This article shouldn’t exist. It was written seven years into the development of a game that wasn’t supposed to survive one month.
Welcome to the ludicrously improbable world of Thrive.
Hi. I’m Oliver Lugg, also known as Oliveriver within Revolutionary Games, the team behind Thrive. This makes me a maniac with no understanding of probability, productivity or plausibility.
Why? Thrive is an open-source game created by online volunteers with no funding, which aims to accurately simulate evolution. Its founding motive was to fix the mistakes of Spore, the product of a major game studio.
Of course it’s crazy.
But is it doomed to failure?
If today someone said they intended to create a spiritual Spore successor with volunteer contributions and no income, you’d probably keel over laughing before pointing them to the nearest psychotherapy ward. Anyone with half a brain cell can tell there’s no chance of it ever progressing beyond a lunatic’s pipe dream. As if one person, or even a group of people, could ever actually have a tangible game when this is so obviously ridi—wait…
Let’s travel to the primordial swamp of 2009 and witness the fateful encounter which sparked this whole mess, shall we?
The Thrive project began nearly seven years ago, when a group of disillusioned Spore fans found the Holy Grail – a realistic evolutionary simulation game to rival the might of EA. Screenshots posted on the Spore forums flaunted a worm’s evolutionary path with a powerful editor and adaptation system, accompanied by descriptions of a game called Evolutions!. Although a forum glitch many moons ago destroyed the original thread, remnants still hide at the internet’s edges. Even this discussion ends with the tantalising muse of an open-source team rising to the occasion, foreshadowing what would come.
To understand why screenshots alone incited a raucous, you have to understand Spore. What can I say that almighty Spode hasn’t heard a million times? Billed as an evolution-focused god game, events in Spore’s development rendered it an intensely simplified series of minigames. Even Will Wright, the creative mind behind Spore’s original concept, admitted the finished product veered too far towards casual players. Ex-Maxis employees have on occasion described a rift in the development team between those who valued realism, like Wright, and those who wanted commercial viability, often blamed for the game’s childishness. Rumours may be exaggerated, but it’s clear Wright’s dream didn’t coalesce quite as he wished.
Make no mistake, Spore is still a technical marvel – no game has ever come close to the strides it made in procedural animation, and the creature creator is an amazing feat of game design. Even the music was revolutionary, incorporating procedural elements with the involvement of Brian Eno, an ambient music legend.
The real tragedy is that these amazing elements had to share space with…less desirable parts. We all remember the awkward heart-infused mating dance. And excluding the continual presence of editors, the tribal and civilisation stages were just plain boring. Spore is still a terrific game, but it’s nothing compared to what could have been.
To this day, everyone decries Spore’s wasted potential. EA promised fans one thing and delivered something else, regardless of its quality.
Screenshots alone of an alternative were sure to make waves. Fans wanted the true Spore, and at first glance, they had it. The screenshots were, of course, fake.
Few were fooled by what transpired to be a hoax, meant to convince EA they had competition in the hope they’d panic and roll out Spore 2. Yeah, like that was ever going to happen. Had the company even known about Evolutions!, they’d have taken it about as seriously as DRM complaints. From the start people found inaccuracies in the “screenshots”, evidence of their origin in a graphics program. The fraudster soon came clean, breaking only the hearts of the most gullible.
Many were hurt, but some took a different view. Rather than declare the pursuit of a Spore successor futile, a group emerged from the shenanigans willing to make the dream a reality: an open-source team of evolution enthusiasts under the thread’s original poster.
Could they succeed where Spore had failed? Could an open-source project make an EA-beating AAA game?
By all accounts it should have died straight away. It didn’t.
The underhand conspiracies of Evolutions! are a story for another day. Nothing can be said for sure about certain people’s motivations without playing the blame game, so I’ll avoid it.
Evolutions! turned out to be a lost cause, lacking the organisation and team cohesion to make anything worthwhile. Incredibly, there were actual prototypes, but let’s just say they’re a little juvenile. I’m not even kidding. They make Thrive look like Half Life.
A significant subsection of the team broke off, forming what we know today as Revolutionary Games, and Thrive was born.
Again, it should have choked in infancy. Against all odds, the concept survived. Much of the praise for developer devotion should go to the brave few who saw one open-source development fail and, rather than give up, started another one.
Development isn’t the right word to describe Thrive’s haphazard journey pre-2013. Development implies focus. Evolutions! was long dead by 2010, but discussion patterns and formats hadn’t undergone any necessary revolution. The leadership was more agreeable, there was more public outreach, but that was it.
