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Looking for feedback on ecosystem simulator MMO concept.

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Hi everyone, this is an idea I've been thinking about. I admit that it is only theoretical, I have no capability to make it thus far. I'd be interested to hear what you think of it--would it work? Would you play it? Would it be sustainable? I have three much more specific questions at the bottom, too.

I've tried to keep this post as short as possible, so I've just sketched the outline of how the game would work. If this gets interest I'll post more details later, but in any case they will be of minor importance.

First, an overview: 
I'm hoping that this game will basically become three games in one: (1) A permadeath survival MMO for people who want to explore a big world, hunt animals to avoid starvation, and run away from scary monsters to avoid death. (2) A non-standard RTS where players control a tribe of creatures and lead them to prosperity, without any central "base." (3) A cerebral meta-game of creative creature design, hopefully as complicated as the deck-design metagame in Magic: the Gathering. 

Now, for the point-by-point details:

1.)    Have an extremely large open world; only one shard. This is possible with a lot of money, but I have an idea for how to (maybe) do it without money. Make it 2D if necessary; the graphics don’t have to be good. I’m thinking something like Age of Empires at worst, Skyrim at best.


2.)    Have an extremely complicated and diverse creature-creation system, with many different stats and variables. Particularly stats and variables that allow the creatures to feed, grow, reproduce, starve, and die. If ordinary biology isn’t a rich enough substrate to support the desired diversity, no problem—we’ll add a magic system to the mix. This part of the design will take a lot of work to do, but it isn’t difficult; it has probably been done before. It would be fun to do it; I’d love to do it myself.


3.)    Have an AI design component as well. Make it detailed and flexible, but have a library of pre-made functions to make it user-friendly for the newbies. The processing power that your creature's AI uses up every second would be one of the stats (Brain size!) of the creature design system, so you would have an incentive to make simple-but-effective AI's, while still having the freedom to make really smart but weak creatures.  


4.)    So much for the setup. Now to tie it all together: Use the open world to run an ecosystem simulation, with player-designed creatures and plants to fill it. Players would design creatures in the dedicated creature design app, and then “launch” them into the world. They would move around, eat, fight, reproduce etc. completely independent of any player control, according to the AI that their designer gave them.


5.)    Already-designed creatures would be patented, but there would be an easy tool to create a spin-off creature that is almost the same. This is how new players would get into the game; it would be too much to ask that they design something from scratch! After a creature goes extinct, the patent expires.


6.)    Have a macro that would keep track of overall server stats, like which species are doing well and which have gone extinct, etc. Give players various tools to observe the ecosystem, at the very least through a traditional RTS-style overhead camera.


7.)    Give the players the ability to control their own creatures via an RTS-style interface. They can’t leave their creatures unsupervised for long, or their AI’s will take over, but they can micro and macro their tribe of creatures to medium-level success (after which there will be too many to handle, and it is all up to the AI.)


8.)    Finally, give the players a way to enter the world themselves, to move around it in the form of a human—a caveman! This would be a permadeath survival game in itself, like Minecraft or Don’t Starve.


9.)    The thing to emphasize with the previous two sections that they are not supposed to significantly impact the rest of the game. Players may wander about killing some creatures and leading others to reproductive success, but overall the game is so large, and so dominated by teeming masses of bots, that the overall success of a creature you design depends almost entirely on the way you designed it.


10.) Note on the metagame: The goal is to have a continually evolving metagame, where players notice which creatures are dominating and design new creatures specifically to prey on them, creating an endless cycle of evolution and balancing much like the real world. The danger is that this won’t happen—perhaps there will be too few “good” creature designs, and perhaps it will be too hard to design creatures that can prey on them. If this happens, then the game will stagnate. Most of the preparation that we will do to avoid this will be in step #2 above, but one of the things we can do is implement widely different biomes (terrain) and occasionally have weather events that shuffle everything up for a time. This should at the very least make the “good creatures list” differ from place to place and time to time. 

Some specific questions:
A-I'm worried that the hardware requirements would be too massive for this game, even if we make it 2D. The main reason is that the AI's will be fairly advanced for each creature, and there will be around a thousand creatures per player. Is this an insurmountable problem? Any ideas on how to get around it?

B-There is an awkward balance to be maintained, between fast reproduction rates and slow reproduction rates. I want this to be a game where you can create a creature, and then watch over the course of several days as it slowly populates the server (if it is fit!) or slowly dies out (if it is not fit) The easiest way to do this would be to have reproduction, eating, etc. all take a significant amount of time, so that perhaps it would take an hour or so for a creature to reproduce. But if it takes that long to reproduce, then the RTS idea won't work! No one wants to micromanage a tribe of creatures for an hour just to get them to have one round of babies. Any ideas on how to fix this? 

