Review of Cultivation

Cultivation is a game I've mentioned before, but in case you have not tried it yet, here's a description from the "press section" of the website:

"Cultivation explores the social interactions within a gardening community. You lead one family of gardeners, starting with a single individual, and wise choices can keep your genetic line from extinction. While breeding plants, eating, and mating, your actions impact your neighbors, and the social balance sways between conflict and compromise.

Cultivation features dynamic graphics that are procedurally-generated using genetic representations and cross-breeding. In other words, game objects are "grown" in real-time instead of being hand-painted or hard-coded. Each plant and gardener in the game is unique in terms of both its appearance and behavior."

So basically, you have this little circle creature, which you can direct around the map and plant seeds, water them, eat fruit, share fruit and stuff like that. A cool thing about it is that all the stats, the graphics, and even the music is all based around a genetic system and is different every time. However, the basic play experience is very similar each time, at least on the surface.

It's pretty interesting. I wouldn't really call it "fun" though. If I'm not misaken, it's still in development, so hopefully the author will continue to improve the game.

The main problem is that it doesn't seem to go anywhere. After the first time I tried it, figured out how to play, I wasn't really compelled to keep going. It just seemed like I would be repeating the same basic strategy I had figured out in the first few minutes. This is an issue of gameplay progression.

Most games use techniques such as levels and upgrades to structure their gameplay progression, as I've mentioned before. But it's my impression that Cultivation is meant to have a more freeform progression, where the player may uncover for themselves new complexity and strategy that already exists in the mechanics. It fits with the procedural approach to the rest of the game content.

Unfortunately, just having lots of depth hidden in your game doesn't mean that players will find it. I've struggled with this myself in my game Braids. It also has a lot of complexity and depth, and also fails to get that across to many people who try playing it. The time when it does manage to get people interested in it, is when they are playing against another person. Us humans are very social, and we learn socially as well. When you are playing with other people, you can learn by watching what they do, and by communicating.

With Cultivation, it's hard to learn socially like that. It's hard to learn by watching what the computer players do, partly because most of the time you can't see them on the screen, but also because the important actions of the game are not reflected strongly in the graphics. You pretty much just see some circular creatures gliding around, with things occasionally popping up and disappearing around them. It's hard to see what they're thinking, what strategies they are using in the game, how game events are influencing their behavior.

Right now the actions and graphics in the game are pretty distant from the interesting parts of the gameplay. Though I haven't really gotten to that level of play, I presume that the interesting parts of the game come from the social dynamics of the gardeners. But I haven't been able to see much beyond noticing that if I try to enroach onto their territory, they get mad, and if I give them food, they like me.

And the basic actions of the game, like planting, watering, harvesting, seem even further removed from the actual game. I know the basic sequence - plant, water, harvest, repeat - but it doesn't seem to really tie into the social dynamics in a significant way. From what I understand, you could cut it out completely and just have establishing territory and giving gifts, and the social part of it would be relatively unaffected. If that's true, then maybe it should be simplified in that way, or at least made more significant to the gameplay. And if I am mistaken in dismissing the connection, the connection should be made more clear through better feedback! Hopefully this is an issue that can be simply resolved by improving the user interface.

So if I'm lucky, the author of Cultivation will come read this and improve the game. :) But anyway, I think it could be fun for me to make my own game like this, expanding more on the cultivation side of things, with more interesting things you can do with the plants, and easier guidance of the evolution of your garden. I am eager to play with procedural generation of plants, and right now I don't have a clear idea of how the social aspect of Cultivation is supposed to work.

But something that could be fruitful to integrate into the game would be the dynamics of sexual selection. There is mating in Cultivation, but everyone is hermaphroditic and you don't really have much choice in the matter. When I played I couldn't help being pregnant constantly since the other creatures seem to exchange eggs at every opportunity. :p

I'll leave you with that thought. :D

Second Life Discussions

I've just been reading a very interesting discussion about a recent occurence in Second Life that is threatening to completely change the nature of SL's economy. It has many reflections onto real life issues.

On another note, I just came across a nice and unexpected little insight on Torley's blog.


Motivation and Structure

I don't know about you, but I often have difficulty getting motivated to work on school assignments. Even moment-to-moment, I just don't have any clear idea of what I should be doing, of what exactly is the best action to take. The only place where it really flows is while playing a good game, or surfing forums on the web (or of course working on a project, which is not so much of an option during the school year). I suspect that this is true for many people, particularly the typical Flash games audience.

As I mentioned in a recent post, most Flash games are all about the reward structures, the path you take through the game, rather than the play itself. These games very overtly lead the player along with carefully (or not so carefully) spaced goals and rewards that create a continual sense of accomplishment and purpose.

