Hunt and Ye Shall Find – Pt. 2
Online hunting simulator theHunter is a piece of my soul, given digital form. It was the first game I was chiefly responsible for designing, and a very important achievement in my career. It was important mostly because it let me prove the merits of many of the design, project management and development techniques that I’d always known would work, as well as rethink the ones that I knew would work but ended up not working anyway. I was fortunate to collaborate with several skilled individuals on that project, including the competent, likable and influential Dr. Gustav Taxén, whom I still consider a role model in many ways and am fated to dominate the industry with some day. I could write several blog posts about the methods and maxims we developed alongside the actual game, and it’s quite likely that I someday will. But today I want to share a few secrets about the totally crazy ecosystem that is theHunter.
Let’s pretend, for the purposes of this article, that there’s two main types of game design:
- Designing for a specific, linear purpose
- Designing for emergence; experiences generated by rules (implicit or explicit) and player actions
In their most extreme forms, neither of these methods of designing fun experiences will really yield games. An example product of the first method is a jigsaw puzzle. The other method is how toys are made, like a football. Games don’t live at either extreme of the spectrum, they need a bit of direction and rules, but also unpredictability, player choice and strategy. Let me draw a bit of text art to illustrate where a few different, popular games could fit in this spectrum:
[Jigsaw] <(Super Mario Bros.)–(Metroid)–(Quake III)–(GTA)–(The Sims)> [Ball]
Hopefully this vastly simplified model will help with understanding theHunter; I’d place it somewhere between GTA and The Sims on this axis. It was intentionally designed that way for a variety of reasons, most importantly because of our lack of resources. theHunter was made with fewer people on the team than most games in its genre, and in order to appease the business needs of the publisher and make sure it worked as an online game, it was essential that the gameplay came from emergence; the self-re-organizing of the game and the challenges therein between play sessions. Making a “normal”, more linear hunting game would have been both cost-prohibitive and well… simply wrong for our purposes. But more importantly, the resulting game would have been far less interesting as a case study into human perception of emergent properties. Which is what this massive two-part wall of text is actually all about (how’s THAT for a throat-clearing).
Being that theHunter is a hunting game, it’s no surprise that the stars of the show are the animals in the environment, rather than the player or the character he plays. Almost everything the player can do in the game revolves around finding and harvesting animals. The animals, in turn, have simulated senses of sight, hearing and smell, which they use to detect the player’s whereabouts. This forces the player to overcome the animal’s senses by staying downwind, staying out of the animals’ line of sight, and not making too much noise. Then there’s a choice in tactics; try to get to where the animals are, or try to get the animals to come to you, both strategies having their pros and cons.
It’s a pretty simple system, when viewed at a high enough level. But there’s a lot of maths and chaos underneath it all, and when you develop and test a bunch of things in isolation, which one has to do in the first instance, it doesn’t matter how perfect you think every single component is. Once they’re all dropped into the ecosystem together, absolute madness ensues. To some extent, we counted on this type of emergence. Having read up on and experienced this type of psychology, I was quite confident that if our animals just offered players the illusion of intelligence, the players’ minds would then favourably fill in the blanks. But of course, there was no controlling the chaos we’d created. And we soon found ourselves receiving barbs, praise and weird observations from players that we couldn’t have anticipated if we’d tried. A few examples, then:
- The Unisex Game Calls/Pee Bottle Conundrum – theHunter features various game calls and bottles of urine that players can use to lure animals in. Some of these were unisex; they’d work on male specimens as well as female specimens. Some were not. Tell that to the community. Several players were adamant that they’d manage to lure in an animal of the “wrong” sex with one of these items. They even provided video footage as “proof”, though it was of course no such thing. It was just an animal that happened to be walking to where the lure had been used. We debugged the issue several times, and were absolutely sure that it all worked the way it should. But humans being what humans are, some were still claiming that their evidence was better than our data, no matter what we said. To be fair, it was in fact possible to manage to lure the leader of a pack towards a point in the game world, and have his whole group follow him – but that was just one specific situation, and came nowhere near convincing those players who knew The Truth.
