Evolution: Conclusions

Somewhat miraculously, I managed to win Evolution without going any farther off schedule. My intelligent species was the Silurians Sleestaks Saurosapiens, which evolved somewhat after their time — I had managed to keep a fairly sizeable and diverse stable of dinosaurs alive after the Cenozoic extinction event, which actually doesn’t seem to be all that unusual for this game, despite the game’s arbitrary penalties on the feeding rate for for creatures that are out of their proper era. (It’s a pretty good system for keeping creatures from developing too far ahead of schedule, because getting a toehold is a struggle for any new species, but an established species that isn’t struggling any more is less affected.) But honestly, I think I could have pulled off a win even if my dinosaurs had gone properly extinct. Evolving a different intelligent species would have taken longer, but I was far enough ahead to take that time.

I think I was more or less primed for victory by my previous game, which was the first time I had actually played a game to completion. Well, not played exactly. Most of the Mesozoic era, and all of the Cenozoic, I zipped through at the maximum time scale. There wasn’t much point in interacting with the game at that point: I had failed to get a mammal population going, and the extinction event left me with nothing but a few stegasauri (more or less a dead end, good for a score bonus at game’s end but only capable of evolving into ankylosaurus and triceratops) and one single low-population dryosaurus unit. A dryosaurus can take you places — it’s a potential ancestor of both Saurosapiens and Psittacisapiens, not to mention all other bird species — but the catastrophe had left these particular dryosauri in a bad state, and they weren’t long for the world. Still, I let the game play out to the end, more or less leaving it alone once I had established triceratops and ankylosaur habitats. The ankylosaurs managed to survive to the very end, even as the virtual player named Darwin filled the world with bats and rabbits and thylacines, finally winning at the 57-million-years-ago mark by developing intelligent wombats.

The main thing I got out of watching that session was an appreciation of the degree of multitasking needed to win. There’s something in the neighborhood of 200 species in the game, which is a drop in the bucket compared to reality, but still far more than it’s easy to manage in your head if you’re in a dominant enough position to have most of them coming to you. (And yes, you do want to develop every species you can, if only to keep them out of the opponent clades.) Being the loser is relatively easy: once you start losing in earnest, you only have to keep track of two or three species at a time.

Nonetheless, it’s a lot easier to keep winning than to start winning. The classic strategy-game positive feedback loop definitely applies here. You might think that the periodic cataclysms and die-offs would put everyone on an even footing, but no. The clade that’s most widespread before the event tends to have the most survivors afterward, and also is in the best position to capitalize on any extinctions.

All in all, I’d say this is actually a pretty good game. Seeing it on a store shelf back in 1997, you’d probably assume that it’s just watered-down educational fare, but there’s some real game here. The main thing I’d change is the UI. The game uses a sort of MDI interface, with various components of the game, including the main view and the various information dialogs, placed in distinct windows with their own title bars, which you can drag around and minimize and so forth (all within a parent window). This may have seemed like a good idea in 1997, when people were still figuring out how to best take advantage of Windows 95, but only one of these sub-windows can have focus at a time, and that’s inconvenient — especially when focus is taken away by a modal pop-up.

Evolution: Environment and Migration

I’m still consistently losing. Or rather, consistently giving up when it’s clear I’m going to lose. I’ve started loosening up a bit with regards to deciding when that is, though. It doesn’t do to be too disheartened at the opponents beating you out to evolving a new species: in order for it to do them any good, they have to keep it from going extinct. And most new species have a bit of a handicap there, in that their ideal environment isn’t the same as that of the species that spawned it — that being more or less the point of speciation.

