are toll paths, but you can get your friends together to blockade the road and kill anyone who refuses to pay the toll. It is emergent gameplay.

It is also kind of an asshole move. And it’d be just as emergent if you killed people regardless of whether or not they paid the toll. Or if you promised to trade someone something and instead traded them a worthless item with a similar icon. Or if you camped the new player area offering to guide people, then abandoned them in a high-level area after teleporting.

All of these are emergent bits of gameplay. The designers didn’t intend any of them. All of them are also intentional jerk moves.

I'm going to master a knife in this animal's back

That doesn’t mean that emergent gameplay has to be a jerk move. The example I always like? Ninja in Final Fantasy XI, long accepted as one of the game’s tanks, was entirely an example of emergent gameplay.

One of Ninja’s abilities, Utsusemi, makes the character completely immune to damage through use of automatic dodges. Someone realized that with proper timing, this could make a Ninja able to completely bypass taking damage, thereby opening up the option of having very different party compositions since the tank was now taking little to no damage. As a result, players started using this particular property to turn the job into a full-on tank, overcoming the fact that it was never intended to be one through gearing and ability choices.

This wasn’t intended gameplay, but the designers even recognized it as functionally appropriate play within the context of the game’s mechanics. Later developments were aimed at making Ninja tanking less dominant than it had been for a time, but it remained emergent gameplay that was later accepted by designers.

And you’ll note that in this example, no one was getting hurt or scammed in the process.

Heck, the first few instances of the Corrupted Blood incident in World of Warcraft were legitimate bits of emergent gameplay. Certainly the designers hadn’t intended to make a virulent plague spread through the game, and the first few people who caused it to happen had no idea that it would happen. It was a natural interplay of systems that wasn’t intended but wound up working together despite that fact.

Once people knew how it worked, of course, the usual suspects jumped in to weaponize it. And if you’re noticing a theme that a whole lot of this “emergent gameplay” involves finding new creative and unexpected ways to screw over other players, that’s not by accident. Because even beyond the colloquial use that we’ve already covered, “emergent gameplay” has wound up discovering a very different meaning: “You can’t punish me for finding a creative way to disrupt the game without technically breaking any rules!”

This particular way of looking at games treats emergent gameplay as a priori good, the entire point of online games, and as far more important than what is actually done with these systems. The logic then goes that if someone can find a creative way to break the spirit of the rules rather than the letter of them, punishment should be forestalled because the emergent gameplay is more important than what emerged.

This, my friends, is bullshit.

Don't be a jerk.

If you’ve ever read a tabletop RPG rulebook, one of the first things that those books tend to include is a statement that the rules can be changed or rewritten if needed for the demands of the game. This assumption underpins the entirety of the spirit in which the rest of the book is written, and it’s meant in no small part as an immediate backstop against rule abuses like the “bag of rats” trick. The person running the game is well within their rights to say “yes, that matches the rules as written, but it’s also obviously ridiculous and you can’t do that.”

Go ahead and try to counter that by arguing that it’s emergent gameplay. See how fast you get thrown out of the group. I’m going to go ahead and just say “quickly.”

Rules are there as a backstop for what people can anticipate being done. Yes, players are going to come up with emergent ways of using those systems that designers perhaps could not have anticipated. But that does not mean that the spirit of the rules no longer counts. No, there were no specific rules in place in Elite to prevent people from exploiting slave labor, but that’s not because the designers wanted to allow it; that’s because they were surprised someone came up with it in the first place.

Emergent gameplay is nice in theory. It’s neat. It’s really interesting to see players find organic solutions to problems or take a given system and do something unexpected with it. There’s always a lot more creativity in a lot of players enjoying a system than in a handful of developers testing it out, and it’s worthwhile to celebrate many examples of player creativity.

But the fact that the gameplay is unexpected does not in and of itself excuse it from moral weight. Players do not get a free pass because they managed to invent a type of abusive behavior the designers didn’t intend. And if that’s the way you like to play your games, the real test for the companies running these games is whether or not they’re more concerned with what you did than whether or not it happens to be an unexpected trick of system interplay.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Peregrine Falcon

This isn’t slavery and killing their characters in PvP isn’t murder.

It is however tricking players and possibly ruining their gaming experience, which could cost ED money. That’s the real reason they were banned.

Matt Harris

If any person or group of people find a way to: financially, in pixels, in imaginary money, in goods or services real or imagined, benefit themselves off of “enslaving” others in the real world, in video games, or even in their imaginations…

It is “slavery.”

And they are people who either endorse, actively support, or outright make a conscious choice to “enslave” others.

I do not know a modern legal definition. I would guess, based on my personal analytical abilities as a human being, that it would involve suspension of another person’s rights in a social group and elimination of their ability to say “no” to the “slave owner.” This would not be tolerated in any intact and functioning social group.

A thoroughly disgusting practice that any reasonable person with values would reject.


