Ecology: what is needed?
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Alister



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Location: Alberta, Canada

PostPosted: Mon Dec 15, 2008 10:09 pm    Post subject: Ecology: what is needed? Reply with quote

This topic has surely been tackled numerous times, but I do not think any account of it I have seen has been wholly satisfying. My question is, what is necessary for a MUD to sustain an ecology? By ecology, I mean:

self-regulation of species within a virtual environment
self-perpetuation of the ecology across time ('mass extinction' doesn't occur under normal circumstances)

Here's a few thoughts on the topic.

1. Actions must have consequences. Perhaps the most obvious point (and hardest one to overcome) is that actions must change the ecology. The death of a goblin must reverberate through the entire ecology. It is not sufficient to simply replace that goblin by a static load on the next zone reset. The population of goblins must decrease, and the ecology must be able to adapt to that. It's a part of self-regulation.

2. Interdependence of species. On the other side of the coin, the birth of new creatures must also affect the ecology. Balances must exist so that single species do not overwhelm the world. Negative feedback must exist between species; more goblins means fewer wild boars (because they be eated!), which in turn means the death of goblins from starvation.

3. Grinding is not a viable behavior. Since we've already established that static loads are not feasible, this also means that grinding behavior is not supported. Killing goblins in mass quantities, relative to the number of all goblins, will drastically alter the ecology by severing perhaps necessary sources of feedback within the ecology. Advancement (if it exists) has to be a little more innovative.

I am really curious what a game with a functional ecology would look like. What would the game play look like? Would it even be a fun game? What else is necessary for an ecology to exist in a virtual environment? Are there any other properties that should be added to the definition of ecology?

Thoughts?
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ide



Joined: 21 Feb 2006
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 16, 2008 5:23 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Unfortunately it seems that your requirements are in basic opposition to one another, and until that's resolved I don't think you'll end up with a system you're satisfied with. While grinding is a quintessential mud mechanic, it also isn't that much different from people killing millions of buffalo, birds, fish and trees, an action just as much a part of an ecology as anything else.
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Alister



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PostPosted: Tue Dec 16, 2008 5:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

ide wrote:
Unfortunately it seems that your requirements are in basic opposition to one another, and until that's resolved I don't think you'll end up with a system you're satisfied with.


Are you talking about self-regulation and self-perpetuation? How are they in opposition to one another? I don't see a necessary disconnect. Can you elaborate, or are you talking about something different?

ide wrote:
While grinding is a quintessential mud mechanic, it also isn't that much different from people killing millions of buffalo, birds, fish and trees, an action just as much a part of an ecology as anything else.


You're right, it's not much different. But it's not part of sustainable ecologies -- it's behavior that destroys ecologies. Part of the challenge of developing a mud with an ecology is finding outlets of play that are not based on grinding, so an ecology can actually exist.
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ide



Joined: 21 Feb 2006
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 16, 2008 5:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was speaking to your numbered thoughts on the system, I guess I took them as requirements.

Originally I refrained from saying it, but it seems you're more interested in a model system than a game system. Playing a model can be interesting, so are you going for more of a multiplayer Civ or Sims with this?

I remember KaVir mentioning that when he implemented an ecology on one of his old muds (I don't think it was as much of a model system as you're describing), the players rapidly devastated that ecology. And of course, that's unsustainable; but don't you think it's an equally valid part of a system?

It's not only player actions that could rapidly change an ecology; NPC or environmental actions could have the same effect.
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Alister



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PostPosted: Tue Dec 16, 2008 6:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

ide wrote:

I was speaking to your numbered thoughts on the system, I guess I took them as requirements.


Well, my intuition is that they are necessary for a sustainable ecology to exist within a mud. Maybe I'm wrong. That's what I'm curious about I suppose.

ide wrote:

Originally I refrained from saying it, but it seems you're more interested in a model system than a game system. Playing a model can be interesting, so are you going for more of a multiplayer Civ or Sims with this?


Maybe, but I don't know that there has to be a difference. I'm certainly not aiming for something like Civ or Sims, though. I'm aiming for something at least passingly similar to a mud, embedded within something like what we understand to be a 'healthy ecology'.

ide wrote:

I remember KaVir mentioning that when he implemented an ecology on one of his old muds (I don't think it was as much of a model system as you're describing), the players rapidly devastated that ecology. And of course, that's unsustainable; but don't you think it's an equally valid part of a system?


