Simple Rules -> Complex Worlds

"I'm interested in the process and strategies for design. The architect Christopher Alexander, in his book Pattern Language formalized a lot of spatial relationships into a grammar for design. I'd really like to work toward a grammar for complex systems and present someone with tools for designing complex things."
-- Will Wright, 1994 Wired interview

I don't know just how much of an inkling Wright had back then of just how far he was going to push that idea, but twelve years later he's done exactly what he said he would. For those unfamiliar, Wright is the mastermind behind Sim City and the entire Sim[Noun] series of games. I've always been lukewarm to those games, but earlier today I watched the half-hour demo for his new game, Spore, and had what I can only describe as a "HOLY SHIT" moment. Said moment was defined by Rands as a moment "where the unlimited potential of a 'thing' just spills out of it":

I have two litmus tests for this type of realization. It's either when I start calling random friends who haven't heard from me in months just to tell them, "HAVE YOU SEEN NAPSTER? DO YOU REALIZE THAT THE WORLD JUST CHANGED?" The other test is when I try to explain the HOLY SHIT to someone I know will never get it. "NO SEE, YOU CAN BUY ANYTHING ON EBAY. ANYTHING. NO I DON'T KNOW WHAT EBAY STANDS FOR GRRRRRRRRRRRR".

Such was my reaction upon watching the video demo of Spore, whereupon I immediately started bombarding two of my ex-girlfriends with manic exclamations trying to get across how clever it was. I'm still trying to get my thoughts in order, but my tentative in-a-nutshell description is this: Spore is to video games what Wikipedia is to encyclopedias. The genius of both is that the architects of the system only lay out the process and largely leave the users to generate the content, and the emergent result is more complex than anything a single mind (or small group of minds) could have accomplished.

In Wikipedia's case, the process consists of a set of rules -- technical and methodological, explicit and tacit -- for editing a central database. For Spore, the rules are a sort of generative grammar for creating computer graphics known as procedural synthesis -- a simple set of rules applied recursively to basic building blocks of design, pieced together in whatever way the user sees fit within the constraints of the "grammar." It's a visual language, a graphical kosmos if you will. Other games have made very limited use of this sort of thing up to now, but Spore is the first sophisticated game to use it as a core principle.

But the Hayekian goodness doesn't end there. Per Wikipedia's entry:

Wright calls the game a "massively single player online game". Simultaneous multiplayer gaming is not a feature of Spore. The creatures, vehicles, and buildings the player can create will be uploaded automatically to a central database (or a peer-to-peer system), catalogued and rated for quality (based on how many users have downloaded the object or creature in question), and then re-distributed to populate other player's games. The data transmitted will be extremely small — only 1 kilobyte, according to Wright, who presented an analogy: think of it as sharing the DNA template of a creature while the game, like a womb, builds the "phenotypes" of the animal, which represent a few megabytes of texturing, animation, etc. The name "Spore" may contain a reference to this large data compression ratio.

When the player progresses to a new stage, Spore will import creatures as needed. For example, if a flying carnivore is needed to balance the ecosystem, a creature that fits that description will be downloaded. The editor also allows the player to design things ranging from species to custom buildings and vehicles. That includes tanks, aircraft, submarines, boats, and UFOs. If the player has no internet connection, Wright mentioned, it is possible to fit tens of thousands of objects and creatures on the game's disc itself, due to their small size. This means that people with no Internet connection should still have a balanced ecosystem, even if it happens to be more limited in diversity.

This is a logical extension of systems used in online services like Amazon, and points the way toward the future of game worlds. And you don't have to be a libertarian or a programming nerd (though it sure helps) to appreciate the beautiful anti-authoritarianism of the design -- the very purpose of the game is to give players as much leeway as possible to branch out and explore the design space, and see what emerges. Earlier games have done this in some very limited ways, but this takes it up to a whole new level. O sublime complexity! Sweet polycentric order!

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Matt McIntosh, you still

Matt McIntosh, you still suck.

Nah, they don't pay me

Nah, they don't pay me enough.

"Many were the ideal

"Many were the ideal prototypes of rational order:
teleological and esthetic ties between things... as well as logical and mathematical relations. The most promising of these things at first were of course the richer ones, the more sentimental ones. The baldest and least promising were mathematical ones; but the history of the latter's application is a history of steadily advancing successes, while that of the sentimentally richer ones is of relative sterility and failure.

"Take those aspects of phenomena which interest you as a human being most... and barren are all your results. Call the things of nature as much as you like by sentimental moral and esthetic names, no natural consequences follow from the naming... But when you give the things mathematical and mechanical names and call them so many solids in just such positions, describing just such paths with just such velocities, all is changed... Your 'things' realize the consequences of the names by which you classed them." (William James, Principles of Psychology, II, 605-606)

IOW... holy shit!

If you don't think we pay

If you don't think we pay you enough now, just wait until you try to cash that check.


Incomprehensible Possiblities
Matt McIntosh:I’m still trying to get my thoughts in order, but my tentative in-a-nutshell description is this: Spore is to

Matt, I was disappointed


I was disappointed with Sim City because it hardcoded certain socialist assumptions into the engine. If only he had read Mises in addition to Alexander.

My son showed me that spore demo a while ago. I've played several of the games he has that were based on evolution and to a one they were pretty boring. There isn't much game play to be had in watching or waiting for things to evolve. It's like watching the grass grow.

Wright is a master at designing single player watch-em-grow games into a playable format. I hope him the best of luck in this latest endeavor regarding evolution. I also hope he didn't fudge the evolutionary aspects too much to get a playable game. It would be nice to have a good model of evolution that people could actually see working.

Now I'm waiting for the Austrian economics based Simulator, Sim-Mises.


Looks awesome. One of the

Looks awesome. One of the neat things about Katamari is how it encompasses many scales, which this game seems to do even better.

Brian, I don't think that

Brian, I don't think that it's really even trying to approximate the process by which real evolution works. As Matt said, it's like the Wikipedia of video games--every generation provides a new opportunity for the user to edit the biology of the species, providing much more variation between offspring and parent than is possible without massive mutations.

Matt's point is that at every level you get to design new creatures, and there's an infinite number of ways your creature can come out, and every creature that anyone has ever made is drawn upon in sampling in order to create a more balanced ecosystem. Also, all the buildings and things that other people have designed is drawn upon, giving you exponentially more and more choices as time goes on and more people buy the game.

See the correlation with Wikipedia?

It can't mimic real

It can't mimic real biological evolution because it's still teleological at the basic design level.

It sounds as though the

It sounds as though the game's engine could be tweaked a bit to run some interesting evolutionary simulations, though. Throw some different animals into a free-for-all environment, add an element of mutation, and see what comes out the other end.

I think the most important

I think the most important concept in spore is that it replaces a large amount of content creation with clever coding, and content creation is the most expensive part of game creation. I really like the procedural generation of textures and animations and the ability of the game to figure out your "style," though I think that's based on just counting how many of which type of shape and texture you use.

Other than being a single player game that downloads content created by other players from a server automatically, I am not sure how incredibly revolutionary it is. I hope other games will pick up a lot of its ideas but honestly it doesn't look like the sort of game I would spend a huge amount of time playing. I didn't see a single breast in the whole video, for example.

In my opinion the real quantum leap in this category of game (i.e. player-generated content) is actually Second Life. The advance of Spore over Second Life is the creation of creatures that don't have to follow a specific pattern along with all the associated animations and actions. *That* is very cool, but not as cool as a better costume editor (so I can make impossible anime costumes) and breast physics engine for Second Life would be :)