This is just my speculation, but maybe for the general audience of Flash, these games are one of the few places they consistently get that feeling. They may be aimless in school and in trying to deal with the increasing responsibilities of adulthood. :p

In other words, in many aspects of real life the goals are just not clear, and the feedback is delayed or inadequate. This means flow is harder to achieve, and learning is more difficult. Obviously with much of life, this is appropriate, as it's not simple or easy to learn how to live life, but many of the subjects taught in schools could be effectively encapsulated in this way.

If you're trying to impart a body of knowledge, like inorganic chemistry for example, it would be possible to set up a learning experience that leads the player along with ample goals, feedback and rewards in order to create flow. I think most students would agree with me that most chemistry textbooks are insufficient in this respect. Instead, an electronic game would be better suited for this role.

But once you get to the real interesting stuff, where science takes place through pushing the rules, interaction with other players, and so forth, creating the smooth ride of a well-oiled game is not completely possible. However, there do exist games and communities around such boundary-pushing activities as well. Look at the communities that have built up around hacking or modding games, or even the many people exploring the Line Rider universe.

Here we are getting into motivation beyond the goals encapsulated inside a little game. Whether you are looking for social recognition or mastering the system or something else, the feedback, the reward structure, is less immediate and you must supply your own motivation to bridge that gap.

Scientific interest, and perhaps more significantly in the past, religion, has often supplied people with an overarching context to structure their motivations. I was just talking to a guy about this a few weeks ago and he noted that, contrary to popular belief, there are in fact interesting things to do outside. With the right mindset, you can apparently have a lot of fun observing patterns in nature and trying to explain why things are they way you see them: why these kinds of trees grow over here, while these grow over there; why the shoreline is shaped the way it is; stuff like that. Obviously, there is hardly any feedback to test your suppositions against, short of going through a lot of expense doing scientifically controlled experiments, but the right kind of mindset can bridge this shortcoming and find enjoyment.

More specifically, a scientist might enjoy trying to interpret natural phenomena in this sort of freeform way, because of the context for looking at life that science provides. On the other hand, I might like to imagine how one might navigate these trees and the shoreline in a game environment, because of my game-obsessed view of the world. And then the many other mythologies and religious interpretations lend their own unique ways of seeing things, of decision-making, motivations. Seeing a raven and understanding it not just as bird but also in the context of its role as Raven the trickster. Or seeing it in terms of its role in coastal forest ecosystems, whatever that is.

So, what I'm trying to do here with this post is to illustrate the significance of motivation and structure throughout all of life, and perhaps a dangerous lack of this kind of flow in modern culture. You wonder why kids play these stupid games so much? Yeah, most of these games are pretty stupid. But that's one of the few places they can get this experience. People aren't learning how to experience flow, how to bridge the gap with their own motivation.

Games, science, and religion. They are much more closely related than you might think, and will probably become more intertwined in the future. And that's a good thing.


Experimental Gameplay Goodness

I was just over at the Experimental Gameplay Project when I decided to finally download the intriguing Big Vine. Big Vine is a little software toy that, in the author's words, lets you "Grow a big scary tree." Indeed, though simple, the visuals and music together create a nicely spooky atmosphere. Go and try it now!

As you know, I don't come up with any original ideas, I just steal other people's and mix them together. So I thought I could probably turn this demo into a game. And I'm not alone in my conviction that this would make an interesting game. In the words of an anonymous commenter, "this is an awesome game if only it had a gole". In case you didn't know, a "gole" is a kind of small, hunchbacked squirrel-vole creature that I just made up. And I think Big Vine would indeed be an awesome game if only it had a gole.

So here's how it would work. You, the player, would take the role of a gole living on one of these big scary trees. You would be able to scurry around on the branches, and just like in Big Vine, cause the tree to grow or die on the spot you're at. Appropriately for a creepy tree, it eats birds. You help it snatch birds out of the sky by growing branches in the right place. But you have to be careful, because it would be just as happy to eat you instead. Maybe the birds can eat you too. And you have to eat the fruit that grows on the tree. Actually, let's say fungus. Fungus grows on the tree and you have to eat that. It fits the creepy, gothic theme better.

It would be a kind of cross between Big Vine and another interesting game called Cultivation. To expand more on the Cultivation aspect, there could be a whole forest of big scary trees and other goles that you can compete and mate with. And a tree life cycle so you could plant new trees and they would evolve over time...

