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Road To The IGF: The Wacky Hybrids of  Plant Tycoon

Road To The IGF: The Wacky Hybrids of Plant Tycoon

November 6, 2007 | By Leigh Alexander

November 6, 2007 | By Leigh Alexander
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Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Arthur Humphrey of Last Day of Work, developer of Plant Tycoon -- a real-time plant-raising and breeding game that is puzzle, action and simulation title all at once.

Arthur Humphrey says he's been making games since he was a kid on a VIC-20. "All that wasted time playing games instead of meeting girls, and finally I can tell my parents it was all part of my master plan, and my game dev career!" He laughs.

Last Day of Work is his studio, and it's created 4 digital download and boxed retail games so far: Fish Tycoon, Virtual Villagers - A New Home, Virtual Villagers - The Lost Children, and most recently Plant Tycoon. Humphrey says since the games have been "very successful" on casual portals, they could be called casual games.

What motivates you to make casual games?

I'm more interested in making accessible games, rather than really aiming for "the casual demographic." It seems like a great way to fail would be to try to target a game specifically at women: "Hmm, if I just make everything pink..." Everyone defines "casual" a bit differently. At Last Day of Work, the definition is "highly accessible", or "extremely shallow learning curve" -- that's it.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

I am a big fan of the design philosophies of Will Wright, as well as Peter Molyneux. I think simulations with a lot of soul are a very interesting hybrid. It's all about fusing story with emergence; too much of either is a bad thing. Too much emergence makes a game a soulless sim, almost a programming experiment. Too much story puts a game "on rails."

In Virtual Villagers (which we had previously entered in the IGF, as well as a sequel this year), the little villagers' motivations, likes, dislikes and simple AI create a lot of interesting interactions, but all the while the player is navigating a fairly linear (and hopefully interesting) story. In Plant Tycoon, the emergence comes out of the use of fertilizers, the care (or abuse) of plants, and traversing a vast matrix of species combinations, while bootstrapping a very traditional game economy.

What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of Plant Tycoon?

We use a proprietary framework, for the most part. Our focus with tools has been to try to make the game-creation process a type of 'meta game' for the engineers. How fun was Pinball Construction Set, back in the day? If we can get our tools high-level enough, I feel like we make a lot of the heavy lifting feel exciting. It is important that it is easy, intuitive, and provides pretty quickly visible results for the development team.

What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?

Plant Tycoon has procedural graphic content. That's not done so often in the casual space. The plants all look unique... even 15 plants from the same species will all be unique-looking, even as they follow the rules of their species. The game constructs the plants based on a large catalog of twigs, stems, stalks and flowers, and comes up with some pretty wacky-looking breeds.

How long has Last Day of Work been developing Plant Tycoon, and what has the process been like?

Plant Tycoon was originally developed and released on PDAs in 2004. At that time there were exactly two of us working on the game. This new desktop version was more or less a complete rewrite, but a lot of the growth and real-time algorithms were tuned on PDA and then rolled into this version. If we just count the desktop development time, it took about 6 months. If we had to make it from scratch, it would probably be more like 10-12 months.

If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

We underestimated the amount of time it would take us to bring this game to desktop platforms (shocking, I know...). We also underestimated the minimum level of production quality that we ourselves would be willing to accept. If we knew it would take that amount of time we might have approached it differently. It's funny-- after several games, it is still very difficult for me to estimate game development timelines. If we double our estimates, we still come in late. If we are up against a deadline, we always somehow make it. It's like a game project is a sponge that is always designed to take up all your available time, and always keep you under a bit of pressure.

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?

Every year when the IGF is held, I look forward to it because I end up with 4, 5, or 6 new games that I love. I think the indie development scene is really important in these big-budget days. Big studios can't push risky ideas through their boardrooms because of the enormous cost of development, and this hinders innovation (yes, everyone knows this), but now we are seeing indie studios become the seed of inspiration for full budget titles, and truly wonderful titles. Look at Portal -- The cake is a lie!

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?

While you've been reading this interview: I'm in ur base killing ur doodz!


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