C- I detect a potential conflict between the cavemen and the RTS-controlled tribes: With a decent sized tribe, an RTS player could probably surround and overwhelm any caveman or group of cavemen. Is this a problem? Hopefully it would actually be a positive feature of the game--cavemen would have to be extra wary of preying on RTS-controlled tribes, but at the same time said tribes would have to realize that it would cost them a lot of time and effort to hunt down and kill a resourceful caveman.



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I have a couple of questions about your proposed game before sharing the ideas I had while reading yours.


1. What does the player have to gain by being a part of the world? The creature side of thing seems pretty obvious (or so I presume) in that the better your creature is doing the more 'points' you'll have to spend or new parts / abilities you will have access to when in the design phase. Would the human player also be contributing to the player's creature(s), or would they have their own pool of resources to spend on certain upgrades? (Faster, Stronger, Tougher)


2. Related to question one, what is the relationship between human players and their / other's creatures. Would there be some sort of tribal mentality for the humans in that they worship these creatures, or do they just exist and go about trying to survive? (Just a thought.)


3. What happens if the human dies and is eaten by some big baddie? Would they just be able to re-spawn as another somewhere else and continue the good fight? Or perhaps there is like a 'central' hub(s) where the humans live and do their thing, and is generally a quick kill for wandering creatures who get too close?


4. What do the humans have to do other than kill creatures and survive? Can they kill each other? Can they build settlements? Note, each of those adds quite a bit of complexity to the game!

As far as the idea itself goes, I absolutely love it. Although, before reading the details, I had a very different idea of how the organizing creature stage should go. For inspiration though, as mediocre as the game feels, Spore may be something worthwhile for you to look at.

So, how attached are you to the RTS portion of it? When I read the idea, I immediately thought something akin to Sim Earth. When you first mentioned humans, that quickly shifted to Monster Hunter. Now, I've never played the series, but the thought of designing the creatures that are in the world became quickly appealing. Granted, the theme in that game is very different, in that the humans (At least to me) appear settled, cultured, and generally safe. However, they must go out and kill the larger, more dangerous beasties to protect their home and collect things from them. Could this idea possibly be tied in (Or perhaps you're set in stone, but an idea none the less!) Players, as opposed to controlling a tribe of these creatures could instead lead a pack from the Alpha Creature's perspective. Perhaps it would play similar to the humans, first or third person or whatever the view is, except there may be some squad commands as well. (Surround, attack anything in sight, stay close, etc etc)


As creatures kill more and more (perhaps even humans) they gain notoriety. As this increases, humans are offered town rewards for their hide / parts / whatever they may drop as a sign they were killed. Perhaps it could be proportional to the number of that creature out and about in the world as well? (As to not promote extinction, if that would even matter in the game?) Or perhaps when numbers are very low, a player could possess his last creature and artificially kill off the rest, creating an increased bounty and pinging their location to the humans, creating this mad rush to claim the last of their kind. To make it worth it for the creatures, perhaps points gained are increased many-fold when being used as a creature as opposed to played by the AI, and human kills are worth a lot, depending on their combat experience.

Might be worth briefly looking at The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot to see the kind of AI vs Player interaction. Although, there is no true PvP I believe in that game.

Enough rambling! 

Regardless of all that, I think the idea is really solid. To answer a few of the questions...

A. It depends on the size of the world and how complicated it is really. EVE manages to be a game with 50,000ish players on a day at any one time where they are all on one shard. Granted, the AI in that game is almost non-existent, but here you wouldn't have to deal with a lot of the interstices. Handling the entire game on a single machine? Not likely. If you can split the world in to smaller areas (Ala basically every other MMO in existence, EVE included) and handle each of those on its own machine, it's certainly possible. Being able to quickly and intelligently 'compact' AI routines when there are no real players around and quickly simulating an area would be a huge benefit, and could certainly make things manageable. Don't expect to simulate every tick for all 20,000 creatures when there are 20 players though... (Perhaps my scale is off, but it would quickly become an issue none the less.

B. This is a difficult problem. My proposed idea avoids it, but... Hmmm. Perhaps make it the primary goal of the player during this 'phase' to go out and kill / explore / 'claim' new territory (Either little creatures to eat, or fertile grasslands from other herbivores).

C. Doesn't sound like a problem to me! As long as there are risks and rewards for all of the players involved (So that they'd actually WANT to) this sounds like a great thing! Even multiple creature types (Although realistically you shouldn't have herbivores and carnivores teaming up unless their sizes are way different, but whatever) could band together to fight the humans, or perhaps certain creatures aid the humans if they want to take territory. Lots of possibilities, but with that, lots of processing time and work to be put in to such a project if that's AI driven, or even player driven.