Like you say, that's unsustainable. So by definition, no, that is not a valid part of the types of systems I am concerned about. But of course, that brings its own issues, the biggest being: how can you make a mud-type-game where grinding isn't a typical behavior, still has replay value, and is fun?

ide wrote:

It's not only player actions that could rapidly change an ecology; NPC or environmental actions could have the same effect.


Certainly. I'd be disappointed if they didn't. Part of the purpose of these thoughts are to figure out a way to get interesting behavior "for free" from the game world, so it doesn't have to be built in.
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Kernal



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PostPosted: Wed Dec 17, 2008 5:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

In order to have grinding not be the standard mode of play, you need to fulfill one of three (that I can think of) criteria.

(1) Combat prowess isn't increased by grinding.

(2) Combat isn't the primary goal of advancement.

(3) Grinding is impractical for some other reason.

Regarding (1), the idea of getting better at something not by practicing but by some other method hurts my soul, but it could be done. For example, I played a MUD years ago called Elysium, in which you progressed simply by spending time logged in. Obviously idling became a huge issue, but the result was that most people didn't just go off killing things for the sake of it.

Regarding (2), this is a dangerous route since so many players play MUDs for a good fight. On the other hand, I think a very interesting game could be made in which a strong economic system is the primary focus. Rather than advancement via combat ability, players seek advancement via aggregation of wealth. If combat is included (which it probably should be), those with significant wealth can hire bodyguards to fend off assailants. On larger scales, players can hire entire armies to try to take wealth or industries from other players.

Regarding (3), I see two possible routes, a mix of which are probably the best solution.

Grinding can be discouraged by decreasing gains from killing weak creatures and increasing gains from killing stronger creatures. In this way, slaughtering a tribe of goblins will be a waste of time, while seeking out a lion to combat will yield more gains. Include advancement from combat rather than the actual killing of things and I imagine many players will seek out strong creatures to fight, and flee before either combatant is killed.

Grinding can also be discouraged by implementing more lasting injuries. Typically, players will go fight until their hp is low, heal up for a minute, and go fight some more. If injuries from battle are more lasting (even with magical healing), then constant grinding becomes impossible. Of course, such a game would need interesting things to do other than fight (see (2)), or else it would be disasterously boring.

Cheers,
Kernal
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Alister



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PostPosted: Wed Dec 17, 2008 9:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alister wrote:

ide wrote:

I remember KaVir mentioning that when he implemented an ecology on one of his old muds (I don't think it was as much of a model system as you're describing), the players rapidly devastated that ecology. And of course, that's unsustainable; but don't you think it's an equally valid part of a system?


Like you say, that's unsustainable. So by definition, no, that is not a valid part of the types of systems I am concerned about. But of course, that brings its own issues, the biggest being: how can you make a mud-type-game where grinding isn't a typical behavior, still has replay value, and is fun?


A quick clarification... of course, it's still worth knowing why what KaVir set up didn't work. Certainly that will help in finding a workable system. But since I'm looking for ways to develop a sustainable ecology within a mud, situations that destroy that sustainability are only interesting insofar as how the mud can be designed to avoid them.
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Alister



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PostPosted: Wed Dec 17, 2008 10:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Kernal wrote:
In order to have grinding not be the standard mode of play, you need to fulfill one of three (that I can think of) criteria.

(1) Combat prowess isn't increased by grinding.

(2) Combat isn't the primary goal of advancement.

(3) Grinding is impractical for some other reason.


Just to add another option...

(4) There is nothing to be gained from grinding

In my starting city, players engage in non-fatal duels with NPCs; they get credit for their first win (an advancement point, that lets them choose a new skill), but none after that. Each NPC becomes a puzzle that one has to solve with the appropriate selection of gear and skills (people can change their skills at any time). The big problem is that this simply doesn't scale -- but it does make for a nice starting city.

Here's an idea...

Players collect resources. Resources then translate to better quality equipment for the player base over all. However, resources have to be transferred from collection sites (mines, lumber mills, etc) via caravans, to the main city to be utilized. Caravans attract raiding parties that have to be fended off while the caravans travel.

Even when a caravan reaches the city, it's no guarantee that the material is safe. The more wealth a city collects, the more chance it will attract the attention of bigger foes -- giants, dragons, etc -- that will steal resources if they are not fended off.

I think the big point here is that advancement isn't permanent; advancement can be lost, and in a way that's interesting to the game. Combat is also still a vital part of advancement, but it is not necessarily in the form of repetitive grinding. Has it just been off-loaded to the gathering of resources, though? Maybe?

