Seed is a hugely ambitious in-development MMO that echoes EVE Online, Rimworld and The Sims


"MMOs have come to a halt, so far as innovation is concerned," Klang Games co-founder Mundi Vondi tells me. "With Seed, we hope to change that."

To say Seed is ambitious is an understatement. Within minutes of booting up its pre-alpha demo, Vondi has namechecked The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Facebook as just some of the driving forces behind its persistent simulation. Its universe is said to be "driven by real world emotion and aspiration", which in practice aims to one day craft an MMO world with, potentially, millions of residents. Building colonies from the ground up parallels the workings of Civilization, while the potential for story-generation echoes Rimworld. Within, characters will live out their virtual lives whether the player is present or not.   

"If you think about Facebook, imagine your profile was removed every time you logged off," says Vondi. "That's how most MMOs are today. I think this will add the network effect that the likes of Facebook has, so we're trying to learn from that."

Hailing from a fine art, production and filmmaking background, Seed marks Vondi's first professional videogame project. Klang's other cofounders, Oddur Snær Magnússon and Ívar Emilsson, though, are ex-CCP employees who both worked on EVE Online. It's this collective experience that informs Seed's goals—even if what I'm shown isn't quite as sophisticated as what's promised down the line.

Powered by Improbable's cloud-based SpatialOS tech, the hands-off demonstration I'm given kicks off with a group of humans touching down on a foreign planet 1,000 years after Earth has died. From here, a familiar colony sim-building routine unfolds, where the player issues their AI-controlled civilians with tasks and directives such as gathering vegetation for food, or foraging materials for base-building. It's all very management-heavy, but Vondi assures me variables such as player mood and emotion are at the forefront of every decision you'll make. 

"Even at this early stage in growing a colony, your civilians can get bad feelings that affect their behaviour—sleeping on the ground, for example—and these feelings can drive them towards certain traits," says Vondi. "If they're feeling great, they might become enthusiastic about the job, but on the other hand if their mental health gets really low, they might turn depressed or into alcoholics and other things like that."   

From the outset, Seed lets players choose whether they wish to join an established community, or if they'd rather go it alone in the wilderness. Vondi reckons the latter should only apply to veterans of the genre, however those entering active societies should be wary of player-formed governments, judicial systems and economic infrastructures. Conflict sounds inevitable within the latter, and while it's unclear how confrontation will be resolved (or, crucially, if it can be resolved), maintaining good relations with your neighbours is of utmost importance.   

"The sad part about most MMOs is when players enter the game, when they enter a player group or a clan, it takes a long time," explains Vondi. "A lot of players leave before they get that full social MMO experience. One of the things we do differently here is start you off in a community—you're immediately a part of a group from the get go. This should make everything easier, particularly for new players."

Speaking to Vondi's last point, I suggest that grind is something new MMO players tend to struggle with. With something so multifaceted, I ask what measures Seed has in place to combat this. 

"Players can control up to ten players," he replies. "A lot of game design that's usually very tricky—like sleeping, disease, mental issues, ageing—they're pretty difficult if you're one character. But when you have ten you can actually do something with it. One can be sleeping, one can be somewhere else and so on. A lot of grind gets solved with this, so they basically work autonomously. They set their routines, and so they look through that and work on what their priorities would be. 

"We're basically grouping together all these players and we can basically throw loads and loads of players into it. This means that we can hopefully, one day, have players building their own businesses and ultimately we want to see a world where people have furnished apartments, people are walking back and forth from their jobs." 

Vondi returns to the idea of permanence in the player's absence by outlining a hypothetical scenario. Here, the player has signed out of the game and one of their characters has gone drinking in their local in-game pub. Inebriated, the character gets into a fight, gets into trouble with the law, and winds up in jail. By the time the player signs back in, their character is a few hours into an overnight stay, depressed and shunned by their peers. Vondi suggests real world notifications could alert the player to their characters' actions which they may or may not be in a position to respond to.

From here, the player might decide to rehabilitate their beleaguered pal or abandon them entirely. With nine other companions, perhaps it's best chalking this one off, or even swapping them out for a better behaved replacement. Substituting and maintaining multiple characters however raises the question: what sort of business model will Seed employ?

"We tie our payment model through our characters," says Vondi. "Because we're simulating our characters continuously, they take up a certain amount of the CPU. That's where we try to monetise: you basically pay per life, and you buy Seed implants. We want to open it up in a way that players sell these Seed implants on the player market. In theory, this should work well. But it could be a total disaster [laughs]. I can't confirm that either way. 

"That would allow players to play completely for free while others are buying perks or implants and then selling them through the player market. The price will obviously fluctuate, so if someone is overselling implants, someone will eventually undercut them and [stabilise] the market. That's how we try to balance that out. Players who have a good set up, who are making a lot of money in the game can actually use the soft currency to buy those implants."

Since first showcasing Seed to the press at Gamescom in August, Klang has grown the game's landing planet surface by "roughly 2,000 percent" and has applied a new AI system that allows its characters to behave more organically. 

Day-to-day, adding terrain and designing a new modular, streamlined building system takes priority, while long-term goals include the aforementioned player market and a character health system—which considers different forms of injuries and disease, and the knock-on effects these might have on colonies. "Once the health system is more structured," says Vondi, "we can focus on combat, as combat obviously affects health."

Again, Seed is a remarkably ambitious undertaking that, despite looking and sounding great at this stage has a very long way to go. If it can achieve half of what it hopes to, it will be onto something good—my main concern is that it's  reaching too high.

Klang Games is however aware of the pressure it's putting itself under, and is cautious to avoid becoming overwhelmed.     

"One of the biggest challenges of creating Seed is to make sure that we don't fall into that trap; this is something we have to constantly be mindful of," admits Vondi. "We're first focusing on the core systems in order to get them right. But, it's all about the balance between polishing the core experience and delivering on new features. 

"Throughout the development process, we're making new discoveries, which is extremely exciting! We're making sure that the core playing experience will be fun and functional as soon as possible, but at the same time, keeping an open, flexible mind to adapt to new findings."

