Technology, Ecology and Frugality. Behind the scenes vision of the game SOATE.
Bridge and paradox
I was born in the seventies (close to Paris in France) and since I was a child, I like, on my free time, to imagine universes, to invent things, maybe to escape from a reality where I have never really found my place.
If creation is part of your life, either as a hobby or more, I guess many of you can share this.
This is one of the reasons why I immersed myself into the computer technology area of the 80’ and felt young into the game design. I like the myriad of challenges that come with game creation. Even the design of a simple game is quite demanding.
Having say that, I have always felt the need to get in touch with nature, first with my teenager’s bike, then by doing treks into the wild. I have always found myself at home in wild and preserved “nature” places.
The myth of neutral technology
I am more and more concerned about the impact of technology. I often heard that technology is neutral, but I do not subscribe anymore to this theory (I used to). A technology can be oriented, for the good or for the worse. I am afraid that technologies are more and more oriented, not in the “right way”.
I believe that a technology really “neutral” is a technology that do not have significative impact even with a non-responsible use, technology materials included, and a ‘positive impact’ technology is a technology that have a significative positive impact even with a non-responsible use.
If you believe this, I guess you will have some difficulties to make a list of the top 10 neutral technologies of our age. And what about the 10 ‘positive’ ones! (even if I believe we can find a lot of neutral and positive technologies, among low techs for example, but not among the current and most fashion high techs of our time). The day when VR tools will use far less components and materials than today, through its entire lifecycle, getting close to a “low tech” approach, we may approach an example of neutral technology. For now, this is far from the reality because this is simply not a goal for those who are using it or for those who are building it.
When I help teams on their product, I try to promote “eco-conception”, a way to move the cursor of a product impact in the right direction. But real eco-conception should prevent a lot of products and technologies to be deployed or promoted. We are still far from it.
I am not against technology, I am using it, it is part of my professional life, especially regarding my experience on Digital Transformation and Teams management. I just think that technology has evolved more quickly than our ability to deal with it.
In terms of how to live together, and how to live with harmony on this planet, I believe we are still at the beginning of the learning curve, while at the same time, technology curves impacts are exponential.
The story of my life, until now, has always consisted in trying to build a bridge between these different sides of my reality, which appear a little bit paradoxical. That is indeed not the easiest bridge we could build, especially today with all that we know about the links between the loss of biodiversity and our technological impact. I believe more and more developers and creators are building the same bridge.
To go beyond the walls
Either by opportunity or simply from a logical reason, chance, or contingency, I have spent 20 years working in the ‘digital’ industry, at first as a developer, then a manager, a coach, a guide, animated by a passion for transmission. I currently enjoy a lot supporting teams or individuals, especially with the intention to bring a positive impact, both from a social and environmental point of view, whatever the sector is, digital or not.
Based on my own experience, it is unfortunately quite common to find walls between those who build things, those who manage, those who coach, etc.…
I believe we can live beyond these walls, at least through various occupations and activities.
So, in 2020, “thanks” to the time “offered” by the pandemic conjuncture, I have finalized a game prototype I had done in the past, and published it on Steam, under the name “Story of a tiny earth, the symbolic ages” (SOATE), as a contribution to go beyond these walls.
Besides, “Product Management”, which deals with all the different aspects of a product lifecycle, is part of my professional activities, and I believe it makes sense to directly publish products myself.
I must confess that, for this game, and until now, I was far more interested by the creation part that by the ‘how to sell it’ part, so this post only talks about the creation process. I am a little bit saddened by the “commercial” aspects of the game industry. Maybe the subject of a future post.
Therefore, SOATE currently try to survive in the dark abyss of steam, among tons of other games. If you play the game and if you like it, many thanks if you can speak and share!
Life as a maze
In 2020, the pandemic “gave me the time” to make and finalize some game prototypes, and SOATE is thus one of these.
When I was a child, the game Pac Man was like a revolution for me, and it is maybe the game who gave me the virus of game design. But Pac Man can also be seen as a symbol of our “resource’s dependencies”, of our difficulties to deal with limits, as the essence of its gameplay is to collect gums, more and more, faster and faster. A lot of games follow the same logic.
So, I have tried to imagine an inverse way to collect things, a way to save and rescue rather than a way to remove or destroy, or even simply collect. Without having to kill anyone, but not pretending that we may not have to face opponents, the same for the cultural transformations that occur in our societies, with more and more oppositions, if not conflicts, between people looking for different if not opposite directions.
Old SOATE prototype, a couple of years ago. Life seen through the maze perspective.
I also feel that today’s cultural transformations (as the ones which are looking to increase the positive impact of our lives) are like trying to progress though mazes with different entries and exits, different paths to try, lot of traps and dead ends too…and sometimes opponents. I have tried to symbolize these aspects in SOATE.
