I’ve written this post over and over again, and dumped what I’ve written just as many times. There are so many different aspects to “depth” that I strongly doubt my ability to elocute them all. Nevertheless…
“Depth” means different things depending on what you’re talking about. Depth of setting, for instance, is a very different thing to depth of characterisation… and both are aspects of depth of narrative. The whole concept is like a fractal algorithm of amateurish literary criticism.
This post is about depth of gameplay, which narrows things down, but not by much: is the gameplay in Species about how the player interacts with the simulation, or about how the simulation interacts with itself?
If it’s the player, we have a problem: 0.4.1 doesn’t really have much in the way of that sort of gameplay, so depth there is pretty meaningless. Sure you can dramatically affect the lives of individual creatures, but unless you spend a lot of time playing about with the feed and kill buttons, your influence on the simulation as a whole will be negligible.
Which leads us to how the simulation affects itself, and to yet another facet of gameplay depth: is it about the individual creatures, or the simulation as a whole?
On a “simulation as a whole” level, Species has a surprising and impressive amount of depth. Population explosions, extinctions, punctuated equilibrium, convergence, speciation, biogeography… by recreating the basic mechanisms of evolution, we managed to unlock a smorgasbord of unpredictable, but understandable, results from a variety of complex, interacting simulations. This most certainly qualifies as depth.
And on an “individual creature” level the game still feels shallow to me. It took me a while, but I think I’ve finally worked out why, and it has to do with what the term “Depth” actually refers to.
When it comes to depth of any variety, what matters is layers.
Consider characterisation: a shallow character is exactly what they appear to be: when you peel back the first layer there’s nothing underneath it. If, even during their most vulnerable moment, the badass action hero is still spouting one-liners and generally acting tough, then they’re a shallow, single-layer character.
Deeper characters might have two layers: maybe the badass character is secretly afraid, but disguises it until the moment you see through the mask. That’s a two-layer character. The mark of a truly great character-writer is the ability to write many of these layers, onioned on top of each other… is a character a selfish bastard, a selfless hero, intensely loyal or understand the need to make sacrifices, hilarious or serious?
All depth follows this basic rule, it’s just that the layers change their nature: in gameplay, the layers are interacting systems.
Here’s an example: guns. The shallowest possible first person shooter would only have a single type of gun, where the only difference is in damage. The next layer up has one or two competing stats: do you sacrifice damage for fire rate (SMG) or the inverse (Sniper Rifle). From there, every interacting system that you add on increases the depth: do critical hits like headshots do extra damage? Are different types of guns effective against different types of enemies? And every time you add a new system, the “best” result becomes less predictable, more open to player choice and creativity. At the upper end of the scale you have games like Borderlands, where gun-depth is taken to it’s logical extreme: between wildly varying enemies, elemental effects, level and rarity, and the insanely unbalanced stats of each of the different manufacturers, there simply are no “best” weapons in the game.
The depth in Species as an evolution simulator is similar: once you peel back the “evolution” layer, you find mutation, variation and natural selection. And once you peel back “natural selection”, you find the feeding rules, the walking rules, the speed and stamina stats, combat, eyesight, behavioral modifiers… depth.
But that’s at the high-end statistical level. From a closer level, when you’re just watching creatures walk about and interact, you’re seeing all of those systems directly. You don’t see how a higher walk rate affects a creatures survival and reproduction, you just see them walking faster.
Remember our earlier example of an FPS whose only variable stat was damage? That’s what the combat system in Species currently consists of: a damage value and a hit-points value. It’s as shallow as it possibly can be, because the depth is layered on top of it rather than underneath it. It’s a subsystem of the evolution simulator, not a system in-and-of itself.
And if the only aspect of the game anyone was interested in was the statistical evolution, that would probably be fine. The combat allows creatures to kill each other, which affects their natural selection: it’s done it’s duty. But people are going to watch the combat, because it’s a far more interesting, far more personal narrative. And they’re going to get bored with it, because independently of the evolution simulation, it’s shallow.
This applies to most of the specific-creature systems: they’re all no more than one or two layers deep, if you ignore the evolutionary layers on top of them. Genetics are represented by a simple floating point number list. Creature behavior and statistics all come down to equations. Health and energy are represented as scalar values.
For me, this one is a large priority for improvement: adding depth at the individual-creature level not only makes the creatures lives more interesting, it cascades up the system and affects their evolution in usually-unexpected ways. Every layer added improves the games realism, making the top-most simulation deeper and more interesting.
It’s not the only area for improvement, of course: as already mentioned, the player interaction is currently limited to individual creatures. This results in a nasty discrepency between the gameplay on an individual level, and the simulation-depth on a statistical level. Making the creatures lives more interesting is one way to deal with this: the other is giving the player ways to interact on a global level.
Both of those, then, will be major priorities once 0.5.0 is out of the way. I’d say I’m more than halfway done with that: everything’s in place, it just neads a lot of tweaking (for example, tree’s should probably have a stablising effect on the biome under them, rather than simply sucking it dry as they grow).
And possibly some art assets to replace the placeholder grass:
PS: Dammit, there’s so much else I want to say on the subject of depth, like how physical laws provide a depth barrier the best simulations manage to reach and model, (eg. Mass = density * volume) and how even an apparently ultra-shallow game like Serious Sam manages to combine enough systems and tactics to be deeper than it appears, and how the deeper a simulation is the more you have to learn about it in order to do what you want to within it (tangential learning)…
Who’d have thought the subject of “Depth” would be so deep?
And he didn’t use Spore as an example even once. Huh. That was… unexpected.