As it stands, Seed hopes to enter beta testing in late 2018, and will pursue full release after that. 

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Is this our next great dystopia?


For me, a humble denizen of the 21st century, I have developed a real interest in the dreariness permeating Earth in 2017. I think a lot more about nukes now for example, which is a fun addition to my usual suspect of bewildering fears. I think a lot about the movie Threads in which the Soviet Union attacks Sheffield and everybody dies from ultraviolet radiation. I imagine in my mind the world in isometric perspective and what a contender this timeline would be for a cosmic re-roll if this only were a session of Civilization.

But history has taught us this is an old sensation. That every so often, with a kind of ebb and flow regularity, it just looks like it's probably the end of the world. The Renaissance world viewed the planet as decaying. Poet John Donne notes that the lifespan of people had shortened considerably since the Adams and Methuselahs of Biblical times, who were said to have lived to the ripe old age of 930 and 969 years, respectively. Sir Walter Raleigh following his expedition up the Orinoco River concluded that the world was run down like a clock, and that men had lost sight of truth and were in descent "lower and lower, and shrink and slide downward."

How did we deal with impending doom then? Sir Thomas More imagined an alternative society on an island, laying down the framework for a community that could exist in response to the state of European society at the time. Francis Bacon believed in the possibility for progress in natural science to lead to better social conditions, imagining the scientifically advanced society of New Atlantis. At times when the present looks grim, utopian thought experiments can offer new perspectives.

God games like Black and White, resource games like Settlers of Catan and Civilization, or SimCity are another kind of prism through which to imagine a potential society. Can virtual worlds become a tool for visualizing alternative paths?

Seed is the kind of game that could feasibly answer a question like this. Currently in development by Berlin-based studio Klang, Seed is a complex MMO where players grow a civilization beginning with a team of two characters, then create a political and economic system, and decide to either collaborate with or go to war against their fellow players.

Studio co-founder Ivar Emilsson describes Seed to me as a colonialist story set on one vast planet with limited resources. In the game, a so-far ambiguous event has led to the downfall of your home planet and you are now tasked with colonising an exo-planet in a nearby solar system to re-form society from scratch.

"Each community starts off with the condition of anarchy, with no leader or head of the colony," says Emilsson. The colony grows over time, and eventually it becomes big enough and unlocks the ability to propose a constitution - what is essentially a customizable political framework where the player can decide on different societal laws, from taxation limits to the rights of characters. As progression happens organically, characters will grow, breed, and develop their social construct. Likewise, as the community eventually comes under threat, so does the physical and mental health of the individuals who make up the community.

"In essence, a colony is a collective of people trying to work together, to protect one another. But, a colony can become whatever it wants to become. It can become power hungry and aim to take over other colonies, or try to collaborate with surrounding colonies and create a friendly society. Ultimately, the goal of the colony is to improve the lives of the characters living in it."

Citizens of Seed live in geodesic domes, those strange, sort of polygonally elegant tents popularized by back-to-the-land communities of the 1970s. For the initial two characters, players can shuffle through randomly generated characters, each having their own random set of traits. But characters also start to develop new traits based on their surroundings and environment, as well as social pressures and lifestyle choices.

For example, say a character is being neglected or has a bad state of well-being. They may develop a depressive trait, which could lead to alcohol dependency or maybe something worse. These traits can then be passed down from one generation to the next.

Here's a possible scenario:

Let's say you have a character with a low happiness trait. She goes to work in a factory, day in, day out. Eventually her mood becomes very explosive. One day, after a long day she insults a fellow colleague who then also loses some of their happiness.

"Because of this encounter, this colleague sinks into depression," Vondi says. "Now in this depressive state, the character no longer goes into work, which then slows down the production in the factory. Now, the owner of the factory is also affected as they no longer receive any income. It can really spiral on forever. And that's the whole idea; it's a constant flow of events and simulations."

"There's a mix and match of several different systems: mental attributes, physical attributes, preferences, and traits," Emilsson continues. "But, at this stage, the exact number has not yet been determined. However, one could argue that once characters start adapting to their environment, developing skills, and building relationships, they'll almost all be unique."

Seed is built on SpatialOS, a platform that can realise a vast number of worlds on a network of continuously running servers. Funded in part by a $502 million investment from Japan's SoftBank last year, this platform is capable of creating an MMO universe of greater scale and complexity than previously possible. This will enable political systems made up of extremely large player groups, Emilsson tells me. "Colonies will be much broader than traditional MMO clans," he says. "We're aiming for bigger community simulations, something that has never before been seen in gaming."

That kind of size allows for a lot of variety in terms of experimental politics. So Klang is harnessing the brainpower of Harvard law professor and constitutional law expert Lawrence Lessig to help oversee the broader political framework in Seed, including the initially pre-programmed economy. This will eventually evolve as the community trades and grows, or even as some opt out of the whole system of global capitalist trade entirely.

The addition of Lessig to the team represents the point in our alternate Sliders universe where MMOs merges with real-world politics. You may recognize Lessig's name from his 2016 presidential campaign as a democratic candidate - the campaign motto "Fixing Democracy Can't Wait" didn't gain a lot of traction in but it's possible it can find a place in a virtual setting. After all, can't you also phrase it this way?: Build alternatives now.

Emilsson thinks the likelihood of a successful utopia being created in the game is pretty much nil. "Players won't be forced to wage wars," he says. "But they will undoubtedly happen." That's always encouraging. But then again while utopia is out of reach, perhaps virtual worlds like this can allow us to explore the alternatives, be they weird or chaotic, or on the off chance better.

Seed with SpatialOS – the MMO to Teach You Life


Almost a month and half ago I spent a good couple of days at EGX. During this time I got to look at a number of games. A fair few of these I’ve covered, but with so many I haven’t yet had the chance to talk about. On my first day there I spoke to and looked at a number of titles linked to SpatialOS, an impressive platform from Improbable.

The first title I looked at was Seed, by Klang Games. Klang Games started an impressive five years ago and at that point was a labour of love by three developers who were working on EVE Online at the time. What’s incredibly interesting about this game is the plans it has in place on how you actually work in the world.

