Eco looks a lot like Minecraft—the first person viewpoint, the blocky landscape, and tools such as picks and axes. But that’s just the beginning with this game. There’s so much more to it.
I got a chance to interview John Krajewski, one of the designers, at PAX Prime. “There’s 30 real days before a meteor’s going to hit the planet—30 real days,” he said. “And you have to build a civilization, build enough technology to deflect it. But in the process you can pollute the world so badly that it kills it off before that even happens.”
Eco was created by a team at Strange Loop Games, where the mission is to “use the massive power of today’s hardware for gameplay, not just graphics. We use deep, interactive simulations to explore the boundaries of what can be done within a game.” According to their website, they are “working to redefine educational games, taking an approach that pushes self-motivated learning in social worlds.” Let’s just say you won’t see the same old, same old first-person shooter coming out of this company.
If you’ve played Minecraft, you basically know how to get started with playing Eco. It has the elements of building things, developing skills, and finding resources. But from there Eco becomes more structured and deep.
You play Eco in a group of real people. “You have all the data from the simulation, and you use that to choose laws,” Krajewski said. “When a law passes, it determines what you can do. You’re arguing from this scientific data about the world and choosing what’s going to be allowed by players.”
Players build an economy in which the demand for resources will affect the environment, just as in the real world. If too many resources are used, players won’t be able to build up their technology enough to deflect the meteor. Finding the balance that will save the world is the key in this “society simulator.”
The size of player groups will be able to range from five to hundreds of people. That’s one of the features that will make Eco a great tool for classroom teachers. Krajewski says, “A classroom will share a single world, and it’s their responsibility. The homework will be playing the game and affecting the world, and during class they’ll have the discussion about what to do about it. The teacher will lead the discussion and point out the data, generate the curriculum…We work with some ecologists to get the science pretty accurate. We’re partnering with the University of Illinois for our intro prototype. We really want to make it scientifically accurate and useful in classrooms.”
The Department of Education has given Eco a grant of nearly $900,000 over two years to help develop the game. The DoE hopes Eco will help “prepare middle school students to be environmentally literate citizens.”
Will teachers get help in figuring out how to use Eco in the classroom? “There will be an aggregated view for teachers,” Krajewski said. “…Teachers can log in and boom—there’s all the data in advance of discussions, what an individual’s been doing, what conflicts are in the game you can talk about…We also put a lot of thought into how you use the classroom space. A lot of games you just sit down and you play and it’s like an individual experience. But this game, you don’t really even play it at school. You play it at home, and the classroom is where you’re discussing it, you’re making decisions. It’s like a council meeting, which I think is a much better use of the teacher’s time.”
Another great feature of Eco is its support of modding. The code, models, and animations are all available to players, and everything is done in the Unity game engine, a development platform familiar to many.
Eco is on Kickstarter until September 9th, but they’ve already far exceeded their $100,000 goal. The Alpha release will be available in October, with the Beta scheduled to start next April. The game will initially be available on PC, Mac, and Linux.