Game Design

new plague inc. cure mode where you stop pandemics in response to COVID-19

If there’s one game that has made headlines in the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s Plague Inc.  The 2012 mobile game saw a tenfold surge in players as early as January, with more than a 100k downloads in 30 days1.  As well as topping the charts in many countries including the US and the UK, it became the top paid-for game in China2,3, before being swiftly removed from Apple’s Chinese App Store on 27th Feb4.

I, too, have recently downloaded Plague Inc. and spent an evening under “shelter at home” conditions trying to evolve and spread a disease around the world.  I came away decidedly lukewarm on the gameplay, mainly because it’s a simulation game that tended to feel a bit same-y after the first playthrough, and you have to shell out the cash to unlock the various genes and bonuses you can use to modify the game.

Plague Inc. has become relevant as we deal with COVID-19

The premise of Plague Inc. is simple: create a disease and spread it across the world, until there are no survivors and humanity is essentially extinct.  You choose a country in which you infect Patient Zero, then collect DNA points as the disease spreads passively.  The DNA points are used to evolve your disease, controlling its symptoms (e.g. coughing, nausea), means of transmission (e.g. livestock, air), and special abilities (e.g. drug resistance, cold resistance).

What follows is eerily realistic.  As the disease spreads, the map of the world slowly turns red.  News alerts tell of government shutdowns, travel bans, human medical experimentation, and mass graves.  Your pathogen mutates on its own.  There are sound effects of coughing.  It’s all very apocalyptic without being too dramatic, which is to Plague Inc.‘s credit.

At some point, a cure will begin to be developed, and you can halt its progress by tapping on markers on the map and by evolving your disease in a suitable manner.  Different types of diseases require different strategies on how and when to spend your DNA points, and players who do best also respond to how their infection is performing and to the events that occur in the game.

A screenshot from Plague Inc. on the left, compared to a screenshot from Google based on what’s going on in the real world during the coronavirus pandemic.

Plague Inc. announces new game mode where you fight the pandemic

Last week, Ndemic Creations announced a “major Plague Inc. update” with a new mode in which the player works to stop an outbreak.  According to their announcement:

Players will have to balance managing disease progression and boosting healthcare systems as well as controlling real-world actions such as triaging, quarantining, social distancing and closing of public services. We are developing this game mode with the help of experts from the World Health Organisation, the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and more.5

It’s admirable, no doubt, that the game’s creators have donated a quarter of a million dollars to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and that they are developing a version of the game where you save the world.

Additionally, the fact that WHO and other major health organisations are jumping on board to advise on the creation of a video game shows the increasing recognition of games as a form of communication and education.

But, from a game design perspective, is the new mode really going to change the game?

I’m of the opinion that new modes, add-ons or DLCs to an existing game should add something new to a game, like expansions that add new levels and new storylines or maybe a new character class with special abilities.  With Plague Inc., I’m worried about the design of the new game mode for two main reasons:

  1. The developers are under pressure to get this new mode out now, and
  2.  Plague Inc. is a simulation game, which presents specific challenges for creating new game modes

Here’s why, in more detail.

1. The developers are under pressure to get this new mode out now

Any game developer will tell you that game development is an iterative process.  For a game to be good, it needs to go through many rounds of playtesting, feedback, and cycles of tweaking each feature until it is balanced, looks good, and feels just right.

Game development is also a highly collaborative process, and given the current pandemic, it’s going to take time for developers to figure out how best to playtest and work on the game remotely.

Ndemic Creations has mentioned that they are “accelerating work” on the new game mode, and intends to release it for free during the pandemic.  This implies that they want the game available as soon as possible, which makes sense given the current situation.  However, this greatly impacts the iterative game development process, reducing the number of cycles available to developers to create the best possible product.