Anyway, the author of Big Vine has quite a few other games in the Experimental Gameplay Project that you should check out. Attack of the Killer Swarm, which also happens to be the top rated game there, is quite amusing with some nice particle physics. Gravity Head is a very unique game with a similar dark style and of course, particle physics. The monkey sound effects are great too. :)

Another interesting thing about Gravity Head is the environment it creates with only a few simple objects. There's the water spout with water particles that are affected by your gravity, and particle smoke rising in the background. And the way the girl's head turns toward your position on the screen serves to tie things together. This is a lot like an idea I had of making little "environmental sketches" in Flash - not animations but dynamically generated environments. They could be interactive or they could just be little places that you watch. For example, one might be a bird bath where bees swarm around and drink from, and you could fill it up or spray them with a hose. Or there could be plants with rain dripping down and shaking the leaves, with the appropriate sound effects.

The last of these games I would recommend checking out is The Crowd. It's more of a toy, maybe even an "environmental sketch" :p but anyway, it's really atmospheric. The art, the music, the interaction, all work together to create this bizarre experience of controlling the lives of a strange and simple flock of followers. Just try it.


Candy Land and Flash

You've probably heard of Candy Land. In fact, it's probably one of the first board games you ever played. Cute, colorful characters, simple rules. No strategic decision-making whatsoever. That's right, all you do is randomly draw a card and move to the space it tells you to. If you're the first to get to the finish, you win.

Sounds like a fun game, right? What's the point if you can't actually influence the outcome? What are you learning?

You are learning how to play board games - the conventions of following instructions, taking turns, not cheating (or at least not getting caught). For a toddler who's never played a board game before, having to keep track of strategy on top of all that is just not going to work. So Candy Land teaches the basics in a fun and engaging way.

Once you realize that it's just a boring waste of time ;) well then you're ready for the next level - where your new skill in following the arbitrary rules of a board game world enables you to appreciate the mental challenges of something like, uh, one of those kiddie versions of Cranium.

Okay, so that's great and all, but I also want to connect this with Flash game traditions. Similarly to Candy Land, most Flash games involve little actual gameplay beyond fast clicking ability. Instead they rely on attractive (to their respective audiences) graphics and most importantly, the path you take through the reward structures of the game.

Arguably, the real game is not the shooting or clicking or whatever, it's the economy that counts - the points you get from clicking, the upgrades you can buy with them, the new stages and obstacles you unlock as you progress through the game. Realizing this is key to understanding the success and failure of Flash games on sites like Newgrounds. I basically had to learn this the hard way with Braids. :/

I had posted some of my earlier thoughts about this on Flash Kit.

Anyway, I'm not sure whether these Flash games are like Candy Land in preparing players for more advanced fare, but you could think of them that way. I've just recently considered the possibility that this simplistic gameplay may actually be challenging enough for its intended audience. Take a look at the recent hit Red Baron. It's a perfect example of what I'm talking about: pretty graphics, lots of upgrades and points, and gameplay mainly revolving around the ability to mash the 'a' key as fast as possible. Not a great game, from my perspective. I don't even like the graphics that much. But it's been in the top of the rankings on Newgrounds for over a week now.

Maybe moving a character around on the screen with the arrow keys and dealing with basic boss-defeating tactics is mentally stimulating for some people! That would explain the resistance to new control schemes in games like my own Braids, and the recent Tri-achnid, since any significant change would completely throw off the basic skills and expectations they have built up from older games.

And of course younger kids are known to engage in repetitive behaviors that adults would quickly tire of, as long as there is an appropriate reward structure to help them along (Neopets, Runescape). ;) Now if only this could somehow be applied to topics valued by educational institutions...


Why Games?

A week or so ago, someone asked me why I am so devoted to working in game development, to the exclusion of other types of jobs. At the time I couldn't really think of a reason beyond that I can't imagine not being constantly obsessed with game design. But I think the question deserves a more thorough explanation.

One reason is that I like to make things. Making things is what I do. At some level, pretty much everything I enjoy involves making things. I also like learning new skills, understanding new ideas. Games, or rather computers, are kind of the ultimate medium for making things. I can create my own miniature universe, limited only by my own skill and understanding. Well, obviously in reality it is a little more complicated than that, but compared to anything else out there, making computer games is the easiest way to realize such a vision.

Another reason is that I have many different interests, and game development is one of the few areas that appreciates and incorporates all of them. Art, music, programming, complex systems, cognition and understanding humanity and life, all can be part of games. It's hard to make time for everything, but focusing on games encourages me to consider them every so often, in a way that say, database programming, doesn't. I doubt that database programmers spend a lot of time thinking about the artistic or societal impact of their work.

Also, I'm not content to simply learn the established conventions of an existing industry and spend my life sustaining tradition. I want to shape the future in some significant way. Games (or interactive virtual spaces in general) are just emerging as a medium. What you see right now in terms of games and computers is just a hint of what is possible. I am confident that games will be extremely significant in the evolution of our society away from industrialism. Using games for education is just part of that. And I think I'm in the perfect position to be part of all this change, through games.