Environment has two components: terrain and temperature. The unit description window — the same one that indicates a unit’s population and how well it’s feeding — mentions the ideal terrain type and temperature for that unit’s species; more detailed information, including how well it survives in each terrain, is available in the species details. It’s easy to fall into the trap of paying attention only to the terrain type, because that’s highly visible: every tile on the map is decorated according to its terrain. But the temperature seems to be even more important to survival, and it’s displayed in a place that users tend to ignore: the info bar at the bottom of the window. It displays the temperature and terrain type for the tile currently pointed at by the mouse pointer — which is to say, it only starts to display useful information when you’re looking at a different part of the screen. It’s invaluable once you start paying attention to it, but I feel like the fact that the info bar is used at all, let alone for such a crucial feature, is a real sign of how new the idea of Windows as a gaming platform was. People didn’t really know how to use it, but they were willing to experiment.

So, when you get a new species, it’s a fragile thing, ill-adapted to its environment and in need of nurturing. Which is kind of the opposite of how evolution is supposed to work, but regardless, the top priority is to get it to its ideal environment before it dies out. Even once it’s there, the environment doesn’t last forever. Plains turn to desert, mountains rise, the climate changes — sometimes catastrophically, as in a major asteroid strike. About all you can do is send your creatures to as many different places as possible and hope for the best. Which you want to do anyway: you don’t want your creatures competing with each other for food. (In extreme cases, I’ve contemplated marching my obsolete creatures into the ocean to make room for the new guys.) No, you want them competing with the opponets’ creatures for food. My greatest competitive successes so far have not been a matter of out-evolving the opponents, or of fighting and killing them, but of driving them away by out-breeding and out-eating them. Which is how invasive species work in real life, so hooray for accuracy.

Spreading your population out isn’t trivial, though. In order to get a unit from one ideal feeding ground to another, you typically have to cross areas not suited to the unit’s needs at all, and while it’s crossing those zones, its population will drop. This is how oceans work, by the way. You can send any species on a trek across the water, and it’ll just walk on it like it’s a blue carpet, not even slowing down. But while it’s out there, it won’t get any food at all. Birds can colonize remote continents more easily than most creatures, but that’s not because they have any kind of in-game-modeled flight attributes. It’s because they can move faster, and thus can cross more ocean before starving to death.

Evolution: Mechanics and Strategy

Posting very late today. Playing the Cenozoic scenario turned out to be an even worse morale-wrecker than attempting a full game. Because life is already pretty well advanced, it isn’t long before the opponents start developing the immediate precursors to potentially intelligent life, such as elephants and parrots and australopitheci, all while I’m still struggling to get out of the small-ratlike-creature phase. Seriously, I need to figure out how they’re managing it. The one trick I’ve figured out so far is to send my newly-spawned creatures out to colonize new territory as soon as they’re fit for the journey, thereby lessening the demands on the land and increasing the rate at which the population increases.

To explain this in more detail: Each “creature” visible on the map actually represents a herd or colony or something — at any rate, a local population. This was not clear to me in my very first struggles with the game; I had to read the manual to really understand it. When you click on a creature, you get a little pop-up window with details on that creature, including a green bar labeled “Population”. I think that when I first saw this I assumed it referred to the worldwide population of that species, but no, it’s the population of that particular “creature”. It essentially functions like hit points for the group. It fills or empties according to how well the creature is feeding; if it fills completely, the creature splits in two. So in this way, the game is more like a simulation of unicellular life than of tetrapods.

Having lots of creatures of a particular species isn’t good simply because it gives them a better chance of surviving. Each living creature also contributes to the rate at which its species accumulates “evolution points”, which is to say, research into development. Evolution points are automatically spent on three things, in proportions you can set on a per-species basis: improving feeding (and thus population growth), improving combat ability (against another species which you specify — predators use this to predate better, prey species to resist predation), and developing a new species (which you specify). It’s a lot easier to evolve a species that’s populous and well-fed, which seems a little iffy to me — doesn’t natural selection play a more prominent role in situations marked by desperate competition to avoid starvation? But I suppose we have to make some concessions to gameplay. The rule for strategy games is that success is rewarded with more success.

