I do a lot of research for my games.Â I have to: I’ve never been to Africa, I’ve been to Alaska once but never seen a polar bear outside of the zoo.Â I’ve certainly seen dinosaurs but none that were likely to eat me.
In the course of my research, I went through a lot of interesting material.Â Arctic Dreams was revelatory, Mind of the Raven was illuminating, and the documentary series Blue Planet was breathtaking.Â But this post is about a piece of wisdom that I find myself returning to again and again.Â A marine biologist from UCSD advised me thus:
Arctic ecosystems pulse on the border between the land and sea.Â Seals and walruses dot the shoreline, polar bears roam the ice floes, but they all depend on the vast food source beneath them.Â Huge schools of Arctic cod and herring, and clouds of plankton feed the top-level predators of both land and sea.
Every four years, lemmings, which form the base of the food chain for snowy owls and other predators, almost go extinct.Â It’s not clear why (lemming suicide is a myth).Â If you’ve played Venture Arctic far enough to unlock collared lemmings, you know that it’s very difficult to keep them alive.Â They tend to breed exponentially.Â Once every four years or so, their population gets so large that they eat all the available food.Â Then they die.Â Snowy owl populations are directly related to the availability of food: the sine wave of the lemming census.
Cod, herring, and plankton fluctuate in yearly cycles (rather than every 4 years like lemmings).Â Their lives depend on the seasons.Â Why don’t their populations boom during good years and and bust once they overpopulate the way that lemmings do?Â What keeps their populations healthy and stable year after year?Â What keeps the sine wave of major marine animal populations in balance?
Calming the Oceans
This is the piece of wisdom that the marine biologist had for me: apex predators (like sharks) provide stability to ecosystems by feasting as the fish populations rise and living on a meager diet during lulls.Â If the apex predators disappear, the cod, herring, and other animals at the base of the food chain would breed in spikes and then crash once they ate through all their food.Â Without the apex predators, the whole ecosystem would collapse!
Safety (and stability) in numbers
The Venture games distill ecosystems down and lets you play with manageable numbers of animals.Â In the real world, particularly in marine ecosystems, populations are huge — the animal count no longer fit on the three digit score counter in the corner.Â We’re talking about millions of animals.Â When you have a population that large, it’s easy for a small portion of those animals to live through a particularly difficult time.Â In Venture Arctic and Venture Africa, that last zebra or caribou often has no place to hide.Â The smaller populations in the games lead them to be much more vulnerable to extinction.
There’s a cat in my neighborhood that my fiancee has named Creepy.Â It is an odd looking cat, and more than once we’ve seen it bring a mouse to various neighbors’ doorsteps.Â I saw Creepy the other day, and it got me to thinking: house cats were originally bred to take care of mice.Â These cat/mouse ecosystems are similarly small to the Venture games — why are they not more fragile?Â What keeps the cat alive?
We do, of course!Â When an apex predator (like a house cat) is trying to survive in a limited ecosystem, their food supplies must be supplemented by some external force.
Apex predators are extremely important in an ecosystem: they act as population control for the lower levels of the food web.Â But in small, self-contained ecosystems like we’ve got in the Venture games, the diets of the apex predators must be supplemented.Â The player must be able to engineer the balance of life by acting as provider to the top of the food chain as well as the bottom.
What does this mean for gameplay?Â In Venture Dinosauria, the player will be able to provide meat for their predators to help them through hard times.Â The health of an autonomous ecosystem depends as much on the health of the top of the food chain as much as the bottom.