Seed was described to me as a colony based game in a similar vein to Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld. As such, rather than controlling the specific people within your colony, they are completely controlled by AI. You, of course, will be able to nudge them in a certain direction without giving direct orders.

One of the major features of Seed is the permanence of the world you inhabit. When you’re in-game you’ll be guiding your colony, setting things to build, setting up businesses and arranging production lines. You are, of course, not the only colony in the world. As you expand and the world expands with the number of people playing Seed, your colonies will merge with others. Much like how the real world developed, villages combine and merge into towns. These towns become cities.

This is the major USP of Seed. Unlike other colony builder games, it’s an MMO. As you merge and grow, your control will still be of a limited number of characters. More important is the fact that as you are logged off, your characters stay and function in the game world while you’re offline. While you’re offline, I was told by a member of Klang that you would have the ability to defer control of your characters to other players.

You’ll even have the ability to hire other players’ characters to man your factories, farms and such. These characters, as yours will be limited, will be the fuel of the economy and world. Your expertise may be in the gathering of resources. You will mine the stone and chop the wood. This can then be sold onto somebody who processes these raw resources and then sells them onto somebody who manufactures them into the components that make up the buildings in the world.

Klang also aim to give the ability to keep in touch with your characters while you’re not inside the game. The aim will be to interlink the PC title with a mobile application. This application will allow you to keep an eye on characters stats on your phone. In addition, there will be an aim to link to the in-game chat through the phone application.

Including these is one other incredibly interesting part of Seed. Klang aim to use seed as a tool for understand society as a whole. There will be a number of systems in place that control the communities that are created. Trade that has a direct impact on the world and the finances but where communities set their own prices. Furthermore, they can even completely remove themselves from the global trading system (think North Korea).

Of course there is a risk of conflict between communities. I directly asked this question when talking to Oddur Snær Magnússon, one of the co-founders of Klang. During the conversation he indicated that combat will of course be included, much like you would find in the real world. Combat and conflict will be slow and require a significant amount of effort and resources to mount an attack on another person’s colony. For defence, you will of course be safer in a group and larger community.

One other incredibly interesting part of Seed is the systems of governance that controls the world. Klang have been working with a Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, on a way of setting virtual laws that these virtual characters will have to follow. Each community will have their own governance style. From a dictatorship to a monarchy, possibly even Democracy.

The scale of such a game is impressive to even think about. This is where SpatialOS comes in. SpatialOS allows the cheap and efficient use of processing power which scales to the size of the game. As more players play the game, the world will grow as needed. The more active a particular area of the game is, the more processing power is dedicated to it. Essentially, rather than having fixed costs for the developers, these will scale as needed.

At the time of writing, Seed was hoping to enter a closed beta early 2018. I, for one, am looking forward to it. The concept of effectively rebuilding civilization from the ground up, working with and against other players, sounds incredibly compelling.

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The games chasing EVE’s vision of a single shard MMO


Taken from the full article: The camp is full of little people. They wander to and fro, doing their allotted tasks. This is Seed, an MMO colony builder that’s still very early in development (and no connection to the 2006 game of the same name). It could be described as “Rimworld but multiplayer” or maybe “The Sims but on another planet where the other Sims families don’t like you”. I’m only presented with a video demo for now. The tiny polygonal folk move robotically, just like the testbots of Dual Universe, but they aren’t aimless.

“These characters should wake up soon,” says Mundi Vondi, one of the co-founders of Klang, the studio behind the game. “So yeah now he’s set up a little camp, she’s doing some farming, he’s lighting a fire…”

As the player, you’ll have a family of up to ten characters – a Crusoe-like clan who crash down on a fresh and habitable planet 1000 years after Earth’s demise. Each AI-controlled family member can be given priorities or directly tasked with something, like cutting down all the trees in an area or painting a house. You can band together with other families – players, in other words – to form large colonies, where groups can form their own small governments, make rules or set taxes. Or you can start off in the wilderness of this planet by yourself, although Vondi says this is “not reccommended for new players”. Because conflict is again part of this new frontier, and once again, it is all happening on a single shard.

“I think to begin with it will be very chaotic and bloody and people are going to be just like… burning everything down and destroying each other,” he says. “But then out of those… out of that chaos… that’s the hole that a more sophisticated civilised community arises, that benefits from the order and kind of like… ultimately calms down a lot of that chaos.”

Exactly how combat or warring will work isn’t fully explained. From the demo it looks to be firmly a managerial game. The family is crowding around a ghostly outline of a planned house, slowly building the walls and windows and door frames and floor. Each of these people will have needs and relationships, says Vondi. Some of them might be unhappy because they have had their heart broken by a character from another player’s family. Some of them might go to the bar and get into a fight with someone from their own colony. Klang don’t just want the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, shelter and safety – they want discord and challenge to arise from a lack of love or entertainment too.

“Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress are kind of like the games in this genre that are most noticeable. I guess Oxygen Not Included as well. But it’s like a very exciting genre and there isn’t really… There’s no multiplayer version of it, so that’s where we’re kind of coming from.”

But EVE Online is also (once again) a talking point. This time, two of Vondi’s co-founders have actually worked on the infamous interstellar war simulator, each of them with CCP for eight years.

“So in EVE obviously they had wars with thousands of players fighting and whenever that would happen it would just ripple across the entire games industry and game world and you’d hear about it… EVE is very hardcore, but it offers an amazing experience, and amazing stories come out of that, and I think we can all agree we’d love to be a part of that but we just can’t all afford the time to be there. So we’re trying to open that up and offer that experience to a wider audience, is one of the goals. So we’ve got also some inspiration from Sims…”

They’re hoping to make the tribal disagreements of Seed more noob-friendly, in other words. Unless you aim to start off your own colony (again: not recommended) you’ll be asked to pick from an existing band of players right at the start, to throw your lot in with a crowd of players who may already be veterans of the planet. Those colonies might have loops of activity in place to ensure everyone is supplied with food and so on – an advantage in a world where your family members will continue to go about their day even if you as the overseer haven’t logged in.

