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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.