Sid Meier’s Evolution Preview

[Editor's Note: Not sure if this was obvious or not, but this is not a real game. This preview was also posted on April 1st, 2010. Still, I hope you enjoy our little prank.]

Everything you grow is wrong.

“People who play games are egomaniacs,” said veteran game designer Sid Meier, at his recent Game Developers Conference keynote speech entitled 'Psychology of Game Design: Everything You Know is Wrong', “It says on the box, you get to control armies, discover new technology, and create entire civilizations. So, right away, you’re an egomaniac.” It was a mildly-amusing quotable—a facile, cute, mildly-amusing quotable—but Mr. Meier has been ferociously chewing on the question of what to do about it.  And now developer Firaxis has announced the development of a game that can only be dubbed a 'Spore-killer' (and much more pointedly, a 'Civilization-destroyer'): Sid Meier's Evolution.

[image1]Again, from the 'Everything You Know' keynote: “In early Civilization games, I made Civ real-time… but what we found was that in real-time gaming, the player becomes the observer. Our mantra is that, 'It’s good to be king.' When we made Civ a turn-based game, the player became the star, they made things happen.” Despite what you might think, the key phrase to focus on here isn't the part about "it's good to be king", but rather that bit about "the player becomes the observer".

The Civilization games put players in era-spanning, God's-eye control of an enduring human empire and Spore gave players godlike, manipulative influence on the adaptive transfiguration of a single biologically-competitive species over time. The scope of Sid Meier's Evolution dwarfs the two franchises combined, tackling not only the trials and tribulations of terrestrial life as we know it, but of the fundamental, formative forces that define the Laws of a given universe—or, in this case, a host of potential Multiverses.

Further, SME aims to make good on Meiers' long-standing design promise/threat not merely to elevate the player to omniscient/omnipotent status, but to remove the player effectively from the lowly, mundane business of click-obsessive engagement entirely, to better focus on The Big Picture. And this is just about as Big as it gets.

In fact, Chris Crawford, one of the future-thinking founders of the Computer Game Developers Conference (now known simply as the Game Developers Conference), might just breathe a sigh of relief. In his book Interactive Storytelling, he elaborates that unlike "the storybuilder" who "creates an imaginary universe populated by characters" and "decides their actions and predestines their fates", "the game designer doesn't specify what path the player takes to get to the victory condition, only the rules by which the player can attempt to do so." "The gameworld is an orderly place with free will for the player. That's because the designer's control is exercised through the rules of the gameworld rather than the events of the gameworld… there's something higher, more abstract than a plot. Call it 'metaplot', if you like… there's no clash between interactivity and this kind of metaplot." Here in SME, the player is in charge of this "metaplot", ultimately crafting the story of the universe he/she creates through the rules and variables the player sets for said universe at the beginning of the game.

[image2]The foundation for the player's journey into the evolution of a unique world/universe is found in the intuitively-nested menus of the so-named 'Fundament' evolutionary system—imagine a blank palette functionally analogous to the unexplored, war-fogged continental maps of Civilization, except that there is no fog, no continent, no planet, no nuthin, save an orderly space-time grid. Here players will begin an exhaustive tutorial—like, don't make any plans for the rest of the day—composed of what are essentially elaborate, extended mini-games, in order to set up the fundamental Laws that will govern your world-to-be—biochemistry, atmospheric makeup, aspects (and even number) of creature sexes, the whole nine epochs. From chained DNA sequences to system-shaping gravity wells, each successive, nested, information-intensive Fundament sub-menu looks like a cross between a vibrant, ambitious '80s-era vector-graphics game and the corrupted data-dump from one of Stephen Hawking's weirder and more thoroughly-footnoted lucid dreams.

Eventually, the Laws distilled down from the Fundament cycle become focused and refined enough to function on their own, thenceforward governing the development of life-forms on your world—entire towering, interdependent ecosystems, branches of existence falling away to the perils of natural selection, and environmental variance and cataclysms on the microbic, terrestrial, and eventually, cosmic scales.

Remember the old Gary Larson cartoon on 'the real reason dinosaurs become extinct?' Well, the game engine probably doesn't have a plan for that contingency, but it covers just about everything else, from pseudo-reptilian unsuitability for climatic change to inherited mammalian behaviors to really big-scale unpleasantnesses like proximity to quasars and galactic collision. Macro-scale habitats are just as crucially subject to 'evolution' as individual life-forms, a consideration which shapes a large part of the game. To paraphrase a recent marketing campaign: "Yeah, there's an app for that."

As Terry Pratchett says, “There is nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber and, in some cases, backbone.” Now, any evolutionary system can only seem 'frustrating' to a sentient observer/participant—and SME only obliges players to set the operating parameters of their clockwork universe, after which point the player's direct manipulations are no longer required. Just like watching an ant farm, a part of the thrill is simply seeing how it grows, from a tiny hill into a stable tunnel-networked ecosystem that would make the proudest coal miner jealous. But thankfully in SME, the thrill doesn't stop there.

[image3]As player-worlds evolve on both the micro and macro scales, players are able to view the stats, 'achievements', and other infominutia of all other registered players' universes—and can choose, at their peril, to 'link' their evolving species/world/cosmos to those created by other players. In the same way that 'elemental' weapons and spells can influence the environs and each other in traditional video games, the numerous Fundament attributes of one player's universe can impart benefits (or liabilities) to another: How will your universe affect the world-schemes of your online competitors? What results is a constant, cross-platform, leaderboard-style competition for the title of nothing less than the greatest, most flourishing, most highly-evolved World in (virtual) history.

More quantumly-troubling still is the fact that, once you've started your evolutionary cosmic snowball, you are supposed to stay out of the way—after all, this is Evolution, right? There's no Creator to step in and tweak things, right? Right? But following the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the mere observation of a system in fact changes said system. Thus, every time you choose to observe either your own or somebody else's system, it may have the impact of a big bang. The specific details on how all of this will work haven't been revealed, but the obvious implication is that continued glimpses to 'check in' on the progress of your system—or any system, for that matter—will become increasingly fraught with potential, Fundament-corrupting peril.

Sid Meier's Evolution is arguably the most radically-ambitious project yet to come from a guy who's already made multiple industry-changing, history-making impact-craters on the gaming world. Requests prior to and during GDC for even the tiniest inquiry on his future plans were flatly rejected, so perhaps we should all just thank the Creator—or thank the unlikely, floaty ribbons of chance and natural-selection that have brought our species to this point, whatever floats your existential boat—that we have a new Sid Meier world-rocker on the way. It could be the end of Civilization as we know it—and, at least this far along in the process, we feel fine.