“I mean if you leave them with nothing in the forest and you go away for a week,” says Vondi, “you’re probably going to come back to them being dead, but if you have a nice house and you’re collaborating with other players who are all building this cute little village together, your characters are working and you’ve kind of made sure that there’s a loop in there which completes their food needs and where they sleep and all that, you might come back and they’re just super happy and fine.”

Seed is being built with something called Spatial OS. It’s the same technology behind Worlds Adrift, another MMO of airships and grappling hooks (something I’ve previously written about). Like the crowd behind Dual Universe these developers are not shy of hyperbole. One of the lines on Seed’s website says: “Every move, thought, or decision made by a player will have a knock-on effect and impact the colonization and overall structure of the planet.” It’s unusual to see a game’s promotional material claiming that their town-planning sim can be affected by mere thoughts. But what they mean, Vondi tells me, is that the game will hit player colonies with sizeable environmental problems, should the humans start to harvest resources and become industrially unsustainable. I ask him if maybe, just maybe, they are being a little too ambitious. He laughs.

“To start off with – probably yeah, too ambitious. And a lot of these things, a lot of these features that we want to do, come after we launch so… on launch it’s very focused on basic survival, building small little towns, making them function and then as the game grows, we will add mass transit and rockets to harvest meteors or whatever – we have an infinite scope, and that’s the kind of landscape that we’re coming from of course, that me and my colleagues have come, from EVE – still in development after fifteen years.

“How far we go into global warming or whatever is yet to be seen; I think maybe those kind of elements don’t necessarily have to be there on launch because those are like really grand scale effects and we can add that in as an update down the line.”

These are familiar sounding goals. As far back as 2003, Wurm Online promised that its settlers would have finite resources and that problems would arise for any server population that over-farmed. Seed doesn’t go that far. Resources will regenerate, trees regrow and mines may offer rock or fossil fuels at a similarly regenerative rate. But that pitch remains – “grand scale” effects, self-policing communities, thousands of players on the same world.

Klang (and others) have faith that the technology they’re using can handle that load. As with Dual Universe, it’s big talk. But the fact remains: I still haven’t seen a finished product with masses of players putting significant stress on a game like this without causing problems. Even in Worlds Adrift – the airship MMO running on the same technology – the physics janks out, it chugs to a grinding FPS rate, and crashes frequently occur. That’s maybe to be expected in any early access game but it does demonstrate that this particular recurring boast – thousands of players interacting in a continuous single shard – still needs to be proven.

Like Dual Universe, the greener, brighter Seed is also pre-Greek alphabet. Klang’s video of a skeletal management game with work-in-progress models and UI may be a good pitch (it’s certainly interesting to a Rimworld fan such as myself) but you can’t prove the potential of an MMO when the whole world is devoid of players and instead populated with robots. You can talk about farms, colonies, attacks, defences, trade deals, resource grabs, monopolies, cold wars and the simulation of any other kind of industrial revolution or societal collapse, but as promising and intriguing as the technology looks, it remains largely unproven.

And that pre-release criticism extends to any other game that blurted out its own praises in the halls of Gamescom last week. In this post-N* M*** S** era, when many other developers seem to be toning down their rhetoric (if only a smidgen), huge promises like “every thought simulated” or “you can make a space station thousands of kilometres large” almost seem designed to court skepticism. I look at the mingling robots of Dual Universe and Seed and want to think: cool, this is something people should get into. But all that comes is a desire for perspective and calm, for less boundless enthusiasm and more explanation of a game’s likely limits. Ambition is good, and without it, it’s unlikely EVE Online would have been made. But even EVE Online knows when to slow things down.

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Think The Government Is Doomed? See If You Can Build A Better One In ‘SEED’

Games are a potent way of looking at the world. We use the language of teams, scoring, plays, and counter-plays to describe warfare, politics, the law, and more. Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga went so far as to say that games are the defining human activity in his 1938 classic, Homo Ludens.

But outside academia, games are rarely used as tools for understanding society. Berlin-based independent studio Klang aims to change that with its upcoming massively multiplayer simulation, Seed, which is early in development.

The whole idea is that we want the game to spin out of what the players decide to do and create

To add weight to Seed‘s intellectual ambitions, Klang brought on one heck of a ringer. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is a world-renowned scholar of constitutional law, a liberal political activist, and onetime presidential candidate. He’s spent a career studying governance in the abstract, and helping to shape it in the real world. Now he’s applying that experience to developing the in-game political framework for Seed.

We spoke to Lessig and Klang co-founder Mundi Vondi earlier this summer about Seed and the team’s ambitious goals for pushing the boundaries on what games can do and be.


Describe any game as “massively multiplayer,” and most gamers will likely make a few assumptions. You run around killing things for experience points, gathering loot, and cooperate with teammates to kill a big enemy at the end. That’s weirdly specific description for a term that really only describes how many people can play, but that’s how dramatically World of Warcraft’s success has reshaped the industry.

Seed will look nothing like the MMORPGs you’re used to. In the game, You control several characters living in an upstart community as part of an effort to populate a new planet in a new solar system. You are responsible for your characters’ health and happiness. You have to make sure they have a roof over their head and food in their belly, such that they and their community can continue to grow and thrive.

Unlike conventional online games, Seed will keep running with all of its denizens 24/7, whether you’re actively playing or not. “This was essential to us,” Vondi explained, “because online communities tend to turn into ghost towns when players are offline — for more than 90 percent of their daily lives they’re not actually in the game.” For Seed to really work as a simulation, it can’t have only a fraction of its population present at any given moment. This is because absolutely everything in Seed, from the environment to every item bought and sold, is driven by players.

In practice, it’s a massively multiplayer take on The Sims. You only control the characters indirectly, however, setting tasks and schedules for when they should work, sleep, and enjoy free time (similar to systems in management sim games like RimWorld). Artificial intelligence, taking into account any number of mood-affecting factors, will determine what the characters actually do from moment to moment, which is why the player isn’t necessary for their continued existence.

