Ecology or economy as a model for game design?

The Ecological Model of Game Design

Over a series of posts, the Make Them Play blog uses economic ideas and models to make a theoretical framework for game design. It has made fascinating reading. Over four blogs (growing all the time!) the writer, Bastiaan has outlined how game elements can be identified as assets or liabilities and looked at cost and value in-game. When I happened across this series, I was at a crucial time in the design of our game. My last blog post tells of the feedback we received from the Cardboard Edison Award. A key point was that the game needed a more complexity of game play. I will write later about the decisions we made in response to this, but suffice to say that Bastiaan’s blogs gave me a structure for my thoughts that proved invaluable. So thank you Bastiaan!

Economics in Ecology

Hot on the heels of grateful feelings, I started to wonder if other academic fields might offer us useful insights into game play. My own academic background includes the study of ecology. That made my brain cogs turn. There is some overlap between the two disciplines. Ecologists often talk about species having an economy – a metaphor that illustrates how a species uses its finite resources of energy and nutrients to its best advantage. For example poppies invest very little energy in body mass, they germinate, grow and flower very quickly, taking advantage of being the first on bare ground. On the other hand, oak trees invest loads of energy in body mass and so can flower repeatedly over many many years.

As I thought further, my feeling was that there are a number of parallels and useful analogies to be had from ecology. I’m going to fire out some initial ideas and thoughts. Further depth and density can follow. Perhaps you can add a little perspective.

Ecology is the study of organisms and their relations to each other and their environment. Straight away we can see that the ‘organisms’ in question can be read as ‘players’ or their in-game personae and the ‘environment’ is the game board, cards, pieces and rules.

Dynamic Game Ecosystems

The game can be thought of as an ecosystem. Ecosystems are dynamic, changing systems of interactions between organisms and the environment. It is an important point that over time, the ecosystem changes and behaviours change to meet it. A classic example is the development of forests. From bare ground, weed species arrive first and colonise. They need few resources and can grow quickly, stabilising the soil and trapping moisture. They provide shelter and food for other species that follow. Next come grasses and bushy species in who’s shelter tree saplings grow and eventually dominate all.

Let’s look at Catan in this light. The environment consists of the island. The first signs of colonisation are the villages. In their wake come roads. These are quick and easy to build and are essential for the structures that follow. Later, like the succession of trees, players look to the more sophisticated strategies of ‘longest road’ or ‘biggest army’ as well as cities. Some players, dependent on the resources available might choose to be weeds: building roads and villages quickly and easily. Others, with access to stone and wheat, might decide to be oaks and invest lots of resources over a longer time and build Cities. These players, like oaks are playing a long game and risk being over run in the early stages but are looking for big payouts in the future.

Like ecosystems, the game is dynamic. Players are influenced by each other’s decisions and change their strategies accordingly.

Competition and Mutualism

Ecologists also talk of competition and mutualism. Think of a snake hunting a mouse. It may be in competition with an owl for that mouse. They have different hunting strategies and, once caught and consumed, the mouse cannot be shared. They are in competition for that resource. On the other hand, bees and flowers don’t compete, they have a mutually beneficial arrangement. Bees get lovely sweet nectar full of sugar energy and the flowers get pollinated. That’s mutualism.

If I take this example back to Catan, some activities can be seen as competitive. The players compete for limited space on the board – the clever ‘nearest neighbour rule of village building; or they compete for the longest road or largest army. On the other hand, you can’t win a game of Catan without a bit of mutualism, in other words trade.

Ecological Niches

In response to competition for resources, species often become specialists. They are the very best at one skill. They can out-compete all other species in their own small niche. Darwin’s famous finches on the Galapagos Island are a classic example. He noted teh diversity of beaks in the finches he was observing. He went to spot that the beak shape of different species was linked directly to exploiting their own particular food source. Nut eaters had strong beaks, grub-eaters had long sharp beaks for pecking and so on.

Picture in your mind’s eye the various roles in Pandemic. The Medic can heal more efficiently; the contingency planner allows the team to exploit special cards more effectively. This mechanism gives each player a niche. Not only does it make them feel valued and special as unique team members, but it also means that gameplay has variety from one play through to the next.

In the recent rethink of Build and its evolution into Build 2.0 we considered niches. We had found that players made the same sorts of decisions time after time. So we added niches, specialisms. Some characters were natural traders, others were better farmers. Soon we had a balanced yet asymmetric game which lent itself to both competition and mutualism. Nice.

I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this analogy, still yet to build it into a framework as strong as Bastiaan’s economic model. I think, if I lay this out for public consideration, then maybe you will have a perspective that will help me.