Concepts for later stages materialised while nobody knew what those stages would involve. Tangible prototypes made occasional appearances, though they rarely progressed beyond depressing simplicity. The apparent volume of discussion can largely be dismissed as fan speculation. Of course, some thorough conceptualising was indeed valuable, but it came from five or six members in a sea of stagnation. Though the current code base took its first steps in late 2012, elsewhere Thrive was fading, even after every improbable hoop it’d jumped through.
I came across the project around then thanks to a chance encounter with a YouTube comment (on a video made by YouTuber Quill18). No, it wasn’t me who changed things for the better – I was as inept as most.
I sought out the game’s internet presence and found its Indie DB page. Naively, I was stunned – concept art promised nuanced landscapes, realistic creatures and glistening planets. I admired most the Main Theme concept, evoking wonder in endless forms most beautiful.
My experience probably matches most others. A game with accurate science, immersive gameplay and the ability to guide a species from insignificance to galactic dominance? Sign me up! Wait, it’s open-source and this is all concept art…well I guess if they’ve devised all these concepts they must be able to…oh they don’t have any programmers.
At this point the sane people leave.
I bookmarked the Indie DB page and waited eagerly for updates. If you think our outreach today is lacking, you should’ve seen it then. The most recent Indie DB article came from May 2012. It took until January the following year for the next one’s arrival.
Though I checked the page regularly at first, the lack of new content meant I forgot about it. In December, I saw it again in my bookmarks and absent-mindedly checked once more. Nothing new.
Deeper investigation yielded something I’d missed: a link to the development forums. One small window into Thrive became a sprawling mass of discussion and, as I first saw it, progress. Its entire history as Thrive was available to browse. Like the first credulous witnesses to the Evolutions! post, I was mesmerised. The rest is history.
The project’s effectiveness still left much to be desired. Despite the methodically constructed concepts, nothing was written in a programmer-friendly format. You get the picture – things weren’t good.
Most days, there were no productive posts. Implausible suggestions for underwater civilisations abounded but didn’t constitute realistic advancement. Little did anyone know, revolution was on the horizon.
On the 18th of March 2013, I visited the Thrive forums as usual, expecting inactivity. There were four hundred users online. I had to do a double-take.
This was the infamous Reddit post.
Technically it wasn’t just one. First was a screenshot of comments on a Spore video criticising its missed opportunities. Within the Reddit comments someone mentioned Thrive as an alternative, leading to someone else posting this. Newcomers flooded onto the forums. Recently updated threads extended beyond the bottom of the sidebar, making it impossible to see all of them without perusing the entire site. This somewhat irritated me.
The previous traffic record was smashed. Though it was necessary for Thrive’s survival, it’s a shame our biggest publicity event occurred so long ago.
Comments from those first exposed to the intangible concept are demoralising. Some were ecstatic, praising the team’s work, but far more thought we were all idiots. Even Quill18 was quick to express his disapproval of our site design. Accusations of vapourware were thrown around at every turn, just as they had been the project’s entire history. Nobody believed it would continue.
The Reddit boom proved many still yearned for an improved Spore, going so far as to trust an open-source team with the task. For all the criticism, it marked the beginning of the first Thrive golden age with the number and skill of members it brought. Organisation improved and an early GDD was written. The game destined never to release defied expectations with the first official versions, albeit chronically unfinished.
All this occurred four years after Evolutions! – several project founders were still there. Any rational person would be astounded to see a project so shambolic with such lofty ambitions survive and evolve for so long. Attempts since have fizzled away, as should have been Thrive’s fate. For some reason, we’re still here.
I used to tell my friends about Thrive, but not anymore. The geological pace of development is, as far as they’re concerned, a joke. Like most of us, they’re used to the power of big game companies, and can’t accept the fact it’s taken us seven years to make a few swimming blobs.
When you look at it like that, it’s cause for concern. Not long ago the blobs were hexagons, even worse. We’ve had releases, though few and far between. For a while the rate of feature addition was abysmal compared to reasonable expectations of a game studio.
So why do I continue to believe in it?
Well, this is the second version of this article. I wrote the first in June last year. Alas, it fell victim to procrastination. In it I lamented the game’s unattractiveness and slow development, walling myself into a corner I couldn’t escape from without contradicting Thrive’s honour as a successful venture.
‘So far, we have nothing near what our rhetoric would have people believe – a few ‘hexagons’ with a static background, some emitters, and a rudimentary metabolism – and everything points to little else ever happening.’
Six months later, the hexagons are gone, the background moves, the emitters are next for the chop with compound clouds, and CPA prototypes will improve metabolic and population simulation systems. I really doubt a static future lies ahead.
EA still doesn’t know we exist, so Evolutions!’s initial purpose is yet to be fulfilled. They still wouldn’t take us seriously, but don’t count us out.
Will the impossible game succeed? Make up your own mind, but here’s some food for thought.
