About this project
Hi! My name is Wick. I'm a neuroscientist from Portland, OR, and I study the neural
circuits that move bodies (you can see my first published paper here). I believe that in order to eventually understand the impossibly complicated system that is the human brain, we need to start by first mastering its most basic components.
How do bodies move?
There's so much that goes on beneath our awareness. My heart beats a steady rhythm, pumping blood through my billowing lungs down to my legs as I absentmindedly walk through the forest. The croak of a frog cracks through the air in an atonal melody. I stop to admire a dragonfly glide past, wings working in perfect coordination to dart through a cloud of gnats.
The secret to these rhythms of motion are special circuits of brain cells called central pattern generators. If you've played QWOP, you know how hard it would be to move without these pattern generators taking care of muscle coordination for us.
Crescent Loom is a game that lets you -- in a hands-on way -- discover and get an intuitive sense for how this basic component of our existence works. (with floppy, clumsy creatures)
- Creatures -- Use a physics-based construction tool to weld bones and stitch the muscles of a creature.
- Neural Circuits -- Connect neurons to coordinate muscles, perceive to the world, and navigate the environment.
- Player Ecosystem -- Interact with other player's creations as you explore an alien ocean.
- Learn Science -- Gradually learn the concepts that underlie our ability to move.
The first step to playing Crescent Loom will be to construct a body. Using a simple 2D editor, you must set the bones, muscles, and senses of your creature. Since your functions and movement depend on the forces exerted by these organs, their placement matters.
After your body is created, the next step is to weave the nervous system of your creature in order to control it. The inputs and outputs of this circuit correspond to the sensors and muscles of the body.
This may be as simple as connecting a eye neuron to a muscle neuron: “when you see something, pull”!
It will be easy to make a functioning circuit with the default neurons, but it will also be possible to go under-the-hood and modify more advanced properties like ion channels and membrane conductance.
After the events in Starship Rubicon, the planets of both humanity and the bio-engineering Alien Nemesis lay in ruins. Most surviving humans now sleep in cryopods collected by the Pilot on her warpath towards the Nemesis homeworld.
The Pilot now returns to one of the planets that she burnt from orbit and begins using a piece of Nemesis technology called a "Crescent Loom" in order to begin healing the planet and build a new home for humanity and the Alien Nemesis to live in peace. Despite your good intentions, many creatures of this world remember you -- and not fondly.
Unable to communicate directly, you must learn an unfamiliar piece of technology and let your creations speak for you through their actions and movements.
Over the course of the campaign, I will be releasing the designs for the vinyl sticker reward tiers. Each one depicts an important concept in neuroscience that will be relevant in Crescent Loom.
Reciprocal Inhibition: A pair of neurons, each inhibiting the other (indicated by the open circles at the end of each connection). Useful in many contexts. When you have two muscles and need only one active at a time -- such as the flexor and extensor muscles in your limbs -- reciprocal inhibition can help automatically relax the opposite muscle.
Or, when both cells are prone to bursting -- such as with "pacemaker" cells -- being reciprocally inhibited will cause the cells to synchronize their activity in an alternating pattern.
Brainbow: a method of randomly inserting different numbers of red, blue, and green fluorescent genes into neurons. Depending on how much of each gets inserted, a neuron will glow a different color. When you have a thick patch of neurons, this lets you tell each one apart from its neighbors (an especially difficult task when trying to trace an axon through a rats-nest tangle of them).
One of the visually coolest things I've seen in neuroscience.
Hebb's rule: "Neurons that fire together, wire together" is not a universal rule -- rather, it's a general pattern seen in neurons involved in learning.
The strength of synapses are constantly waxing and waning, but Hebb's ule describes the tendency for a synapse to get stronger if a neuron fires shortly after recieving a message through it. It's a bit of a positive-feedback loop; synapses that cause a response become more likely to cause a response in the future.
Therefore, it's possible for a "memory" to be stored with only two neurons, within a single synapse.
So, is CL a learning tool? Is it a game? Are there levels? Do you increase skills? Sandbox?
To answer this, let's take a minute to talk about the economic realities game development and crowdfunding.
Making a quality, polished editor (for Win/Mac/Linux!) and an underwater environment to explore is going to take a minimum of about eight months. Since I’m a one-person team and it costs me about $2,000 a month to live, that already comes out to $16,000.
By looking at other projects with similar backgrounds and resources, I've determined that this is already about the most I can expect to raise from a Kickstarter campaign.
So, with $16k, Crescent Loom will be a free-form game where you construct creatures to explore an underwater environment and interact with the native ecosystem. The story will be told by discovering hidden capsules containing the memories of the Alien Nemesis creatures that perished during the planet's destruction.
However! It would be fantastic to have a mode where you gradually build up the resources to pull off more elaborate projects and develop the skills to explore the game’s universe.
Therefore, I'm splitting off the more game-y half of Crescent Loom into an Explore mode stretch goal. If we hit this goal, I'll be able to develop a structured campaign to the game to give concrete objectives to guide them through the game.
After your creature is created and its brain woven, it is time to explore an alien ocean. My current design (subject to change) is for an open-ended world with a steady availability of objectives, e.g. reaching a new area, retrieving an artifact, placing scientific monitoring equipment, or taking biological samples.
Completing objectives unlocks more body parts and types of neurons, which allow more elaborate creations and fulfillment of harder missions. By starting simple, this mode will serve as a fun gradual introduction to Crescent Loom.
Since one of my objectives is to make tool for public use and education, if we reach this goal I will make the core editor freely available and only sell Explore mode as the game proper.
Risks and challenges
Video games in particular have a problem with release deadlines. To address this, I've tried to set myself up to under-promise and over-deliver. By breaking off Explore mode into a stretch goal, I will be able to focus on the core idea of making an interactive neural circuit simulator.
Additionally, I learned an invaluable lesson during my previous Kickstarter (an Astroids-esque game called Rubicon). I had laid out plans for a sprawling universe to explore and fleets to command, but quickly realized that it was way more than I could do in my 3-month development window. Instead of pushing the deadline back, I cut the chaff and concentrated on making a polished arcade-y experience. I delivered on time and backers went away happy. I know how to cut content, make a focused game, and hit deadlines.
Making a game based on science comes with its own unique challenge: how do you balance accessibility and scientific accuracy? Each project draws its own line (sometimes regrettably, i.e. Spore) but the subject matter in Crescent Loom lends itself well to being translated into a game so I'm optimistic about being able to find a good balance. Throughout development I'll be incorporating feedback from both the public (y'all who chose the beta tier) and the academic community.
Finally, physical rewards are notorious for unexpectedly sinking a project's budget. I've tried to address this by choosing rewards that are cheap to print and ship (stickers) or are high-tier-only and have sharp limits on availability (laser-cut Ramon illustrations).Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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