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I've had a similar idea to this but far more limited in scope.   Essentially players designed and programmed plants and how they would grow.


Though I was planning on taking queues from something like a web empire building game.   Just give the players a giant grid with each box having 50 spaces.   Process everything over an hour and show the new world after the "game tick".   Didn't even have plans for having a "real login" system, just give the players a rapid simulator for testing AND if they release a plant in the wild they get a tracking code.

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Thanks Archbishop, I really appreciate your feedback. Here comes a long response!

1.) Actually, the way I envision it so far, everyone has complete access to all the design tools. This is because I think everyone should be given a fair shot at it; it is going to be hard enough for newbies to create competitive species without much experience with the game, the last thing they need is a resource disadvantage as well! 

If you think that this would hamper the fun of the game, then perhaps we could add in a mechanic like that. But I am skeptical. 

For the RTS and RPG modes, well that's a different story. I think the RTS should be the same (no points, no progression) but perhaps in the RPG mode you can get new items, abilities, or locations unlocked.

As for why you play the game... I never envisioned the motivation for this game to be progression in the usual leveling-up sense. When building creatures, your motivation is to create (a) unique and cool creatures in your own style, and (b) successful creatures that populate the server for months, becoming a permanent part of the food chain and influencing thousands of other players.
When playing the RTS, your motivation is to help your tribe of creatures achieve greatness, so really the motivation for the RTS is the same as above, except with the added (c) having fun moving around herds/packs/swarms of creatures, of your own design, like a little army. Pretend you are a hive-mind! :)
When playing the RPG as a caveman... your motivation is completely different, I think. I think the model for the RPG should be Minecraft, or perhaps Don't Starve--the goal is mainly just to survive and go on adventures. (And build things too, if the game can support that added complexity--if it can't, we'll just drop that mechanic.) Arma 2 has a mod (the DayZ mod I think) which is survival horror with permadeath. I think this game would be kind of like that too--there would be a leaderboard, that would keep track of which humans have survived the longest, killed the most large creatures, killed the most other humans, etc.

Do you think that these motivations aren't going to be sufficient? I know they would be plenty enough to keep me coming back again and again, but that's just me of course. 

2.) No relationship. As a caveman you can try to help your creatures (but watch out, because they are controlled by their AI and thus might attack you) or you can try to fight them, or whatever. At least, that's how I've thought of it so far. If you have any suggestions for how to make a more interesting setup, I'd be happy to hear them.

3.) I don't want the cavemen to become powerful enough to upset the balance of the ecosystem. So I initially decided that there would be permadeath. By that I mean, you lose all your stuff and restart with nothing (like in Minecraft) This fits with the whole survival/caveman theme: If death means you lose everything, and if you are a scrawny human without much ability to compete with all the beasts roaming around, then surviving for a long time is an impressive accomplishment!

4.) Humans can definitely kill each other. I don't think that would add more complexity, because it would use the same combat system already implemented. As for building settlements... yes I think that would be good if it is feasible to implement, but also I don't want it to take over the game. I want the humans to be perpetually marginal in their impact on the biosphere, so while it might be OK to allow them to have villages and things, I wouldn't want them to deforest the map and industrialize everything like what happens in the real world.

Spore has a beautiful creature designer as far as the appearance of the creatures are concerned. But I hate how childish the actual mechanics are. This game would be more complicated.

How attached am I to the RTS portion? Not very, but here I'll explain why I think it is important:

When players first create a species, they will be very excited to see how it does. Also, it will be very vulnerable when it is first created, because it will only have a handful of starting creatures magically spawned in somewhere--if they get unlucky and some predators come by, they all could go extinct! So without the RTS mode, players will be frustrated often and easily--they will create a new species, and then watch at the edge of their seat, unable to do anything, as their species either slowly starts to grow or quickly gets destroyed.

Enter the RTS. Right at the moment when the players are most interested in their species, and right when their species is most vulnerable to fluke accidents, the player is given the ability to order their creatures about. That way they can avoid the fluke accidents and lead their species to stable prosperity, at which point the AI takes over and the natural fitness of their creature is put to the test. (This point, by the way, isn't forced--it is simply when the player gives up trying to manage everything. So players can play in RTS mode as long as they want to, or not at all if that's what they want.)

So that's my motivation for creating RTS mode.

Your idea about having the player take direct control of a single creature: Actually, that's how I originally envisioned it, before I settled on the version I posted here. There are many good things about this idea; in particular, it combines the motivation for the RTS mode mentioned above with the gameplay of the caveman stuff. So we kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. I didn't have any particular reason for moving away from this idea; the fact that you bring it up is reason enough for me to reconsider it, because it means the people probably would like it. Thanks!

