Dyson Developer Diary - Design Edition # 1

Freeman Dyson

To add some interest to the site I decided to start blogging the development of Dyson a bit, mostly from a design point of view. Hopefully it if of interest to you guys/gals to read some of the ideas and motivations behind the game, it certainly explains much of the content. Some of the following is a bit dry but let me start at the beginning and in following diaries I will sex it up a bit :-)

First and foremost, the title. I have always had a certain fascination for the concept of mechanical self-replication. (Can a machine build a copy of itself and keep on propagating and evolving itself into future versions?) The concept has fascinated me since I read a scifi story about a society stuck in an endless warfare loop because the war machines were always able to create seeds of themselves that would grown and evolve into a new generation of war machines. (I forgot the name and author of the story. Anyone?)

My interest was further fuelled by the work of the famous mathematician John Von Neumann. early work on cellular automata and the implications, which are quite startling:

“Von Neumann also created the field of cellular automata without the aid of computers, constructing the first self-replicating automata with pencil and graph paper. The concept of a universal constructor was fleshed out in his posthumous work Theory of Self Reproducing Automata. Von Neumann proved that the most effective way of performing large-scale mining operations such as mining an entire moon or asteroid belt would be by using self-replicating machines, taking advantage of their exponential growth.”

Self-replicating Machine

Von Neumann’s work was theoretical; he never built self-replicating machines (although Lionel and Roger Penrose later captured the principles of this in simple mechanical models made of plywood). Nonetheless it conjures up fantastical images of mining robots eating up asteroids like swarms of mechanical locusts or robot factories terraforming entire worlds and creating space ships to take themselves to new ones like some kind of interstellar virus. The idea really speaks to people, and has been picked up by many scientists as well. Not the least of which being Freeman Dyson.

Freeman Dyson (what a name) is one of the most important thinkers of the last 100 years or so (in my opinion) who has also done some great writing and philosophising on space exploration and similar geeky goodness. There are too many great things to have sprung from his mind to mention but I am especially enamoured by concepts like the Dyson Sphere, the Dyson Tree and specifically the Astrochicken. (yes that is the real name)

Now if we combine this idea of space exploration by the astrochicken with the self-replicating mechanical principles of John Von Neumann and we arrive at some very gamy principles indeed. So when the Tigsource website announced they were launching a competition challenging developers to create a procedural game all this clicked into space. Alex was already hard at work on procedural towns for Deadrock and I already had quite advanced ideas for a game based on mining an asteroid belt with self-replicating machines.


Throw all these concepts together and mix in procedural generation and you have a near perfect set of game mechanics for this concept. (Well that is what we thought anyway)

What we ended up with is slightly different from the original plan. For one it isn’t finished yet, there are some major ideas still to be implemented, but some things have just changed. For example the seedlings were supposed to live IN the asteroids, and mine them for pockets of resources. Hence the tree roots snaking around the asteroids. In stead we have inverted them ending up with this: :-)

Le Petit Prince

The next instalment I will go into more detail on the gameplay design, but to do so I had to get the background out of the way first.

4 Responses

  1. The story quite possibly (may) be Autofac by Philip K Dick. Although its not really about war machines, more about automatic resource collectors and factories. The survivors turn two factories against each other to try to destroy them all but they’ve already redeveloped. It’s in the collection called Minority Report (yes, that film one) and I’d recommend it anyway…

    Jimbob - October 30th, 2008 at 10:24 pm
  2. That is the one Jimbob, I am extremely grateful for your help in remembering. :-D

    I’d better order that collection straight a away.

    Rudolf - October 31st, 2008 at 11:39 am
  3. I beleive that the story is from Philip K. Dick, but it is named “Second Variety”. There was also movie adaptation called Screamers (but the book is better)

    lp - November 12th, 2008 at 1:17 pm
  4. I will have to re-read both. many thanks! :-)

    Rudolf - November 12th, 2008 at 2:09 pm

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