In any case, I seem to have drifted from the topic of ecology. How does that fit into this tangent? My entire reason for being curious about the topic is to get interesting global behavior without having to program it in. I want to be able to automatically generate large-scale events that have some sort of plausibility relative to past events. Hunting boars means hungry goblins, which means goblin raiding parties. Killing goblins means more animals (and less attacks on caravans), which means rich cities and a plentiful sources of food -- better be prepared for dragon attacks! Dead dragons require a huge commitment of resources, which means effort at expanding into the environment has been neglected, and probably even over-run by other groups (Opposing factions? Other NPC races?). Most likely, though, players won't be able to kill the Dragon -- so they've simply added a constant negative force onto city advancement until 1) the dragon loses interest or 2) goblins repopulate to a size where it's no longer possible for the dragon to have a comfortable amount of food.

Why can't players just wipe out all of the boars, to starve all of the goblins and prevent dragons from coming, and live happily ever after? Maybe players need to be linked into the ecology as well, having to live off of the land. If food sources are wiped out, players die as well as goblins. Then, players have to live with the constant acceptance that where there is food, there are also enemies -- and wiping out your enemies only encourages stronger enemies to take up residence.
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Tyche



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PostPosted: Thu Dec 18, 2008 4:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Kernal wrote:

Grinding can be discouraged by decreasing gains from killing weak creatures and increasing gains from killing stronger creatures. In this way, slaughtering a tribe of goblins will be a waste of time, while seeking out a lion to combat will yield more gains.


Actually the above is one reason for unstable mud ecology. Don't assume that because my high level character can wipe out hordes of low level goblins or rabbits for no experience is discouragement. In fact, bored of "grinding" the hard mobiles, being able to destroy the ecology of local area becomes another amusing outlet. Destruction is fun.
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KaVir



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PostPosted: Mon Jan 12, 2009 10:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alister wrote:
A quick clarification... of course, it's still worth knowing why what KaVir set up didn't work.


It wasn't really an ecology, because it didn't impact the wildlife, only the environment itself. However the problem was exactly as Tyche described - the players destroyed the environment because they could. They wanted to leave their mark on the world, and were willing to sink hours of effort into it, even though there was no reward for doing so. For some people, vandalism is its own reward.

If you want to develop a sustainable ecology, there is one vital fact you need to keep in mind at all times: If it's possible to destroy it, players will do so.

Alister wrote:
Why can't players just wipe out all of the boars, to starve all of the goblins and prevent dragons from coming, and live happily ever after?


If players are able to wipe out all the boars, they will do exactly that. Future players will log on to a mud where there are no boars, goblins or dragons.

Let's assume that every species that can be destroyed has been destroyed (because that's what will happen). What can a newbie do when they log on? Is there still anything left for them to fight? What gameplay options do they have?
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Alister



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PostPosted: Tue Jan 13, 2009 12:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

KaVir wrote:

If you want to develop a sustainable ecology, there is one vital fact you need to keep in mind at all times: If it's possible to destroy it, players will do so.


I wonder if this is simply a product of mud actions not having consequences? I mean, I don't bring a knife to school and get stabby just because it's fun (every day). I know those actions would have undesirable consequences. Do you think that if player actions began having salient consequences, players' tendency to destroy everything just because they could would be tempered?

Maybe killing boars with reckless abandon becomes reflected in the local cities over the next day or two as PC and NPC malnutrition (reduced constitution for everyone) because "hunting parties were unable to bring home fresh meat!".

The next week, the same thing happens and the city's Mayor decrees anyone caught killing boars beyond their capacity to eat will be locked in the dungeon. Players are out in the wilderness searching for the boar-killers to drag them back to the city, and someone stumbles onto a fight between a goblin and a boar. It turns out PCs weren't killing the boars after all. A camp of goblins have just incidentally moved into the vicinity and are living off the same resources. Now a new 'quest' has emerged for everyone to participate in: fend off the encroachment of goblins so the city can maintain its food supply, and make that damn constitution penalty goes away.

I don't think just because a player happens to see a boar right in front of them as they're hunting a goblin, that they're going to kill that boar. I sort of defeats the purpose of what they're trying to do. That is, get rid of the constitution penalty by getting rid of the goblins (and letting the boars repopulate). Despite the fact that they can kill the boar, they probably won't in this situation (I assume?).

KaVir wrote:

Let's assume that every species that can be destroyed has been destroyed (because that's what will happen). What can a newbie do when they log on? Is there still anything left for them to fight? What gameplay options do they have?


