Ecology: The branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms.

Organic systems combine randomisation, parameter tracking, and growth/decline cycles to create virtual environments that change with or without player interaction.

What does this mean exactly? Let’s look at an example, with pretty pictures:

The first image shows a sample area in an MMO. Each of the darker coloured circles in the corners represents the entrance to a dungeon or monster lair. Each X, including the ones on the darker coloured circles, represents a spawn point. Each color represents a different monster tribe – Green are goblins, Blue are orcs, red are kobolds, and yellow are gnolls. The larger, lighter circle represents the sphere of influence of each of the dungeons.

When the servers come up for the first time after a server reset, each dungeon is at its weakest, the sphere of influence reduced to its minimum, or default size. Spheres of Influence are essentially a value, in feet or metres, that is associated with how well each tribe is doing. This follows the logic that, the better each tribe is doing, the more territory they are able to effectively control, and the more territory they need to scour for food and resources to keep the tribe healthy. Thus, each tribe starts out evenly matched when the servers come back up (after maintenance, or after an emergency patch, or whatever).

In figure one, you can see that the default value of the sphere of inflluence makes it large enough to encompass one spawn point, apart from the ones inside the tribal lair. After however long, all spawn points in the zone spawn monsters. These would probably be the fauna native to the local area, bears, wolves, tigers, lions, etc.

The interesting thing happens at the spawn points which are inside a tribal lair’s sphere of influence. Using a simple distance calculation, we can allocate a random chance that each ‘influenced’ spawn point will spawn a tribal monster, instead of its normal spawn/s: the closer the spawn point is, relative to the sphere of influence’s size, the higher chance the chance that the spawn point will spawn a tribal monster.

Spheres of influence aren’t static. They grow and shrink depending on how well the goblins outside of the lair are doing at killing stuff, foraging, etc. This can be simulated by having spheres of influence grow slowly over time, with the actual rate of growth depending on how many of it’s tribal monsters are currently active – spawned – in the zone. If a tribal monster engages in combat and wins, the sphere of influence also grows by a certain amount, the spoils of battle providing extra food and resources to the tribe. In figure 2, we can see what would happen if the goblinsĀ  in the southeast lair got lucky and got a headstart on the other monsters. Eventually, and without player intervention, the spheres of influence of all the tribal lairs would increase in size, to the point where they would overlap. At this point (figure 3), the tribes would come into conflict. All things being more or less equal (level, overall strength), the RNG would eventually lead to some form of tie-breaker, and eventually a sphere of influence would grow enough to cover another monster lair. At this point, if there were no players in the lair itself, the monsters in that lair would despawn, and be replaced with monsters from the ‘conquering’ tribe. Or, more dramatically, monsters from the larger tribe could swarm out of the lair and rampage into the weaker lair, killing everything in their path. At this point, the lair would be ‘conquered’, and spawn monsters of the victorious tribe, with any surviving invaders taking up residence in the cave as well, or returning to the original lair. This event would probably reduce the attacking tribe’s sphere of influence to some extent, to prevent a lucky roll from instantly signifying that that tribe would end up dominating the area, with no chance for the other ones to fight back.

Of course, this is all without player intervention. A single player of the appropriate level could probably influence how the battle for dominance would turn out. To make things interesting, it would be interesting if each possible tribe that could inhabit a lair had it’s own set of rares, each of which could spawn in certain lairs, but not all of them. This would mean that players could keep track of whats going on in the area, and if the circumstances are right, they could try to check a lair for the local rare monster, in the hopes of scoring a nice piece of loot.

That’s the basic gist of how organic dungeons would work. It might not be ideal for mainstream content or zones with a lot of traffic or large quest hubs, due to the randomness inherent in the system, but it could be an interesting way to fill out areas that would otherwise be left empty or underpopulated. There’s enough material in my original writings on the subject for a mini-series of posts, so if you’re interested in discussing the subject or hearing more, leave a comment, and I’ll write some more on the subject.