Thrive 0.5.8 - A Comprehensive Review

I’ve decided to create a complete review for Thrive with its own thread for this update, as I feel like it’s been a while since the game as a whole was evaluated. I’ll be providing individualized feedback on the most recent version of Thrive in the more general thread later.

It feels like every update since a while back is generally praised by the community, and rightfully so: good game design choices have been made in the past two years, revitalizing the idea that is Thrive, and as a result, momentum is at an all-time-high. Of course, the biggest reason why each new version of the game has been sailing along smoothly is because the developers have done a great job – slowly but surely implementing sound gameplay. But a part of this streak of success is also because before, there wasn’t much substance in Thrive. In the creation of a masterpiece, the first few strokes of paint can be broad, imprecise, and messy without sacrificing the integrity of the later composition as a whole. But as the canvas begins to be taken up by color and broad outlines of form, the details start becoming all the more important – and with the details, even a small amount of imprecision, mess, or lack of clarity can severely affect the quality of the end product.

A similar idea is at play in game design. When a game is an empty canvas, even clunky and imprecise mechanics will add to the player’s experience – but as the game packs some substance on, the smallest details and the way in which each mechanic interacts with other design choices becomes incredibly important.

So, where are we now?


What Does Thrive Do Well?

The pull of Thrive comes from seeing how various dynamics which are roughly seen in the natural world emerge, with the player being excited when they see parallels to predation, food webs, and inter-species competition within the game. It fills me with awe when I see unique cellular behaviors emerging. A group of poisonous, photosynthetic bacteria which remain motionless until a victim swims too close, simultaneously ejecting poison in an instant; predatory behaviors emerging as cells realize their pilus grants them a powerful weapon; the surface patches remaining desolate until the arrival of photosynthesis, providing the base of an advanced food-web which eventually balloons into an arms-race; when the algorithm works as intended, you get what the product says it will deliver.

There is enough variability to warrant replays and depth, but there is enough of a rhythm for the player to adopt various strategies. The game was previously hampered by the issue that was limitless photosynthesis – specifically, how overpowered it used to be. Of course, thylakoids and chloroplasts still need some balancing, but atleast now, it isn’t the only meaningful path to victory. With the introduction of a feature like the chemoreceptor and with the rebalancing of various metabolic processes, other strategies dependent on compounds clouds, or even scavenging and predation, is doable. Whereas before, the ambiguity of compound cloud spawning was too much of a hurdle for the player to deal with, there are now options and paths which might not be equal, but are atleast viable.

Microbial AI is smart enough to offer meaningful interactions, and diverse enough to not be entirely predictable, adding some level of variation in the gameplay experience that doesn’t just have to do with swimming around. And the evolution system implemented is robust enough to present certain “types” of inter-species relations. There are clearly predators, and there are clearly prey. There are clearly sessile organisms, and there are clearly travelers. There are clearly defensive organisms difficult to consume, and there are clearly aggressive builds you should stay away from. And along with this competition in the form of conflict, species are decently adept at structuring themselves around various metabolic strategies.

All these factors combine well enough to the point that I can confidently proclaim that at this stage of the project’s maturity, Thrive is the best microbial simulation on the market. No other game provides an experience that is a complex enough rendition of the natural world to warrant replayability and an atmosphere of realism; and no other game is a simple enough rendition of the natural world to translate into gameplay that is intuitive, engaging, and ultimately, fun. Of course, there isn’t really that much competition, but that’s the point – it is incredibly difficult to make an engaging experience out of microbes. Thrive has demonstrated that a game experience based on something as simple as a prokaryote can be viable.

And the addition of the simplest form of a multicellular stage settles even more of the angst that surrounds the scope of Thrive, demonstrating that as gameplay, an advanced simulation of evolution works in a way that is both realistic and fun. Cell differentiation flat out works as a concept – there is a way to represent the science surrounding the earliest multicellular organisms in an engaging game experience. More competition would be exciting to test how multicellular organisms interact with each other.

With due effort and diligence, it is now undeniable that the dream that is Thrive can work.

What Holds Thrive Back?

