I am a big fan of games that allow or encourage unstructured play. I believe that, given the means, gamers can be far more creative than a single designer or team. I'd like to highlight a few different ways that games have been particularly successful at giving the player a versatile toolkit and enough freedom to come up with their own objectives:

Fuel

 Fuel is the game that most perfectly captures the heart of what I mean by "unstructured play": give the player some physics, suggest some activities to get them started, then turn them loose in your world. It is an off-road racing game with an open-world map; races and challenges are scattered around the map, but the entire game takes place in a single area.

The game does a few things that particularly favor unstructured play. The first is that the game gives you the ability to stop whatever you are doing at any time, and go do something else. This includes quitting a race midway through to go investigate some hills. There is always an option to enter free-play mode, and it is always clearly marked. From free-play mode, you can either drive to the location of a race, or you can teleport back to the base-camp and launch any of those races and challenges from a menu instead.

The entire user experience is designed to emphasize and encourage player choice, which is something that a lot of games strive for, but it does it in a very different way. Whereas a role-playing game emphasizes player choice by creating meaningful consequences, Fuel does away with consequences entirely. The player's options are always open.

Another thing that facilitates unstructured play is the physics-based driving. Vehicles are effectively indestructable, and there is always a reset button, so the player has a lot of leeway to play around with the way that different vehicles interact with the terrain. There are a lot of different combinations of surfaces and slopes, ranging in scale from large gulleys and bluffs to little dirt-heaps and creeks. The different surfaces have different amounts of friction, and the vehicles in general don't have a lot of grip, so there are some interesting things you can do with sliding around, spinning out, and of course trying not to spin out during a race.

Street Fighter IV

Street Fighter is not a game known for its unstructured play. It is a game with clearly defined goals, and there is always a winner and a loser in every match. Even so, it is a good example of a game that gives players a lot of different things to play around with, and it's a good example of how gamers can take a system like that and do incredibly creative things with it.

One Youtuber who goes by the name Desk has come up with some particularly creative videos by editing together footage of himself performing very tricky combinations of moves to create unusual effects. "Combo videos" are a staple of fighting-game culture, but Desk goes beyond just stringing together long sequences.

Here is a video where he exploits a quirk of the game that once an opponent has been knocked out, and the game is officially over, it is sometimes possible to fit one more move into the end, while the game is displaying the "K O" screen. It took a lot of work to set up each shot, because the conditions under which this happens are not particularly common, and he always figures out a way to lead up to it with a combo that is as flashy as anything else in the video.

In another video, part of a series, he takes the armor mechanic in the game, whereby a character can absorb a hit without being stunned by it, and uses it in a number of highly impractical but amusing ways.

Another group took that idea even further by creating a series of videos exploring all of the different ways that characters can avoid taking damage. Most of these techniques have disadvantages that make them useless for competition, but that's not the point: players create their own objectives and work very hard to reach them even when the game presents itself as rigidly structured.

Skyrim

Skyrim takes the idea of unstructured play in a very different direction from either Fuel or Street Fighter. Like Fuel, it has an open world and does not prevent the player from going where they want, when they want. Like Street Fighter, it has a well-defined structure that nevertheless encourages exploration.

The skill system in Skyrim gives the player a lot of leeway to do what they think is interesting. You have to do most of the activities in the game if you want to make a lot of progress, and most of your options are restricted at the beginning; for example, the powerful "shouts" that players gain can only be obtained by playing the central storyline. Even so, one does not need to do everything, and in fact it is not very practical at all to try to gain every skill.

Leveling up a character always involves a choice of some new tool that you want your character to have available to them, and there are a large number to pick from. This gives the game a good sense of variety, because there's always some new toy that looks interesting, and you are always getting new mechanics to play with.

Much like Street Fighter, even though Skyrim's design strongly encourages a certain approach, it does not force the player to do anything. The fact that players can modify almost every part of the game's structure enhances this. I knew one person who made it into a survival horror game where they were constantly threatened by hypothermia. Another person used graphical tweaks to change the game's appearance, the color balance, even the way light behaved; he would switch some of these settings around, look at the results for a while, then shuffle them around a bit more to get a totally different look and feel.

On top of all of that, the designers saw fit to put in a large number of tangential activities for the player to try. One could earn a living as a migrant farm laborer, or serve as a vigilante fighting bandits, or as a bandit robbing travelers. The player can join virtually any of the many different organizations in the game, or none of them.

The notion of "unstructured play" is a very broad one, and it imposes very few constraints on the game designer. As long as you give the players some physics and some control, gamers will be creative enough to find new and interesting uses of your game.
 


Merridiah
08/25/2013 1:30am

I've seen my own Street Fighter example with Ibuki. If you land her dragon punch back +k (the flying bicycle kick) as the last hit, you can still chain it into her super even though the match is over, it'll do the full animation, but won't take up any super meter since the match is already over.

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