“What we’re going for basically is that there’s a lot of Butterfly Effects that we’re building up,” Vondi said. “So you can imagine for instance a character that doesn’t sleep in a bed because the player didn’t give him one, so he doesn’t show up to his job the next day, and the restaurant where he works gets in trouble because they’re short-staffed, which might affect another person who’s eating there, and so on — it has a trickling effect.”

Other online games, such as EVE Online and Albion Online, have experimented with managing player-driven virtual societies before, allowing players to shape the in-game world through economics — production, supply, and demand. This allows for dynamic in-game systems, but within prescribed boundaries. What separates Seed is the extent of the control players will have over all the systems of governance and economics. Players within communities will collectively decide how they want to govern themselves, ranging from major decisions like whether to be a democracy or a monarchy, to more fine-grained policy-making like open carry laws and income taxation rates.


As a world-renowned scholar of political science, this is where Lessig’s expertise comes to bear. He helped design the systems for how communities in Seed will make these collective decisions, mapped out a conceptual paper of these options and trade-offs earlier in the year, and spent the month of July embedded with the studio in Berlin to help flesh it out in practice.

More than just an interesting opportunity for experimentation, Lessig sees this a way to give players a direct hand in shaping their play experience into what they want:

“Obviously people don’t come to a game like this to practice model U.N., they come to play and build communities and I really think about the governance as a kind of utility that we offer them to make it so that their gaming experience will be more rewarding and more fruitful.”

Lessig and Vondi both said part of the impetus behind Seed is the tenuous state of many democracies around the world. Lessig recalled their first real meeting about the game the morning after President Trump’s election.

“I remember that morning feeling like things seemed so hopeless, and it was a wonderful escape to be at the Seed studios talking to developers about what we can do with it…

“We’ve got real challenges with democracy in the real world. At least in my country it’s not working well, if at all. So what was really intriguing to me was the idea that here we could create an environment where there could be many tens of thousands of experiments with different forms of governance. It might be that we can actually learn something about which forms work best in this context, and it might be that that helps us understand something about the same question in the real world.”

Using Seed as a tool to gain understanding about societies is built into the foundation of the project. Vondi explained how the game will launch with tools designed for collecting and modeling the huge amounts of data that Seed will produce.

“I would love to see people outside the game take all that data and build models to look at it more deeply than what we would think to do, and that’s the exciting part,” Vondi said. Social scientists and other researchers have already found ways to squeeze useful information out of existing online games, but Seed will be the first game built from the ground up with this in mind.

As a scholar, Lessig is particularly interested in building a game that “would help political scientists and constitutionalists think about what’s the relationship between these forms of governance and the kinds of activities it encourages.” Down the road, he road, he hopes data from the game could even be studied.


“Games aren’t anymore just these simple entertainments,” Vondi mused, “but they can be tools for understanding, which is an elevation from your average story- or action-driven experience.” He mentioned the famous Corrupted Blood Plague from World of Warcraft — when a boss’ contagious spell ended up accidentally escaping a dungeon and infecting the game in a way that epidemiologists found perfectly matched how real-world diseases spread — as an inspiration for Seed: “Obviously that was a mistake, but if that was to be the focus you could take it much further. It’s going to be a simulation, rather than a fully controlled game.”

Although Vondi’s co-founders came from EVE Online developer CCP, he himself has no professional gaming background. His background is in fine art, production, and filmmaking. He feels that bringing in more outside perspectives like his own and that of Lessig will be instrumental for helping games escape, “the stigma that they are all driven by nerds and male-oriented adventure-seekers.” While Vondi and Lessig are of course nerdy men themselves, their interests in Seed seem unrecognizable next to the power fantasies of typical, mainstream video games. Vondi hopes that bringing a high-profile intellectual like Lessig into gaming will set an example for others outside the field to come and add their voices.

For Lessig, the project extends beyond his professional interests and into the personal as well: “Frankly, my closest connection to games right now is the obsession of my sons. I’ve got a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old” – “Hello!” a young voice interjects into the call — “they’re here playing a game right now. Just watching the fascination and the way these games take over their whole perspective and their life has been both interesting and worrisome. I’m eager to get into a project that gives me a closer touch to that part of their life.”

Lessig is one of those rare academics willing to put his money where his mouth is, running for the Democratic nomination in the most recent primary on the platform of campaign finance reform he’d been developing through his scholarship. Seeing the powerful effect that games have on his children gives Seed compelling personal stakes for him, as he recognizes the immense potential for both growth and abuse in the flourishing, young medium.

Video games are at an exciting turning point as a medium. Seed is very early in development, but it presents a fascinating vision of gaming’s potential future, designed from the ground up as both entertainment and a tool for the social sciences. It will be available on PC in some form in 2018.

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'Governance in the Real World Is So Fucked:' Lawrence Lessig Is Working on an MMO

‘Seed’ will allow players to build a society together, from the ground up.

Robinson Crusoe is an instructive fable for politics. Not because Crusoe forged a utopian world for himself using a few tools that survived a shipwreck, but because, as Marxist economists have noted, most retellings of the story ignore where the tools came from. Crusoe was a slaver, and political-economy tends to ignore its spoiled seed. Utopias are rarely what they seem on the surface.

An upcoming online multiplayer game called, coincidentally, Seed , will cast players as so many Robinson Crusoes, thrown into a virtual world with few pre-set parameters where they are tasked with forging a robust political system. The game's political mechanisms are being designed by none other than Lawrence Lessig, the legendary constitutional scholar who unsuccessfully ran for president last year.

Lessig isn't chasing utopia with Seed, but he is intensely interested in finding out what happens when people are given the skeleton of a trade economy and left to their own devices. Maybe, just maybe, something better than what we have now in the real world will emerge. Or maybe not.

Seed is still in the works and won't be released until 2018, but the idea is to have players control in-game characters that exist in communities with other players. These avatars live out their lives in simulation even when players aren't online, and each real-world week is a year in the game. These communities will be given immense latitude to determine the terms of their political existence, from monarchy to direct democracy.

These communities will also trade with each other within an economy that will be initially pre-programmed, but will eventually give way to player rules as communities trade with each other and set their own prices. Some communities may even opt out of this global capitalist trade regime entirely. It's worth noting that several of the co-founders and staff of the game company behind SeedBerlin-based studio Klang, also worked on EVE Online , an interstellar multiplayer game that features a robust in-game economy.

