I’ve had one idea simmering in the back of my mind for the past few years. It’s probably one I’ve debated back and forth to myself the most. It was most recently triggered by reading one of our top Steam reviews mentioning that plants basically cannot exist with how compound clouds currently work, which sent me down a rabbit hole of reading similar feedback from others (such as Thim’s feedback here).
That got me thinking, remember when oxygen and carbon dioxide existed as clouds in the game? There used to be a time where there were two whole extra compound clouds floating around that needed to be swum through and collected (though granted Phosphate didn’t exist yet). And it was originally inconceivable to remove them as clouds. But then we slowly realized we had to, and look how much it improved gameplay. I think moving them over to background environmental variables removed a lot of frustration from the gameplay and was all around a really positive decision we made towards the progress of the game.
Which got me thinking… what if we did the same to Ammonia and Phosphate?
Since these are both required for growth, it’s basically impossible for autotrophs to be sessile and grow since they will virtually never get any of these (the way currents currently work). If we make them background variables, then a sessile autotroph is actually possible, either for the player or for the AI to evolve, and that’s crucial to have in any ecosystem. For that reason alone, I felt it was justified to reclassify Ammonia and Phosphate.
And then I realized, wait a minute, if we removed oxygen and carbon dioxide clouds and that improves the game, and then we remove ammonia and phosphate clouds to improve the game, why stop there? Why do we have this instinct to keep the clouds? Could it be possible that the game could be improved as a whole if we just removed all compound clouds altogether?
I know this is a crazy thought, but hear me out! I’ve really thought about this from many many angles (being one of the original proponents for compound clouds back in the day), and I kept coming back to the same conclusion with more certainty. I feel like I have developed a good case for it at this point.
We remove all compounds as coloured clouds swirling in the environment. Instead, all of them exist as background variables that are slowly absorbed over time (based on your size and membrane). Here are my reasons why.
The initial reasons we implemented them no longer apply. I remember the original discussions that led to us deciding to add compound clouds to the game. We initially implemented them because we thought that at that scale, compounds are concentrated in pockets and need to be swam to. But as time went by and we did our research we realized that’s actually not the case, the “clouds” in real life are muuuuch wider, and veeeery gradually increase in concentration as you work your way from the edge to the center. Most cells don’t need to actively swim in circles to get to them. Additionally, we figured that we could have huge clouds moved by currents; but not only would that be taxing on performance, that would make the game’s visuals a rainbow mess, and honestly at that point what’s the point of colouring them (the whole screen will just be covered with bright colours you won’t even be able to see the background). Additionally, compound clouds were implemented at a time when the team had a very incomplete picture of what the Microbe Stage would look like and how we could make it fun, so it was a way to give something to the player to do, but now that we’ve added in more cells, organelles, AI behaviour, prokaryotes, engulfment, agents, patch maps, and new combat types, we don’t need that anymore.
Sessile play is currently not possible . This is the biggest one for me, and it was inspired by the Steam review. At the moment, sessile play is not possible since even if you evolve a biosynthesis organelle (a chloroplast or chemoplast or thermoplast) you still need to hunt for ammonia and phosphate. Even if you evolve a Nitrogenase, you STILL have to hunt for Phosphate (Nature doesn’t have an organelle that can produce Phosphate). And this doesn’t even make sense since most autotrophs in real life do not have Nitrogenase. In real life, the reason marine autotrophs get past this is because nutrients are highly dilute in water and can continuously be passively absorbed. Terrestrial autotrophs use a similar trick by simply having their roots dig into the earth to passively absorb nutrients, especially if the soil is damp which facilitates absorption more easily.
It removes the RNG frustration of not being able to find clouds, and makes low concentrations of vital nutrients much less frustrating. Patches with low levels of compounds should be completely playable, just more difficult. However, patches with low levels of vital compounds are instead just extremely frustrating with a high probability of death due to bad luck with clouds. Free floating Nitrate and Phosphate are supposed to reach very low levels once life matures on the planet (the way glucose currently reduces). If the current cloud system is used for them, this means many playthroughs where the player won’t find of these important growth nutrients in time and die, which is extremely frustrating and RNG based. On the other hand, if they are a background nutrient, they will always be absorbed at a steady rate, so the worst that can happen is just that you take longer to grow because the amount in the patch is lower. Much less frustrating for the player experience. And that’s actually what happens in real life when nitrate and phosphate are low.
It balances out the extremes of compound collection. Currently, as a small prokaryote, if you get lucky you can literally reproduce within 30 seconds or less. This is a shame cause we don’t let the player appreciate being a prokaryote. On the flip side, as a really large eukaryote, you will have to swim through so so many clouds before you can finally accumulate enough to reproduce (unless you are an engulfer, but not all cells are). In a system where compounds can be absorbed passively from the environment, we can prevent growth being too slow or too fast.
