I have a green thumb — two actually. But a necessary requirement for growing plants is time. Like pets (and kids and significant others...basically a life) they take time. Time I am in short supply of. For this reason the closest thing to a plant I have in my home is the cactus that gains its moisture from showers in my bathroom. I've really got to work on that life. Plant Tycoon allows me to grow plants - satisfying the gardener in me, cross-pollinate them — satisfying the amateur geneticist in me, and to do it while I'm working at my PC without actually interrupting my work — giving me some pretend semblance of a life.
Last Day of Work (LDW) has always made some great PDA games. What makes them great is you don't play them for more than five minutes at a time every hour or two. Plant Tycoon was originally a PDA game and though I never completed the goal of finding all 6 magic plants (though I managed to kill my entire nursery regularly), it was a game I found myself returning to each time I pulled out my PDA for travel.
There's the loosest of stories built around what is essentially a plant hybridization simulation. Isola (a recurring fictional island in LDW's titles) seeds produce magical plants. You begin your nursery with the most normal of seeds, bland soil, normal water, and dullest pruning shears. Through perseverance and a little channeling of Gregor Mendel, it's your lot to find the lost Magical Plants of Isola.
The game runs in real time — even with the PC shut down. How fast real time passes will depend upon the speed you set it at. This is where playing Plant Tycoon can break up a weary day. Set it at slow and you can check in on the progress of your plants every two hours or so. Set it at very fast and you'll want to check in every half hour.
WARNING: It's just like growing plants.
So, you drop dirt and water into up to 15 flower pots. Then, you drop in a seed. At the beginning, you'll have no idea what type of plant this seed will produce. Keep the plant watered — there's an indicator for water level and health — and healthy and something will bloom. Congratulations! You've grown a plant! One of 500. This could take a while...
You've grown a few plants but they need to mature so you can pollinate plants. You can pollinate the plant itself (always a good idea if you'd like more seeds) or another plant and begin your genetic empire — or at least a successful nursery.
Pollination is a simple process. Once the pollen begins to drop from the plants, you simply drop it on a mature plant to produce seeds. Then wait. If I haven't mentioned it yet, after every step you wait. Again, this is rather like gardening. Sometime later the plant will begin to seed. Remove the seeds to a seed tray and then you can sell the plant to passers-by at your nursery.
There are a ton of little changes that can be made to your plants as you grow them. Plant food, super growth fog, bug spray (pesky critters), mutation liquid, insta-grow...you name it. Of course, they cost money — shock! Each will change the speed at which your plants grow, their health, increased flowering and the rate of mutation.
Each time you check in on your plants, you'll want to prune them. You may need to water them. And for a time, no matter your effort, they simply won't grow (unless you use a magical insta-grow formula). Available to you - for a price — is higher quality soil, water and sharper pruning shears. There are even random seeds of various qualities for you to work into your nursery. The kicker? The highest quality Isola seeds will only grow in the best soil with the best water.
So, while your end goal may be to find the magical Isola plants, you've got to make a profit so that you can upgrade your tools. The fastest way to do this? Sell lots of plants. How do you sell lots of plants? 1) Make them pretty, 2) Price them well, and 3) Have a gorgeous nursery.
You'll begin with a table to collect money from and a few pedestals to place your plants on. Basically, you've got my backyard less the toys. Over time and with the almighty dollar you can add a coat of paint, an owl, a wheelbarrow of flowers, a sign (hey, we've got plants), a cash register (cha ching!), a sundial, a fountain among a plethora of other items.
I should get back to actually growing these plants...
Ok, you pollinated a plant, dropped some seeds into the seed tray and set the plants out in your nursery. Until your plants sell or you empty your pots you can't grow any other plants. Based upon all of the above factors, visitors will come to your nursery and purchase plants. The good news is you can look at their thoughts and see what plants they want as well as which they're excited about. For some reason, my visitors want doughnuts and babies. Somehow, I think that's beyond my scope of fertilization.
Once empty, you fill your pots with your best quality dirt and water — once you've upgraded it becomes the only dirt and water available to you and it's not something you have to replenish — and choose the seed you want to plant next. This is where a really good UI starts to break down.
You start with one seed tray and can purchase two more. When you mouse over any seed tray you see its two parent plants. If the two parent plants are the same, then you have grown it previously and know what it is. Unfortunately, you can't view the name. You also can't view the parentage of the plants before. When I'm just growing plants for relaxation and a break from daily work this isn't so much of a problem. However, when I wanted to actually reach a magical plant I found myself duplicating a lot of hybridization.
When you view a seed and you see two different parents, this means you've cross-pollinated this seed and need to grow it to determine what it is. Again, this doesn't mean you haven't grown it before. You could have grown hundreds of them; but there is no tracking system. It simply means you need to grow this seed to see how it will come out.
The seeds have both very different shapes, textures, colors and sizes and are also very similar. Cactus seeds look similar as do ferns. You'll need to mouse-over to determine exactly what color flowers will be produced by this seed. Visually, it's very pleasing and makes it easy enough to separate seeds, but it can be frustrating trying to find just the right seed — you can't even alphabetize them.
Plants look equally different yet same. All plants that sprout vines look similar in that they are vine plants with different colored flowers, but the health, amount of pruning and type of soil additives can vary the end result greatly. Sometimes I just make bonsai trees for relaxation. Of course, once a plant has reached maturity, you know what it is — until it reverts to a seed again.
There are a few additional features to the game. You can place your plants on a variety of backgrounds to make personalized art. Bugs and butterflies abound near your plant stand and collecting them in a mini-game in-itself. Online statistics are available, if you decide to share them. If you choose to participate, you can upgrade your net to one that is nearly translucent. Then every bug already collected becomes money in the bank — and running a nursery can be expensive!
Although I really wish there were a way to track the lineage of a seed when I'm working towards the Magic Plants of Isola, it's such a minor nuisance when taken in the context of the overall game. Some days, when I'm growing plants, I wish I weren't a gamer. The game is too slow! Once every half hour at its fastest! Hah! But, in truth, this is its greatest strength. In a month I've only created three of the six magical plants. I expect the final three to take far longer. It's a beautiful game, with pleasing graphics, soothing music and as long as I don't forget to turn the simulation off when I won't get back to it for days, it gives months and months of play. So much for that life I wanted...
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.