Prototyping: Photosynthesis

15 Apr Prototyping: Photosynthesis

We got a pretty good response to the prototyping post last February. A few people wanted us to actually delve into the details of each and discuss our thoughts on them. By now, we’ve settled on a good idea, but I think it would be worthwhile to take you through the prototypes one by one in a series of blog posts, ending with a more detailed explanation of Luna.

After deciding to put our heads together and work as a team, the first game we prototyped was called Photosynthesis. The core concept of Photosynthesis has been in the back of our minds since before BAMF. Here is the elevator pitch:

In order to fulfill these objectives, you have to manage your resources. You must gather water through your roots, and sunlight in your leaves in order to make sugar, which is the resource that allows you to build out your tree. Think of it as a cross between plant biology and SimCity. We saw this as an opportunity to learn about the complexity of trees in the form of a game, and create a simulation that would actually teach players some biology. We started doing a lot of research about how plants and trees grow, and tried to capture the interesting processes in our game design.

Awesome plant cells!

Awesome plant cells!

The first iteration of the game aimed to create a simple resource model. This was actually a prototype Stephane had slapped together before we had even started working on BAMF! You had a little seedling with two leaves at the start of the game. Water would fall from the sky and be gathered by your roots. Leaves would periodically need to be hydrated, or they would wither and die. If sun rays hit a hydrated leaf, a unit of sugar would be produced, which could then be used to build the tree out more. Excess water would stay and flow through the tree until it was consumed.

Water circulating in the trunk of the tree and hydrating leaves.

Water circulating in the trunk of the tree and hydrating leaves.

Rays of light hitting the leaves and producing sugar instantly.

Rays of light hitting the leaves and producing sugar instantly.

This created some challenge in the early game, since you had to build out your tree wisely and balance the three resources. It got boring quickly though, because as soon as you passed the early stages of the game, a positive feedback loop would develop and you would have infinite resources. We tried to counter-balance this with upkeep costs for the leaves and branches, and this helped a little bit, but the game lacked depth.

Our biggest success for this prototype was probably the interface for creating your tree. It was fun to drag out a new branch and place leaves on it. The game allowed players to create some pretty whacky trees. We added some simple physics so that part of your tree would collapse if you made something ridiculous. We ultimately weren’t satisfied with the design and went back to the drawing board.

With our second design, we opted for a tile based system. The idea was that every tile type (leaf, root, trunk) would have multiple levels of development, from a tiny twig which could only support a few leaves, to thicker vegetation, and finally the massive trunk supporting the entire structure. The tile based nature made it a little bit easier to play with the game rules. We also decided to add seasons to the game. You would only be able to grow in the spring and summer. In the fall you had to store resources in buds which would survive the winter and sprout again in the spring. The idea was that re-building your leaves every spring would introduce a challenge and we could vary the difficulty of seasons by playing with weather parameters. We also added fruit as something that you could place on your tree. They would be expensive in sugar cost, but have a chance to create another seedling nearby that could grow into an additional tree.

Growing in the second prototype

Growing in the second prototype

The great voxel tree

The great voxel tree

We had a ton of ideas on how to expand the idea too. Would you have different upgrades you could invest in to evolve your tree? Maybe the game could have multiple trees and you have to manage the ecology of an entire forest?

Concept art for PhotoSynthesis by Eric

Concept art for PhotoSynthesis by Eric

The second prototype had a lot of the same issues as the first. After the initial struggle, it became hard to keep the gameplay interesting. We thought of adding an evolution component, so that your tree would face greater threats (animals and weather) and would have to evolve to match its environment. We were never able to get this far though, and the core idea didn’t seem compelling or marketable enough. We couldn’t find that potato chip of fun that would keep players coming back. Trees and plants are also fairly autonomous and simple. They don’t really have agency, so it seemed strange to have the player make decisions on behalf of the tree, when a tree just does what it was programmed to do.

In the end, we shelved the idea until further notice. It’s a shame because it’s one of those ideas that sounds pretty cool on paper, but in practice we couldn’t make it work. Maybe our original fondness of the idea was misplaced… what do you think? Would you really want to play a game about growing a tree?

So we moved on to our next project. This one equally quirky, but with a more human component. More on that in the next post!

Tags: