Germs

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For the longest time I’ve had a fascination with procedural and evolutionary games. I can distinctly date it back at least as far as high school, to The Game, which Maxim, Damien, myself and assorted others lavished our brief highlight teenage years on dreaming over. Sadly at the time my programming was limited to RealBasic and while sufficient to fart out the occasional trivial shareware utility, was laughable if not hopelessly inadequate to make real our dreams. Even today I doubt we could realise much of what we’d sketched and scribbled and orated… certainly much of it is still yet to be done, which is kind of a sad testimony to the overall lacking of real progress and creativity in the gaming industry these past ten years.

Anyway, what really interested me was the idea of a boundless world filled with creatures entirely randomly generated. Sounds like the marketing gunk from pretty much every modern RPG, I know, but nonetheless it has not been done, not the way I envisioned. Spore has of course piqued my interest quite a bit, and it’s likely it’ll be relatively close in some ways, but its cartoony and functional albeit fantasy scale is really in a different style altogether.

The point being, I wanted a game where the world was mine. Where it was impossibly detailed and I could go in whatever direction I pleased, yet still filled with purpose and narrative direction, like the very best storylined RPGs or FPS’ (I was a huge fan of Deus Ex around that time, too). But by being unique, I wouldn’t ever have exactly the same experiences as anyone else – there’d be no canned boss that everyone tackles and sure enough word gets out how to beat it, and no one really has to think for themselves anymore about how to actually win.

It seems quite contrary to common sense, as a game marketer – how can you expect word of mouth appraisal to propagate and be meaningful if there’s no commonality between experiences? I’m still not sure how to resolve that. Or even, really, if you need to. But I suspect you do.

Really, this is going somewhere, honest.

Some time ago – years back, perhaps – I came up with a revised idea I lovingly labelled ‘Germs’, in a royally hopeless display of unoriginal naming, which would be a RTS set inside a human body, with factions of germs fighting each other, and the body itself, and the medicine and surgery and whatever else they so consequented. I was really enthralled with the idea of fighting inside a 3D space – whether a cylindrical form or a sphere or a more complex, filled space like the cavity around some miscellaneous organs. It’s a very delicious game, honestly. 😉 But the setting aside, the real focus would be on the units – your germs, virii, bacteria, fungii, etc. The whole idea – which is how I got onto the biological theme to begin with – would be that you’d cross-breed and evolve your units in a highly organic way. I think it’s probably been done before, but not to the degree I’m thinking of. The idea would then be not just to outsmart your opponent tactically, but to play out strategies through this breeding, to develop variants of your little germs that were more effective than your opponents. I envisioned a very back and forth, cunning, thoughtful – though fast – game, with both opponents forever trying to think ahead of the other.

I guess it’s a natural evolution – yes, I enjoyed that 😛 – of one of the fundamentals of all good RTS’, which is to know your enemy’s forces and build your own appropriately. Just taken on a much grander and original tact. ’cause in reality the vast majority of RTS players just build their favourite army and hope that throwing it randomly into the fray will win them the day.

Alas, I never really committed to that idea well enough – I explored a few ideas, even got a pointlessly simple graphical demo going, albeit only in 2D, but now in Objective-C and Cocoa – YAY! – and so it naturally never happened.

Flash forward to the present day. I’ve been searching for a few weeks now for something to do… some kind of side project that I can really fall into and be naturally enthusiastic about, rather than trying half-heartedly to compel myself against all whim. It’d also be really nice if it could tie into stuff I do at work, but not be the stuff I do at work, and again, have a much more natural enthusiasm for. And today I finally realised that the ol’ Germs idea would be perfect. It relates to my work in ways I can’t really detail – suffice to say it does – and I’ve had some important realisations about it which might actually make it both simpler and more successful.

The most important is that the original idea, of evolutionary progression, is fantastic but completely boring if presented in my original mind’s-eye view, of blobby cells wobbling about exploding occasionally, probably with stats screens only a D&D player could love. No, it really does need to realise the distinction between genotype and phenotype – the former can drive the underlying game mechanisms, for sure, but it’s the latter that’s going to actually engage the player and make things both interested, as well as practical. I suppose it could be easy to tribute Spore’s very diverse creature’s with this important realisation, though I honestly believe I came to it independently. Alas, I can’t remember precisely my train of thought that led to it.

And I also came up with a way that I think will work for the underlying mechanic, for determining the effectiveness of one organism against another… it’s a problem I tackled years back with Chris, and pretty much failed hopelessly at.

Anyway… I’m not about to jump up and pull an all nighter on this – I probably won’t start ’til later in the week – but I’m happy to have a game idea that I’m really into again. Look out EA, here I come. 😉

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