Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dinosaurs

As usual, I've rambled at length, so just skip to the last section ("Future Games") for the gist of it all.


UNIVERSAL INTEREST
My first obsession in life was dinosaurs. When I was five, I was already spouting off names like diplodocus, ramphorincus, compsagnathus and deinonychus. My parents bought me books and posters, watched TV specials with me, took me to museums and explained what they could (my dad was a geologist, so he wasn't completely in the dark).

And they bought me dinosaur toys. Not every kid my age had dinosaur toys, but we were all fascinated to some degree by tales and pictures of these "real monsters".

The difference between an animal and a monster, incidentally, is only mystery. Countless creatures we call animals today were commonly referred to as monsters until TV and other media took away their mysteriousness (giant squid and whales, for example). This may seem like fruitless philosophizing, but it's a psychological truth that developers should consider when creating beasts and NPCs for their games.


PAST GAMES
Dinowarz (http://www.vgmuseum.com/end/nes/a/dinowarz.htm), on the NES, is the first game I remember playing involving dinosaurs. It may have been the first "mech" game, placing the player in the role of a man controlling a robotic T-rex. Your dinosaur-mech fought with bullets, lasers and grenades. Really, it wasn't heavy on dinosaurs (and that was only half the gameplay, as you can see from those screenshots), but the player did have to face other mechs fashioned after Cretaceous dinosaurs. I liked the game.

Primal Rage (http://www.consoleclassix.com/gameinfo_primalrage_smc.html) of the SNES is the next one I remember; "Street Fighter with monsters". Honestly, I can't remember whether I liked it or not, which means probably the latter. The label "dinosaur" applies here even less than in the last game.

Turok 64 is probably the only dinosaur game most gamers are at least passingly familiar with. Once again, dinosaurs are mixed into a sci-fi setting. This time, though, we've got real dinosaurs (though not the main enemies). As I recall, this game came out shortly after the first Jurassic Park film, thereby taking advantage of a spike in dinosaurs' popular interest (particularly in velociraptors). The game was so popular that Acclaim made it into a trilogy; each focusing on humanoid enemies and sci-fi weapons, but also acknowledging the raptors as a favorite being in the gameworld.

These are the only 3 other games with dinosaurs (loosely labelled) that I can recall playing extensively. Xbox has a game called Dinosaur Hunting (http://screenshots.teamxbox.com/gallery/782/Dinosaur-Hunting/p1/), which I've never played, and Xbox 360 has King Kong (
http://screenshots.teamxbox.com/gallery/1285/Peter-Jacksons-King-Kong/p1/) ...I played the PC demo (beautiful graphics, if nothing else). I never owned a Playstation or PS2, so maybe there's something I missed there. There have been a few games involving dinosaurs for the PC over the years, but I don't recall any attracting much attention in the industry.


FUTURE GAMES
So anyway, what's the point?

Well, the topic of dinosaur games rose to mind when I was playing this free casual PC game by (http://intihuatani.usc.edu/cloud/flowing/ ). One of the creatures reminded me of trilobites (http://www.trilobites.com/site/index.cfm), the most commonly recognizable animal of the fascinating time from the Cambrian through the Devonian in which sea-life was still the big show.

A blog on Koster's site (http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/09/25/flow/) convinced me that I'm not the only one who can be absorbed by such simple gameplay, well-presented.

The combination of those two realizations makes me wonder how easily kids and adults alike could be captured by a dinosaur game that places the player in the role of a realistic dinosaur.

Player actions in Flow consist only of chasing prey and evading predators. That's it. The only goals are to make your creature grow, to unlock new creatures and to explore (discover new creatures). The presentation contributes greatly to this game's appeal, but I'm mainly interested in learning from its structure. The heart of the game is suspense (will I escape? will I catch it? what's that lurking just out of sight? etc).


Now, picture yourself controlling a dinosaur in 3rd-person (or 1st-person?) view, chasing and fleeing from other dinosaurs. Imagine your dinosaur growing with each meal...gaining strenth, endurance and speed. Finally, as an adult dinosaur, you can save that particular beast to your character-select screen and attempt survival as a new species; or continue exploring the wild landscapes to see how well your creature matches up with other species.

