Non-verbal Communication
Farewell to Reason

Wild Games

Wel_season Have you ever looked up at a bird soaring in the sky and wondered what it was like to live your life so far about the ground? Or watched a rabbit disappearing at breakneck speed in the woods and imagined yourself running and jumping with such surety and swiftness? Or, as I have often done, watched the squirrels chase each other through the trees, effortlessly negotiating a complex web of branches with consummate skill and grace? 

Some game designers make the games they want to play… I have not yet afforded myself such a luxury, although this is not to say that I wouldn’t or haven’t enjoyed playing the games I have made thus far. The games I want to make require development resources I don’t currently have available, and perhaps also require me to further prove my credentials (or at least, my economic value) as a game designer. These games I want to make are the wild games, and they are about playing with animals.

 

Existing Animal Games 

It has been a very sorry history for games about animals, with perhaps the notable exception of the better tamagotchi-style games such as Nintendogs.

I was excited about A Dog’s Life, until I discovered it was a generic platform game with a cartoon dog as the protagonist. What a wasted opportunity, at least from my own perspective. I was hoping for a play experience based around being a dog, instead I got to play a pre-existing game format with a character who happened to be a dog. Perhaps the only unique feature was the scent view, which I had done four years previous in Discworld Noir (although I’m not suggesting they copied me; I think it’s clear that they didn’t). I’m sure some people enjoyed this game but it wasn’t what I was looking for. 

Ecco4 Even more disappointing was Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future on the Dreamcast, however. Here was the most beautifully animated dolphin tragically wed to an old school highly fatal linear puzzle chain, along with troubling 3D controls, narrowing the audience even further. It is small wonder we have not seen another game in this franchise. Ecco broke my heart, and not just because the development team had decided to give him the cetacean equivalent of asthma (a dolphin can hold its breath for twelve minutes, more than ten times Ecco’s lung capacity). It looked so beautiful, but the play experience wasn’t about being a dolphin.

Other games have similar disappointed. Turok Evolution is hardly a paragon of good game design, but it annoyed me to include a pteranodon flight section in which the pterosaur can and will crash into walls. I doubt that pterosaurs were much less capable than birds, and I have never seen a bird crash into a wall in thirty years of birdwatching. I was delighted to find that the seagulls in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker were not similarly crippled in their flight capabilities. 

I want to make games about being and playing with animals. These will be my wild games.

 

About the Wild Games

All the wild games have certain common elements, which I shall introduce here: 

  • Each wild game is about being a particular animal.
  • The abilities and behaviours of the animals will be presented in a manner that feels real to the player (it does not have to be perfectly factual in basis, provided the illusion of reality is provided to the player, although I intend to aim for realism for the most part)
  • There will be no use of language, except perhaps a narrator for tutorial purposes.
  • The player will have a choice between playing in Utopia, in which there are no predators (the toyplay version), and playing Survival, in which the player must face predators appropriate to the animal they are playing (the gameplay version).
  • The main activities available to the player are feeding, playing and mating, all presented in a manner appropriate to the animal in question. For social animals, playing may involve expressing dominance and submission, and thus determining the social structure of the family unit.
  • Each wild game will also come with an environment editor, to allow people to create their own play spaces.

It is also inherent in the concept that the barrier to play in terms of the interface and so forth must be as minimal as possible. At the moment, I am planning to make everything work off a single move control, and (where possible) a single action button – although if the technology is there for a wholly voice activated interface, this would also be very tempting. The editors will similarly be designed to be quick to learn and easy to use.

 

Play with Rabbits 

Rabbits In which you become and play a rabbit. (You can also take control of other rabbits in your region).

Although the last of my current wild game concepts to be conceived, the rabbit wild game (currently nicknamed Play with Rabbits) is likely to be the first one implemented, because its developmental resources are the least. I chiefly require an updated version of my psychological/field-model AI system PsiScape, and a lot of rabbit animations. 

In Utopia, the player will seek and court a mate by use of the “rabbit dance” (pursuing and circling a mate), thus breeding new rabbits to add to their family. Games of dominance and submission will establish the male and female rabbit hierarchies (which are separate in rabbit ‘culture’). When there are many rabbits, it may be necessary for males to compete with other rabbits to breed. A good warren is needed for birthing.

