Introversion invite you inside their game design petri dish

Introversion, makers of Prison Architect and Uplink, are running a Fail Masterclass. Each month they reveal a new prototype for a game they’ve decided not to make over on their YouTube channel, and then make the prototype available to buy. All the money goes to the charity War Child.

This month’s cautionary tale: Nanotech, a game about building microscopic creatures in a petri dish and giving them simple, gobbling behaviours. It looks neat.

Nanotech seemingly didn’t make it far through the development process, and what’s there is more toy than game. There are also some “mixed metaphors” in its concept, as designer Chris Delay explains, but I’ll do my best to summarise. The idea is that you’re peering down a microscope into a petri dish filled with tiny robots, molecules and amino acids, and the player has to bioengineer tiny lifeforms that can process the resources around it. Delay suggests that the scenario shown in the video could be an oil spill, where you’re trying to create a creature that can consume the oil, but later levels might have taken place inside human bodies or against airborne viruses.

In practice, what this means is that the screen is filled with lots of tiny dots, many of which are connected by lots of tiny lines. Among the motionless hydrogen chains are nanobots, which are worm-like chains that slither across the dish as if in a viscous fluid. Then Delay builds a new organism, a terrible mesh of lines and dots, to which he attaches “attractors” that pull it towards nearby pollution. It’s a simple behaviour that gives the illusion of intelligence, and it’s fascinating watching it wobble its way around. Then he gives it the power to procreate.

There are no other scenarios in the prototype, no escalation, no real challenge, but it’s a neat-looking visualisation. I’d like a game that had creatures which moved like this, even if I can’t see what game Nanotech might have become.

This is the fourth entry in Introversion’s Fail Masterclass, and the three previous games were more substantial. Those include space colony sim Order Of Magnitude, programmable bot colony sim Spacebots, and electronics puzzle game Megaprocessor. A $5 minimum donation gets you all four of these prototypes, and any future prototype, with all the money going to War Child. Bargain.

I continue to hope that this series will end with Introversion yelling “Surprise!” and announcing a game they’re making and intend to finish.

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