To find out what it means for Lessig to work on this project in the age of Trump and fascism on the march, and how Seed can give us insights into real-world politics, I chatted with Lessig and Klang CEO Mundi Vondi over Skype.

Motherboard: We're in a very tense and tumultuous political moment. What does it mean for you to design a game like this in the age of Trump, and after your own presidential bid?

Lawrence Lessig: The evolution of this project is quite funny. I was actually in Berlin the day after the election. I woke up that morning to see the results, and had this meeting set up with Mundi and his team to talk about the game. And it was a surreal feeling, like, governance in the real world is so fucked. We have to start thinking about how to build it in the virtual world.

Obviously, I have strong views in the real world about how to build democracy. But in the virtual world, I'm not interested in pushing my personal views. I am really interested in creating a platform where people can choose these very different forms of governance, and my hope is we can step back and see what works. If we have 100,000 game communities out there all choosing their own forms of government, and we have five stable forms that they were choosing between, data scientists could say, "Jeez, democracy with randomly elected leaders is killing every other form of governance!" That would be very interesting and valuable, I think.

Will the Seed community be moderated if, say, it gets brigaded by 4chan and anti-semitic or explicitly Nazi imagery makes it into the game? 

Mundi Vondi: I think we need to stay open to the trolls and all that grief. Obviously, with anything super brutal like Nazi or racist propaganda, we can remove those players from the game. But when it comes to them playing as brutally as those dictators acted, we need to allow that to see the results and effects. It's important to allow really harsh gameplay. I'd imagine that it will start off very chaotic, and players will be on a rampage, and out of these ashes a more civilized community will arise because the benefits are always going to be greater—you naturally gain by being more organized. As the game grows we'll see more reasonable communities.

Lawrence, in an op-ed explaining your presidential run , you wrote that democracy is not a utopia. There are concrete antagonisms to address and steps to be taken in order to dig ourselves out of the hole we're in. Is Seed a game about political utopias, or political fantasies?

LL: I don't think it's utopian in any sense. The effort in creating and maintaining communities in Seed is real effort—it's not a simple gift. But I think we can learn a lot about what sorts of governance structures help people to flourish in these spaces. Maybe that doesn't translate to the real world, but maybe it does. I think that the opportunity to have this massive experiment in different forms of governance, simultaneous and real, is pushing us in the direction of improving our forms of governance or at least giving us a map of how to improve them. That's what's most interesting to me.

So, Seed focuses on collective decision-making. In politics, laws are a form of collective decision-making, but we often don't think of collectivism with regards to that and many people actively reject ideas of collectivism when it comes to governance. What do you hope players will take away from being forced, basically, to consider their political choices as being part of a larger collective? 

LL: The extent to which collective decision-making affects your day-to-day living inside of Seed depends fundamentally on what the political structure of your community is. If you decide to have a monarch, then all the decisions are made by the monarch and you don't have any ongoing daily decisions. You could live in a representative democracy like Germany or the US, where you spend time deciding on your representatives and then they make decisions for you. But that might seem burdensome to some people, so they might choose a different form of representative democracy.

One of the options that I hope we implement is a representative democracy, but like in ancient Athens, all the leaders are randomly selected and they have to spend a cycle making decisions for everybody. That way, there's no politicking but it is representative. These are the kind of trade-offs that we want to enable so the community can decide how many cycles they want to spend on collective governance versus the other cool parts of the game.

MV: We're putting a lot of weight into how these decisions affect your gameplay. You don't just buy a new character and they pop into existence; you have to breed and raise them, and send them to school. As a player you should feel close to your character, so if they're being pushed around by some asshole who's governing, you'll get mad about that. There's all kinds of things you'll be able to find out—even if a monarchy is successful, you might have very low happiness. "Playing with fire" is one way to look at it, but having a tool where we can pick out some of this information is very valuable.

How optimistic are you about the politics of Seed , versus real-world politics right now? 

LL: I'm more optimistic about the politics of Seed than the real world, because the interests that have corrupted the real world are entrenched and powerful. But they haven't had a chance to develop in Seed. i think it starts with a little bit of a blank slate. But, it's not a guarantee, and who knows how things will develop over time? But my expectation is that we'll start in a better place.


Law professor Lawrence Lessig: Vast online games need a political structure

If you create an online world, would it turn into some kind of utopia or a hate-filled reality like The Lord of the Flies? And can game developers do anything about which way it goes?

Lawrence Lessig thinks so. A law professor at Harvard University and a constitutional law expert, he has been helping new democracies form legal frameworks for new constitutions, and now he is participating in an interesting test by helping Berlin-based independent game developer Klang build the political framework for the upcoming massively multiplayer online game Seed.

Lessig doesn’t want to dictate some ideal form of governance like a model United Nations. He thinks that players should have a choice about how they govern themselves in an online world, and he also believes that players shouldn’t be burdened with political structure until they need it.

Most games pay heed to their economic structures so that the game can generate revenue for the developer. But Lessig believes a political system is also necessary for players to believe that they should invest their time in the game.

Seed is an online multiplayer world that will also have a lot of artificial intelligence, and it uses Improbable’s SpatialOS platform for cloud games. Improbable is an online games infrastructure company that recently raised $502 million from Japan’s SoftBank. Klang itself has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Greylock Partners, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, and Unity founder David Helgason.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: We don’t see a name like Lawrence Lessig on many games we cover. How did this come to be?

Lawrence Lessig: I met Mundi in Iceland by accident, at somebody’s house. He described this game, this universe they were building. We had a long conversation about the theory, the ideas behind games. I’ve taught a course at Stanford with Julian Dibbell, who wrote about games for Wired for a long time, about virtual worlds and gaming. It’s always interested me.

After talking for a while, we moved on to how they were going to govern these places, the structure for governing. It was clear that no one had really thought through that much. That’s what began our conversation about whether there was something fun to experiment with here.

GamesBeat: Covering online worlds, people always use the terminology of the in-game economy. But they don’t always add the notion of an in-game political system. Is that something new here?