I’ll be focusing on assessing the quality of what is already implemented in the game to narrow my focus. For example, one critique I have is that while the microbe simulation part of the game is solidly present, the evolution simulation feels largely missing due to the static environment and the lag of transitional organelles/parts. But that relies on features yet to be implemented, so I feel like that falls under conceptualizing rather than critiquing.

Of course, no game – especially an uncomplete one – is without flaws which hold it back from the next standard of quality and from what the game should be. And for Thrive, this flaw is without a doubt the spawn system.

I think the worst types of flaws that can exist in a game are those which make the player have to deliberately change their behavior in order to play the game in the way it should be played. In other words, it can mean bad news for the quality of a game if the player has to restrain themselves from doing something that is allowed in order to meaningfully engage with the game. Because those flaws are oftentimes very small nuances which can have outsized impact on how engrossed a player becomes in their experience.

I’ll clarify with an example in Thrive. Because the spawn system isn’t optimized yet, you’ll oftentimes spawn next to the phosphate/ammonia cloud that took you to the editor, which oftentimes has enough of the compound to take you right back to the editor. This makes me mentally have to consider those clouds around me as “cheats” even though I didn’t do anything outside of the gaming experience, and makes me physically have to force my creature away from the clouds. A similar problem involves retaining the excess ammonia/phosphate from your previous gameplay loop into your fresh-out-the-editor cell, which can give the player the same feeling of “cheating” the game, feeling as if they didn’t work for that benefit.

And the other half of these flaws involve times when you feel like the game is “cheating” you. If you’ve barely made your trip to the editor in your previous life, clicking the button with almost no compounds in your cell left, you spawn in immediately after with the same compound amount and quickly starve to death. These situations are prevalent enough to be consistent, perhaps being encountered with every other trip to the editor. And they ultimately make me consider killing my cell (this sounds more morbid than it actually is I promise I’m okay).

While it appears to be a minor thing, and while the player can take actions to resolve those issues, they have severe ramifications on how engaged the player is with the game. It forces them to restrict themselves in some way, momentarily taking them out of the gameplay loop and into a meta-analysis of the game, and makes the player question the validity of their progress. To make a long story short, it sours the players mood and taints their perception of the solidness of the game’s design, which takes away from what should be an already rather cohesive experience.

There are other gripes with the spawn system which are a bit less “experience-breaking” and just amount up to annoyances. Cell and compound spawning can feel very arbitrary, to the point where it seems like the game just dumps a bunch of stuff, doesn’t do anything for 5 minutes, and then again dumps another bunch of stuff. This results in a high of bustling activity where cells scatter and compound clouds expand, and then a sustained low of vastness and empty space where you just drift around doing nothing.


Conclusion

Even with many important features missing, Thrive already offers the best microbe simulator on the planet. Gameplay pulls you in as you see various behaviors with real-life parallels emerge, exciting people who have for years yearned for an experience which recognizes the awe-inspiring and amazing story that is life on Earth. Enough of a challenge is present to make the player feel as if they are fighting against the puzzle that is mother nature, as if they are taking care of a lineage of life throughout its hopefully successful lineage, with various viable strategies and variation in the behavior of other AI-controlled species.

But the spawn system holds down an otherwise already cohesive simulation. At its best an annoyance, and at its worst, a lapse in the player’s engagement with the world created in Thrive, inconsistencies in the spawn system artificially break the gameplay loop and unduly burden players to the point of them constraining their in-game behavior. As a result, spawning is, in my opinion, the biggest flaw effecting the current game.

With a coherent gameplay experience, we are now approaching a time in this project’s lifespan where long-standing design questions are unable to be pushed far off into the future. Complex mechanics with no easy answers, and likely, multiple steps to get right, will have to be defined and tested – endosymbiosis, the agent system, cell upgrades, cellular functions… the list goes on.

The development team will soon have to take bold steps, making design choices which will make or break the simulation of something as audacious as life, a dream which Thrive hopes to be. And from what I see in this update, I have full confidence in their capabilities, judgement, and ambition moving forward.

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