We all love worlds to get lost in. Whether they’re lore-rich fantasies, unexplored galaxies, or hyper-authentic depictions of real-life, nothing quite sates the gaming public like a vibrant, well-realised setting. From the dripping art-deco halls of Bioshock’s Rapture, to Persona 4’s countryside town of Inaba, to Rockstar’s technical wizardry in GTA IV and V, a game’s ambience can be defined by its environments, making the player feel at home – or far from it. A lot of games make promises about living, breathing worlds which twist and change dynamically in response to the player. Some never quite hit the mark, but when boundaries are pushed and innovations are made there’ll always be hits and misses, and for every broken Peter Molyneux promise, an acorn grows into a beautiful oak tree – only with more guns, dragons, and Troy Baker (because he’ll probably be involved at some point).
With Pine, Dutch game studio Twirlbound are looking to deliver such a hit. By using “neural network AI technologies”, fighting-game-style pattern recognition, and inspirations from real Darwinian theory, they hope to build a world that really evolves around you.
A young designer graduating from the NHTV University of Applied Sciences, Matthijs van de Laar is creative director at Twirlbound. Brimming with ideas, energy and enthusiasm, Pine is his, and Twirlbound’s, PC debut.
“I’m a designer, and I needed some people who can make my ideas come true,” van de Laar says of the Twirlbound team. “That’s what every designer needs, right? I’m pretty young myself, 21, and we’re all in school. A couple of years ago we started profiling to make some more professional products. We worked on a game for about two years, a puzzle game for iOS – we got featured in the app store, it was a great ride and we learnt a lot, but there was always this necessity to do something bigger.
“So as we came to the graduation phase of our four year course, we decided to do something larger, but also experimental with room for research – that’s were Pine came in.
“We got a couple more people, some more artists, and now we’re a team of five.”
The rest of that five-strong team is made up of fellow NHTV alumni: artists Pascal Vis and Timo van Hugten, animator Lukas Stolp, and programmer Marc Peyré. Formed in 1987 as a merger between two higher educational institutions in Breda, Netherlands, NHTV is a vocational school which offers a variety of degrees in tourism and logistics as well as games. Courses focus on the practical applications of skills, so for the Twirlbound team, indie development is a natural progression.
“I study International Game Architecture and Design,” says van de Laar. “It’s all focused on making games as the end product.
“In the Netherlands I think we have over 400 small studios, and a lot of them come from the students starting companies you know from their graduation.”
During their time at university, van de Laar, van Hugten and Peyré worked together on a previous commercial project, iOS puzzler With The Wind, which was featured in the ‘best new games’ section of the App Store. But as their team has grown, so has their ambition, and with Pine they’re looking to make the leap to PC and 3rd-person action by adding some impressive behind-the-scenes tech.
“The elevator pitch is that it evolves and I think it’s as simple as that,” van de Laar explains. “A lot of games have played with that in the past like for example Spore, which has disappointed a lot of people and we’re getting to that point where we’re having to manage expectations a little bit.
“The thing about Pine is that it’s a game like any other, I would say, so like a fun third person action-adventure game but it has this additional layer to it – so instead of it being completely based on evolution and the neural network systems that we use, it’s more of an augmentation.
“The game itself is a very designed experience but it gets augmented and expanded using evolution as a theory and as a system.”
These thoughts were formed reading Charles Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, which is based on the idea that better adapted species are more likely to survive in a given environment. Those small advantages can then be passed down to offspring, and over time, those characteristics can become more pronounced.
“I’ve always been interested in evolution as a subject,” says van de Laar. “I’ve sometimes thought that if I wasn’t doing games I would do something in that direction. I think it’s beautiful, I have Darwin’s book like right in front of me right now.
“It’s stuff like that that really inspired us to want to make a game about this. And we saw that some fighting games used machine learning and pattern recognition to balance the game difficulty based on what the player does. We thought that this could be better, more advanced. So we had this one idea on the gameplay side and we had this idea of evolution on the other side and it fitted together.
“I was reading [Darwin’s On the Origin of Species] at the start of the high level concepting phase, it just lends itself, sometimes he describes rules that were made for games it seems.”
These concepts are at the core of Pine, which uses artificial intelligence to recognise your actions and adapt to them in the same way an arcade fighter like Street Fighter might.
