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Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Mean genes - part 2

  • A sport featuring virtual stars
  • A TV show where content is created by the audience
  • A league that anyone can enter
  • Sit back and watch, or sit forward and join in - it’s your choice
Players breed a stable of nonhuman gladiators called “myrmidons”. Each myrmidon is a named character with unique attributes based on his underlying “genetics”. Each has his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to the player to teach him how to fight.

Training prepares your myrmidons for battle. Myrmidons learn to employ the maneuvers and tactics that you teach them. When you set them against another player’s team, the myrmidons’ AI takes over and the battle is fought without intervention by the trainers.

Each week, the top contests in the league are rendered in high-quality graphics and broadcast on television, complete with human commentators just like any other televised sport.

Individual gladiators will become internet/TV stars and can be hired to other players temporarily or sold outright via the official Conquerors League server. You can play the Conquerors videogame on local networks with friends, or enter the official league online and pit your team against the best in the world. The broadcast content is created as a shared participatory process, and you can enjoy the TV show as a spectator whether or not you choose to enter gladiators in the league.

The great potential of an interactive entertainment product like Conquerors is that it takes in the whole spectrum of involvement, from “lean forward” videogamers to “lean back” television viewers.

Conquerors is a virtual sport that viewers can watch on TV and can actively participate in via the internet. It is a virtual sport that gives everyone in the audience a shot at being owner and manager of a world champion team.

The Conquerors software package will be bought at retail or downloaded for a fee. The Conquerors software allows players to breed, mutate and train teams of non-human gladiators called “myrmidons”. Training teaches the myrmidons to survive in different environments and to use their natural weaponry (claws, horns, etc) in battles to the death. You can pit your gladiators against AI-run opponents or against other players’ teams over a local network or internet connection.

Players can also submit their trained teams to the Conquerors server where they will be placed in competition against other teams from all over the world. On the Conquerors site, players can post challenges, discuss training strategies, buy or exchange useful genes, auction their champion gladiators, etc.

Each week, the premier division battles will be rendered in high-quality graphics and broadcast on conventional television. Ideally, viewers with an Xbox or Playstation2 will be able to move seamlessly between the TV show and their training stable.

Hence, Conquerors is a theatresports show like WWF except that the athletes are tamagochi-like virtual creatures. And at the same time it’s an open participatory show like Robot Wars, except that anyone in the world can download the core product and enter their own personal team for competition.

In summary, Conquerors viewers/players will be able to do any or all of:
  • Watch the regular non-interactive show on TV (high-quality rendered 3D graphics)
  • Create their own Conquerors team on PC or console
  • Train their team offline or online
  • Play offline on PC or game consoles
  • Submit their team for official league battles online
  • Trade gladiators and training tips online
  • Place wagers on matches
  • View any match on demand on the internet
The game
In essence, Conquerors is a TV show based on an internet videogame in the same way that Popstars was a TV show based on a manufactured band. That is, a product is created (in this case a videogame) that generates a fanbase and feeds back into the show itself.

At the same time, Conquerors is a tactical videogame with an online dimension in which players can put forward their own four-man gladiatorial teams to do battle in various terrain "arenas". Individual gladiators (called Myrmidons) have their own strengths, and their own ways of applying those strengths in combat as part of a team.

Players post challenges on online. Being registered on the server's league table costs a subscription fee, and there might be an additional fee per bout. It's also possible to play local network bouts for free, of course, the downside being that the results of such bouts don't become part of the official league. Subscribers to the Conquerors League can download any bout and watch how it went on a pay-to-view basis, using their local software to reconstruct the bout from the match data. The top bouts will be rendered with a higher quality graphics engine for broadcast on TV.

The gameplay itself has two main features:

(1) Instead of directly setting their team's initial stats, players mutate the Myrmidons using a set of genetic algorithms. Every mutation yields a new generation of Myrmidons each with a unique set of attributes. You continue the mutation process until the Myrmidon has the attributes you're looking for.