At the very beginning, it obviously makes sense to devote most or all of your evolution points to feeding. But there seems to be a point of diminishing returns there — the detailed species information has another of those green bars indicating how close to its maximum feeding-efficiency potential it is, and this bar seems to only asymptotically approach filling up completely. At some point, it makes sense to devote more and more points to speciation. I suspect that part of my problem is that I haven’t yet discovered the sweet spots for this transition. Do it too late, and the opponents will get the new species before you. Do it too soon and it cuts into the feeding points that would be otherwise growing your population and increasing your evolution point income, with the end result that, again, the opponents beat you to the new species.

You may be thinking “So what, so the opponents beat you out to a few early species. If you have the largest population, you’ll catch up.” Just one problem: When an opponent beats you to a species, it cuts you off. Each species can belong to only one clade at a time. Like the Wonders in Civilization, if someone else beats you to a species you’re in the middle of developing, the points you sank into it just go to waste. In one session, the opponents actually claimed all possible developments from one of my species, leaving it unable to develop further until one of said species went extinct and became up for grabs again.

You may wonder how it’s possible to compete at all in a situation like this, given that speciation is like a branching tree. Claim any common ancestor of all mammals, and you prevent anyone else from developing any mammals at all, right? The game has a way around this, and it’s one of the weirdest things about it in its implications: evolution in the game is what the manual calls “polyphyletic”, which is to say, any given species can evolve through multiple possible routes. Most major branches of the tree of life start out as bundles of about five or six possible common ancestors; not at all coincidentally, six is the maximum number of players. The options from these junctions aren’t entirely equivalent — for example, any of the early mammals can be developed into Miacis and and thence into the entire order of Carnivora, but only one, the Alphadon, can also give you thylacines.

But are thylacines worth it? From the point of view of someone pursuing intelligence, they’re something of a dead end — but then, so is the entire order of Carnivora. But there are strategic reasons to pursue as much diversity as you can: the increased ability to withstand global disasters, the ability to colonize more types of terrain and deny your opponents their exclusive use, even just the points it gives you at the end of the game. Moreover, thylacines and carnivores are predators, and thus have the ability to attack opponents’ creatures — something that you tend not to get on the routes to intelligence. (Saurosapiens notwithstanding — they’re descended from velociraptors.)

But that’s all quite theoretical to me at the moment. Anything I say about advanced strategy is just a repetition of what it says in the beautiful, rigorous, and oft-consulted manual.


evolutionSometime around the year 2000, when the dot-com bubble was deflating — a period that left me in a painful state of burnout, as the reduced demand for programmers paradoxically increased the demands on programmers — I spent a brief stint working under contract to Unplugged Games, Greg Costikyan’s premature venture to put games on cell phones. I honestly didn’t know who Costikyan was at the time, or who he would later become. If I had, I might have approached the work there with a more positive attitude. As it is, I did try to learn a bit about the man’s past work by picking up a copy of Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, but I didn’t spend long playing it. It seemed dauntingly complex, and unintuitive to interact with. My first sessions were spent thrashing about wondering what I could do and watching the computer-controlled opponents encroach on what I thought of as my territory.

Going back to it now, I think I’m doing a little better, having read enough of the voluminous documentation to understand the basic underlying mechanics. But I’m still definitely in the thrashing-about phase, capable of evolving new species but incapable of keeping them alive. The manual says that a single full game takes about six hours (and that’s a fixed length — the game is realtime and progresses through distinct phases regardless of player actions), but it’s clear that I’m going to need multiple practice sessions before I can go for a win.