A level in 1.1 version.
Gaming and ecology
Most of the time, a game is nothing but “green”.
It is difficult to forecast what will be the impact of the gaming industry. Currently, both because of material resources it requires and energy consumption it demands, game industry is far from being green (for French readers, I highly recommend the JV magazine #79 with a focus on this side, https://www.jvlemag.com/ . The book “Playing Nature” by Alenda Y.Chang is a great resource on game versus ecology subject. Please do not hesitate to share your own links on these topics).
But what about a video game potential to change our point of view in a positive way regarding the impact of our lives? A game with a negative impact but which can compensate by the positive impact it will bring with its ‘pedagogical’ effects?
On my experience, the importance is often to try, every time we can, to move the cursor in order to have a more sustainable impact, and I’m still thinking that video games, through there high potential of interactions, can / should play an important part in our ‘cultural’ transformations.
A way to hack the cultural stories than define ourselves and our societies.
Of course, a video game in itself has not a positive impact, but if it helps the player to walk further on his transformation process, maybe the overall impact would become positive, and this is what motivates me during my hobby time: to be able to create stuffs, can be a game, can be something else, that will contribute to our transformations for more sustainable lives, helping to restore the links between ourselves and all the other species, between ourselves and different human cultures, taking into account the vulnerable, human included.
I’m not saying that SOATE achieves this, but I hope that more and more game designer are moving toward this direction.
Old SOATE prototype: the tree of life symbol.
SOATE and design choices.
The current PC build of SOATE weight around 100 MG. Today, it’s quite easy to make a game requiring hundreds or thousands of MB, and it is up to each person involved in a video game creation process to make games more frugal. The same for a product whatever it is.
The frugality of a game, either regarding its size or its energy consumption, is a matter of compromises, from the very beginning of the creation process to its end. It is also highly correlated to the skills involved during this creation process.
Let’s give some examples on SOATE.
Light, or not
Levels are spherical in SOATE, without light the “sphere” looks flat, and it becomes difficult to differentiate foreground items from background ones.
But light always comes with a performance overhead. Light need computations. Based on my own experience, the skills to find the good compromise with lights and shadows, the same with the skills required for modelling objects, play a crucial role on the final impact of a game (regarding the impact of the development process in itself, that’s another story. Estimate the full impact of a product, taking into account its build process, can become highly complex and is beyond the goal of this article).
In SOATE, I wanted to have a spot light effect on the player avatar, but trying at the same time to use the most unlit shaders I could to optimize performance (note : shaders are dedicated piece of code to render object. ‘Unlit’ shader do not use light computations).
Spot light effect…without spot light.
In the game there are shaders whose aim is to bring this light effect without the need of additional light(s), based on the distance or the direction between the camera and an object (using dot product).
Computing the direction angle is quite fast and using these kinds of shaders help me decrease the performance needs of the game.
Of course, it’s always a matter of skills and will. An expert on light and shader who would not be looking to make a game frugal could achieve better overall result than myself. I believe that the importance is how everyone can try to move the cursor in the “right” direction (and subjective direction), according to her or his owns skills and means.
When I look to the performance profiler curves of SOATE, I would like to be able to do much more in terms of optimizations and frugality, but if I compare to the first prototypes I’ve made, I can tell you there is a big difference.
SOATE and display resolutions.
I’ve designed the game in order to use 1920*1080 as a default resolution, which appears to be the more popular one. The current game version does not integrate higher texture resolutions for the main gameplay assets. It is a choice. But it is not a simple one.
When a game build integrates assets with different sizes and resolutions, it participates, either directly or indirectly, to the “If I change my computer / mobile to a new one with higher characteristics the experience will be better”. I’ve tried to avoid this dark side of video game the best I could. It is still possible through options to adapt quality, but mainly for settings related to the rendering process. Of course, a game can load assets from a server on demand, but this oblige the user to be connected, and the impact of this pattern may not be ideal.
In SOATE, there is a feature that can be controversial regarding the compromises I have done: the retro modes. These modes allow the players to play through an old monitor inside the game, or through an arcade cabinet, back in the first decade of video game.
When the game is played through retro modes, the need of high-resolution assets for what is appearing inside the “in-game monitor” is lower, as the visible part of the game decreases. These modes have probably a better interest if you have high resolutions and big screens.
But it is not perfect. The retro modes add 3D objects to the scene, plus lights, and thus add an overhead regarding performance. It adds some post-processing too (the first retro modes prototypes had far more complex post-processing effect than the 1.1 version does, because I have tried to limit the overhead to its minimum).
One of the first retro mode prototypes, in Unity development environment.
So why do these modes exist? At first the retro modes purpose was only to make a trailer. The story could have stopped here. But I was not comfortable with the fact that the trailer could show something not present in the game itself, as I’ve received good feedbacks regarding this retro effect. The same with a bloom effect I’ve added later.