In Survival, the player must also struggle against attacks from foxes and owls. The only ‘weapons’ available are the capacity to signal a warning to other rabbits by thumping feet, and of course, the ability to flee – initiating a high speed chase. Much of this chase will operate in a context-sensitive fashion; the player must judge where to run, not fine manage the jumping and dodging. (A real rabbit never hits a tree when it is fleeing from a predator). 

I have not yet designed the warren mechanics, but it will also be possible for the player to dig and maintain a warren.

Play with Rabbits promises to be very different from what we normally think about sims; we have become inured to simulations being dryly abstract, turn-based affairs, run from menus. This will be a simulation game played in real time, its focus securely placed on mimicry.

 

Play with Birds 

Aplomado_falcon_in_flight In which you become and play a bird.

This was the first of the wild games to be conceived, as it was originally going to be a verb game (emerging from a different conception of the verb ‘fly’ than we typically see in games). It became apparent that to do a good job with this concept required more resources than the verb game projects will have available. 

I have not yet decided with any confidence which birds will be used as the basis for this game. The hardest part of the design is the flight mechanics, which must reflect how actual birds negotiate environments, but this appears to be a manageable design problem on paper, and an appropriate force model can be used to ensure that the birds will not collide with incidental objects.

The other problem is that 3D controls are a barrier for many players, so this element must be carefully abstracted in the controls. This game may require two buttons – an ascend and a descend button (using a quantised vertical dimension so each press corresponds to a significant gain or loss of height), with all other actions context sensitive. By moving the third dimension onto buttons, it means the general nature of play will be reduced to two dimensional, making it easier (in principle!) for more players to play. 

The actual details of play will depend upon which bird species are chosen, but one can anticipate that it will include seeking food (a much more game-like activity for birds), mating behaviours, nest building and chick feeding. Predators in Survival mode will depend upon the birds chosen, but will doubtlessly include a bird of prey and at least one egg-thief (a snake or lizard).

I expect to include a songbird, at least one kind of social bird (possible the feral rock dove AKA pigeons) and at least one bird of prey (probably a falcon rather than a hawk).

 

Play with Squirrels 

Squirrel In which I achieve nirvana.

This is another old game concept, dating back to the verb games, but once again it was too difficult to achieve in that context. The game focuses around climb as its central verb, but this simplifies what the world of squirrels is like. It is difficult to express in words, but in essence squirrels live in a fractal world of arboreal branches, which they negotiate at incredible speed and with confidence. 

Negotiating trees at squirrel speed will be too difficult for many players, so the game will necessarily have to slow the play down from “squirrel standard time”. One possibility currently being considered is to include a very sensitive throttle mechanism for controlling the rate of movement, allowing the player to find the fastest speed they are comfortable with.

A decision has to be made at some point as to whether or not to swing the camera around with the squirrel’s perspective (which may be overly vertiginous, but would add ilinx to the play) or to use a fixed perspective camera such that down is always down (which may simplify the control schemes). It is possible we could offer both in the same game. 

Squirrels will automatically begin to scramble up trees when they reach them, and move out along branches they encounter. If they rush along a branch and there is another tree within jumping distance, they will automatically complete the jump. The skill of control will therefore not be of the success and failure kind we are used to in games, but rather about reading the environment.

Mating for squirrels is all about chasing – the males chase the females around the branches – and this will be one of the core elements of the play of the game. If the game engine gets the balance right, this experience should be thoroughly exhilarating. Finding food (and burying food) will also be important: when the squirrel has eaten recently, nuts and so forth that can be buried will be carried to be hidden in appropriate spots. This will be important in winter, as buried food will have to be dug up to eat through the lean months (a keen sense of smell allows squirrels to find buried nuts; this effect will be presented in a subtle visual manner).

Both urban and rural environments may be provided. In the case of urban environments, there should be some fun in finding ways to negotiate the environment. Squirrels love to use the tops of walls to get rapidly from one place to another, and are tenacious when they can smell food – even mastering the most complex of obstacle courses set up by wickedly amused humans. 

In Survival, hawks, foxes, cats and dogs will pose the main threat to the player’s cadre of squirrels. Cats and dogs rarely catch a squirrel, but the squirrel still has to be careful around these animals, both of which will chase anything that flees from them.