Lessig: Most people don’t add it because it’s such a boring problem. [Laughs] Most people don’t think about anything interesting when they think about governance. Obviously the game they’re building isn’t a governance game, but what everyone realizes is that, especially when you invest such an incredible amount of your time and energy into building places for playing a game like this, you need some confidence about how the place will evolve.

What we’ve been talking about are ways to give people in the game options for how they’d like that governance to happen. The options range from the simplest, most minimal—basically, from as little government as possible, to things like monarchy or different forms of democracy. You can randomly select people for office. We want to enable, in the lowest-cost way possible, the lowest number of cycles, to enable these different options, and see how these worlds evolve. Which ones work well? Which ones cohere with the kind of gaming that’s happening?

I obviously start with no clear intuition. Just an eagerness to see how this might evolve.

GamesBeat: Why do you think it’s also in some ways necessary? When I think of some of the politics that happens inside games, I think of player revolts that occasionally happen when developers change the rules or do something users don’t like. Usually they have no form of representation to communicate back to the developer. In some ways, I can see why some kind of system could be important.

Lessig: That’s the exact kind of case that motivates the desire to think about a structure of governance that gives people confidence they need to invest the time the game wants them to invest. But on the other hand, we don’t want to set up a model United Nations and expect everybody to hang out and debate the topics of the day. The way I’m thinking of it, it’s quite functional. The question is, “How can we structure it to allow it to serve its function of providing security and confidence for people playing the game, so they’re more willing to play the game?”

What I hope to see from it is that we can learn something about which of these structures works most easily, is most coherent with the spirit of people playing the game. I want to structure it in a way that allows us to observe, across a wide of range of worlds, exactly what seems to work and what doesn’t. It’s a wonderful environment to both serve the function of building confidence inside the game, but also let us learn an enormous amount about what types of rules structures and templates for governance tend to work better than others.

GamesBeat: One of the particular real-world problems I’ve seen is a company changing the pricing on virtual items. They got more expensive to buy with your time relative to buying them with money. That caused a big ruckus among the different clans and groups of people in the game. The clans held a boycott. But there were different competing interests. Some of them publicly supported the boycott, but then played the game anyway to try to get an edge on people who’d stopped playing. Another group offered to leave the boycott if the developer would favor them specifically.

Lessig: One of the interesting trade-offs here—my original work in the area of the law of cyberspace was to try to emphasize the way in which technology itself can be a kind of law. Code is law. When you imagine something like what you’re talking about – a set of players in a game wanting to effect a boycott – that boycott could be effected through an agreement. Everybody all says they want to boycott. Or in principle you could imagine a boycott being effected through code. We’re going to lock ourselves into a boycotting behavior.

It’s not clear which is more conducive to building strong communities. Many people think that the more you embed in code, the weaker the community that you develop becomes. People need to learn how to do things for the right reasons, as opposed to being forced to do them by technology. That’s one of the complicated trade-offs. There’s no way to answer that question in theory. You have to play it out and see what works and what doesn’t. This might be a context where we can do that kind of experimentation and see.

GamesBeat: Are there some things you’ve studied outside of games that can apply here, figuring out this game’s political system?

Lessig: In my day job I’m a constitutional law professor. I’ve done a lot of work in developing and building constitutions in developing nations. I did some work in Georgia in the post-communist period. I study and teach comparative constitutional law. When I was originally talking to Mundi about this, it was recognizing that in some sense, this is a problem I live with in my ordinary work as a law professor. We don’t ever really have an effective context in which to build and test these different structures.

There are lots of different kinds of democracy. The ability to imagine how you can structure the tradeoffs among them—this is a way to bring to life the kind of work I do in comparative constitutional law. That’s what made it exciting and interesting for me. We obviously are just beginning to map out how it can work. It’s an overriding objective that the work that we’re thinking about through governance structures not interfere, but just enable activities inside these worlds. I want to see this develop very slowly. It’s important that it’s developing at the ground level so we can do it the right way.

GamesBeat: I’ve seen a couple of clear tribes of people in different online games. There are the people who spend very little money but a lot of time to earn their status, and then there are people who spend a lot of money, which makes the world profitable for developers. They both seem like necessary groups, but they have different interests. I wonder how, when a game developer has millions of players—you can’t talk to everyone. Do they set up some kind of structure to communicate with the wealthiest players, or the players who spend the most time?

Lessig: Part of the question here is who should be deciding that. For the same reason you had this insight now, about this symbiotic relationship where both are necessary, you can imagine the community itself enabling some kind of preference or special connection for some, because they’re seen to be more valuable inside the community. From my perspective, we need to come in without any biases about that. We need to think, in a very efficient way, how to enable the community to make those kinds of decisions and implement them. And when they implement them, do they implement them technically, or do they implement them through understandings that are enforced by norms?

I think what we’ll see is that these different communities will have different objectives. Those objectives might fit with different forms of governance. One thing that’s argued about in the real world is that it might be better to have a democracy where, instead of having elections for people who want to represent others, you just randomly select 500 people to be the legislature. It’s a pretty low-cost way to govern, because if they’re really representative, those 500 people can speak for the group, and nobody has to worry about campaigning or anything like that.

You can imagine that becomes an attractive way for certain communities to govern themselves, where the people in those communities have no desire to engage much in politics. They just want to make sure that somebody is in place assuring that the system continues to work in a way appropriate for the community. But that could be very different in another community where people feel committed to developing a robust public recognition, and as they do that they want to be more engaged and participating in it. If we can enable these communities to make choices about the appropriate form they want, then I think much of the energy involved can take care itself. We can learn a lot from what’s working and not working.

GamesBeat: I’ve heard before that some game companies also have a sort of VIP concierge for their most active or richest players. That seems to have a parallel in our government, where lobbyists draw the attention of lawmakers.

Lessig: The lobbying system–nobody ever planned it like that. The frequent flyer system at airlines is kind of the same thing, except people did plan it like that. Obviously frequent flyers are valuable to airlines. At this stage it’s impossible to look inside the worlds of the game we’ll develop to have a sense of what will make sense there. But from my perspective, the objective is just to make sure that whatever does make sense can be developed collectively in the easiest way possible.

