In the gaming community, there’s a concept known as “emergent gameplay” which refers to unforeseen mechanics that emerge out of the intended mechanics.
One of the best examples is the classic tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons. With relatively few rules explicit, encounters can nonetheless play out in limitless ways. There’s a rule for causing damage with a projectile and a rule for landing a magic-bullet throw, and from them one can deflect a knife off a wall into an ogre’s eye even though there’s no explicit mechanic for bullshit knife throws. In the video game Minecraft players use simple circuits and switches to create machines and even computers that can automate nearly anything in-game. Often there is no official alternative. Encouraging this kind of creativity made Minecraft an immense favorite that continues to be one of the most profitable video games of all time.
Games with strong emergence are popular because they offer more than advertised, some so much that they even spawn completely different, successful games as with Defense of the Ancients. A 3rd-party hit built using the toolset included with Blizzard’s Warcraft 3, DOTA spawned a number of highly successful knockoffs before it was brought into Blizzard’s official catalog. It used the major mechanics of Warcraft 3 but emphasized the heroes, upgrades and base defense aspects in place of the army management and story. The appeal of user-created content was widely proven by that time, but DOTA was one of the first to work within the constructs of the core game while remaining uniquely its own. It sprung naturally from soil laid by Blizzard, a truly talented developer, and even they could not see what they had sewn. But they were smart enough to reap it eventually.
Emergent mechanics oftentimes become so prevalent that they’re integrated with official product. The first combo system in a fighting game came about accidentally during development of Street Fighter II due to a bug that allowed players to link well-timed moves into an indefensible series. This error was abused relentlessly by testers, and now every fighting game features an elaborate combo system. Famously, rocket jumping came into the zeitgeist as a risky tactic from high-level Quake deathmatches, and it’s here to stay despite being the only thing in gaming more ludicrous than female body armor.
Emergent qualities rise from the silt like gold in the pan. As with gold, prospecting requires time and effort, but every lode might be a big one. Fortunately, gaming isn’t the only place where emergence promises wealth. Nothing benefits from the convergence of ideas more than computer and network technology.
Only a decade ago one probably kept their business communications at the office spread across a phone, fax, file cabinet and personal computer, but today any smartphone can handle all that and start the coffee maker too. Someone saw it fit to make the phone, then other people integrated the internet, a mail app and everything else you could need, and from that emerged a whole that is so much more than its parts. The truth, utility and potential of emergence is objectified in the beloved smartphone.
The largest surfers of the tech wave are Microsoft and Apple, each with their own ecosystem of mutually successful products that characterize what I refer to as “emergent service”: providing a flexible suite of products and possessing the agility to identify and nurture unexpected growth. However, they contrast frequently in their successes because they’ve both handled growth differently at times.
In a time long lost, Microsoft’s superior agility in adapting computers for everyday consumption awarded them a practical monopoly over the PC market. But more recently Apple took the lead by predicting and essentially initiating the widespread adoption of smartphone technology. With the tremendous success of the iPhone, Apple was then able to coordinate the development of a variety of products (iPad, iMac) and services (iCloud, iTunes) that complimented those already available, escalating iProducts into essential everyday tools for both personal and professional use, and Apple into essentially the #1 Company In The World.
What’s startling is that Microsoft had every advantage when this happened: the money, market share and an established name. But Steve Jobs and Co. had the flexibility, capital and wisdom to weave a collection of smart ideas into what would become the first genuinely smart phone, and the next wave of the future.
Of course, replicating Jobsian vision is a puzzle for the ages and I’m barely not arrogant enough to tackle that topic. Still, the question stands of not just how to reap emergence, but cultivate and sew it as well.
One obvious answer is consulting, which exists primarily to nurture strengths into excellent products and services, often times by complimenting them with something consumers intuitively demand and get one way or another. Experts possess the fundamental insight and perspective necessary to trace and encourage profitable avenues, and they make great money in turn, as do their patrons. However, it would behoove anyone with aspirations of greatness to have this kind of talent on-staff lest it be diverted elsewhere, as great talent is wont to do. The nature of emergent success is such that it requires great focus and you do not want your visionaries distracted by competing interests.
It’s more important than ever to seek emergence, too. Microsoft slipped for just a moment and now struggle to maintain relevance in essential markets. They’re chasing their next big breakthrough instead of building from their last like Apple. Windows isn’t even a close third against iOS and Android phones, and with so many operating systems consistently missing the mark, Microsoft is running out of room to back into. The Xbox alone can’t impede the fall of one of history’s largest corporations.
Microsoft failed to recognize the fundamental wisdom beneath the most persistent nerd factoid of all time, Moore’s Law, which states processor speeds double approximately every 18 months. It rather accurately notes a rate of nearly exponential growth in computers (so far). No other market evolves as constantly. Falling beneath such furious churn can easily result in drowning. This is important to remember because it seems that just as gaming is not the only place to find emergence, neither is tech the only place exponential growth expresses itself.
Accelerating Returns and Inevitable Reality
Ray Kurzweil calls it his “Law of Accelerating Returns“. It describes essentially the same thing as Moore’s, which is that evolutionary systems have a tendency towards exponential growth; organic and technological usually, but potentially also social and cultural evolution, too. But both laws face reasonable limits with logistic growth. Exponential increases continue only under the right circumstances and with limitless resources, and plateau or diminish without. So these growth windows are certainly temporal.
Learning to identify these windows is key in both the micro- and macrocosm because they likely manifest quite frequently in unpredictable ways, and will only occur increasingly more in the future. But the most profitable waves will come sporadically, so flexible institutions must ready themselves to take advantage whenever possible.
Observe what generates the most interest and energy and pinpoint what has drawn the attention. Then augment and encourage that with complimentary features, and continue that pattern with each new advancement. Think of the iterative process and the way each step carefully bonds what comes before and after; act iteratively, carefully and with as much data as possible to remain sure-footed. No matter what, you must always keep abreast of the latest advancements in your field and, importantly, how they relate to and encourage your own products and services.
Nearly exponential growth is a tough pace to keep. Microsoft didn’t and now they’re behind; Apple will surely follow in kind soon enough. The pace of progress will only quicken. Fortunately, however, wildfire growth can’t spread forever, otherwise we’d devour ourselves like an Ouroboros. Still, exponential growth outpaces trends quickly, and if you’re not always looking ahead then you’ll certainly end up watching from behind. Tend to your emergencies before it’s too late.