This is the most challenging of the wild game designs, requiring considerable work if it is to be delivered in a form suitable for a wide audience to play. Fortunately, I have the rest of my life to solve the necessary problems.

 

Commercial Prospects for Wild Games 

The most valuable television shows for export are nature documentaries, because they are enjoyed by people of almost all cultures – dramas and comedies, conversely, are very culturally dependent and do not export well. I anticipate that wild games made with the same care as a nature documentary will also have a wide appeal – especially if the control issues can be comfortably minimised. It is likely that they will not interest many of the current games hobbyists, but I am hopeful that those interested in new and different play experiences will come along for the ride. I believe these games have tremendous commercial potential if implemented skilfully.

What if someone beats me to it? No matter. I want the wild games to be made, and if someone else does it and does it well, I will be delighted to play their game! But I am sceptical that anyone else can do as good a job of these games as I can. I’ve spent many years observing wildlife of all kinds, and thinking about how to adapt animals to games. I might even be tempted to wax lyrical and say it is my destiny to make these games, but in saying this I mean nothing more than I am strongly motivated to see them come to pass. 

It will be several years before I can begin making the wild games. I hope by presenting this introduction now I can find a few people who might be interested in playing them.

Comments

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Are you familiar with The Endless Forrest (https://www.tale-of-tales.com/TheEndlessForest/)? It plays around with the experience of being a deer, though it's still in development and I guess at this moment more an art project than a real game.

Excellent ideas.

Yehuda

OK, ignore that previous message from me, I see you link to precisely that game in your sidebar! Silly me. Sorry!

There're a couple of crusty PC RPG-esque animal 'simulators' that I've not played - Wolf and Lion. Check 'em out at Home of the Underdogs.

Honourable mention for Bad Mojo, the cockroach game? A maze-puzzler though, with no simmy elements.

I agree there is a strong market for this in casual space, if you can secure the funding (I'd ballpark 600K for the rabbits and 1.5 for the other two) the ROI would be strong. People'd be especially sentimental about playing these creatues once mankind drives them to extinction in a few decades. Just kidding.

I suspect the DS would be a good platform because of its penetration in the casual market and its microphone voice recognition capabilities. I suppose if you don't mind losing IP rights and you make some in-roads with Nintendo, they might be interested in funding you on this.

Thanks for the comments everyone! Wish I'd seen Wolf and Lion when I was younger; I would have greatly enjoyed those games!

DS and Wii are both attractive platforms, but I have no idea when I'll get to making the wild games; it might not be in the lifetime of either platform! :)

I wouldn't agree (with Patrick) that the market for this is casual at all - its just not the currently agreed stereotype of hardcore. I could imagine the 'mysterious' fourth DGD type, the participant, as exhibiting hardcore tendencies when given a game that exists somewhere between social- and pet- simulator. The crux of the matter is in enabling those tendencies within the marketplace, which depends on platform. Mobile phones would seem to be ideal. Their connectivity, the visibility, usability and familiarity of their interfaces, and relative inexpense are perfect - only hampered by the jungle of competing formats and standards. But while we're dreaming...

zenBen: If you correctly suppose that the market for these would be less casual, then mobile phones would be the wrong platform since the market for these is almost entirely casual (and utterly brand dominated too!) Or you can take this the other way and argue that if I want it to be casual then I should find a way to make it work on mobile platforms. :)

I'm not going to have a chance to make these games for years yet, so there's plenty of time to consider the options, maybe even do a little market research as well.

Take care!

I've had similar ideas.. what about a game that involves multiple species? you could build it from a FPS type game.. ever played "rats DM" on halflife? or played the bloodmoon
expansion for morrowind? the different animals
could represent political factions in a Watership Down style storyline...

Thomas: I had a tabletop RPG (unpublished) based around something like this. I would like to do something similar in videogame form too, but it makes more sense commercially to develop the individual animal titles and then combine them into a bigger game later on.

As it stands, however, all this lies considerably further into the future. :)

wrong platform since the market for these is almost entirely casual

The core market would definitely be Casual; I believe the Wii and its descendants would be the perfect platform for these games.

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