It was also important for me that players with strong hardware configurations could also enjoy the game, without having to integrate high resolutions assets inside the build.
When you are looking to bring your part, however small it may be, in the transformations of our societies, I believe it is important not to limit your audience. The retro modes are present in the game but are not an essential part of it. When you play the levels for the first time, the retro modes are not present and come as a bonus later if the player manages to save enough species.
The retro modes 3D objects are limited in order not to add too many triangles in scenes and thus to limit overhead. The additional light area is limited to the minimum.
I know than some players could expect something more, and other would find these modes to be a pure gadget, but I try to find a ‘good’ compromise, which by nature is an impossible mission.
It is also possible to zoom in or out, to adjust the experience based on the screen size and resolutions preferences, and possibilities, of the player.
I’ve made some optimizations to my shaders in order to balance the retro modes overhead, and the current SOATE version, with the retro modes on, has lower impact than the alpha versions which did not integrate these modes.
“Try to find something to remove if you add something new!”. This is a key approach for me.
But whatever I can do or say, retro modes have an overhead.
Retro mode prototype with ‘spot like’ imitations through shaders.
Frugality, desktop and mobile
We sometimes hear that "small games" are for mobile devices, not desktop ones. I believe this is less and less true, thanks to a lot of indie developers who have shown that a desktop game could offer a great gaming experience with a huge economy of means. I will maybe develop a mobile version of SOATE. This version will be more frugal than the desktop one...but that doesn't mean that the desktop one could not be frugal too.
Infrastructures behind multiplayer games are not innocent when comes the time to estimate the impact of the game industry. For SOATE, I've added a local multiplayer mode, through a split screen. We have only one planet to protect, therefore it’s important for me to integrate a multiplayer mode where players share the same world. But split screen can multiply the rendering needs by two (or more), so the split screen mode uses simplified shaders in order to minimize the performance overhead.
An example of a 2 players co-op level.
Through Steam feature “Remote Play Together”, it is possible to play this co-op mode remotely, close to a streaming mode.
It is quite difficult to say if this mode has a good or bad effect regarding the frugality point of view, and we should have a way to measure the impact in the future.
In SOATE you can unlock species descriptions and eco-friendly gestures to promote. It is optional, but it can help to get additional life and clues on how to better succeed in levels.
Example of “pedagogical text”
The writing of these texts was far more difficult than I was thinking at first (and not only for the English version as I’m French!). I have found quite difficult not to sound too naive, or lesson giver writing from a privileged position. I think it is almost impossible to avoid this side effect.
Having say that, I genuinely believe that it is possible to offer an experience fun and pedagogical at the same time.
I hope to be able, one day, to create pedagogical experience without having to explicitly use pedagogical materials. To create an experience that will be pedagogical by itself. This looks like a grail for me. If you think about a game which achieves this, please share through feedbacks on this article.
Iterations, again and again
When you try to create through a path of compromises, you have to prepare yourself to iterate a lot, cause each new feature brings a new compromise which can bring the need to update or remove an existing feature.
Some might say that creating is always a matter of compromises, especially in the processing of creating video games. But in the case of ‘frugal games’ compromises, it’s like travelling alone, as there are not so many examples of game having the ‘frugal’ constraint at the top of the list (at the top, not as just a nice to offer, or the technical goal of dedicated teams once the design choices are done). Again, do not hesitate to share through feedback your own examples.
The spherical shape of the game itself had several mutations and experimentations, to find, if not the best compromise, the one that I was the most comfortable with. Having shapes with minimal rendering overhead was crucial for me. The same for the way to use textures on it.
And sometimes glitches are more inventive than their creators…
A glitch. I love this one !
I cannot tell if the current version of SOATE makes the best compromise of all the alpha versions that lead to the current release. When you must embrace compromises, I believe that it is almost impossible to feel completely happy at the end, as building a bridge between opposites directions always lead to a forest of paradox, contradictions, and critics.
The list of game design choices and adaptions made since the first steps of SOATE could fill many pages, the creation path being a maze in itself.
Through this simple post, I wanted to give you a ‘behind the scenes’ vision of SOATE creation experience. Taking frugality in mind adds a lot of complexity, at the risk to lose yourself or the players, including the experience you try to offer. But I believe this is a risk we need to take, if we believe we must transform ourselves in a way or the other, including transformations of our creations materials whatever they are.
My utopia? If more and more people, step after step, try to move the cursor in the direction of a more sustainable way of living, I hope we will have to deal less and less with paradoxes and difficulties trying to make frugal products. This will indicate that the transformation in progress has started to become consistent.
That’s maybe a dream. But dreams matter.
Dominique Da Costa