What can Video Game Devs Learn from … Plants?

Written by  Thursday, 10 May 2012 14:45

Video games and plants have a long, intertwined, rich history together. Actually, that’s a lie. Almost everyone would probably agree that they are completely unrelated entities altogether, and that would be mostly true; however, video games and plants do share some interesting properties that plants have had 475 million years to perfect, while video games in comparison have only had about 30 years. So to help video games evolve and become a richer medium, here is a plant’s guide to growing a better game:


Choose the Environment!

While plants themselves can’t decide where they want to live, they are very adaptive forms of life and their environment is key to their growth and development. We’ll discuss several ways of how they are affected later in the article. For now, just know that games should grow and adapt to their surroundings (including communities) in the same manner: They should be grown with their intention and audience clearly-defined, but shouldn’t be afraid to adapt to a new niche if it presents itself. Whether that’s fans of a genre, close friends, for personal thought and expression, or just something dumb to kill some time on – such as, I don’t know, this –understanding the initially-intended end product and tweaking it to any feedback will help to make the growth period much more focused and efficient.

Take Advantage of Poop!

To plants, fertilizer, poop, and your eventual remains (albeit much less fertile than, say, my remains) are a buffet of nutrients to gorge on until no longer needed. Or until you’ve been effectively re-killed and become plant poop. Video games can’t eat, but they can learn, and they should learn. Amazing, awe-inspiring games and terrible games can both be a lesson and route to wisdom and push a game further in the right direction (or push future games in that direction). Defecatory (totally a word) games shouldn’t get the cold shoulder just because they suck, though: They deserve just as much attention, if not more, to properly learn from mistakes and pinpoint what the community doesn’t want.

Structure in Moderation!

Sometimes, plants are grown in environments that allow for extensive testing and assessment, potentially discovering new growing methodologies or technology. Much of the time, harvesters stand-by to reap the crops for market. The former is optimal for dynamically allowing the plant to grow a particular way; the latter is good for harvesting and monetization, such as a vineyard.

I’m going somewhere with this.

plants-smbSuper Meat Boy requires a vegetarian companion.

Indie developers have the freedom to experiment with potentially-innovative features without major backlash (in fact, solid fan support will help diagnose gameplay faults rapidly), and are often required to take such risks in order to be noticed. Larger companies tend to ‘manufacture games’ and play it safe in order to appeal to the largest number of players possible

Both approaches are valid business tactics, and in both cases, structure is something that should be balanced and well thought-out before taking too big of a plunge. A lack of fundamental nutrients – funding (or something to live on), concepts, and mechanics – will only become more apparent as development continues.

Size Accordingly!

Now that the plant has been structured and taken root, it needs to decide its mass. Size matters and plants reflect this. Plants can sense whether they are in a thick forest or a barren steppe, then size themselves according to the environment. Plants grow big when competition for sunlight and nutrients is fierce, but have the luxury of time when isolated.

plants-far-cryFar Cry has never been one for down-sizing...

A unique game doesn't need to grow hastily -- in unexplored and open territory in gaming mechanics and design, complexity and large budgets aren’t necessary for a great game. Flower and AudioSurf are good examples of this: They both have very simple gameplay and didn’t need a 100-person team and all the dollars in order to get some sunlight. But if a game is growing to compete in more densely packed markets -- say, against Call of Duty and Battlefield -- it might need to size up a bit…

Bend Towards the Sun!

This is where a limited amount of structure helps: Dynamically modifying to better suit an environment is something plants do constantly. Plants won’t grow straight up if there are quicker pathways to reach the light.

Video games also have the tendency to do this, and must be allowed to do so. During the growth of a game, the form it takes will usually differ from the one in concept. Games can easily (and often accidentally) bend themselves in such ways that the core of the game is no longer present and is buried under a mountain of additional features -- I'm looking at you, wood cutting in Skyrim. But it can also easily bend in a way that the core mechanics are very much improved. Only the fans can decide if different bends in game design are acceptable.

Keep Logs!

A tree’s life can be seen within its rings. They don’t have an option; this is just what trees do naturally. Games shouldn’t have the option either: Each game's iterative builds contain very important data that should be saved and archived daily. Should a corruption occur or change need to be reverted, the game can always resort to previous builds -- or in the least, the logs -- to solve the solution. Through this process, the first few logs become vital to the tree, as they become the core and its source of water from the roots.

plants-yoshis-islandMmm, fuzzy plants.

The core of a game is buried in its initial rings (or builds), and so the prototype should be regularly referenced to revitalize motivation, energy, and simplicity.

Don’t Give Up!

Games have the tendency to quit and stop growing very often. This occurs either from burnout or lack of motivation from the games. Plants are far too professional for this lack of dedication. Slow and steady but always in motion is how plants have evolved to grow. They are relentless growers; they don’t just die because they’re bored. Games need to take the same approach; because as long as the game is growing, even if it is just by 1 line a day, it will eventually mature and bear fruit.

Put seeds in your Fruits!

Without seeding, plants would be extinct. They need a way to extend the life of their species and continue to prosper. It’s how a species of plant could last for millennia -- seeds that spawn seeds. It is also how some games have stood the test of time themselves; and it isn’t because of DLC, it’s because they continue to refer to these seeds for future sequels and to continue building a world around a concept. They also include mod kits and construction kits, allowing for crazy overhauls of games like Skyrim.

Plants seeds in the community and the game will continue to flourish past anything the developers would be able to keep up with. Half-Life and Unreal Tournament are good examples -- they not only provided a solid experience, but became platforms for other games to sprout from.

Do whatever you want!

The final and most important tip a plant could give: Game makers should do what they want. Many plants and games alike have probably been extremely successful without following any of these tips at all. These are just guidelines in case a game has gone astray and the next course of action is not blatantly clear. Experimentation and evolution are how both of these grow and become better at what they do. Without variety off the beaten path, every iteration would be just as stale as the last, and that is not helpful for anything (except for deep sea jellyfish). So pick some seeds, start planting, and happy growing!

-Andrew "LegendaryCake" Coleman.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 15:03

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