(2) You don't directly control your Myrmidons during an on-line battle. Instead, you carry out training bouts beforehand that involve you body-hopping between your Myrmidons as you tell them what to do. As you do this, each Myrmidon is learning the tactics you want him to use. A stealthy scout-character might learn to always shoot and run away when a tough warrior is coming for him, for instance. This learned behavior is what the Myrmidons will use when fighting a real contest on the server.

Creating A Myrmidon
In CRPGs you often start off by allocating characteristic points (either by choice or randomly). Conquerors is a bit like that except that the characteristics are derived from an underlying character gene-string which is mutated to give a wide range of Myrmidons - some with wings, claws, scales, gills, horns, even wheels.

Genetics specify the Myrmidon's potential, but it's in "growing" the Myrmidon that his potential is realized. The growth process builds bone, muscle and hide - all at a cost in points called Chrome. Spending more Chrome makes the Myrmidon bigger, generally increasing his speed, strength, hit points, armour, etc. But you only have so much Chrome to spend in breeding your whole team, so making one of them gigantic will mean another might have to be small and sneaky.

Myrmidon abilities are also limited by the underlying physics of the game environment. There are always trade-offs. If you want a fast Myrmidon then you can't have him heavily armored, if you want him to fly then he can't be too big, and so on.

The procedure for generating your stable of Myrmidons is described below:

1 The parent
A random "parent" is generated and shown on screen. This individual might have long or short legs, wings or fins, claws or fingers, horns or huge ears - all based on a string of numbers that are read as genes.

2 Mutation
A new generation of Myrmidons is created by mutating the parent chromosome (asexual reproduction). Two types of mutation can occur. Firstly, numerical values of genes may change by a small amount in either direction. That’s the most common form of mutation. Secondly, the Gene Reader (which decides the locations on the chromosome that relate to each body part) may slip for one of the body parts - so that the creature's left arm is no longer read from the same sequence as its right arm, for instance. The probability of this second type of "embryological" mutation is small, and is likely to be pre-set to certain sequences that will correspond to different “species” types.

3 Selection
A number of mutants from the original parent are displayed on screen. The number doesn't matter, except that it needs to be sufficient to give you reasonable choice over the direction the mutation is tending. Say half a dozen. You now select one of these to be the parent for the next generation.

4 A Myrmidon is born
Continue with successive generations until you have an individual that you want to add to your stable. Before proceeding, save this individual's genetic code - you might later want to clone him.

Now, what you've got displayed on screen is the nascent Myrmidon's basic morphology - his shape, but not his size. The body template still has to be scaled up to yield the adult Myrmidon. Just as in real life, building bone and muscle costs energy. This energy is provided in the form of Chrome, which you feed to the Myrmidon. Bone has a given cost in Chrome per unit, muscle another cost, and so the amount of Chrome you allocate to the Myrmidon will determine how big he grows.

Myrmidons can also have special abilities including webs, poison attacks, chameleon skin, sonar, and so on. All of these also have a Chrome cost.

In filling your stable, you could produce just the basic four Myrmidons needed to make a team. Or you might prefer to have more to choose from, so as to be able to hand pick each team for the terrain they'll be fighting in. But you only have a limited stock of Chrome to feed all your Myrmidons, so greater versatility has its cost in that each Myrmidon can't be as individually tough.

We want to encourage versatility rather than terrain specialization, as this makes it easier for any two players to field teams against each other. Therefore you do get more Chrome if you're generating more than four Myrmidons - but not in direct proportion. So if you get 100 Chrome Points to generate four Myrmidons, you might get 120 to generate five, 135 to generate six, and so on.

Although Chrome establishes an upper limit to how tough your team can be to start with, two teams can never have exactly equal toughness. How would you define absolute toughness anyway? Differing abilities can't be so easily compared. To take an extreme example, suppose you breed a group of armored Myrmidons - so massively armored that they only move around at a crawl. Confronted by a team that had even a single member with armor-piercing potential, your guys would be doomed. The Chrome you're given to spend at the start thus sets an upper limit on any team's initial toughness, but many other factors (specifically, the game physics and the tactics you use) will play their part in the final outcome.

