[Ed: Posted on behalf of Anders Tychsen. See also http://www.rpgdot.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=176736]
During a recent analysis of the relatively new Diablo-clone Sacred, it struck me that I felt absolutely no suspension of disbelief while playing. It did not bother me too much that I had to slaughter hundreds of creatures that wandered around aimlessly, seemingly without any purpose except to kill my “overfeatured”, bikini-clad avatar. What ruined the experience was the fact that hordes of goblins would jump me whenever I got within sight, but stay away from e.g. an unprotected farm. They would even follow an avatar into the farm, without ever considering the farmer a viable target. Later on in the game, a 10 ton dragon attacked using wings that was seemingly attached with duct tape, ignoring the demands on the body structure it takes for an organism of that size to have wings, or even use them in a 1G environment.
Such discrepancies in games are not uncommon, and are somewhat alleviated by the willing suspension of disbelief of the players when they enter a game world. The suspension of disbelief is however ruined when something occurs, within the physical parameters of the virtual world, that is obviously not realistic. While a “Plane of Fire” as physical environment is perfectly acceptable to most, having a creature spawning out of thin air every 30 minutes in an MMO, for the sole reason of providing XP for the grinder, is not (e.g. Ultima Online). It is not even realistic within the fiction of the game world, and ruins the suspension of disbelief. If such problems could be avoided in a realistic, believable (within the game fiction) and consistent manner, games would be more immersive and the believability greater - my all-too-obvious and age-old point here bei! ! ! ng that some features we can accept within the parameters of the illusion, others break the illusion.
Added realism does not mean eliminating any fantastic elements, but adding depth and dimension. For example, a fantasy world might feature magic, and such a pseudo-argument can be used to explain why a 10 ton dragon can fly. However, it does not justify why the dragon has to spawn every 30 minutes at a given place. Thinking about the ecological setting of the world, we might be able to come up with a better system for the appearance of the dragon, which is plausible. Also, if biophysically a bit better modeled, the dragon might even feel more realistic.
Not all creatures of all games should be like real world organisms. Not everything in a virtual world should be explained using the laws of science. However, various features of the real world can inspire, and be directly utilized, to enhance virtual worlds by adding realism. This is an old, worn-out discussion, but I will try to give it a new twist by proposing that by applying natural sciences theory and techniques, a range of problems in games could be solved. Not only can the natural sciences be used to solve specific issues, but they also offer a way of completely changing the way that the virtual worlds themselves, and its related mobiles, act.
I see at least two venues for this type of thinking: 1) Physical world modeling (including ecology) and: 2) Biology, biophysics and behavior (ecological relationships) of creatures. I will here focus on the latter subject:
It is quite obvious that MMOs do not emphasize ecological realism - just think about predator-prey relationships. It is common to walk around in a game world meeting nothing but ferocious, meat-eating monsters (intelligent or otherwise). It is also common for mobs in a game to feature only one of two types of behavioral patterns: Either they are killing machines, intent on the destruction of the players, or they are harmless critters, whom the players have virtually no way of interacting with.
Unless explained within the fiction of the world, this is not very realistic and hurts the suspension of disbelief. Even a cow will be angered or frightened if stabbed or shot by a player, and its frantic mooing may bring down the wrath of the nearby 1,500 pound bull. In short, the ecological setting is unnatural, and the behavior of the organisms is one-dimensional.
With a bit of programming effort, ecological principles could be used to generate a more viable ecology for a given virtual world. In the short term, ecological and biological principles could be applied to specific problems, such as modifying the kill-monster-for-xp-system with the introduction of realistic predator-prey abundances. This also needs to new types of challenges, e.g. environmental management.
To give a primitive example of ecological thinking, take spawning and camping: A dragon with substantial treasure spawns every 30 minutes, leading players to camp around the spawn point. The players know that the spawning is a control measure, with no in-game explanation for its appearance given. This breaks the illusion.
The problem is that with the XP and leveling system being the way it is, it is necessary for the players to have a certain amount of mobs to handle in each time frame. How could we make sure that there was a dragon there every 30 minutes of game time, or a similar challenge, while maintaining a plausible explanation? The answer could be migration. The dragons have a nursery in a mountain nearby, an inaccessible mountain where adult dragons flock, spawn and rear their young. Every once in a while, the young leave the nests, and seek out their own paths in the world. This means that every X time – which could be randomized a bit – dragons would migrate to the surrounding area, giving the players the challenge they need. This means that there may not be a dragon spawning every 30 minutes, but 10 migrate into the territory every 3 hours. The XP-effect is the sam! ! ! e, and players knowing the migration routes can still camp out. But now there is no spawning, there is a reason why the dragons are there, which forms the basis for more varied quests. There is no need for instanced worlds, either. By adding some fuzzy logic, the areas where the young dragons settle could be varied (as in nature), as could the intervals – e.g. as a figure of the time of year – and thus camping becomes not viable. Players would have to walk around a bit to find a dragon, work out any migration routes, or maybe rumours would spread when it was known where a flock of the young dragons had settled. This takes a bit more programming than the spawning solution, but might it be worth the effort?
More advanced uses for the natural sciences could be ecological modeling, population statistics and prediction of player behavior, simulation of weather effects on biological organisms, seasonal variations/migrations, biophysically guided modeling of creatures and even evolution of organisms: Imagine an area where creatures evolved rapidly according to adaptive theory: Use fireballs and they evolve to compensate, until random mutation removes the adaptation strain, alters it, or the players eliminate every mob with the mutation strain. The end result is constantly challenging opponents.
To sum up, the question is whether biological/geological/etc. thinking has a place in games and if so, whether the subject is of interest in lieu of the cost-benefit thinking in the industry. I believe that the gains of working on integrating elements of the natural sciences in games could be huge, but I lack the experience to determine whether this is correct – which forms the basis for posting these musings. What do you think?