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