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Apr 15

Worldiness and Underworld Ascendant

One of the games currently in development that I'm following from the perspective of an Explorer gamer is Underworld Ascendant. It's being built by OtherSide Entertainment, the reconstitution of the much-missed Looking Glass Studios.

I'm particularly interested in this game, and in this developer, because it -- and they -- are all about designing games so that challenges can be solved in multiple ways. Not only does that mean "exploration" becomes a deliberately-supported way to play a game, I think this player-centric design style is itself a rather Explorer-like mindset.

I'll have more to say about Underworld Ascendant as its development contines. And I will definitely have more to say about Looking Glass Studios and its games, given their centrality to Explorer-oriented gaming! (Although this recent story from Polygon on the demise of Looking Glass and its rebirth as OtherSide is worth reading in the meantime.)

But for now, I'd like to start by talking about the recently-announced "dynamic ecology" feature for Underworld Ascendant ("UA" for short).

The latest update (#39) by Senior Producer Chris Siegel on the UA Kickstarter page describes how the OtherSide development team is thinking of how to include a form of ecological simulation as part of the game world.

The Underworld will have a working ecology. ... Part of the idea here is this just goes on without the player interference. There is a matrix of eat or be eaten that has been going on in the Underworld for, well, forever. And, without any outside interference it could go on indefinitely.

But, enter the player. Talk about a monkey wrench! Players will be able to affect, change and mold the ecology in ways not seen before in games.

This makes me happy. 🙂

For a lot of people, when you say "game" to them, their first thought is of mechanics: the stuff you (through your character) actively, directly do in the world of the game. And that's fine. Mechanics matter.

But I've always been fascinated with the world itself as it's implemented in a game. Doing things is fun... but doing things to what, or with what? "Game" to me means not just what I do, but the feedback loop of the world reacting to what I've done and creating more options to explore.

Part of that comes from the look of a game, and from its characters and stories. For me, though, it's always been mostly about the dynamics -- the active and reactive behaviors of the game itself.

What are the underlying dynamic systems of the world of a game? How do they respond to the player's inputs? How do they interact with each other to generate emergent effects, some (but not necessarily all) of which may be situations with which critters and NPCs and the player can interact, which in turn kick off more consequences leading to still more situations?

A game that only responds in a few carefully-constrained and predictable ways to player input can be fun. But a game that carefully uses simulationist principles to enable the emergence of a living, breathing, dynamic world... that is a special kind of game. Not only is it a unique species of exploratory fun, it is important for game design (and, I think, for the whole game industry) because it is a kind of fun that only computers can offer. Computer gaming needs simulated worlds.

All of which is a long intro to: yay for dynamic ecology. 😀

A (relatively) simple but functional dynamic ecology is a valuable component for building a gameworld that feels like a plausible secondary reality. Simulating the "circle of life" to some level that's appropriate for a game -- meaning it's complex enough to be interesting but simple enough to generate known gameplay utility -- immediately kicks up the worldiness of Underworld Ascendant several notches.

That's not just cool for the sake of being cool. A system like this one, with visible and interactive emergent effects, isn't merely about having another back-of-the-box bullet point ("dynamic ecology!"); it will actually produce additional content for every player to enjoy. Reactive systems are not a waste of time; done well, they are content-generation features that can pay for themselves. In fact, I'm assuming UA's ecology simulation will be integrated with the Innovation Engine so that in addition to being the source of content to be consumed, its systemic behavior means it can be treated as a tool with which to provide useful inputs back into the game.

In Kickstarter Update #39 for UA, Chris Siegel continued his comments on dynamic ecology by suggesting some knock-on effects of tinkering with the local ecology: damming a stream drives off downstream herbivores, causing the local predators to begin raiding a nearby elf village. In the example, that seems like a Bad Thing... but what if you don't like the elves? What if driving them away leaves their village open for occupation by your friends, the dwarves? A dynamic, manipulatable ecology becomes another way to innovate solutions to gameplay challenges and opportunities.

Being able to explore the reactive behaviors of the local ecology, to perceive its patterns, and to manipulate its second-order effects to one's advantage gives players more ways to solve problems beyond "hit it with a stick." I consider that a great example of The Looking Glass Way of Design.

A dynamic ecology means a better world, and a better world means a better game. I am extremely eager to see that world in action.

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