Limiting the player’s actions sounds counterintuitive when building a rich virtual world, but it is an important design element in Petri Dish. While we don’t want to create an A/B button masher, we also don’t want to create a game where players expect new actions to become available just in order to deal with a new problem. We want our players to be problem-solvers, which means solving a myriad of problems using the tools they already have at their disposal… just like cells do. Getting the most out of your tools and using them in novel ways to overcome challenges leads to mastery and to more rigorous and scalable mental models.

Players in Petri Dish are able to:

  1. choose which genes to include in a cell’s genome;
  2. customize those genes so that proteins are self-regulating or transported to specific locations within the cell;
  3. activate genes manually or program cells to activate genes autonomously; and
  4. transmit chemical signals within the cell or to neighboring cells.

And the proteins encoded by and built from those genes are able to:

  1. transport molecules; and
  2. catalyze chemical reactions within the cell’s metabolic network.

Using those limited actions, the player will then have to solve a wide range of problems. For example, what should the cell do when it currently has a large surplus of glucose but will soon enter a glucose-poor environment? The cell could store its existing supply of glucose in a vesicle, slowing its diffusion out of the cell. The cell could activate a gene to build a protein that would link the surplus glucose molecules together into larger starch molecules that don’t diffuse, and then reverse that chemical reaction to release glucose when the cell needs more glucose for energy. The cell could use the surplus glucose to build extra phospholipids or amino acids, and then re-inject those molecules back into the cellular respiration pathway when needed. And it is actually possible to design a cell that preys on other cells for food instead of taking in glucose from the environment at all.

Limitations can foster creative problem-solving as long as the problems you can solve aren’t limited and the ways that you can solve them aren’t limited.