Slight change of tone today: I’m going to share a few thoughts about (video) game theory, because it’s been on my mind lately and also because I’ve been re-watching lots of Extra Credits episodes.
In order to understand a few things about the design I’m planning on implementing Species, it might be necessary to understand my personal preferences when it comes to games themselves. Role Playing Games which focus heavily on stats and levels and inventory management? Not keen on them. I dislike Real Time Strategy games as a rule (alright, I have some nostalgia surrounding Age Of Empires 1 and 2, and even I had to admit that Warcraft III was fun at times, but otherwise I can’t stand them). Turn-based strategy? Doesn’t interest me. MMORPG’s? *hiss*
What all these have in common is micro-management. The more I have to manage, the less fun I’m having. I’d much rather pilot a single fighter in Freelancer than a fleet in Eve Online, and I’d rather play as a soldier in Battlefield Vietnam (I’m not keen on the more popular battlefield games, but I had loads of fun mastering the impossible-to-fly helicopters in BF:Vietnam) than as a general in Command and Conquer.
I prefer to focus on and control a single entity directly in my games, not try to manage multiple groups of entities.
With that in mind, it might be surprising that it’s me building a game like Species. It has all the classic elements of a Real Time Strategy game: large groups of units controlled by their own AI. Indeed, I’ve had to adopt several RTS-conventions in the programming and design, like health-bars and selection circles. And then, underneath that, it has a statistic tree that puts most RPG’s to shame, and it has a unique series of stats for every single unit (disregarding clones).
The difference lies in what I’m going to offer the player. The simulation is sacrosanct: the player will be able to interact with it, but they won’t be able to control it. So they won’t be able to select a large group of creatures and tell them to migrate to a specific location. The creatures need to decide to do that on their own.
But that doesn’t necessarily leave the player helpless. They might, for example, be able to plant a lure that will attract those creatures to it, or perform an action that causes the creatures to follow them. This is macro-management, which is a whole different animal.
A good example of this sort of macro-management can be found in From Dust, an interesting but also fairly short game with a similar premise to Species: a game built on top of a simulation. In this case, the simulation is geography: the landscape changes and morphs on its own, with earth eroding, water picking up silt and depositing it when it reaches the sea, rivers changing course when they are blocked, lava flowing and creating rock as it cools, and so on. In From Dust, you don’t select tribe members and tell them where to go and what route to take: you simply tell them what you want them to do (‘colonise this’, ‘retrieve that’) and they work out the rest themselves. You aid, but never control, your tribes.
That’s a good description of the gameplay I have in mind for Species.
Of course, I’m releasing Species to the public pretty early, even by the standards of alpha releases. Kerbal Space Program (I’m sure I’ve mentioned that KSP is awesome at some stage, haven’t I?) was originally released at 0.7.0: Species will be released as a 0.4.0, with no player avatar and only the essentials of the simulation set up. There will be a bit of placeholder functionality: things like feed, kill, clone… but it’s a bit early in the piece to get too excited about the gameplay, because as far as I’m concerned there is no gameplay in the Alpha. At this stage it’s being released as a simulation: an interesting experiment… but not a game.
I can guarantee that will change significantly in later versions, however. Current long term plans for gameplay include artificial selection pressures and genetic manipulation techniques, environmental manipulation, discovery and collection (for example, the ability to slowly unveil the in-game tree of life by taking DNA samples and finding the fossils that creatures occasionally drop when they die), and a variety of (optional) achievements and challenges. I may have to set up a wiki or something to keep track of all my idea’s and how they are progressing.
But these are long term goals. As excited as I am about some of them, and as much as I think they have potential to broaden the appeal of the game, I’ll hold off while we’re in the alpha stage and work on polishing the simulation (I’ve got so many idea’s for that too! Squeeeee! *ahem*).
Right now though the priority is on less interesting (but necessary for release) features, like adding a Menu system, improving the UI, and opening up to the player functions of the game that I had previously been hard coding within the development environment (things like save/load functions, terrain generation, and whether the code generates ‘blank slate’ creatures, like in Dev Vid 2, or ‘random’ creatures, like in Dev Vid 3).
So the alpha won’t be as exciting as all that, but it will hopefully be a pretty big first step.
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“Huh. Not many jokes today either. Truth be told, I’m starting to think he’s kinda freaked out by the idea of actually releasing something in a semi-official capac- oh crap he’s curled up into a fetal position and is hyperventilating again. Gotta go!”