- Playing with Butterflies – There were many stories on the message boards and elsewhere about animals behaving in various ways in relationship to one another. In fact, the animals weren’t aware of each other in any true sense. But some players still knew full well what they’d seen, thank you very much. My favourite anecdote was of a player who’d seen a mule deer trot around a field chasing a butterfly for several minutes. In fact, the trotting in circles was a (several actually) bug in the game logic, and the butterflies are a rendering trick; they don’t even inhabit the same virtual dimension as the actual game animals… but who was I to take this next-to-enlightening, all-but-religious experience away from a player?
- NO BULLET DROP FFS THAT’S UNREALISTIC AND GHEY – A fun meme appeared as a result of my saying, at one point or another, that we had yet to implement proper bullet drop into the game. What I’d meant to say is that the ballistics model for the weapons was still work-in-progress and wasn’t being looked at seriously for the time being. This would change in stages, over time, and we just didn’t bother with telling people this as it was refined in iterations over several updates to the game. However, the truth of there not being any bullet drop remained, and was held against the game because of its being unrealistic. So the second we told the community that bullet drop had been added, everyone suddenly started noticing it. Though, if I recall correctly, the parameters were virtually the same as before the announcement was made.
- It Takes Two to Call – This one made me double-take. I remember stumbling onto a forum thread regarding the frequency of the animal’s answering of player-made calls. There was a raging debate about whether animals in the wild would be quite as vocal as ours were. Some would argue that it was all right, because it was a game and finding animals should be easier than in real life. Others said “nay, ’tis a simulation“. Still others said that they’d, in fact, heard animals being very vocal in real life and that they appreciated that it would be very hard to plan for and implement a calling pattern that would map well to every individual deer out there in the wild. Me? I chuckled, mostly. As the animals in theHunter never called back – there was no such mechanic at all. Just like there was no mechanic in place for groups of animals to call out to each other and rendezvous on a field (which people also observed to happen). Animals in theHunter would just incidentally happen to call out occasionally, and lo and behold… players had found a pattern while trying to lure the animals in. And were debating it furiously.
- Deer Call Hero – One of the mechanics I intentionally made opaque to the player was that of the calls. There is an optimal sequence for each of them, but this was never revealed to the players, because I thought it’d be much more fun if the community would bounce tips back and forth to each other about how to best use the calls. And wouldn’t you know it, the community has a very strong opinion of what the optimal sequences are for the various calls! Sure, they’re wrong, but that hasn’t stopped everyone from copying these agreed-upon optimal songs for luring in animals and using them with much success.
It doesn’t stop there, but I think you get the picture by now. And thinking back on all of this, I can’t help but be very, very happy. Because with very simple means and a big helping of suggestion, we managed to create an experience that was so much more than the sum of its parts for most players. Usually for better, rather than worse. The negatives were discussed on the forums because they were negative, not because they were in the majority. Who knows what wonderful stories never came to light because they were too beautiful to put into words? We even got an email from a player who compared the experience of being in our cyber-ecosystem to the emotions he had felt at the birth of his children. Considering the relative simplicity of the mechanics at work in making players feel this way, I can’t help but feel like this is a sort of transcendence in its own right.
But beyond the effect of the game on the community, lies something more important: the effect that making and unleashing the game had on me. If Michael Shermer’s TED Talk was the beginning of my road towards becoming the person I am today, theHunter was the point of no return. There are so many lessons to learn from the examples above and others like it. Like how the consensus of the community around the optimal call sequence could be compared to a scientific paradigm. Or how humans’ pattern-seeking kicks into full gear at the slightest provocation. Or how people’s preconceived notions are so incredibly dear to them that even when they speak directly with the Intelligent Designer/God of the game world, they will still argue with him about how the mechanics work and what factors are at play in the ecosystem.
Having taken all these lessons to heart, then, how could I ever believe in UFO’s, Bigfoot or homeopathy? How could I ever consider anecdotes to be anything more than very, very weak evidence? How could I not laugh at the concept of Intelligent Design, and especially the Teleological Argument?
How could I ever respect those who do not, first and foremost, doubt themselves?