By Brendan Caldwell on October 22nd, 2012 at 8:00 pm.
Wildfire Worlds is a “cute paper toy society” with riots. We sent Brendan to take a look.
The London riots caught us all by surprise. Whether or not they should have done is a question best left to David Dimbleby and his bumbling corral of inquisitors. But one thing I do remember thinking during the unrest, between feverishly refreshing Twitter and peeping at the BBC out of the corner of my eye, is this: someone should make a game about rioting? Preferably viewed from the top-down, so you can see the chaos spread. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Enter Dot Product, a newly formed independent studio of six people based in Soho, who had the exact same thought and began work on Wildfire Worlds. It is described by the developer as “the most firm yet absorbent riot simulator you could ever dunk.”
Wildfire Worlds is a game which, at first glance, looks like a cuddly pastiche of SimCity. Almost everything in the world, from the skyscrapers to the tiny people to the adorable double decker buses, is made from papercraft models. But underneath the cutesy appearance lies a dark heart of discontent. While the citizens of a papery London go about their day – taking the tube to work, doing their shopping, playing in the park to relax – the player can at any moment choose to pop down a single angry activist, who will go on to ‘convert’ others to his cause, eventually spreading destruction and violence all across the city.
It’s a simple idea that reminds me of Urban Dead creator Kevan’s original Zombie Infection Simulation and indeed the game will feature the option to have ‘zombies’ instead of rioters. In fact, the whole point of the game seems to be about customising the precise scenario you want to simulate. There are even plans to include less destructive protestors, says director James Boty.
“I’d like a war torn level,” he says. “Like Baghdad now. And maybe literacy’s gotta break out? And you’ve got to spread peace. And how many guards have you got to stand there and get shot by, before they start to grow a conscience? That kind of modelling, at the end of the day it’s all about the spread of ideas and systems that work in a coherent fashion.”
At this point in development, it’s clear that they’re going for a simulate-y feel for the game. Right now the interaction amounts to placing down activists and herding them with the mouse, like a little mob, so they can pick up and ‘infect’ more people with their dangerous ideas.
“We’re not making a typical ‘Rock Paper Shotgun’ game in terms of interaction,” admits James. “We want it to be something that you want to watch. One of the original ideas was ‘I wanna be a disease and I want to infect the whole world.’ And various people have done that on global levels, like Pandemic but the thing is that it’s not at this level. It’s the model train set thing. We’ve all had that thing where you wanna fuck up your toys as a kid. So this is about pitching it at the level where most people are going to enjoy but at the same time making the systems robust. It’d be very east to gamify. To turn it into a twin stick shooter or a racing game or an RTS but we’re trying to pitch it at a different level. So that it’s deep but it’s ‘casual-deep’”.
“It’s a toy,” interjects Michael Micahel, the studio’s tautonymous designer.
“Yeah,” says James. “It’s a complicated toy would be the best way to describe it.”
Just how complicated this toy will become is still being decided. The team already has a day and night cycle, including London’s dreaded rush hour which can be taken advantage of for maximum infection rates.
Emergency services also do their thing as the day wears on. I’m shown a vandal spray-painting an anarchy sign on the wall. He is soon spotted by a pair of bobbies, who roll up all ‘ello ello’ style. The rascal clocks the cops and runs off down the tube to escape, much to the surprise of the two developers. He was supposed to get arrested, they tell me. Later, another vandal shows up and is promptly thrown into a police van.
These kinds of details seem atmospheric, rather than game-altering. But there is more in the works. For instance, electricity is already functional. Should the rioters destroy a power station, as they do in another video I’m shown, a whole chunk of the city will lose power, knocking out streetlights and giving the activists a bonus at night time.
“When there’s no light it makes people freak out and scatter-dash,” adds Michael. “Which in theory makes them easier to corner and take over. So, we’ll have substations around the city like this. But then we’ll have the main station which might take out the whole city – and that would be heavily protected, obviously.”
I spot the papercraft building he is talking about in the north of the city, with some smoke rising from its chimneys. It bears a lovable resemblance to Battersea power station. Somewhere on the map a grenade is thrown into a body of protestors, spraying blood everywhere.
“Obviously, what we’ve done here is we’ve turned the police brutality up to full,” says James. “Just to see what happens, you know… They’re shooting at these guys now. I think they’re mostly dead.”
