This case study follows the format established as part of my research into virtual pet design, which will culminate in the design of my own virtual pet.

Creatures is a life simulation software designed by computer scientist Steve Grand, and first released as a commercial game for Windows in 1996. Originally conceived as a virtual pet that could live on your desktop and interact with other Windows software, this ‘virtual mouse’ idea eventually became a broader experiment in artificial life, featuring semi-intelligent creatures called ‘norns’ which inhabit the planet Albia.

Players were tasked with nurturing a population of norns through multiples generations, assisting them in navigating their environment and avoiding the unwanted attention of the sinister grendel. Creatures released as three central games (Creatures, 1996, Creatures 2, 1998, and Creatures 3, 1999) with an online expansion Docking Station released in 2001. Several spin-off games were also released, including titles aimed at younger children and a release for the original Playstation console. This case study is primarily focused on three releases in the main series.

The illusion of life.


Original norn design.

To understand the complex simulation at the heart of the Creatures games, it’s worth reading Mark Bedau’s overview of the artificial life (A-life or Alife) movement here. The norns of Creatures employed evolutionary algorithms to simulate a population of real living creatures. Beyond even the relatively sophisticated AI of the original Petz seriesCreatures provided a true simulation of living organisms.

Norns were unscripted entities, relying on complex neural networks to make them seem alive. Norns have basic instincts, available to them from birth, that shape their most basic behaviours, and learn how to interact with the world, its inhabitants and the player through organic interactions with their surroundings. They also possess virtual DNA, and are capable of passing traits, both physical and behavioural, down to their offspring.

This brief post-mortem by Grand from 2011 provides more detail on the complexities of the norns’ simulated intelligence. Players cannot interact with the norns directly, beyond simple praise and scold commands; instead, norns are taught a series of verbs, such as ‘push’ and ‘pull’, that the player can then instruct them to use through a text interface. Whether or not the norn will respond to a text command depends on their behavioural state at the time.

unknownOf all the software studied for this project, Creatures comes closest to a genuine simulation of a living creature. At times, though, the digital complexity of the norns will cause them to exhibit behaviour that is unexpected to the point of unbelievability, revealing the algorithmic nature of their ‘intelligence’ and risking frustrating, rather than engaging, their players.

Interaction design.

Interactions in Creatures are carried out with a mouse and keyboard, using a combination of mouse-based gestures and typed commands. An important distinction between Creatures and almost any other virtual pet is that the player cannot physically move their norns or instruct them to interact with object directly. Players can only instruct their norns through the game’s text interface, with the norns making up their own minds whether to follow these instructions. Players can then reinforce this behaviour by tickling (for positive behaviour) or slapping (for negative behaviour) the norns.

Norns interact through a verb-based language system.

Norns interact through a verb-based language system.

The result is a convincing representation of a real living animal. Norns visibly express individualised behaviour and genuine learning. The process, however, can be frustrating for players. While norns are capable of achieving high levels of intelligence, this usually comes later in their lifecycle, and controlling young untrained norns without any way to directly influence their actions can become frustrating, with no feedback as to why a norn is responding the way it does.

While players aren’t able to interact directly with the norns themselves, they can interact with other objects in the environment, dragging them around and activating them with a physical mouse-based interface. Interacting with environmental objects and in-game computer interfaces can have different effects on the norns and how they behave.

The world of the Creatures games is intricately designed.

The world of the Creatures games is intricately designed.

Unlike most of the software studied for this project, in which the world surrounding the virtual pet itself is mostly just to contextualise the pet and serves no real function, Creatures’ Albia is fully-realised game world that can be explored, interacted with and, ultimately, populated with norns. In later iterations the world itself is algorithmically controlled, with weather cycles and virtual ecosystems, populated with other lifeforms like the antagonistic grendel and the helpful ettins.

This shows Creatures evolving a long was from it’s original ‘desktop mouse’ concept, and situates it more in the realm of the simulation game than that of the virtual pet. Player attachment to individual norns is less important than their investment in the wider norn society, and the culture of Albia in general. Even so, the game makes for an interesting case study in how computer networks can be used to create virtual agents with complex behaviour and individual personalities.

Social factors.

The original Creatures was considered a great success at launch, selling over 450,000 copies prior to the launch of Creatures 2. It’s sophisticated design made it popular with both children, who enjoyed the world and creature design, and adults, many of whom appreciated the more complex simulation aspects. It’s complexity and reliance on the home PC meant it was never destined for the kind of rabid commercial success seen by Tamagotchi or Furby – for similar reasons the Petz series never reached the same kinds of sales figures – but meant that all three Creatures games were considered financially successful, to the point of generating numerous spinoff titles and expansions.

Custom breeds of norn have been created by the games' fans.

Custom breeds of norn have been created by the games’ fans.

Unlike many of the other titles studied for this project, which have seen numerous re-designs and re-launches up to the present day, the Creatures series effectively ended with Docking Station in 2001. This isn’t to say that people stopped playing Creatures then; the series longevity can be seen in the existence of fan sites that remain active to this day, sharing norn breeds, creature packs and artwork with an active community.

The desire for modern players to keep playing Creatures can be seen in the success of its various re-releases; Creatures: The Albian Years (2004), which includes Creatures and Creatures 2; Creatures Exodus (2004), which includes Creatures 3 and Docking Station; and Creatures Village (2001) which combines the spin-off titles Creatures Adventures and Creatures Playground aimed at younger children. All of these re-releases allow players to play the original games on modern operating systems, and remain popular with a niche audience to this day.

Demand for a new Creatures game remains strong, with publisher Bigben Interactive announcing a new Creatures game for mobile in 2011. Originally billed as Creatures 4 and set to release in 2011, the game saw numerous delays and development difficulties, despite demoing a seemingly functional prototype at Gamescom that year. Officially rebranded as Creatures Online in 2013 and slated for a closed beta in July of that year, the game vanished from public view without the beta ever taking place, with a ‘coming 2014’ release window that never materialised.

Early footage of Creatures 4/Creatures Online.

Early footage of Creatures 4/Creatures Online.

Proposed norn design for Creatures Online.

Proposed norn design for Creatures Online.

In January 2016, developer Fishing Cactus announced that development on Creatures Online had ceased. The IP was then picked up by SpilGames, who announced in March 2016 that they are working on Creatures Online and aiming for a 2017 release on mobile. The fact that these developments are still followed and debated by a keen audience, so long after the last original Creatures release, shows the unusual longevity of the series.

Very likely it’s the games uniqueness and complexity relative to other virtual pet software that allows it to retain such a cult following. Reports at the time praised the complexity of Creatures simulation, and in the nearly two decades since its launch nothing else has tried to replicate this strange, yet clearly successful, combination of virtual pet and scientific simulation.