I think at that point it's game over; time to re-seed the mud, or rethink the idea entirely. I want to get interesting game events out of the species dynamics. If there are no species, there are no dynamics. So everything being wiped out cannot be a plausible event. I'm curious about what constraints are needed so the situation you mention is not something that will happen. In very broad, hand-wavey motions I think there needs to be something about "actions need to have consequences". On top of that, not all consequences should be punishments. That's just going to be a game of constant frustration. Rather, it needs to be apparent that "interacting with the world changes it, and what is possible for you to do in the world" so players exhibit behaviors that open up interesting options of playing for them, not behaviors that reduce their options for playing.
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KaVir



Joined: 11 May 2005
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 14, 2009 10:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alister wrote:
I wonder if this is simply a product of mud actions not having consequences?


I don't think so. Vandalism is hardly unusual in the real world, after all, even when there are consequences for getting caught.

Alister wrote:
Do you think that if player actions began having salient consequences, players' tendency to destroy everything just because they could would be tempered?


Perhaps, but I don't think that would stop it completely. I remember once playing a mud where I used to PK people simply to earn the "KILLER" flag - even though the flag only gave drawbacks (attacked by guards on sight, shopkeepers refused to serve you, etc). The flag was a status symbol that only a skilled player could retain.

Alister wrote:
Maybe killing boars with reckless abandon becomes reflected in the local cities over the next day or two as PC and NPC malnutrition (reduced constitution for everyone) because "hunting parties were unable to bring home fresh meat!".


A fun idea, but there would be a small number of players who would continue to kill the boars, simply to annoy everyone else.

A more effective strategy would be to have some sort of penalty that only applies to those who continue killing boars, and to make that penalty invisible to other players (so that it doesn't serve as a status symbol). But if it's possible to wipe the boars out entirely, there will always be some players who attempt to do that, regardless of the penalties you impose - the chance to leave a permanent mark on the game world can be very appealing.

Alister wrote:
I want to get interesting game events out of the species dynamics. If there are no species, there are no dynamics. So everything being wiped out cannot be a plausible event. I'm curious about what constraints are needed so the situation you mention is not something that will happen.


Other than having server resets from time to time, the only way I can think of is to make it impossible to permanently wipe out a species. Perhaps you could retain the dynamic feel by having the species cycle - if species 1 is wiped out, it gives rise to species 2. If species 2 is wiped out, it gives rise to species 3. If species 3 is wiped out, species 1 returns. Players can change the ecology, but not destroy it.
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Alister



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PostPosted: Wed Jan 14, 2009 9:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

KaVir wrote:

Alister wrote:
I wonder if this is simply a product of mud actions not having consequences?


I don't think so. Vandalism is hardly unusual in the real world, after all, even when there are consequences for getting caught.


In theory there may be consequences, but in practice people rarely have to deal with them. At least for petty stuff, it's incredibly easy to vandalize without being caught, and thus have to deal with the consequences. Why don't we go around vandalizing our own possessions, and homes? I suspect because then we have no choice but to deal with the consequences directly.

KaVir wrote:

Alister wrote:
Do you think that if player actions began having salient consequences, players' tendency to destroy everything just because they could would be tempered?


Perhaps, but I don't think that would stop it completely. I remember once playing a mud where I used to PK people simply to earn the "KILLER" flag - even though the flag only gave drawbacks (attacked by guards on sight, shopkeepers refused to serve you, etc). The flag was a status symbol that only a skilled player could retain.


Did these things impact how you played? At least in the muds I've played where this is done, there was nothing a shopkeeper could provide you that you couldn't get elsewhere (usually through a friend). Most the time, there was just nothing players needed from shopkeepers beyond the first few levels. And killing guards was a game unto itself. As far as players actually having to consider the pros and cons of their actions, my experience with this sort of stuff is that the consequences don't really impact your playing experience.

KaVir wrote:

A fun idea, but there would be a small number of players who would continue to kill the boars, simply to annoy everyone else.

A more effective strategy would be to have some sort of penalty that only applies to those who continue killing boars, and to make that penalty invisible to other players (so that it doesn't serve as a status symbol). But if it's possible to wipe the boars out entirely, there will always be some players who attempt to do that, regardless of the penalties you impose - the chance to leave a permanent mark on the game world can be very appealing.


Nod. I'd be a little concerned of people making separate "boar killing" characters, to avoid the repercussions. But I suppose with some sort of way to tie all a players' characters to one account, and apply the penalties to the entire account could get around that. Maybe?