C. Okay, great. Glad to hear you are optimistic. As for herbivores and carnivores teaming up... first of all, it would only be temporary (while they are under the RTS control) and second of all, heck it could be fun. This game isn't all about realism. It's OK if the lions and the sheep come together every once in a while to run off the pesky humans.

A, B. Okay, hmm. Actually, I think B gets solved by the same thing that solves A, come to think of it.

Suppose we divide up the big world into a grid of cells, each one about the size of a normal RTS or FPS map. Each cell is simulated separately, but you can move through cells by running into the edge, whereupon you get teleported to the neighboring cell. (A bit awkward, but I can't think of a better way thus far.)

Reproduction would happen on a scale of minutes--say, depending on the creature, it could take anywhere from one minute to one hour, with the average being about ten minutes.

BUT the key factor is, not all of the cells would be "run" at any given time. Only the cells with humans in them (observing, RTS-mode, or caveman-mode) would be run constantly, and the remaining cells would be run intermittently, at random. (But always in pairs, or quadruples, next to each other.)

So in effect, time would pass quickly in some areas while not passing at all in other areas, and which areas are which would change from day to day depending on what the players are interested in and where the random algorithms end up.

This is crazy and unrealistic, but it has two important benefits:
One: It makes the game as a whole take up less processing power. We only need to process, say, 1/10th of the whole thing at any given time.
Two: It solves problem B. When the player first creates a species, he will be able to control it and watch it reproduce on a time-scale that is fast enough for him; in an hour sitting he'll be able to go through several generations! And yet, when he goes away, time freezes--and then starts back up again for an hour or so maybe, every day, on average. So he'll be able to follow the development of his species over the course of a few weeks, rather than have the whole thing explode or peter out within a day of creation. Better yet, he can make things progress at his own pace! 

One worry is that this would upset the game balance somehow--could players give their own creatures an unfair advantage by watching them, and therefore making time move faster for the area they are currently in? I don't think so though--time would move faster for everyone in the area, so everyone would be affected equally. People in wildly different areas would lose out, in the sense that they wouldn't expand over the world as a whole as fast. But when we are talking about expanding over the world as a whole, across hundreds of cells, it doesn't matter whether you do it in a matter of days or months, because when you eventually meet up with your rivals whoever is fitter will win.

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I think it's a novel idea and will work. There is a great desire for rich simulation games esp ones with user created content see Dwarf Fortress, Sim City, MineCraft, Roblox, etc.. it is a much neglected genre which is open for new exploration. 


I've been thinking for awhile about how to do distributed agent based systems, such as these. You would need to have a logic engine which can handle massive amounts of threads and also have exceptional thread execution safety. The only language which can meet these requirements would be Erlang. In addition you would need a world engine which can handle the interactions of these million of agents in a complex simulation. Then there is the issue of persistence, nothing which can't be solved. It will take some doing, I suggest starting with looking into Erlang and papers about "Agent Based Modelling", which is really hot right now esp in the field of financial modeling.


Good Luck!

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Creating a species that survives in a persistent multiplayer world is a wonderful idea. I would enjoy it if the creature creation system allowed for designing creatures to combat or be compatible with the current environment of creatures, as opposed to generically more powerful. Some research into how viruses conduct warfare with their hosts might prove fruitful.


The caveman survival thing seems disjoint and somewhat like a bolted on mechanic. What does the one have to do with the other? My first impression, before reading the details, was that the caveman would be something like a sheppherd of their flock. But there doesn't seem to be any mechanic or procedure that instills such a behavioral association. To make that true would require the player be able to perform actions of a sheppherd, such as relocating their creatures to greener pastures. But on a server where the goal is to take over the entire universe, or perhaps survive the longest, such actions seem so small as to be meaningless.


If the player is focused on the performance of an entire species, then the survival and performance of a single individual seems a bit out of place. And the mechanics of breeding up a competent species is likely to take place in gui screens, so I don't see any value in implementing a player character. My opinion is that perhaps that's an idea best saved for a different game.

Edited by AngleWyrm

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Thanks AngleWyrm, I'll look into it. 

The caveman thing is indeed a bolted on mechanic. It doesn't have much to do with the creature creation stuff. I included it because 1.) I don't think it would cost much time and effort to add it to the game, and 2.) It would give players a new way to experience the game, a new way to have fun. (The intention wouldn't be to have players simultaneously juggling creatures and cavemen. Rather, they would spend some of their time building creatures, and then when that is finished they would relax and wander around as cavemen for a while.)

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