GamesBeat: It’s almost like you’re trying to create the structure, but not dictating the details.

Lessig: It’s important to make two qualifications about it. Yes, we want to enable the structure. We don’t want to dictate the substance of what the structure decides. I think we also don’t want to dictate that people spend much time worrying about the structure. Everybody expects these worlds will develop in incredibly rich ways and there will be all sorts of activity happening long before anybody worries about the question of how they’ll be governing themselves. The governance questions will emerge. Problems will come up and the communities of these worlds will have to work out how they deal with those problems. That’s when the taste for making these kinds of governance choices will emerge, the way it should naturally emerge.

Again, the objective is not to attract a whole bunch of people who want to debate the issues of the world. It’s just that people need the trains to run on time, which means you need governance that works, so let’s figure out the best way to make governance happen.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that in-game economics have been studied and theorized and talked about a lot in the games business, but politics haven’t so much. And yet when you think about it, this is probably the precursor to the Metaverse. If we’ll eventually all live in this kind of virtual world, it really does matter.

Lessig: It does. But what’s so exciting about this to me is that—in other online contexts, when governance questions come up, the infrastructure or the context in which those questions can be answered is really underdeveloped. Nobody thinks about that up front. You can have a conflict over changes in pricing or whether things can be traded or not, and then at that stage you have to have a way of resolving that conflict. Bulletin boards or other messaging systems become the infrastructure for that kind of resolution.

Obviously that’s incredibly inefficient. It’s all ad hoc. It’s conceived and implemented way too late in the game. What’s exciting about this is that the commitment is to try to think through these questions up front. Again, not to insist that anybody confront them or deal with them. We’re not saying the first 10 preference settings you have to make are governance settings. But at least to have it so that when these questions emerge – and they will emerge, given the economies of these places – there’s an obvious and efficient way to deal with them.

And not just one way to deal with them. It’s both the idea that we’re talking about how to deal with this up front and the idea that we’re not dictating one particular system over another. If a particular world wants to have a dictator who gets to exercise to arbitrary power however they want, have at it. That’s the choice of the world. But if we can enable these choices in a simple, efficient way, then I think we’ll see much more innovation around making governance work than when it’s an incredible hassle to imagine gathering everybody into a forum and having an argument about something.


Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig will design the politics in online game Seed

Lawrence Lessig has spent his career studying constitutional law, and he has been helping new democracies to form the legal frameworks for governance. Now he is lending his expertise to Berlin-based independent game developer Klang to build the political framework for the upcoming massively multiplayer online game Seed.

While many games pay special attention to in-game economics, the politics, or a system that enables players and developers to govern the virtual world, have often been ignored. Klang hopes to differentiate its game through the political system, and that’s why it tapped a top legal mind to design the game’s political framework.

Seed is an online multiplayer world that will also have a lot of artificial intelligence, and it uses the SpatialOS for cloud games from Improbable, an online games infrastructure company that recently raised $502 million from Japan’s SoftBank. Klang itself has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Greylock Partners, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, and Unity founder David Helgason.

Lessig happened to meet Mundi Vondi, CEO of Klang, and start talking about games.

“After talking for a while, we moved on to how they were going to govern these places, the structure for governing,” Lessig said in an interview with GamesBeat. “It was clear that no one had really thought through that much. That’s what began our conversation about whether there was something fun to experiment with here.”

Seed is a continuous, persistent simulation where players are tasked with colonizing an exoplanet through collaboration, conflict, and other player-to-player interaction. Using unique gameplay based on managing multiple characters in real-time, communities are built even when players are logged off, allowing the world of Seed to be a living, breathing entity.

“We’re building a virtual world filled with vast, player-created communities where every player-action has a repercussion in the game world,” Vondi said in a statement. “For example, a player might chop down a tree, which affects the planet’s ecosystem. This wood can then be sold on, which has an impact on the economy, and if the player chooses to, use the money to bribe another player, which affects the balance of power. We create and provide the tools and incentives to build these communities…the rest is up to the players.”

Also joining Klang and Lessig on the project is the renowned 3D animator, Eran Hilleli, who will be leading the art direction of Seed. Working on a variety of projects, Hilleli has earned acclaim for his signature art and elegant animation style.

Klang will use the money to grow the studio and complete the development of the first internal release of Seed. The previously mentioned investors also join Klang backers London Venture Partners (LVP), and Adalsteinn Ottarson (Riot Games).

“We’re extremely proud to have the backing from some of the best investors. This funding, along with their valuable experience, will be crucial to making this project a reality,” said Vondi.

Klang can build Seed to accommodate a massive number of players because it leverages Improbable‘s SpatialOS, an operating system for cloud games that enables massive simulations such as virtual worlds at a far greater level of scale and complexity than previously possible.

Along with that, the game will have a unique political structure.

“Obviously the game they’re building isn’t a governance game, but what everyone realizes is that, especially when you invest such an incredible amount of your time and energy into building places for playing a game like this, you need some confidence about how the place will evolve,” Lessig said.

He added, “What we’ve been talking about are ways to give people in the game options for how they’d like that governance to happen. The options range from the simplest, most minimal—basically, from as little government as possible, to things like monarchy or different forms of democracy. You can randomly select people for office. We want to enable, in the lowest-cost way possible, the lowest number of cycles, to enable these different options, and see how these worlds evolve. Which ones work well? Which ones cohere with the kind of gaming that’s happening?”

Klang plans to start opening up an external playable version of Seed in early 2018. In the meantime, MMO fans candiscover more about Seed via the project’s website:

Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association, and has received numerous awards, including the Free Software Foundation’s Freedom Award, Fastcase 50 Award and being named one of Scientific American’s Top 50 Visionaries.

Vondi founded Klang in 2013 as an independent game development studio in Reykjavík, Iceland. The company moved to Berlin. Its other founders include ex-CCP Games developers Oddur Magnússon and Ívar Emilsson. In 2016, the company launched the mobile game ReRunners: Race For the World for iOS and Android.