Formal game theory is all about trade-offs: such-and-such a feature makes a Myrmidon stronger but it also makes him slower. Consider two Myrmidons with the same lower body morphology and size. One is given little spindly arms, the other huge biceps and massive claws. Obviously the second Myrmidon has the greater offensive capability. But since arm strength doesn't affect locomotive power, and that extra bulk only has the same leg strength to move it around, he'll also be the slower of the two.

The virtual physics system is there so that players can get an intuitive grasp on the game mechanics. Flying requires a lot of energy, for example, so the ideal flying Myrmidon will be very fit and probably unarmored. Also, wing lift goes up with L-squared while mass goes up with L-cubed, so the bigger you make the Myrmidon to start with, the less viable he'll be as a flyer. A big hefty guy will have to win a lot of extra Chrome (building up his muscle efficiency) before he can fly for more than short distances.

The game physics specifically relates to dynamics; that is factors such as:

Based on thrust (leg strength, etc) minus resistance of the medium, divided by body mass.

Maximum speed
Depends on stride and leg flexibility (or equivalent for swimming and flying), traction, resistance of the medium, and the power delivered by the Myrmidon's metabolism (ie, heart/lung system).

 Determined by the Myrmidon's strength, mass, and his ability to get a grip on the medium he's moving through - hoofed or clawed feet are better than toes, for instance.

All muscle mass consumes energy even at rest. In use, the muscle consumes extra energy equal to force times the distance it is applied through. As energy stored in the body is used up, fatigue sets in and restricts the muscle's ability to exert maximum force. The Myrmidon's stamina (based on his heart/lung genetics) is a measure of how quickly lost energy is replenished.

A Myrmidon's main goal in life is to collide his armaments with the enemy's vulnerable bits! Visual acuity and manual dexterity decide if he is successful or not.

Damage potential
A question of weapon mass, speed and sharpness matched against the target's armor and body toughness.

Special abilities
Special abilities will be modeled generically in the design. For example, there will be entangling attacks that all have the same gameplay effect of immobilizing the target for a time. Graphically, various entangling attacks could be shown as a web, a net, a viscous spray, a paralyzing volley of sparks, etc, even though they are functionally the same at root class, only with differences in duration, defenses and counters.

The game is set in a true 3D environment which forms the main screen view. There'll also be a small top-down window which you could open to get a view of the whole arena. Different arenas would vary in size, but on average they'd be maybe 9 or 16 times bigger than the scene shown on the main screen. (Smaller arenas favor brute force, larger arenas favor stealth, sniping and ambush tactics.)

Myrmidons could rendered by morphing between the basic body types to reflect the specific mix of attributes for that individual (long arms, horns, webbed feet, or whatever). We would need a set of body-part anims for each leg length, arm length, etc, and these would be assembled at runtime to create a set of procedural animations unique to that Myrmidon. (If it sounds a huge task, remember that we can constrain the phenotype ranges for a force-to-fit solution.)

An alternative system would be to generate each Myrmidon as a 3D model and animate these with a full IK (inverse kinematics) system. This has the advantage of directly incorporating the physics within the game environment (as distinct from precalculating it and applying the effects). The downside is whatever time we'd need to allocate for developing an IK system.

How the game is played
The game has two phases: practice bouts, which allow a player to pit a team of his own against one run by the computer, and contests, where you put forward a team to fight against another player's myrmidons.

Practice bouts
Practice bouts are single-player combats played out in realtime in randomly generated arenas. You control a team of four Myrmidons drawn from your stable, pitted against a computer-run team. The prevailing terrain might be jungle, desert, forest, swamp or hills and, obviously, this affects how well your Myrmidons can use their abilities.

Practice bouts are single-player games in their own right, but the main point of them is to train your Myrmidons in tactical use of their abilities. In a practice bout, you will body-hop between the Myrmidons.

The interface presents you with a range of options specific to that Myrmidon and his weaponry. You might have bred a charioteer with javelin attacks, a lance and a smokescreen ability, say. Maybe you tend to use him to ride in close discharging javelins and then wheel off, using his smokescreen to avoid close combat. Only when in rocky or marshy terrain, when he can't get away quickly, do you favor using the lance. Over time your charioteer's AI will learn these preferences, so that when he goes into the arena for a real bout he can apply the moves you've taught him.