I sort of feel like it's drifting away from the point of boars needing to be alive in the first place, though, which is to sustain the NPCs and players with food. If killing boars only affects the killers, there's this weird situation of "as long as you don't touch them, you don't get penalized" which is just sort of ... silly. If killing boars affects the killer and surrounding NPCs but not other players, what's really been accomplished? If nobody is interested in the NPCs that their actions might hurt, there still aren't any consequences. I think there needs to be some direct connection to other players, with ways for other players to hold the boar-killers accountable for their actions.

If there are still some players killing boars "simply to annoy others", I don't know that this is a terribly bad thing as long as players have the power to address their problems. Direct PK, or perhaps something more quest-like such as gathering resources to hire mercenaries from factions the boar-killer has made enemies with (PETA?). Perhaps one of the consequences of boar killing is that you make these NPC enemies, which other players can later "turn on" within the game to fight back. Maybe both things in conjunction could be used to take down those overly powerful individuals who have simply become bored with the game. Maybe destructive behavior might be salvageable as something interesting for all the players. There's lots of 'maybes' in there. Just kind of spewing out ideas.

Really, my goal here is to get interesting events for free out of the dynamics of players and NPCs. I thought devising a working ecology would be the way to go, but maybe what I just need is a way to hold players accountable for their actions, which in turn opens up new situations for playing.
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Vopisk



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PostPosted: Mon Mar 09, 2009 5:16 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Another important point that I think was glossed over is what type of world you are talking about. That is, is the world seamless, i.e. every square inch of every piece of land, sea and air can be traveled/hunted by players? Or is the world more traditional in that players have access to "areas" of the world, but the great wilderness beyond is well, beyond?

Having spent quite a good deal of time thinking about the same and similar issues the best conclusion I have been able to draw up is that the "simulation" aspect of the ecology issue should be abstracted away from the game world. You don't need an individual in-game object for all of the 2.5 billion boars in existence across the world, what you need is an abstract figure that says something like "There are 500 boars in the local area". Based upon this, when a player is out exploring, they have a weighted chance to come across a boar (or some other creature) depending upon local populations as well as most likely their skills in stuff like hunting and the like. If you've ever tried to sneak up close enough to a deer to even try and get a single chance at stabbing it with a sword you'd probably understand that it's not the easiest thing to do. Build in the fight or flight response, make creatures behave more naturally (i.e. run away at the slightest sign of danger) instead of simply standing there and waiting for the slaughter to come to them.

However, KaVir's suggestion holds a lot of water, if the boars are nearly or all but wiped out from an area then some other creature, plant life or something else will become overpopulated by the sudden, drastic decrease in the food chain. You could also (using the "areas" idea) have animal populations "migrate" in small numbers to neighboring areas, thereby increasing the number in the decimated area.

For intelligent species such as goblins or humans, you could use a "civilization" factor to make them appear in villages and stuff. if goblin_population > 30: spawn goblin_village
You could change the "size" of the encampment depending upon how many there are, so there only needs to be 50 humans to create a village but it takes 500 to create a town, etc... etc... etc...

Then you just program the code for animal, plant and intelligent populations to feed off of one another and you've got yourself what, for all intents and purposes, appears to the player as a working ecology without needing to use a super-computer to house your server because of all the processing you'd chew up trying to model a real world.
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Alister



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PostPosted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 8:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Vopisk wrote:
Having spent quite a good deal of time thinking about the same and similar issues the best conclusion I have been able to draw up is that the "simulation" aspect of the ecology issue should be abstracted away from the game world. You don't need an individual in-game object for all of the 2.5 billion boars in existence across the world, what you need is an abstract figure that says something like "There are 500 boars in the local area".


Yeah I tend to agree. The method I settled on was to do an iterative network of predator and prey relations; trees would be the only thing without prey (herbivores would of course prey on trees), which would regrow slowly and automatically after depleted. Random spawns would be determined by a weighted average of population densities, and killing an NPC would affect the system by reducing its race's density in the network.

The only issue is when you want to add physical space into the mix. e.g., maybe you want to mess around with migration and evolution, or maybe allow players to find/clear small pockets that aren't inhabited by monsters to start cities (which, in turn, maybe might draw them back). At that point, you're almost certainly better off doing it for real. If you try to simulate physical space, your simulation will most likely get as-or-more complex as your actual game itself, and probably not even do what you want it to do, unless you have a really good understanding of complexity theory. I think this is articulated by Bonini's Paradox?
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