Slavery is bad, mkay? As far as I can see, nobody at all is suggesting otherwise, so you can pretty much dispense with nonsubtle dot-connecting hinting that anyone who disagrees with your particular moral horse-riding somehow endorses slavery.

And then there’s the reek of solipsism. Just because you say it’s slavery doesn’t objectively make it so. Words actually have meanings, and our general ability to communicate relies on a consensus of meaning that all the righteous outrage in the world doesn’t empower you, personally, to dispense with to buttress your feelings.

By your own clumsy definition, these people weren’t slaves. They had multiple, easy avenues to not only “say no” but to even continue playing the game uninterrupted (albeit without the free ride they thought they were getting).


When I saw the interview from streamer The Pilot, and how he casually talks about EVE Online /CCP, where this scandalized racket on E:D is business as usual! And how they talk about this rigid hierarchies, based on exploiting junior members in so many games!

What kind of communities are devs all over this world cultivating?!
How can this regressive culture not spill over into the real world?! It simply does!


Ha ha, the direction you think it’s spilling.


I think you might have it backwards, these are examples of aggressive real world communities infiltrating our games.


Slavery in a game, wow. Man, I’m glad I am not in any way, shape, or form part of any community or game that uses this as some type of so called “emergent game play”. Why would anyone subject them selves to this? Just take yourself out of the game cancel any subs and stop spending money on something like this.

Consumer have choice and the power of the pocket book. Use it and this type of game will fade.


I read Frontier’s Terms of Service. This is the first line:

“If you buy, download, use, access, or play (“Use”) the Elite Dangerous client and/or server and/or launcher (the “Game”), you represent and warrant that (i) you are aware of the applicable age rating for the Game; (ii) you are old enough to play the Game […]”.

If a person is old enough to be legally bound by their decisions, then surely they are old enough to bear whatever emotional stress may arise by having been virtually slighted in a video game. Now, children and the mentality incompetent are different, because their brains are not equipped to make impactful decisions, or to distinguish a virtual threat from a material threat. For that reason, children and the mentally incompetent cannot be held responsible for their own actions, and any contract entered into is not binding. My question for the “victims”, then, is this: “Which are you that you should not be held solely responsible for your own decisions?”. If you are a child or have been declared mentally incompetent, then you have my sympathy – but based on Frontier’s terms of service, children shouldn’t be playing anyway – or at least that’s the implication.

What the “slavers” did was, at worst, a little rude – but no more. It can’t even be called immoral. It doesn’t make any more sense to judge a person’s morality based on a video game than it does any of their other personality traits. My character makes more money than God, and yet no bank would ever be tempted to grant me a loan based on my character’s fiscal prowess. In the same way, it doesn’t make any sense to assess someone’s real-life culpability for an in-game crime. No, what is immoral is you feigning virtue by doling out real-life punishments for virtual offenses.

The distinction Frontier has made is this: If you like, and with no further justification, you can pull a noob out of supercruise and blow him right the f–k up. However, if you entice a noob into a position where he believes he must blow himself up, then you are out-of-line and no longer deserve to enjoy the game you paid for and have poured countless hours into. What are you going to do next – start banning NPC’s for interdicting and torching noobs?

On top of that, it isn’t as though Frontier markets Elite Dangerous as a feel-good, love-and-be-loved space game. They do exactly the opposite, which is why I and many others are/were so attracted to it: it’s essentially an old western set in outer space. Or it was. Now I’m worried I might get banned for sending some guy to Hutton to redeem his free Anaconda voucher.

I’m not a ganker, and I’ve never killed another CMDR – a fact I’m sure someone on the internet knows how to prove. That said, I like believing that I could. I could kill a player, or be killed myself, at any time. I could swindle new players, or be swindled myself, at any time. I could blow my ship up attempting to land on a 10g world, and yet my physical body would remain wholly unaffected. That’s the whole point of a video game. You can play out seemingly-real scenarios without the real consequences – or at least, that’s why I’ve always played them. Why have you?

Nathan Aldana

You know, just because you attempt to parse the world like a detached high school debate captain doesnt make you sound any less like the exact kind of person who would use the Bag of Rats trick.


The issue with the “Bag of Rats” argument is it kinda exposes the solution to these scenarios. If you know someone is a “Bag of Rats” user the argument goes that you wouldn’t want to play a game with such a person (at least the argument presented above).

The solution being that you simply don’t play with these kinds of individuals. If I joined a game and in that game I was recruited to a guild and they told me to go get them 1000 ore a day or whatever for their glorious project I’m going to give them the middle finger and just drop guild. I have agency. I can make choices who I game with.


It may not be against the terms of service, and in many ways I agree with you, but you lost me when you said it’s not immoral.

Turing fail
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Turing fail

I think this Elite: Dangerous forced labor scenario could have been an interesting RP situation if the work camp owners had handled it differently (and not been the genuine a-holes their own words make them out to be).