Contests occur between teams put forward by two players. This can be by direct connection, of course, but the official Conquerors leagues will be run by games centers accessed over the internet.

On the day of a bout, you will need to adjust your team’s exercise regimen throughout the day, tamagochi-style. Myrmidons with high stamina will be enhanced if they are told to spend the day working out. Others are better left to rest and gather their strength. The individual myrmidons’ psychological factors will also have a bearing – some are serene, others will have nervous energy that needs burning off, and so on. It’s envisaged that expert players may change their team’s regimen several times in the hours before the bout (probably via cell phone) and this can have a significant effect on the team’s performance.

Any potential latency issues are avoided because you do not have continual direct control of your Myrmidons as you do in practice bouts. Instead, your Myrmidons will reference the attack priorities and tactics you've taught them to come up with a game plan of their own.

There is no compulsion for players to take part in league contests. Players who aren't involved in a bout can still pay to view it, and (just like in real-life sports) it's possible that most revenue will be generated this way. Many players may prefer to practice at home and never participate in real online battles. This is just the same as the guy who kicks a ball around in the park with his pals on Sunday afternoon and then goes home to watch the football on TV. The fact that Conquerors can be played in a variety of ways to suit the individual player or viewer is what will give it true mass market appeal.

A call to arms
Players name their teams and post challenges online, possibly specifying their choice of battleground or other terms. ("The Spine Suckers will take on anybody in the Jungle Arena. 100 Chrome says we’ll send you home in body bags.")

Fighting it out for real requires both teams to be sent to the official server. The players would pay a fee for this (although maybe the first couple of challenges would be free) and anyone who wanted to spectate would also pay to download the bout.

You won't actually get to find out a rival team's Chrome value before fighting them, but you could study their previous bouts to make sure you weren't outclassed - and to see the tactics they used. Also, there would be no shortage of advice from other Conquerors players on the Arena Newsboard.

Chrome won in a bout is distributed among all your team. Unlike the Chrome you spend when generating a Myrmidon, this doesn't make the individuals grow any more. Instead it increases the toughness of bone and hide, the efficiency of muscle, and the efficacy of special abilities, to superhuman limits. (So a Myrmidon who was once too heavy to use those wings you started him with may eventually be able to get airborne, and so on.)

Money transactions
As well as Chrome, contestants could stake money on the outcome of a bout. Money will be used to trade equipment, healing services, training from expert players, etc. You can use it to buy anything in game that you can convince another player to sell. You might even be able to buy a champion Myrmidon from another team.

Myrmidons will be identified by a code number on the server so they can't be endlessly duplicated. If you sell a veteran Myrmidon to someone else then you can't continue to play him in contest on the league - though you could still use him during practice bouts or in LAN challenges. (However, you could of course sell a Myrmidon's genetic code any number of times, allowing the player who bought it to start a new Myrmidon with the same abilities as your veteran began with.)

Myrmidons as virtual sports stars
The key elements that will captivate an audience are the ways that we will personalize the myrmidons. This will not require complex AI, it is simply a question of having certain distinct “personality types” that will manifest in various ways. (This section was omitted from the version of the treatment requested by the BBC.)

Why teams?
The question may be raised why feature a team of myrmidons. Surely it would be easier simply to have one-on-one battles?

The answer is that one-on-one battles would lead to a very trivial game. You can liken optimum species in an ecosystem to attractor points in an n-dimensional space, where the dimensions are different attributes. When you are competing one individual against another, the solution for an optimum individual will be fairly trivial. For example, boxing trainer Cus D’Amato recognized that the winning heavyweight in a match is almost always one who is stronger, so he set his fighters to weight-training..

At best, in a one-on-one Conquerors match, we would occasionally see intransitive relationships. Eg, Aegis beats Feral beats Speedy beats Aegis. That's at best. More likely there would just be one optimum solution and the TV show would become a tedious process as players homed in on the attractor point representing that specific set of winning attributes. In order to see an interesting variety of winning myrmidons, tactics have to be a major factor in the game and this necessitates teams. We must hope (as development of Conquerors will require collaboration between ourselves and a broadcaster) that the broadcaster will understand this crucial point and wouldn’t end up wasting development time on a fundamentally flawed concept.

