I have some big thoughts and ideas. I first thought that I’d keep them in the oven for some more time but since you’re looking for feedback I might as well share them now. TL;DR at the bottom.
Problems currently (in my opinion)
Predation takes too many things going right to evolve naturally. Ignoring toxins and pili, you need to be bigger than your prey to hunt it. And ignoring luck or dumb AI, you also need to be faster. But here comes the catch: Big cells are by default slower than small ones. This means that either the prey needs to evolve slower, which is rare, or you need to evolve flagella to even have a chance at chasing other cells. But there aren’t any real reasons to evolve flagella except for predation or fun. This means that it’s be very hard for anything other than an intelligent designer to create predators.
There is no real reason or upside to becoming a predator. I guess eating other cells makes you grow faster, but you never need to eat other cells for energy unless you specifically design your cell to be incapable of using other energy sources. Also autotrophs can hunt prey just as well as heterotrophs. There is no need to specialize. Why give up chloroplasts when being a self-sufficient photosynthesizing apex predator is the optimal “build”?
Make at least some small cells slower than your average big cell. This way predation would happen naturally and specialization would be a way to improve your ability to hunt instead of it being a binary switch off or on with a probably too high threshold to evolve naturally. One bold way to do this would be to make speed or base thrust scale with size. I don’t know enough theory to talk about its realism though, and it would change balance a lot.
Make autotrophs generate less energy so they need to become slower to preserve it. Then predators would have an easier time hunting them and they’d have more energy in relative terms to sustain their higher speed. It’d also be balanced because autotrophs don’t need to be fast because their energy sources don’t run away. Photosynthesizers don’t even need to move at all, although they’ll want to move to avoid predators if they can.
Create reasons to become slower. You could make cell walls more enticing so more cells would evolve them and become slower as a side effect. They could even have more drastic speed debuffs. You could add things other than speed to spend ATP on like producing enzymes or something. You could make speed easier to tweak by making base thrust and flagella modifiable and increasing speed buff/debuff from membrane rigidity. That could be balanced by health becoming more important once predation increases.
Add reasons to become faster besides predation. That way you’d get speed differences among cells naturally and then fast cells could start hunting slower ones. Maybe there could be environmental dangers that you need to avoid like moving debris and toxins. Maybe environmental conditions like light level and temperature could be different in different spots and shift with time so you need to move to optimize your energy generation or avoid danger. Maybe speed could help you compete for compounds and floating chunks.
Increase competition. This is a big one. Why does anything evolve in the real world? Because there is pressure, and competition, and unexploited niches to fill. Why would I ever want to be a predator when I can just sunbathe and chill? Because there are billions of photosynthesizers above you taking up all that juicy sunlight. In that scenario, it’d actually be easier to be a predator instead. Make competition matter during gameplay. Reduce available resources when you have competition. Spawn cells that will viciously fight for that big iron chunk if such cells have high populations. Then you’ll really feel the pressure to either outcompete your challengers or find a new, friendlier niche. Then life will also naturally balance all energy sources by making “OP” ones more competed.
Some of my suggestions are ambitious and would affect multiple parts of the game and probably create new problems. Let’s say that some cells were made a lot slower. Then the player would try playing a slow cell and discover that it’s pretty boring. If this isn’t changed, then I think the team will have to very careful with anything that makes cells slow. I can identify three points that make slow cells boring to play as: 1. Speed is inherently fun. I don’t think this is a problem, as some players like being slow and chill. 2. Reproduction time is tied to collecting sparse clouds of ammonia and phosphates which means that slow cells take a lot longer to reproduce, especially if they’re big. This would take something pretty big to change, like changing nutrient spawns, adding currents, or even making growth based on time or energy instead of nutrients. 3. The current spawning system often creates deserts which are extra grueling for slow cells. This could be fixed by making the spawn system create more interesting and evenly placed spawns.
Another potential issue with my suggestions is that prey gameplay may become rough. Imagine you’re against a predator that’s both stronger and faster than you. What can you do? Currently that situation is so rare that it’s not a problem, but here are some potential fixes anyway: 1. Tweak movement. Maybe the prey has more stamina or can turn faster and juke the predator. 2. Improve AI. If you’re so small, agile or feisty that you’re not worth the effort, the predator will leave you alone. 3. Strength in numbers. If you’re in a swarm of cells, odds are someone else will be eaten instead of you. 4. Make predators less common after you die. Then you’d be less likely to die multiple times in a row. It would also be realistic, since predator populations follow prey populations in the real world.
- Predation doesn’t evolve because small cells are almost always faster than big ones
- There is no real upside to being a predator, especially a specialized one
- Buff the speed of big cells
- Nerf the energy generation and speed of autotrophs
- Add reasons to become slower, like buffed cell walls
- Add reasons to become faster besides predation, like a shifting environment or competition
- Increase competition and make it pressure you to adapt
- After my suggestions you’d have other challenges, like:
- Being slow is boring. You could change reproduction and spawning to combat that.
- Being prey of powerful predators may be rough. You could tweak movement and AI to help.
I know you already know at least some these points and are working on them. I just wanted to collect some things together and analyze them. My suggestions would probably affect a lot of things. As such, their outcomes may be unpredictable and some of them would require changes to multiple areas of the game. I could dive deeper into potentially related topics like reproduction, AI, auto-evo and environmental conditions, but I think they’re best left for another day. I don’t know if my suggestions would make the game better, but I think they have potential. I’m not asking you to do them by the way, they’re just ideas. I do hope they are food for thought, though. Finally, I think one big question before anything else is: What do you, the developers, want predation and future gameplay to look like? I personally see two paths to take the microbe stage in the future: “arcade” and “ecosystem”.
Arcade is about fun, fair and free gameplay. Enemy encounters should be fair. You should always be able to flee or win a fight or at least avoid it. Fights are optional and more so a way to have fun than a necessary part of life. All cells are ultimately pretty similar to keep gameplay easy to balance for fun. There’s not much environmental pressure to evolve. Think “flying spaceships that shoot lasers and are tuned in the space garage”.
Ecosystem is about realistic life with both its beauty and cruelty. Some encounters are unfair but your species as a whole can still be fine and you can always adapt. There are clearer food chains, and organisms compete and fight because they have to in order to survive. Species are very diverse to optimally exploit their niche, but some cells are probably boring to play as. Think “realistic organisms that adapt and evolve out of necessity or go extinct”.
Which path do you want to take? Or do you want something in between? Perhaps a mix of both? Or something else entirely? I think my suggestions would drive the game more towards the “ecosystem” mode.