It could be a top-down world, ala Flow (for simplicity), or an extravagant (but developmentally expensive) 3-D world, like an MMO. Either way, there is considerable appeal to a wide market, and any number of the following features could be applied to the basic concept:

  • Educational. A 3-D world with realistic (according to current paleontological theory) animal models, behaviors (diet, animation, vocalization, etc), habitats, etc. All you have to do is label the creatures, add a brief description (that the player can easily skip past) at its selection screen, and parents and teachers will love you. You might even be able to market the game to entire school districts.
  • Difficulty Selection. For the young child or most casual gamer, the gameplay never has to move beyond simple movement commands, and the movement of all creatures other than the player's avatar can be slowed or their A.I. diminished. As A.I. is concerned, not only are there opportunities like that of raptors as pack hunters, but there are behaviors of many other kinds, like triceratops presumably circling around their young to protect them (like elephants and bison have been known to do). The latter features can be scaled for two or more further difficulty settings. Growing creatures can gain access to special abilities (like a tail swing for an anklyosaur, a leap for a velociraptor, or headbutt for a pachycephalosaurus). A greater difficulty setting might also add hunger and starvation; a medium difficulty might cause the player's creature to lose strength or speed after a long period without food; a high difficulty might make that loss constant, similar to Dead Rising's diminishing health mode.
  • Land or Sea or Sky. The game can focus on as few or as many environments as desired, and the developer can choose to make them zones or seamless.
  • Any Time. The game might be limited to only dinosaurs, only Cretaceous dinosaurs, or it might span all of prehistory (from simple aquatic creatures to mammals of the last great ice age).
  • Character Customization. Paleontologists usually have only vague knowledge, if any, of these creatures' aesthetic appearances. That could be reflected through customization options of color, skin type (fur, bare, feathers, scales, etc) and patterns/camouflage.
  • Multi-player. There might be ways to create a system similar to the trading card system Spore is said to currently have. Cooperative gameplay is a possibility. The game might even be made into an MMO, with players hunting and fleeing each other, with a chat window (toggleable) in one corner. If there were not uniform limits to adult creatures, players might even compete by trying to become the most powerful, most elusive or otherwise "best" creature.
  • Fantasy. And the alternative to realism, of course, is fantasy. All of this could be used as merely a foundation for a much more expansive game. Personally, I'd be interested in creating both realistic and fantastic versions, but the realistic version could achieve much more impressive marketing appeal (for being educational).
  • Player-created Content. At least a small bit of fantasy opens the door to allowing players to create and share their own virtual worlds, designing habitats and populating them preferentially. The trading card idea also ties into this.

Oh, and one last thought. If someone began such a game this year, they could release it alongside the release of the Jurassic Park 4 film (I think the script is finished, or almost, and they're looking for a director now). That's free and significant publicity. Considering Spielberg has demonstrated interest in our industry, you might even be able to work out a cooperative marketing deal (he'll advertise the game, perhaps even on the next DVD and/or DVD-set, and the game will advertise the movies).

1 comment:

  1. Primal Rage was pretty fun, in the arcade anyway. Horribly unbalanced, blatant street-fighter clone, but still fun.

    Have you ever played E.V.O. for the SNES? I would highly recommend that you find a copy and try it out. (Try a SNES emulator for 24 hours to save yourself money and effort) It's a little-known platformer that does more or less precisely what you're describing.

    You start as a sea-creature and fight your way through evolutionary history, using points earned from eating things to evolve yourself as you go. As the levels get harder and more complex, you can evolve yourself into a variety of creatures with various offensive and defensive options like head plates, spiky tails, etc. The game actually takes you all the way up to mammals and has a great story.

    It's a fascinating blend of platformer, RPG, and an evolution-sim game. My brother and I have discussed many times how it would make for a cool MMO very similar to what you've outlined.

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