Hi, I'm Paul Miller and today's topic are simulations. Mimicking reality has a long history in gaming. Simulations are very powerful for enhancing gameplay in meaningful ways, but they come with some problems as well. It this article we will explore the use of simulations in game development.
Since the dawn of games people were dreaming about more realistic virtual experiences. Many early games like Tennis for Two and Spacewar! were simply crude simulations. In the 80's and 90's the first realistic games were developed and they flourished. There was especially many flight simulators. Today many triple-A companies develop highly realistic games. Modern hardware is so powerful that it's feasible to create game worlds which look almost like the real thing. There is also an ongoing quest to create more believable looking and behaving virtual humans. Realistic simulations have their place in gaming for decades, but they aren't the solution to all problems and they may even create some new problems which are absent when realism is removed.
One of the most successful game studios which focused on developing simulations is Maxis. It was founded in 1987 by the famous designer Will Wright with Jeff Braun. Their first product was SimCity: a city simulation. Initially publishers weren't interested in this game because it didn't have clear win-lose conditions. The game turned out to be a great hit and now is widely regarded as a classic. Later Maxis developed many other simulation games: SimAnt, SimFarm, SimEarth, SimLife, SimTower, SimIsle and SimHealth. None of them were as commercially successful as SimCity. In the 2000 Maxis made their greatest hit: The Sims. It was a game which roughly recreated family life. Again, at first publishers dismissed this idea because they though it's not attractive to the most profitable hardcore market. Again, they were wrong and The Sims proceeded to sell 16 million copies becoming one of the best-selling games of all times. Today Will Wright is a household name and one of the towering figures of game design.
Modern games often simulate physics. It's important to understand that in games only a very small subset of the real science of physics is simulated. In our industry physics means mostly Newtonian dynamics. There are no products which attempt to implement Einstein's relativistic theory which is a generalization of Newton's insights to high speeds and high energies. Game physics is still rather crude approximation which barely works even for typical combat games. Even projects with large budgets have problems simulating in a stable way objects which move very fast or have high mass. In gaming physics practically equals animation. The result is that modern graphics hardware directly supports it like Nvidia's PhysX toolkit. It's clear that games have a long way to go in order to properly present physical phenomena. Most products are full of hacks and shortcuts. They present only an illusion of the real world which has almost nothing to do with the way it works according to a professional physicist.
Another active field or development is simulating realistic humans. There is a strong demand for this, since many games require believable characters in order to tell their stories. Modern graphics allows depicting humans in a almost convicting way, but there are still problems even with just presenting them. There is an issue known as "uncanny valley". It's an effect which makes almost realistic computer or robotic human models looks very unpleasant. There is a sensations of weirdness and revulsion towards humanoids which are very close to real, but not quite. There is no known solution to this problem, except piling on the efforts to get it even more real. The problem of uncanny valley is even present in high budget movies, where fully CGI humans look somewhat strange and alien, especially their facial expressions. This problem is compounded by great difficulties in simulating humanoid AI. Nobody knows how to make a virtual character behave in a acceptable way to an adult. This problems may have no solution and games will have to adapt and go in other directions instead of striving for ultimate realism.
Going for the real thing in games creates many problems which can be completely avoided when your work is not realistic. There is a reason why most classic games are more likely to be stylish and unique. When you look at work of famous companies like Blizzard and Nintendo you will notice that all of their most popular games are not realistic at all. Neither Blizzard nor Nintendo ever made a game which could be classified as a simulation. This is not an accident. Realism is in many ways limiting to designers. Players come with various expectation about the real world and they want them reflected in a game. It's very easy to break the suspension of disbelief in a realistic game. People notice small differences from their every day life and consider them flaws. Realistic games must also avoid many gameplay mechanics which don't fit simulating reality.
There are also many benefits of making realistic games. First of all, they are conductive to creating cinematic stories full of believable human characters. Realism is highly measurable from development standpoint. It's possible to very accurately check if a given scene or person is simulated accurately. This makes realism very attractive to managers. They can more easily control their staff and ensure quality. Realistic game worlds are also simpler to promote because people can more easily relate to something which looks familiar to them. Another benefit of realism is its mainstream popularity. While stylish, unique games might have a strong niche appear, reality is universally popular among less sophisticated gamers who don't want originality, but rather more of the stuff they already know well.
Recently there has been a lot of talk of virtual reality. This topic returns like a boomerang every few years. A lot of people think that VR is the future of gaming. I don't subscribe to this view. There are many problems with VR headsets. They are expensive and it's likely to stay like that. They have many usability problems. For ex. they may cause nausea when used for a longer time. There are problems when using them with glasses. They isolate people from their environment. They are not suitable for many different kinds of games. They also require special type of input devices. Basically, they are highly attractive only to the people who want highly immersive first person experiences and that's a very limiting requirement for developers. Just consider how many great games were made to date which can't be converted in any way to virtual reality. I think that VR will forever remain a small niche, never archiving big popularity.
There aren't many books directly about simulations in games on the market. I suggest studying physics as it's one of the most fruitful types of simulation in games. "A Mind for Numbers" by Oakley will teach how to learn science in a more effective way. "How to Solve It" by Polya is a classic for improving the ability to solve mathematical problems. "Fundamentals of Physics" by Halliday & Resnick is a thick, academic textbook which is an excellent introduction to serious physics. "What Is Relativity" by Bennet will expand your horizons of the relativistic physics which goes way beyond modern games.
I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of simulations. They have a huge potential to improve depth of gameplay in your game. Next part concludes this series. If you enjoyed this article: like it, comment it, share it and consider supporting me on Patreon. That's all for today. Thank you for your time.