Some effects of a rushed timeline:

  • Designers may not have time to brainstorm new gameplay, and more importantly, may not be able to iteratively test and find out if the shipped gameplay is actually fun
  • The game may not be balanced – it could be too easy, too difficult, or have a dominant strategy
  • Producers may have to cut proposed features
  • The UI may not be as intuitive as it could be
  • … and so on

2. Plague Inc. is a simulation game, which presents specific challenges for creating new game modes

In a simulation, a series of values control different parameters that model real behaviour of a situation.  Simulation games allow you to tweak those values under the hood by making story-related strategic choices to try and get the simulation to reach a certain state (the win condition).

The challenge with creating a new mode for a simulation game is that you need to adjust the values and rates that form the backbone of the simulation.  As a basic example, you might have a disease that spreads faster or slower, which affects a variable somewhere in the code that represents the rate at which the disease spreads.

Because simulation games are so tied to the numbers, any change in these values can throw the game out of balance.  The same can be said about adding a new factor into the game (e.g. now diseases can also be spread across the oceans by dolphins), which could impact the game’s balance in unexpected and complicated ways.

Some ripple effects of a small change could be that a game’s average length becomes too short or too long, or that there is no effective way to beat it, along with a host of other problems that render the game less fun or simply impossible.

Therefore, an entirely new mode in a simulation game requires developers to either re-balance the game or completely rewrite the simulation.  This takes time, which developers might not have under current constraints.

Innovation in game design

Taking these points into consideration, I’m concerned that Plague Inc.‘s game mode is going to be more of a new game skin, with little to no game design innovation.

It’s easy to imagine this.  Picture the current game, where instead of red spreading across the map, it’s blue.  Maybe you collect research points instead of DNA points by tapping on the map, and then use those research points to develop your cure in the same menus where you could evolve your disease, except you develop traits like “more effective in older patients”.  The news headlines that pop up are about certain countries working together to manufacture PPE, or specific regulations like “social distancing” coming into effect.

Sound familiar?  That’s because it would be the same game as regular Plague Inc.  Putting out a new game mode that is roughly identical to the original is risky.  Players are less likely to engage with the new mode if there is no significant change to gameplay and strategy.

There’s an argument to be made that releasing this new game mode, even if it’s a carbon copy of the original, is worthwhile for the information about how to stop a pandemic, especially from the world’s leading health sources.

But information does not make a game; mechanics do.  The biggest challenge of educational or informative games is how not to inundate players with facts and figures.  In order for the information to be consumed, players need to be engaged in the game’s core mechanics.

For Plague Inc., do we even need a new mode to begin with?

While it’s noble to think of creating a mode where you save the world instead of infecting it, this may not be what players want.  Players flocked to Plague Inc. not specifically to see the world get destroyed, but to make sense of what’s going on in the real-world pandemic.

It’s not intrinsically bad that the game has you set up as a villain, if that makes for engaging gameplay.  Conversely, simply switching the game’s goal to be a more altruistic one does not guarantee a better, more popular game.  It could be, like the various disease modes in Plague Inc., more of the same.

All is not lost, however.  If the good folks at Ndemic Creations play their cards right, they might develop a version with interesting mechanics that diverges from the formula of the other Plague Inc. simulation games.  They might justify the creation of a new game mode – not for the current urgency of COVID-19, but for the idea that games can be fun, educational, and worth playing in light of a global crisis.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

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References Cited

  1. Cruyt, Marie-Laure. “Plague Inc. Game Downloads Soar amid Coronavirus.” AppTweak, 5 February 2020. Web. 31 March 2020.
  2. Mamiit, Aaron. “Pandemic strategy game Plague Inc.’s popularity renewed amid coronavirus threat.” Gaming. Digital Trends, 26 January 2020. Web. 31 March 2020.
  3. Orland, Kyle. “Plague Inc. maker: Don’t use our game for coronavirus modeling.” Gaming. Ars Technica, 27 January 2020. Web. 31 March 2020.
  4. Peters, Jay. “Plague Inc. pulled from the App Store in China amid coronavirus outbreak.” The Verge, 27 February 2020. Web. 31 March 2020.
  5. Ndemic Creations. “Plague Inc. gives a quarter of a million dollars to fight COVID-19.” Ndemic Creations, 23 March 2020. Web. 31 March 2020.