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This is the third set of designer's notes for Children of the Nile. Tony Leier talks about the setting, the people and the society of the game.
Our world on the Nile
The first two design insights talk about what we want to do with Children of the Nile - make an immersive, organic, ancient Egypt where you rule the people and kingdom as Pharaoh. I'm going to talk about making this Egypt, and share some of the things that go into that.
The Nile valley is a unique place, some of the most fertile land in the world in a thin valley and flat delta, surrounded by vast stretches of barren desert. Plus there's that little detail of the yearly Inundation. Egypt has millenniums of recorded history too. How do we take this setting, and our vision of a realistic 3D world, and make it into a PC game?
It all starts with research. Part of being immersive is making the setting authentic and believable, so knowing as much as possible about the topic is crucial. Ancient Egypt is a popular topic, with new research and discoveries happening all of the time, so finding information is, overall, not too hard. Though sifting through it all can be time consuming. Along with the research, we decide what else we need to make the environment authentic. A fully controllable camera in the 3D world and the day/night cycle are the most notable of these general features of the game world.
After we have figured out what goes into the world we are creating and how we want it to look, we get the rest of the creative and programming team together and work out how to achieve our desired world. The mechanics of the rise and fall of the Nile, the growth and appearance of the plants, the sounds of the animals, and even the layout of the map of the valley- all of these things have to work together to create a believable and attractive world to build upon.
In CotN, before you even begin to create your city, you can watch the sun set over the flooding river, listen to the lions roar in the night, and see the hippo's graze on the floodplain while the fields of wheat and barley wave in the breeze. As the city grows, the lush vegetation of the riverbanks and the dry, desert cliffs continue to serve as the background to your city, keeping you immersed in the land of the Nile.
I remember more than a year ago when I first saw the camera following a person through a city. You select a person, move the camera to the angle you like, attach the camera to the person, and then sit back and watch. I sat for quite a while just watching this person walking through the city working and shopping. Having an immersive world is nice, but it's putting the people in the world that truly draws you in.
Focusing game systems on the behaviors of the people, rather than interactions of buildings or the control and transport of resources for example, has had a profound effect on the game. We constantly ask ourselves "Is that something that a person would really do?" If it's not believable enough, we revise it. For example, ancient Egypt is one of the places in the world where it's pretty easy to live off of the land. Fowl and game crowd the river banks, fish fill the river, fruits adorn many trees, and grains grow plentifully. This meant to us that we couldn't have a person starve or be overly driven by the search for food, since why would a person not eat if even low quality food were readily available? In game terms, this means that if some shopkeeper runs out of food, he's going to just stop working and go out and fish or pick pomegranates instead. He's not as productive or as happy as he could be, but he is sustaining himself.
In today's version of the game, I still sometimes sit back and just watch a person move around the city. These people do more things now, they have their own names, sometimes stop to interact with other people in the city, and even have a bit of family history behind them. These ancient Egyptians take care of themselves, as they harvest materials for their shops, or visit a hospital for dentistry work, or hire entertainers for a grand feast at their townhouse. The people act like you expect them to, making the world all the more real.
As we've released information about the game, we've watched the public's reaction to it, and have followed forum threads about the game with great interest. Quite frequently, we give out information on a couple of aspects of the game, and hint about another, related aspect. It's captivating to read the forums as forum-goers correlate the information they have and speculate upon the details of what we hinted about. So very often, these speculations are right on the money.
That encouraging for that's exactly what we wanted to happen for the players of CotN. We create a realistic world, with realistic people, and then put then in a society that makes intuitive sense to a player. If the player asks "Why did that person do that?", or "Why did that happen?", we want the answer to be the first thing a player thinks of. We don't want the player to have to figure out the rules of the game engine to answer the question.
An example of how this comes into the design process is the design of the worship system. We knew we were going to have religion in the game, and they player should build many temples and shrines. So what do temples and shrines do in the game? We didn't want to have mythological consequences (good or bad), since mythology isn't all that close to the 'real' that we are after. We also don't want the player to just build a bunch of temples to get a certain cultural rating, or to mechanically make 20% of the people in the city not-angry, since answering "Why did that temple make that person happy?" with "Because a temple makes 6 people in a city happy" is an arcane game engine rule.
So we took a step back and asked "Why did Ancient Egypt have temples and shrines?" The answer was simple, and seems kind of obvious after the fact, though it reflects a subtle shift in how we are approaching the game. The game's about the society of the people, not the buildings. The people of ancient Egypt want to worship their gods, and they get a little upset if they can't. So Pharaoh builds temples and supports priests, so that the people can go and worship when they want to. The people in the society have certain wants and needs, and they interact with each other to achieve these needs.
So if you see that a farmer in the city is angry, you can look into it and discover he wanted to worship Hapi since the inundation this year was poor. The farmer couldn't worship Hapi, because the shrine to Hapi was closed up. The shrine is closed because the local priest hasn't prepared the shrine for worship. The local priest hasn't done the preparation because the priest hasn't been paid his stipend of food by the government, and so has gone on strike and is protesting at the palace.
The causes and effects of the society are visible and authentic, based upon the real needs of the people of the city, all set in a immersive world. That's the simulation of ancient Egypt that we're creating. Next, Pharaoh comes along, wanting to do important Pharaoh things, and so he must manipulate and use this society to achieve his ends. But that's a story for another design insight.
-Tony Leier (7/13/2004)