Posts Tagged videogames

GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS

GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS

There’s not too much to say about the obvious mechanisms of the 0.5.0 in-game grass: it uses the billboard system which I explained a while back. I could mention the other technical details: it only draws a few, nearby, vegetation nodes, grazing affects the length of the entire node, it fades out at a distance because there’s way too much of it to draw it across the entire map… okay, done that, now what?

Well, seeing as how talking about implementation is boring, I guess we might as well talk about the design aspects.

The moment I decided on grazing as a feature for 0.5.0, I knew I’d have to represent it somehow. The grass itself, though, wasn’t originally meant to be that representation. Indeed, I’m still not entirely convinced that grass is the best representation for it: rendering grass has limitations that make it less than ideal.

But…

Uh…

Hmmm…

Okay, I’m in the middle of typing up this post and I’m beginning to realise that the height of the billboard grass really isn’t the best way to represent grazable material. That’s what I get for blogging about a feature I’m in the middle of coding. Oh the joys of an evolving project.

Okay, new approach: I’m going to use this post as an opportunity to get my thoughts in order before I go off and play with the code a bit more.

The plan (prior to about about 30 seconds ago) was to include a grazables container or bucket within each square of terrain. This container would contain all the energy that creatures could graze from, and how ‘full’ it was would determine how long the grass in that square was. Fertility loss due to grazing would occur when the bucket was empty and had to ‘buy’ more energy to regrow.

Documenting my design decisions. I am a professional and I act like a professional.

The big pro to this approach is that grass height shows you at a glance how much grazable energy the local area has. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of cons:

– all grazable scatter-material grows like grass and is edible, regardless of what it actually looks like. This includes pebbles on rocky terrain, shells on the beach, salt in a salt plain, and lava rocks in lava.
– grass in an area is all the same height. Since an ‘area’ is an exact square of roughly 10m x 10m, this would be especially noticable at borders where grass on one side is short and grass on the other is long.
– fertility loss is applied on an area-scale, not on a local one. A creature eating at the very corner of an area will affect the fertility of ground 14.1421m away (+/- 10m, anyway. Oh who am I kidding, I have no idea how big the vegetation squares are), while not affecting the ground just behind it.
– Grass is invisible at a distance, so you can’t see the direct effects of grazing from far away.

Yes, the rocks are edible. Why wouldn’t the rocks be edible? Stop being so carbon-based in your thinking.

Now, all of these are things that can be dealt with to eliminate or reduce their effect: scattering a squares vegetation a bit beyond it’s border would blur the straight line between squares, by applying fertility loss on a macro level makes it less apparent that it’s related to overall area and not to the actions of individual creatures.

But what if we could deal with all of these problems just by changing the way ‘grazable energy’ is stored? This is the idea I’ve just had:

Eliminate the energy buckets in terrain squares, and effectively remove all terrain-based control over grazable energy. Grass no longer has any limit: creatures can just keep grazing and grazing within their biome… until the biome changes.

OH-EM-GEE I’M SO FRIKKIN PROFESSIONAL YOU GUISE!!! LIKE TOTALLY!!!!!

With this system, a creature emits a ‘death aura’ while grazing, gradually reducing the fertility in a small area directly underneath themselves. Eventually, the biome under them degrades. This introduces a direct correlation between fertility and energy: a creature absorbs fertility from the ground and gains energy in exchange.

Do vegetarians usually suck dry the very soul of the planet? Oh no wait that’s vegans. Ba-dum tchch! (teasing vegans. I’m so original)

Since grazables are no longer dependant on area but on biome, we’ll be able to introduce a variety of biome dependant statistics (starting with a simple isGrazable boolean) as a central function of the simulation, rather than as something tacked on afterwards as was originally planned.

A conventient bonus is the fact that the ‘death aura’ code already exists, in the form of biome stabilisation from trees. The only difference is that where tree’s stabilise the habitat they’re best suited for (with the exception of some unbalanced pioneering species which make the simulation more dynamic by stabilising towards biomes they can’t survive in), grazing creatures stabilise the habitat towards arid, desert biomes, and then have to move on to find more grass.

Of course, I’ll have to rework some of the code for this: the ‘buckets’ system already exists in the development version. But that’s the nature of prototyping.

[The following day]

Welp, that’s done. This actually makes the environment feel a lot more ‘directed’, since you can now pinpoint the source of every fertility change: it’s either grazing creatures, trees or water. I might have to add a few more fertility-change sources, just to make it less predictable.

Ultimately, this change leaves the grass itself as little more than an aesthetic item. Oh well: the system’s in place now, it’s useful in defining the presence and quantity of grazable material in each biome, and when even the placeholder art looks good, you know you’re doing something right..

GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS

Cheers,
Qu

He doesn’t mean it about the vegans. We actually think vegans are pretty awesome: it must take a lot of willpower and strength of conviction.

Please don’t kill us with your psychic vegan powers.

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IndieGoGo Campaign

Species will be on IndieGoGo by the end of the week.

This crowdfunding campaign has been a while in development: the FAQ has been promising it since at least April, and the backstory is long, arduous and painful, so I’ll spare you that much and move on to what we hope to achieve with it.

The obvious one is funding for basic expenses. Species has website costs, business costs and software costs to cover. At the moment the project is acting like that housemate who eats all your food and doesn’t pay any rent. Friggin’ pre-teens. GET A REAL JOB.

Less obvious, but waaay more exciting, is expansion costs. Development so far has been done part-time by myself, our artist Jade, and our sound developer Brain Sugar. Paying them, spending more time on it, and possibly (if things go really well and we find the right person) expanding the team, could accelerate the games development significantly.

And more exciting than either of those for me personally, is publicity. I’ll never be able to measure Species’ success by money: instead I want to see people playing it, enjoying it, talking about it, studying it, learning from it, raging at it, calling it science, calling it blasphemy, giving me suggestions and idea’s I can steal use to make the game even better, and generally just PLAYING IT. Wait, I already said that one.

Anyway, this campaign is the perfect excuse to go against my introverted nature and shout madly from the rooftops, and encouraging who supports the project to do their own shouting until everyone who wants Species to succeed is raising their voices to heaven in a beautiful, amazing chorus of- no who am I kidding that would sound like someone torturing a load of cats. But it’d still be pretty cool.

There will of course be tiered perks/rewards for donors, including the classic preoreder-the-game entrance-level perk. Above that, we’ve limited ourselves to stuff we can deliver digitally to keep production costs down. This will include (among other things) the soundtrack, “playtester” status, several ways to get your name into the game, an exclusive copy of 0.4.1 I’ve been working on in the background, and a few chances to influence the development of the game for high-tier donors.

Oh, and we’re also makkin’ a proper trailer and upgrading the website to look less like a dogs breakfast. That’s why the forums are down (actually they’re down ’cause I’m an idiot who really should learn to read installation instructions before trying to upgrade stuff. But we’re working on fixing them. Will keep you updated)

Cheers,
Qu.

PS: And don’t worry: 0.5.0 development will continue apace through the course of the campaign. MULTITASKING!

PPS: The vast majority of humans think they’re pretty good multitaskers. They’re not. They’re embarrassingly terrible at it. But they think they’re multitaskers because they’re pretty fast at switching from one train of thought to another, something the average human brain is actually remarkably good at. So yeah, I won’t actually be multitasking, I’ll be switching, but shouting that as a way to punctuate the end of a sentence is nowhere near as much fun.

PPPS: Spare time? What’s that?

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Depth

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.

“Video games are like onions…”

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?

Or all of them at once?

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:

GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS GRASS

Cheers,
Qu

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.

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