Friday, May 11, 2012

« Linden Lab's Emily Short Drops Hints on Linden's Next Project: Relaxed Storytelling for the Angry Birds Audience | Main | 7 Posts You Might Have Missed Last Week (But Shouldn't) »

Waking Mars: Thief Designer Randy Smith on the Virtual Ecosystem & Emergent Gameplay in His New iOS Game

Waking Mars iOS game

Waking Mars is an acclaimed new iOS game which has just been updated and discounted; in it, you play a lone, stranded explorer with a jetpack, in caverns of Mars recently discovered to be full of life. It's by Randy Smith, a lead designer of the classic Thief games, with co-writing and character development by Terri Brosius, another Thief designer who also provided the dulcet-but-dangerous voice acting for Viktoria in the first two games of the series. Masterpieces of immersive and emergent gaming, the Thief series convinced me over ten years ago that games could be an art form, and they're a chief reason why you're reading these words. Randy has been adapting some of the core principles which made Thief so great for the iOS, and I'm interviewing him for my upcoming book on iOS/web/Facebook game design. During our conversation, he shared some insights on how Waking Mars might also appeal to fans of virtual worlds like Second Life:

"The game mechanics of Waking Mars combine to depict a living, breathing ecosystem of alien lifeforms," he explains. "Individually, each lifeform is dictated by fairly simple rules: the Halid produces seeds when watered, the Phyta eats those seeds, the Larian is one of the natural predators of the Phyta, and a decomposing Phyta corpse spit out by a Larian will produce the nutrients that can make Halid grow to their enriched size, which in turn causes them to produce more seeds. As you can see, when the various lifeforms come together in different combinations they produce different emergent behaviors, which a clever player can leverage." (Reminds me a bit of the classic Svarga island in Second Life, but in a game setting.)

Because Waking Mars' ecosystem operates on a set of interlocking principles, a savvy player can come up with new ways of playing:

WAKING MARS - Official Trailer from Tiger Style on Vimeo.

"For example," says Randy, "it's possible to make a 'Phyta farm' by putting Halid and Phyta in the same place and making sure the Halid stay continuously watered. When you come back later, there will be dozens of Phyta. That's an example of an 'emergent solution' the player came up with to raise biomass to high levels and succeed at the game's goals. Another type of emergence is 'emergent problems,' meaning challenges that weren't authored by the designer but evolved naturally out of the game rules. An example of that might be the Cephad lifeform, which tends to propagate determinedly by taking over soil, forming infestations. When Cephad change soil to become more acidic, that paves the way for the Prax lifeform to grow, which are a type of dangerous plant. It takes a smart, capable player to fix a chamber full of Cephad and Prax without getting hurt, but because the game systems are so open-ended, there are countless ways to go about it. All in all, the lifeforms of Waking Mars all respond to and interact with each other, forming a virtual ecosystem that it is the player's goal to learn, master, and grow."

All this sounds redolent of awesome, though unfortunately, my old hillbilly iPhone 3 can't hack the system requirements. However, if your iOS can, share your game experiences in Comments.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Waking Mars: Thief Designer Randy Smith on the Virtual Ecosystem & Emergent Gameplay in His New iOS Game:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Tateru Nino

Interesting. It sounds like the sort of game I'd try out on my PC - but not the sort I'd play on a mobile device.

Ordinal Malaprop

I finished it on my iPad - I think it may do better with a larger screen than on a phone. I enjoyed it a lot. The world is divided into different caverns, each with a slightly different environment and so different appropriate strategies to raise their biomass to an appropriate level, and as mentioned there's no single fixed route to success - so a small number of basic mechanics result in a very varied game.

There are a few arcade elements but nothing really requiring reaction speed, and it is well balanced in terms of progress and learning curve. Tinkering around with an individual cavern's ecosystem is very absorbing, as is finding out about the whole lifecycle of all of the organisms.

Tiger Style also did "Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor" which has a similar visual style and attitude to exploring the world rather than just jumping through hoops. I enjoyed that too, but Waking Mars has a lot more interaction involved.

Kim Anubis

I'm absolutely freakin' in LOVE with this game. Stayed up a whole night to play the thing straight through. I don't usually play games on my iPad, but this is the most fun I've had with a computer game since Pirates. Thanks for covering it, Hamlet, because it definitely deserves attention. I like games that make me think.

Hamlet Au

"Tiger Style also did 'Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor' which has a similar visual style and attitude"

Thanks for bringing that up, Ordinal -- I did play that one, it rocked. Very Thiefy, too, as if Garrett were an arachnid shooting silk instead of rope arrows.

Video streaming

Though it's about only a plain entertainment but I want to appreciate Randy to select an appropriate subject for his game and that is 'ecosystem'. It'll aware the players about their surrounding and save it. Thanks for the nice effort.
Video streaming


It's news to me that the "organisms" in Svarga ever exhibited any emergent behavior.

Ordinal Malaprop

@MrBungle: actually I think that saying that the organisms in Waking Mars display emergent behaviour is exaggerating a bit. Their behaviour is quite fixed - they eat things, move, produce seeds etc based on the same principles regardless of what happens. The _ecosystem_ does have emergent behaviour though.


Watching the video at the creator's site made me think of Aquaria ( another gorgeously illustrated exploration-adventure game. With more fabulous games like these to compliment the productivity apps I use on tablets, I'm finding fewer and fewer reasons to have a desktop computer — pretty much just Second Life at this point.

Arcadia Codesmith

Sadly, if this were an MMO, the whole planet would be razed to bedrock within a week and all the people who razed it would be complaining that the system doesn't work.

It's much like real life.

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.