Will Wright is undeniably creative, and one of the few people behind the scenes of game development in danger of being recognised on the street, even if I thought The Sims was one of the most inane things I’ve ever played. My personal preferences aside, he’s perhaps even better than Nintendo at taking the idea of an open-ended and unique game idea and running with it to create something really extraordinary.
What does have me amazed, if indeed it’s more than a tech demo for dynamic asset creation, is his latest project: Spore. It starts of as basic as Pac-Man, but through evolution you can take yourself from amoeba to complex organism, right through basic tribes and civilisations into interstellar travel. Not only does the scale of the game change but so does the style of gameplay, going from Pac-Man to Populous to Civilisation right up to the ultimate in macrocosmic god games. If The Sims was a sandbox game, this could be a Sahara game.
The Sims and the GTA games, amongst others, prove that giving players a pretty sandbox is a very successful formula, both commercially and critically, and is probably one of the best ways to capture those who perhaps won’t play the usual goal-orientated title (the EyeToy style of game being the other). It’s not a new idea and isn’t what I’m looking at here. What I’m more interested in is the idea of dynamic content creation by the game itself. Past experiments with it have been moderately successful at best, with RPGs using random dungeons turning into monotonous crawls as a computer program that is infallible at crunching numbers just can’t have an intuitive idea of what is going to keep interest alive. Of course even a flesh-and-blood level designer can’t always account for taste, but it’s just not something that a computer can do.
What I don’t remember ever seeing before is dynamic creation of game assets such as textures and animations. Obviously it’s never going to work for a story-driven adventure which needs the assets created by its army of designers, but for more open-ended games it could mean an end, or at least a curb, to huge game sizes as they would house nothing but mathematical equations instead of huge bitmap images. Have you ever played a game like Resident Evil and wondered why the virus that causes random mutation creates absolutely identical mutants and zombies, even down to bloodstains? Or how RE4 contains only a handful of villagers who you’ve apparently killed hundreds of times each? This technique could change that.
No more cloned, homogenous mercenaries to blow away in your favourite FPS – each one has a unique face, body structure, voice, and even animations. No more guessing what your enemy is going to do by looking at which animation cycle they’re in the middle of because each one with throw a grenade or reload their gun differently. That’s a good application of new technology to solve a flaw of modern games, and coupled with the advancements in combat AI that we’ve seen in the likes of Halo it could prove to be a major step on the road to more lifelike characters.