“The way it works is that the enemies will have generalised moves like dodge, block, double attack etc,” van de Laar explains. “It will try to predict your patterns, and this is one of the ways in which it evolves.
“One of the things that’s so interesting is that players have patterns, for example you will roll and then slash, slash. So these enemies will evolve around that – they’ll try to predict what they’ve got to do. So after a couple of times they will know that after you roll you are going to slash so they will start to dodge. So that’s one side, this is what we call ‘the mind’.”
“The second side is ‘the body’. So all the enemies have stats , like speed, and this is where the survival of the fittest comes in, because they will do anything to survive. Sometimes they will do a speed stat increase because they need to be fast and sometimes they will do special attacks based on how the player plays. So if you play very defensively, it will probably get a bigger attack stat.”
“To sum that up there’s two parts: the body and the mind. The body controls the stats so faster, stronger, more health and the mind is the neural network system which will try to predict the patterns that the player does.
He continues: “It’s a global, macro thing where everything evolves rather than one species, because evolution is very slow, you won’t see it in one man’s lifetime so that’s why we did it like this.”
Twirlbound know that it’ll be difficult to successfully implement these systems, so they’re adopting a model of constant testing and iteration to produce the best end results.
“We won’t go on to the next stage of developing something if we haven’t seen everything about it work,” says van de Laar. “We’re also putting out these really small demos that we can ask some questions about, and based on that we know if a particular mechanic works – if it doesn’t we just keep on doing that.
“Once you have that basic testing set out, you can expand and expand and expand and the system still works – that’s how it’s set up at this point. That’s how on the one hand we can do this without a large team, but on the other hand we’re always testing with demos to see if it works. We always need to know when something works, and I think a lot of studios forget that these days. They get too deep into development and only test once in six months, then they find that their mechanics don’t work, but because we test really small demos we know when our mechanics work.”
He continues: “We are very lucky that we built this online system where we expected about a hundred testers , but without doing anything and without spending any money it just expanded over reddit and NeoGAF and now we have about 2500 testers. That’s really cool.”
Pine is more than a technical show-piece however. The Twirlbound team are hoping to flesh out the world with a deeper storyline, as well as fun and satisfying core gameplay.
“We definitely want to have a story and there’s research to back this up that games are more memorable with a story,” van de Laar says. “Obviously the evolution shouldn’t just go one way because that wouldn’t make sense, so we want to make sure that your actions do have reactions. There is a definitely a story there and we’re still trying to finish it up. It’s basically that in this world human beings are an endangered species, and human beings never landed on top of the food chain, so as a species you’ve got to try and evolve yourself and your small tribe and make sure that your species can thrive.
“What I see a lot online is that people see the GIF and think it’s a new survival game, because it’s about survival of the fittest, but it’s not just about finding resources and that you have to sleep and that you have a hunger bar, we wanted to make it a narrative experience as well.
“We want some sort of resource thing in there, but also because what’s interesting about species evolving is the resources that you need to survive. So if you look at giraffes the long neck comes from having to reach resources in high places, right? And we’d love to explore that, so if you have a field full of bushes which one species forages from, but you light those bushes on fire, that species can’t access that food anymore. So perhaps that causes those species to go somewhere else to find food or perhaps it’s an omnivore so it can also eat other species. But we want these actions to have a a purpose and a goal rather than something that repeats over and over again.”
To introduce these more structured elements to Pine, Twirlbound are hand-crafting certain aspects of the game’s world.
“We don’t use procedural generation in the common sense of the word, it’s not that we’re generating new levels,” van de Laar clarifies. “We plan on designing the world from start to finish but how it’s filled in can be procedural. The enemies are going to be procedural and the system behind it is very procedural, but we’re designing the basic structure.
“It can’t be overwhelming, we won’t have everything coming at you at once because that would get very tiring, so the way we want to design it as that the world seems to get bigger and bigger as you go so gradually you have to use more things but it’s not all coming at you at once from the start.
“Based on how generalised the system is we’re aiming for about ten hours of content, because with some games it takes two years to do the mechanics and the introductions but with the system we’re using once everything is set up it is quite easy to expand it.”
Open-world is everywhere right now, so Twirlbound and van de Laar have a mountain to climb to set Pine out from the crowd. But, they have an interesting premise, some headline-grabbing tech, and a dedicated young team behind the scenes – a recipe which, with some more development time to sand off the rough edges, could produce a winner.