The biggest tasks to be faced in developing the game will be (i) the Myrmidon AI and (ii) the artwork for different genetic patterns.

The AI will need to correlate multiple inputs (terrain, proximity of opponents, current wounds, fatigue, type and range of weaponry of self and opponent, etc) in order to intuit a strategy (attack, defend, support or evade). This is effectively a pattern-recognition system that is defined by the semantic categories we specify as the Myrmidon’s senses. The way that the output strategy is then enacted would be through tactical scripts, a bit like preplanned plays in football. This is not in fact a difficult AI task; it is merely a question of limiting what the Myrmidons can look for (inputs) and what actions they might take (outputs).

The artwork could be handled one of two ways: either by developing a morphing program that generates a custom-built 3D model for each chromosomal makeup, or by building a whole range of models (probably in the form of separate body parts) that are fitted together as needed. The first is more computationally complex, the latter more labour-intensive.

We envisage Myrmidons as being quite alien - more like some kind of reptile/insect hybrid than humanoid fighters. The main reason is exotic visual appeal, but there is also the advantage that animation is easier to get looking right for a nonhuman creature, and by not seeming at all human there will be lower expectation of the AI. Players will be glad their trained critters can learn anything at all, rather than grumbling that they don't act as intelligently as human fighters.

It needs to be emphasized that the game is not the sole (or even necessarily the main) product. The game itself is the hook for capturing larger audiences and revenue via television and the internet. The idea is that viewers enter the “funnel” as casual spectators, then get interested in placing bets, then maybe start buying and selling myrmidons (which they can do without owning the Conquerors software), and then the true aficionados buy the product, subscribe, and become our next generation of content providers.

By comparison, a show like Robot Wars has high barriers to entry in terms of time, cost, resources and ability. But all anyone will need to create a team is the Conquerors software – available in its simplest version free on the internet. Looking at other online games, Everquest has more than 400,000 regular players putting in 20+ hours per week. And Everquest’s followers are just the narrow point of the “funnel” - ie, the active participants - without the publicity boost or audience size possible with a TV show.

Conquerors is truly a new genre – a virtual sport that owes as much to football and tamagotchi as to traditional computer games. Players can choose the extent of their participation, from solo practice bouts through friendly competition on LAN (the “amateur league”) right up to full participation in one of the official internet competitions (the “professional league”). The pleasure of spectating will be as great as taking part, making this a game with true mass-market potential.


  1. I can imagine AI liberationists hacking into the system to free these poor creatures from the torment of unending combat.

    Would they have received their wooden sword after a certain number of victories? Or would there at least have been a virtual cemetery to memorialise the records of fallen veterans?

    1. I certainly planned that the myrmidons could leave their creator if not treated right, going indie and hiring out to the highest bidder or simply retiring.

      The cemetery is a great idea. I'll swipe that one :-)

  2. Sounds great, except for the bit that involves tieing it to a TV show and pitching it to a broadcaster - thus creating an impassable bureaucratic bottleneck. You should delete the bit about screening episodes and pitch it to Blizzard as an MMORPG instead...

    1. That begs the question, what is a TV show? Or rather, specifically, what does it take to "broadcast" a sports show? Taking out the bit about screening episodes would kind of miss the point, but there's no longer any need to remove it. A decade ago I still had to talk to networks like the BBC. Now, the complete package can be delivered online - whether you want to get involved in managing, training and competing myrmidons, or just sit back and watch the game.

  3. Would the myrmidons have weapons?

    Also, could teams form strategic alliances like in the Hunger Games, or would the AI be too basic for that?

    I think it would be nice if players could influence the game in some way - perhaps by dropping resources onto the feild, or controlling who the myrmidons ally with. myrmidons, or

  4. Horns, claws, teeth, poison - all the weapons evolution can provide.

    Myrmidon owners could choose to ally, and cooperate to achieve strategic goals. THe AI itself wouldn't be up to that.

    You can give your team new tactical goals at timeouts (like a football manager talking to his players at halftime) but as for dropping stuff onto the field - that's a different game, and not one that'd likely make an interesting spectator sport.