Hunting clouds is an inherently boring interaction compared to other interactions in the game. Hunting cells is always going to be more fun, or running away from cells. Or chasing for a free floating organelle before another cell gets it. Or looking for other cells to bind to, or sexually reproduce with (when that’s implemented). These interactions will all become more common if the player doesn’t have to hunt for clouds anymore.
It will make the game look a LOT more realistic . We’ve made some huge strides in making the game look more realistic in the years and we should all be proud of that. But there’s only so much you can do to make a game look realistic when there are bright purple and yellow clouds floating through the water. It’s even more visually jarring when there are multiple overlapping clouds that create a multi-coloured mess. By removing them into background nutrients, we can keep the brightly coloured clouds which are a very anachronistic with the game’s realistic aiming visuals, and which are inconsistent with the rest of the game because we will not represent compounds using brightly coloured clouds at any other stage.
Will help us improve performance . This is also a big one. Also, think about it, the compound clouds are such a computationally intense system, and they will literally only exist in the Microbe Stage. There will literally never be another stage where we will use that code. So is it really worth adding so much weight to the CPU for 1-2 hours of compound cloud generation?
Compounds will instead exist as background environmental variables, that are passively absorbed by the cell’s membrane. This is a defining feature of every marine ecosystem. Nutrients and other substances spread out and dilute in the water. This is what makes it so easy for organisms to absorb nutrients in water with little effort, whereas on land you cannot simply sit on a field and absorb nutrients from the air. As such, we can set the player’s cell a Diffusion Rate / Absorption Rate dependent on their size and membrane type, which defines how quickly they absorb compounds over time. It will also depend on the concentration of the compound in that patch, so the benefit of nutrient rich patches is that you grow faster and gain glucose (or its equivalents) quicker. This also makes low compound patches less frustrating, since the only penalty is that you grow and gain energy slower, not that 9/10 times you will not find enough clouds and just die. Furthermore, the addition of a Diffusion Rate trait allows us to create specific organelles that boost your Diffusion Rate (like Microvilli), which can allow multicellular colonies to evolve specialized Diffusion/Absorptive Cells. Diffusion/Absorptive Cells would then be the precursor of respiratory tissue, gills, and respiration systems in more complex organisms.
It allows us to replace clouds with chunks (bubbles, grains, crystals, etc.) which are more realistic, more visually relatable, and more easily discernible. These could serve as an analogue to the clouds, where swimming near them allows you to absorb a sudden large burst of that compound (until they deplete and disappear). This rewards species who evolve mobility. We could even have bubble environmental chunks for the atmospheric gasses, where swimming near them grants a boost to any process using that gas compound. These would also add more terrain to the environment, as they could be attached to, pushed around, navigated through to escape predators, etc. I remember being one of the ones who argued against representing compounds with chunks way back when, since I mistakenly looked at a few scientific images and thought that no such particles exist at that scale. But since I’ve began rethinking compound clouds, I researched bubbles, crystals, grains, and particles again and I found that many of these actually do exist at microscopic scales. There are videos of plant cells slowly producing oxygen bubbles as they photosynthesize, before the bubble detaches and floats away. There are grains of salt and sugar as small as cells. There are crystals of different metals and minerals that are the scale of cells. I think these could serve as a perfect replacement for clouds, they look better, they’re more realistic, they are less computationally intensive, and they fulfill the same role of rewarding mobile species for exploration and giving something for mobile cells to race towards. I can make a separate thread to discuss this further.
For perspective, here's a quick mock-up of what the environment would look like with no coloured clouds, and instead with compound chunks. Shown are some sugar crystals which will yield glucose (and shrink) when swum near. Also shown are bubbles (which look thicker microscopically) of Hydrogen Sulfide gas.
If I was not able to convince you with my reasoning, there are some alternatives I can think of to the suggested changes:
Only remove Ammonia and Phosphate clouds. If we feel removing clouds is too radical, but do recognize they create some problems. This will still enable sessile play, but loses out on a lot of the benefits I think we can gain from completely removing clouds. Plus, at this point shouldn’t we just accept the trend and remove clouds altogether?
Do not implement background compounds, instead replace compound clouds only with the introduction of Chunks in the environment for all compounds. This removes the need for a Diffusion Rate / Absorption Rate trait, but again misses out on a lot of the potential benefits listed above, and does not solve sessile gameplay being impossible.
So what do you guys think? Have I convinced you that removing compound clouds will make Thrive a better game? I know it’s a radical idea, but I don’t think we should be married to compound clouds as a feature if it’s actively bogging us down in so many ways, just because it’s been around for so long. This is coming from one of the original proponents of the compound cloud system from years ago. We should be ready to cut a game feature at the first chance we get with no shame if we think it can make the game better, even if its a legacy feature.