Two years ago, we set up an application system to filter out forum members unsuitable for focused development. It’s difficult seeing the zany suggestions of excited fans ignored, but it’s a necessary evil – as we’ve seen so often in the project’s history, programmers won’t be enthralled by a forum full of people suggesting black hole unicorns.
This was a counter-intuitive decision. Reduce unhelpful discussion by encouraging it? Are you mad?
I work on Thrive, so the answer’s yes.
Despite the worrying proportion of roleplays on the community forums, this move succeeded in refocusing development in its own unheeded environment. We’ve reduced the number of underwater civ suggestions in serious development context from astronomically high to just one (swiftly deleted, thank God).
We’ve unfortunately developed a worrying habit of conversing frequently in private, but the best solution is being conscientious about what should be discussed privately or not. Speaking from experience, there’s nothing more disheartening than seeing dead forums which should be active.
Other outreach efforts should offset this anyway. We have proper Devblogs now. I was elated to be mentioned in the old forum Devblog covering the Reddit boom; now I’m the one writing and organising them. Everybody still thinks we’re dead if a month goes by without a release, but the vapourware comments are no more.
When the next traffic spike arrives, we’ll be ready.
The current situation is beyond improbable. At every turn in Thrive’s early evolution the probability of success was tiny. Nobody should have made a hoax, nobody should have seen the hoax and decided it could be a reality, nobody’s faith should have survived the pre-2013 turmoil, nobody should have posted the YouTube comment I found.
You think a finished version of Thrive is impossible? I think Thrive as it stands today is impossible.
Every week on the Spore forums someone suggests developing a successor, yet so far only one’s made it past the vapourware stage. Petitions and early concepts for Spore sequels are everywhere, but none of them ever release anything. TitanSpore and Species: ALRE, our closest neighbours, are at similar development stages to us, but neither employ an open-source model or strive for such heady goals.
Have we passed through our equivalent of the Great Filter? I think so.
Spore fell to corporate meddling, or so many believe. Evolutions! stabbed itself in the back through poor leadership. Thrive stands at a pivotal point for video games as an industry. Independent games today are a powerful force, but with few exceptions none can claim they’ve never made a penny from their work. The arguments for and against money could spawn another article this length, but even if we bite the bullet and accept a source of income in the future, to have come so far on a wing and prayer is staggering.
Thrive has the power to herald a paradigm shift in the way we think about collaborative projects, not just video games. If it succeeds against so much disbelief, it proves amazing things can be achieved in a completely new way.
Kerbal Space Program is a game many of us enjoy, and we’d prefer comparisons to that than Spore. KSP is for casuals and professionals alike, where children can fly poorly built spaceplanes and rocket scientists can build multi-sectioned space stations in orbit around the farthest planets. Thrive has a similar concept – its mix of creativity and simulation place it in the same genre, and we hope it can facilitate a comparable community of learning, discovery and fun. KSP had a tumultuous origin too – it required a Mexican telecoms company to have faith in a small team’s obscure venture, and it succeeded. By rights KSP should never have happened either.
Ok, so these idealised visions of Thrive’s future are perhaps even more ambitious than the game itself, but at heart we’re dreamers who understand a semi-realistic approach to achieving those dreams. Next release we’ll have compound clouds. After that, agents. Then combat systems, then health systems, then CPA systems, and then the full microbe stage. I’m personally doubtful the following stages could be completed, but the microbe stage alone has huge potential for detail and enjoyment (I know, I compiled the latest GDD). And if I’ve learnt anything from Thrive, it’s to abandon all notions of pragmatic disapproval.
So yes, we’re crazy. Will Wright was probably a little crazy when he dreamed of a procedurally generated evolution game. Someday I hope Thrive gains enough recognition for him to stumble upon it and see the true realisation of his vision. In his own words, games are ‘falling way short as a medium’. Quill18’s reaction too will be interesting, when we prove terrible-looking websites can spawn amazing things…eventually.
In its extreme interpretation, Thrive embodies the ability of video games to inspire, discover, and prove the worth of ordinary people who continue when everyone belittles them.
Being realistic, right now it’s a few blobs. True, there’s still a wide gulf between what we say and what we do, but it’s ever-narrowing. As we continue to exceed expectations, internet-goers will be less tentative about supporting us. Growth will be exponential following an extended period of progress. We get hundreds of site visits every day, soon it could be thousands.
I’ll finish with a quote from NickTheNick’s signature on the old forum. Every time we make a tiny step in the direction of a finished reality when nobody believed we could, I’m reminded of it.
‘Look at how far we’ve come when people thought we’d get nowhere. Imagine how far we can go if we try to get somewhere.’
Impossible? Maybe not…