Apr 15

Dynamic Ecology: Local and Global

I commented recently on the announcement by OtherSide Entertainment that their in-development Computer Role-Playing Game (CRPG), Underworld Ascendant, would include some form of "dynamic ecology" simulation.

Naturally I did have some questions about that. 🙂

Here's something else Underworld Ascendant (UA) Senior Producer Chris Siegel said about the dynamic ecology idea (from UA's Kickstarter Update #39):

Whether the player [alters the ecology] intentionally or by accident, he will be able to see the effect of his actions in his environment almost immediately.

What I'm curious about at the moment is the "almost immediately" part of that comment.

That will probably make sense in a lot of cases. Players will often have a short-term goal in mind, and (as with the rest of the Innovation Engine) they'll expect to be able to perform some action and then watch as it immediately helps them achieve that goal.

What about longer-term goals? In Chris's example, damming a stream caused the downstream herbivores to move away, frustrating the local predators... but is it plausible that this would happen immediately, right before the player's eyes?

Would it be OK if there are some (not all, just some) goals that can't be attained instantly through any player action, but that instead require time -- and maybe some repeated "encouragement" -- to achieve? Would it be OK if manipulating the local ecology was one of those kinds of effects?

For example, this is basically what agriculture is -- a longish-term consequence of a specific intentional alteration of the local ecology. Domestication of animals is an even longer-term example. I'm not saying these should be part of Underworld Ascendant, just that there can be gameplay value in having effects of changes to an ecology that take time to manifest.

Even better from a game design perspective: in addition to somewhat predictable short-term and long-term effects of fiddling with a local ecology, what about unanticipated effects?

Whether deliberate (by the player or an NPC), accidental, or as the result of some natural physical process, it feels reasonable to me that alterations to an ecology would also have long-term effects that are harder to predict and control. The removal of minerals from soil, for example, is a side-effect of agriculture. The long-term unintentional ecological effect of nitrogen extraction is to cause a place to become unfarmable -- or even a "dust bowl" -- without adopting additional practices such as fertilization and crop rotation.

Again, I'm not suggesting that the nitrogen cycle needs to be part of the dynamic ecology of an exploratory/simulationist game like Underworld Ascendant. There's already a Farming Simulator 2015. 😉 The point I'm making here is that in addition to desired long-term changes due to deliberate modifications of a local ecology, it's more interesting if there may also be side effects that accumulate over time, causing new kinds of gameplay challenges to emerge. That's a much more active world.

Suppose an NPC accidentally drops a naturally-powered magical light source. It rolls down a ravine, bounces off a ledge, floats down a subterranean stream, and finally comes to rest on the sandy shore of a formerly pitch-black grotto. A place that had been dark for years, eons, is now brightly lit. As days pass, weeks, months, is it possible that plants and animals might begin to adapt to the availability of light in that location? I don't mean "blind fish suddenly sprout eyes" (although maybe magic could speed up evolution). I mean different plants might grow; new herbivores could migrate to the grotto to feed on the new plants; new predators might arrive to take advantage of the sudden abundance of prey... and all because of a completely accidental interaction between an ecological input (a light source) and the systemic behaviors designed into the ecology engine. Of course it would be nice to integrate this sort of thing into active gameplay in some way, but for the moment I'm more interested in whether it could happen at all.

Finally, what about non-local ecological changes over the long term? To continue the series of agricultural examples, in the 1600s the practice of fencing animals out of crop areas was replaced with fencing-in. This was a much more efficient practice for maintaining a healthy balance between nitrogen usage and fixing by combining crop and livestock farming. As this process became adopted widely, it ushered in an agricultural revolution that fed many more humans. What had been a local ecological modification spread to change all of Western civilization and beyond.

And to stress this once more, I'm not suggesting that a simulationist action-adventure CRPG needs to care about whether NPC livestock are fenced in or not! This is just another simple example showing how some kinds of local changes to an ecology might spread. Over time -- maybe during the course of a game -- local changes might become non-local changes, altering the very appearance and function of the game world. These changes might be positive, such as growing more food... but they might also be extremely negative, such as spreading a diseased plant throughout the gameworld or eventually attracting the attention of a terrible apex predator.

These particular examples from agriculture are for the most part pretty mundane, so they're not well-suited to an exciting game. But I think they suggest some possibilities for ways in which a dynamic ecological simulation could generate new kinds of challenges -- both immediate/local and long-term/global -- for NPCs to face and for the player to enjoy exploring.