Scourge, and my urge to verge toward Demiurge

Let's pretend I haven't neglected the blog for a year. There's important stuff to talk about.

In September 2010, I was on a late-night train from Manhattan back to my parents’ home in Westchester, when I decided to open SheepShaver and play an old game to pass the time. The game was called Byte Me!, released by Freeverse Software twelve years ago. Relying on the classic Mac OS and burdened by a once impressive OpenGL-rendered game board, Byte Me! is nearly impossible to play nowadays, let alone enjoy– but the game’s unique mechanics make it an all-time favorite of mine.

Byte Me! was itself a remake of the game Fungus by Ryan Koopmans. That was a school project back in ’92, but by then the basic game principles were already in place:

  1. Two to four players are given “heads” that are placed in a circle on a square board.
  2. Players take turns growing their bodies out from their heads by attaching shapes to themselves.
  3. Players who touch can bite one another; biting a player can divide their body, and the portions disconnected from their head wither and die.
  4. If attaching a shape to yourself causes your body to envelop a region of an opponent’s body, you seize that region.
  5. You win by growing your body to be the largest, or, ideally, by destroying your opponents’ bodies.

That’s the Fungus game variety in a nutshell. There can be variations, but the core is the same; you grow as big as you can, gobbling up your opponents and conquering the board. This is how Fungus and its various clones have been played for the past twenty years.

Sadly, in the past decade that folks have tried revitalizing this game, no one has iterated on these core game principles. I think that’s silly; some of the most successful games today are adaptations of simple board games. Fungus was originally played on a machine with a 25 MHz processor, 4 MB of memory and a 256 color display. Why is network play the primary improvement of this game since ’92? As my later posts will demonstrate, there are some obvious player abilities to experiment with, provided that a developer simply makes the time to do so.

Anyway, back to my 2010 commute. It had been a few weeks since I rediscovered the game, and I was regularly kicking the hardest AI’s ass, so I began to wonder how a machine would reason about the game board. Thirty minutes into that train of thought, I convinced myself that I would be the game dev who would bring Fungus into the 21st century. I wasn’t aiming for fame or financial success; I just wanted this game to be playable on a modern machine.

In three months I had a nice working prototype built in Flash. But in late 2010, Flash’s future was uncertain; its hardware accelerated graphics API was in beta, Apple was fighting to prevent Adobe’s tooling from targeting iOS, and Gruberites had the ear of the press. If I was going to make this game, it would need to be built on a solid platform.

Furthermore, I wanted this project to be an opportunity for me to learn to write an AI, to learn how to implement network play, and to learn how to write a flexible codebase so that I wouldn’t be limited to the basic Fungus template. I called this project Scourge, and it’s been eating up my free time ever since.

In my next post I’ll go into further depth about the goals of my project, where it’s currently at and what I’ve learned.

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