The game content concerns the evolution of tetrapods up to the development of intelligent life. (So, no trilobites or burgess shale creatures here, fascinating episodes in evolutionary history though they are.) Note that “Intelligent life” here doesn’t necessarily mean humans. There are several possible contenders, based on what-ifs: Psittacisapiens (evolved from parrots, which are already well-adapted to developing spoken language), Elephasapiens (from elephants, which have large brains and a dextrous frontal appendage for manipulating tools 1Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made. ), and a few others. These, and their immediate ancestors, are the only made-up creatures in the game, and also the most significant creatures, because the first player to develop intelligence wins. Or, well, that’s not quite right: according to the manual, developing intelligent life ends the game, at which point the clade with the most points wins. Points are awarded for achieving various milestones (first dinosaur, first mammal, etc), as well as for total biomass and diversity, but intelligence is the game’s golden snitch, giving you a 50% bonus on everything else.

But that’s the ending, which I haven’t got anywhere near yet. At the beginning, all you have is a single early amphibian species. This strikes me as just about the worst place for a beginner. I have some intuitive notions about the differences between wolves and squirrels and giraffes and so forth. I even have some expectations about the mastodon, the eohippus, the tyrannosaur, etc. But when I’m given the choice of what to evolve next, I have to choose between things like eogyrinus and diplocaulus, and I have no idea what their relative merits are. But I suppose this is what makes the game educational. Still, it probably means I should switch to playing the Cenozoic scenario to get used to the game mechanics and strategy on more familiar grounds before trying to tackle a full game.

To me, the game it most clearly evokes is Civilization: it’s a game played on a world map at a large time scale (although here the time scale is large enough for plate tectonics to significantly alter the map over the course of a game), in which you expand your population and pursue a branching tree of developments, competing with a number of opponents for advancement and dominance. In fact, it reminds me a little of the Civ II “Age of Reptiles” mod, in which all your units were dinosaurs, and you researched technologies like “serrated teeth” and “bony plates” in order to build new types of dinosaur. But that was ultimately played within the framework of Civ, which meant that it was all based on your dinosaurs doing unlikely things like living in cities and tilling the soil. Really, in some ways, this game plays a lot more like a competitive version of The Gungan Frontier. Creatures roam about freely unless told not to, reproduce spontaneously if they’re healthy and well-fed, even potentially prey on their teammates.

More about the game mechanics next time.

1 Not to mention the fact that, like parrots, they’re one of the few animals known to vocally imitate heard sounds — although this hadn’t yet been observed at the time this game was made.

1997: A New Beginning

Egypt 1156 B.C. has proved unplayable. For one thing, lines of dialogue frequently cut out prematurely — something that I’ve seen happen on other Cryo/Dreamcatcher games. The standard solution for sound problems is to turn off DirectX hardware acceleration, but that didn’t help here. Suspecting that the system speed was the problem, I also used Turbo to turn it down to 1%. This seemed to help somewhat, but there were still a lot of skipped lines.

I could probably work around sound problems in dialogue if necessary, by turning voice off and subtitles on, but that’s just the start of the problems. Opening a piece of papyrus in my inventory, I found there was no way to close it. Certain controls would blur it a little, as if it were going out of focus as part of a going-away animation, but it didn’t go away. Possibly relatedly, when I tell it to exit the game, it sits there playing music and doing nothing until I press Esc. I recall that other games by the same company behave similarly, except that instead of an empty screen, they display the credits. So it looks like there’s some sort of graphics glitch here.

Someday, I’m going to put together a bunch of obsolete hardware and install Windows 98 on it for all these recalcitrant late-1990s games. If I were smart, I would have done this already, in preparation for this stage of the chronological run-through. As it is, I wanted to play an adventure game for 1997 in the hope that I could finish it in a single week, and instead, I’ve spent a full week exhausting my supply of them without getting started.

For my next attempt, I’ve chosen Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life, an educational strategy game sponsored by the Discovery Channel and designed by none other than indie game icon Greg Costikyan. After a couple of false starts — running Egypt seems to make my system forget how DirectX works until reboot — it installs and runs successfully. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, and I probably won’t be getting any gaming in tonight, but we’ll see how it goes. It seems to be designed more or less in the general mold of Civilization, which gives me hope that I can get in a complete session over the next few days.