If after transporting their victims to the forced-labor camp these folks had come clean and truthfully told their victims what their options were, e.g. start over, try to escape, or work towards buying their freedom, some portion of the victims might have been intrigued enough to play it out. Honestly, I’d be pissed and opt out, and as I don’t play ED have no idea how much pain starting over entails.

That other ED players organized and executed rescue missions to free trapped laborers is fascinating and heartwarming to me. If it’s possible- and it may well not be- to remove the asshat factor from a situation like this, it could be the makings of engaging player-generated game play.

Kickstarter Donor

Let’s see what happens if Nevada passes that law allowing corporations in the state to form their own local governments.

Jon Wax

ever read the Eclipse Trilogy?

Jon Wax

Meta is the only thing left. Core gameplay is just handholding now.

“If you are cheering this on, you are slavery cheerleaders”

that’s a bit extreme but to each their own.

this is what you get what everyone wants what they want when they want it but nobody has time to test it.

can’t wait to hear the screams when folks figure out how to jack people for $15k ships in SC. first person who kills someone in that game will be charged with felony theft?

but i get it.

the internet makes everyone escalate everything. one person turns it to 5, the next to 10, the last to 11. so if one person can ruin something slightly, the others will drive it into the ground.

spinal tap joke with a star citizen reference. triple word score!


“No, there were no specific rules in place in Elite to prevent people from exploiting slave labor, but that’s not because the designers wanted to allow it; that’s because they were surprised someone came up with it in the first place.”

But should they have been surprised?

I would only point out that if one builds a universe and setting that EXPLICITLY condones and normalizes slavery (as ED does, in which you for example carry slaves as CARGO…surprised me in these utterly-woke times), should FDev really be all aquiver in righteous indignation that people carry slavery a little further in their role play?

I’m not saying it’s ok.
I’m glad they were blocked.
And TBH what we’re talking about isn’t even FAINTLY slavery.


Totally agree with the main thrust of the article: that being and asshat in a game is not excused just because the mechanics allow it.

However, emergent gameplay is something to aspire to. It is often a key indicator that your mechanics have depth, and it is that depth that allows the emergent gameplay to arise. Emergent gameplay is also really good for increasing the replayability, or increasing the longevity of a game. You are finding new ways to experience the same content, and that is awesome.

My favourite experience of emergent gameplay comes from LotRO.

The combat mechanics in that game were the deepest I’ve ever experienced, and it led to lots of interesting ways to tackle group content. Even though the dungeons and raids had been designed for tanks and healers, it was possible to complete them without them.

Best example was during Mirkwood and the raid on Dol Guldur. Final boss was a nazgul and his winged beast. Very tough fight, usually done with typical group composition.

However, one guild managed to beat the boss using a loremaster’s pet bear as main tank!

This was made possible through one loremaster speccing for pets, making the bear a bit better. Another loremaster specced for maximum debuffs. Captains buffed the bear for more health and better defences. A couple of burglars then used their “increase threat” ability so the bear could maintain aggro, whilst also debuffing the boss. Champions also had to transfer threat to the bear.

Totally unintended approach, but awesome! Took them ages to complete and was much harder than usual, but given the content drought that we experienced during Mirkwood, this sort of emergent gameplay allowed players to keep having fun for much longer.


“Totally agree with the main thrust of the article: that being and asshat in a game is not excused just because the mechanics allow it.”

Let’s take a look at that objectively, shall we?

If we say, for example, that we’re going to wink and nudge and smile approvingly when people break the spirit of the rules and conventions of behavior for (what we consider) “good reasons”, should we be astonished that assholes use those same tactics to break rules and conventions for (what we consider) “bad reasons”? You don’t think assholes will learn the same tactics?

In a sense it’s a puerile variation on the old quote from A Man for All Seasons:
William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

Let me be absolutely, crystal clear: I believe that there are standards of decency and behavior that people should follow that exceed those merely written on paper.
…By the same token, I’ve spent most of my adult life watching as those standards that I consider important to the social fabric are routinely flouted in pursuit of some righteous cause or another.

Pardon me if I chuckle with Schadenfreude when some of the same people who would immediately and loudly applaud ‘convention breakers’ for a host of reasons, have their own delicate sensibilities offended in turn…even if I find the offenders themselves actually disgusting.


Ah, but we’re not talking about breaking the rules. Mechanics are not the rules. Mechanics are simply the methods by which we can interact with the game.

Emergent gameplay isn’t about breaking any rules, it is simply about using the mechanics in a way that was unforeseen by the devs. As such, it means there may not be any rules about whether it is acceptable or not.

It is only after this new gameplay has emerged that the devs can then write any rules (or not), or possibly implement new mechanics to curtail the new gameplay. It is at that point where the new gameplay passes through the ethical filter of the studio.