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Ideas & Ants

So far this semester, the prototyping team has worked on a game about fate, a zombie game with more-realistic-than-usual NPC behavior, a one-button, purely audio game, a game about words, and a game that uses dream logic---so we've been kept pretty busy over the past couple months. These games have all been the projects of other researchers at the lab, to whom we loaned some of our brainstorming/prototyping power. For the past week or so, we've been trying something different, and working on a game that we came up with entirely on our own, from brainstorming on out.

We've made a few starts on this project at different times in the past--one of the walls in our room is still covered with game ideas from a brainstorming session weeks ago (some highlights: "Black Plague--the game!"; a human-harvesting game, with you as a vampire -- think Harvest Moon plus fangs; "Bacon Games!"; an MIT fighting game), and I know there's at least one GoogleDoc floating around the internet somewhere that has even more brainstorms on it. So we're not short on game ideas, is what I'm saying.

But it's actually been a little difficult to move on to the next steps, partly because we've been busy with other stuff, but possibly also just *because* we had so many ideas. I think each of us has our own set of favorites, without necessarily a lot of overlap between our sets, so we've never been able to settle on a particular idea or set of ideas that we've all wanted to explore further. I know we've sat down multiple times to talk about what kind of game we want to make, and half of us end up talking about bears and the other half talking about a tiny person trapped in a fridge. What eventually ended up happening was much less organized; during a break in between other projects someone said "Let's make a resource management game", someone else said "Yeah!", and the third person present at the time was cool with the idea, and suddenly that was our new project. So maybe that's the best way to do it: rather than generating a bunch of ideas for games and then trying to pick between them, figure out some unifying concept -- theme, mechanic, whatever -- that everyone agrees is interesting, and work from there.

After throwing out a few ideas on what our resource management game could be about, we settled on an idea that had come up in previous brainstorming sessions, of a leaf-cutter ant colony. We latched onto that idea pretty quickly, possibly because an ant colony that gathers leaves lends itself well to resource management: having to gather leaves to nourish the fungus that the colony feeds on (it turns out that's what leaf-cutter ants do with the leaves they cut: they chew it up and use it to cultivate fungus), figuring out whether you should increase the number of soldier ants or harvester ants or fungus-farming ants (real life conveniently provides us with a number of pre-built classes in the form of castes in leaf-cutter ant colonies) and whether you can actually afford such an increase, and so on, provides a wealth of interesting decisions for the player to make.

However, this sounds a lot like a classic RTS mapped onto an anthill, which could be an interesting fictional backdrop but might not provide much innovation in terms of gameplay. So, we've been trying to come up with some ways of adding to this concept. Here are a few we've thought of:

-Scent trails: Give instructions to the colony/ants that aren't explicit -- players draw a path from x to y and ants will bring resources from y to x continuously (assuming here that x is the hill and y is the site of some resource). Players might also sabotage opponents by breaking their trails or re-routing their trails into confusing paths or endless loops.

-Leaf-cutting: Like a kindergartener, the fungus likes its food to be cut into particular shapes, but cutting some shapes of leaves is harder/more dangerous than cutting others; cutting larger leaves is harder. Or possibly you have to cut leaves so that they'll fit down the ant hill tunnels, but not so that leaf transport is inefficient, with each ant carrying a tiny piece of leaf.

-Impostor ants: An impostor has infiltrated the colony and has to simultaneously blend in and bring down the colony/kill the queen; the regular ants have to figure out who the impostor is and stop him/her

We're hoping to have a second well-prototyped game by the end of the semester, similar to the work we did on the cat scaring game earlier in the semester. The process is not easy: an ant colony is a complex system---multiple interacting complex systems, even--so there are a lot of possible paths for us to go down. So far, we've each tried to focus on some aspect that interests us. In my case, I think the scent trails idea is most interesting. It might be getting a little bit away from the resource management idea, or maybe just backgrounding it a bit, but I can see players competing to build trails to strategically important spots, taking turns to place paths or disrupt another player's existing trails. It might be worth investigating a restriction on what players are allowed to see--if you can only see your own scent trails, you'll have to figure out what other players are up to by watching what their ants are doing. Or maybe you can't see their ants until those ants cross your scent trail, since your awareness of the world probably ought to depend on what your ants can see. I'm also intrigued by the concept of having to cut leaves into particular shapes so they'll fit down a tunnel or comply with another type of restriction, which keeps the focus on the resources but adds another dimension to the game and the player's concerns.

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