My attention is scattered and I wrote this on my phone, so apologies if this isn’t concisely written.
After reading a review on Thrive’s steam page, I was thinking about the gameplay loop and entertained the thought of changing the nature of phosphate and ammonia. More specifically, on changing the act of getting ready for reproduction from an active process of finding specific compound clouds to a more passive process of surviving (finding food) until you are able to reproduce.
Currently, I’d say the main issue for the reproduction gameplay loop is how extremely varied and unpredictable reproducing can be. You can spawn and have your phosphate and ammonia be half full already or spawn in/near a cloud of either and go into the editor 20 seconds after your last trip, or you could swim around in a vacuum for 15 minutes until you run into a cloud. Both present obvious problems: too short, and you’re basically skipping parts of the game loop; too long, and you’re extending the game loop to an unnatural length.
The good news is that there are easy ways to help mitigate this issue that don’t involve significantly uprooting long-standing and well established game mechanics integral to its structure. Upcoming tweaks to the spawn system and compound clouds will iron out volatile spawn settings, and balancing things like reproduction costs along with further implementation of obstacles, like randomly-generated terrain, will help make things harder and more interesting for the player.
But even then, I’m wondering if there’s a better and more accurate way to deal with things. Cells don’t really swim around and gather up a specific resource to reproduce. The heightened presence of certain compounds like phosphorus and ammonia can make it easier for the cell to reach an optimal state for reproduction, but they don’t actively seek phosphate and the such to reproduce. It’s more like they produce enough phosphate and material to be able to reproduce, and in order to optimally produce such material, they need environmental resources. They need fuel and nutrients from what they consume/the resources they utilize more then they utilize a specific resource to reproduce. Of course, excess realism should take a back seat to fun if there is a simplified model that is realistic enough. Searching for phosphate and ammonia is a simple representation of cells gathering essential nutrients to reproduce, and if it is sufficiently able to carry the game, there’s no need to replace gamelike clouds of phosphate/ammonia with a more realistic and less fun system.
The problem is that after a certain point in life’s history, looking for phosphate/ammonia clouds in the environment to reproduce in thrive will be rather cartoony and will result in a breakdown of immersion. Multicellular animals and more complex cells don’t look for clouds of nutrients, they get it through consumption. In other words, there will be a certain point in the multicellular stage where the arbitrary representation of phosphate/ammonia clouds will have to be left behind and something else will dictate when a player reproduces to be congruent to evolutionary history. Organisms don’t really spend time looking for anything other than nutrients/fuels, you know? And with that known - knowing that the current mechanic might end up as a placeholder - why should the reproduction mechanic dramatically change at some point of the game, and why not introduce a better reproduction mechanic in the microbe stage?
Also, I think that phosphate and ammonia as they currently operate add an unnecessary layer of gameplay to Thrive itself. I think the gameplay part of Thrive should basically be focused primarily on proving that your species is able to generate enough energy to reproduce. As it currently operates, the player’s objective is more focused on finding phosphate and ammonia rather than finding food, which I don’t think is as optimal. I think the player should ideally be thinking “let me make sure my species is able to survive long enough to reproduce” rather than “how can I most quickly find a cloud which lets me reproduce”. The former is more congruent to gameplay and the nature of evolution.
Thankfully I think there’s a lot of rather simple to be understood mechanics (of course balancing and implementing is a different story) that can be created based on reality. It can be as simple as having reproduction be based more on surviving for a specific amount of time until reproduction and having that time be shortened or lengthened based on the player’s adaptations, complexity, size, environmental factors, and performance (healthy amount of nutrients and population size?) rather than finding enough phosphate/ammonia clouds. In other words, survive with your build by proving that you are an efficient species for a given amount of time to prove that your animal could reproduce.
Here is an extremely abstract representation of how I think such a system could work.
You spawn in as the simple blob of cytoplasm we all know and love. At this state, it takes 60(?) seconds to reproduce, which is enough time to go through the tutorial for a new player. But if you gather enough phosphate/ammonia clouds, the rate at which your cell “grows” is increased by a certain %, so maybe you reach the editor in 40 seconds, or 50. After you enter the editor, you place your first parts (chemosynthesizing proteins metabolosomes or something). You are then informed that said part increased the amount of time needed to reach a state of reproduction. This time shouldn’t be too long, maybe +5 or so seconds for simple prokaryotic organelles and +10ish seconds for eukaryotic organelles. You spawn back in, and since you live a bit longer, you learn that if you don’t have an adequate amount of phosphate/ammonia, the rate at which your cell “grows” is reduced by a certain % so that what should take 65 seconds takes 75 or 85. While a small difference now, as your cell becomes more complex that time could get more significant, so the amount of time cut or extended could become more or less significant. As such, while ammonia and phosphate aren’t necessary, they are very important nutrients that the player will look for.
Adaptations and environmental compounds could also influence the amount of time it takes to reproduce. An increased presence of phosphorus can apply a patch wide flat reduction in the amount of time needed to reproduce. Adopting different reproduction strategies can decrease the amount of time it takes to reproduce for a reduced amount of mutation points. An increase in carbon dioxide/sulfur in the wake of volcanic activity can increase the amount of time needed to reproduce. I think there’s a lot of versatility that this system can offer.
There are certain potential drawbacks and areas of concern with this system that should be held in mind. First, it is important that Thrive does not turn into a game entirely defined by a growth system, such as is so in games like The Isle. Reproduction shouldn’t take a really long time; Thrive isn’t focused as much on the lifespan of an animal and is focused more on the macroscopic passage of time and evolutionary history. We don’t want a longer lifespan just for the sake of it, we want a longer lifespan because we want the player to prove their build is evolutionary viable and nothing else. If a player wants to play longer as a species, it’s their choice and not necessary. As such, an individual lifespan should not be ridiculously long, else it shifts focus away from the main purpose of the game.
Second of all, although flaws of the existing system were highlighted, having the player take an active role in getting ready for reproduction both places much more control in the hands of the player and is a more simple process to understand.
Third, if the time to reproduce is too short, the player could be avoiding proving the viability of their cells. What if the time to reproduce is shorter than the time needed to face a real challenge in your cell’s life?
With a change to a system as fundamental to Thrive as reproduction, much reservation must be held. But looking forward, I think changing the system now would only be good news for Thrive, fixing a lot of minor problems, introducing a new dynamic to the game which can further help with balance, and making Thrive that much more realistic. This change isn’t really necessary as of now, but much gold is there to be found.