How violent or watchful the police are is just one of the adjustable parameters the team is going to include. Before you begin playing you can alter a large number of sliders that will determine how the different systems in the game work. Basic things like the level of activist aggression or the policemen’s range of sight will be included. But, potentially, as they add more and more layers of detail to the game world, lots more variables will become available. The idea is that you set everything up, like a column of dominoes. Then, you flick. The same design idea is used in Cliffski’s Gratuitous Space Battles – you arrange everything, tinker with the settings, then let destruction loose. At which point, your input is very limited. But the enjoyment comes from watching the ensuing bedlam.
Which makes the London riots almost the perfect setting, considering how it turned so many of us into voyeurs de violence.
“The mentality of a mob,” says James. “We’re modelling that. It’s got this energy and momentum of its own that’s quite terrifying but that’s addictive to see if you’re not in there. It’s like watching the parades. There’s that tension of ‘it’s not gonna kick off… but is it gonna kick off?’ It becomes this terrible spectator sport. The London riots were very addictive. Like, that guys shop in Croydon. You know that shop, you’ve seen that shop. And there’s a little bit of you going: ‘Oh, it’s terrible about that guy’s shop.’ But there’s a little bit of you thinking: ‘Croydon deserves to be burnt down. It’s a shithole. It’s been a shithole for thirty years. It needs to be burnt down. We need to start again.’ You know it’s wrong to think that, but…”
The phrase “we need to start again” sticks out. The riots of Wildfire Worlds turn out to be a purge of sorts. Not a purge of class, a la the French Revolution or anything dull like that. But a purge of humanity, in the most apocalyptic manner. After everything has been destroyed and all the paper humans are long gone, the city lies in ruins. Then, after a time, trees and plants begin to grow on the bloodstains. Roads break up and are replaced by grasslands. Little papercraft deer and squirrels appear and eat the vegetation.
“And this is where it gets maybe a little bit controversial,” says James. “I want to bring in… Dinosaurs.”
“And then the dinosaurs shit bankers.”
“And the bankers attract investment and people. The people start chopping down trees and then you’re back to square one again. So it builds itself.”
“We want it to be beautiful,” says Michael. “Birds singing, trees – only to get destroyed again.”
So the plan is that game will run in a loop, which neatly hops the final hurdle of the infection simulation like Pandemic, where the player is left with a pile of corpses and nothing to do with them except count the bodies and apply a multiplier – a literal dead end. Would a cyclical simulation remove that sense of finality? Essentially, the endgame would become ‘whenever you get bored.’
On the other hand, if you leave the world unaffected – if you stay your hand and don’t plant down any activists – the human race will just keep going, to become diagnosed with a citywide case of obesity.
“People will get fatter, more advertising will happen, more pollution builds up, the police become more fascistic. They go from batons to pistols to machine guns to grenades… So basically you’ve got a trade off. The longer you wait to pick your moment, the harder it gets to take on the world. Because obviously the police are getting tough.”
But because the population would presumably be going up in the meantime, the team needed a reason to level this out, so that there weren’t too many characters on screen at once. Michael came up with the solution.
“As the world gets more fascistic, and they take away the trees and reduce the parks, people get more depressed and they commit suicide… If you watch this little building here you might see somebody jumping out their window.”
For a few seconds nothing happens at the house I’m looking at. Then some activists appear and start destroying the building from the outside. Sure enough, a couple of papery citizens throw themselves from the upstairs windows. Not out of despair – but to escape the angry mob.
“They jumped out but they didn’t die,” observes Michael. “I suppose it’s because they’re terraced houses. If this was an office building… I can’t imagine.”
Just how much more ambitious a simulation of civil unrest Wildfire Worlds might get, I can only guess. But I know the team aren’t confining themselves to London, with Damascus and the Vatican touted as two possible settings. They’ve still got a lot of work to do by their own admission. Multiplayer is one avenue not fully developed and they’ve yet to decide whether they want to include some kind of scoring system. Would the game benefit from showing the player the stats on exactly how rabidly their citizens turned on each other? Who knows. Perhaps more importantly, a map editor is also on the to-do list.
But first, they need some feedback. So they’re planning to release a playable alpha version and go from there.
“We need people to really tell us what they think,” says James. “We need eyeballs. We need people to see it and say, ‘it doesn’t work’ or ‘it doesn’t do this’ or ‘where is it going?’ That’s very much my focus. We’re gonna build something and then we’re gonna listen.”
So, I guess you have to ask yourself a question. Is this a riot you want to be a part of? Or are you happy to just sit and watch? Either way, we know it’s coming. Don’t let it catch you by surprise.