Mar 12 2011

Comparing Fish Keeping Games

Tadgh Kelly over at Simple Lifeforms, recently wrote an article suggesting that games should not be judged as simulations. Specifically, he argues that details which go unnoticed by the player are wasted effort possibly being negative effort if it impacts game engine performance. On the other side of this, what happens when the player anticipates detail that’s not present?

And on that thought, it’s time to look at three ‘fish farming’ games, Fish Farm Unlimited (iOS, raiX UG, 2010), Fish Tycoon (iOS, Last Day of Work, 2009), and FishCo (Win/Mac, Fugazo, 2008).

First, brief descriptions of the games:

Fish Farm Unlimited is an iOS virtual aquarium with economic and social media components. The developer also produces a number of other virtual aquarium products.

Fish Tycoon

Although I played Fish Tycoon on my iPod, it’s a port of a 2004(?) PC game (which also had a Nintendo DS version ca 2008). It provides a virtual aquarium, economic components, and a genetics model. The objective of the game is to breed the ‘7 Magical Fish of Isola’. The game is made by the same company which develops the Virtual Villagers series and other games which progress in real time.

FishCo is slightly different because it’s explicitly a member of the ‘Time-Management Game’ genre of casual games. It merits consideration here, because while it doesn’t purport to be an aquarium simulation it is about fish.


Of the three games by far the prettiest is Fish Farm Unlmited. The fish are rendered as 3D models with photorealistic textures, and the small size and high resolution of the iPod’s screen make the fish visually very appealing. The user interface is streamlined and easy to use, and left unattended for a few seconds hides itself. The aquarium sounds may be substituted by the user’s iPod playlist. The only nitpick, is that the only iPod docks I’ve seen position the device vertically in it’s cradle and the game is locked to landscape mode. Otherwise you could easily let this game run as a screen-saver while charging.*2


Fish Farm Unlimited- Note relative size of Surgeon Fish and the Damselfish in the lower left. Both are full grown.

Fish Farm Unlimited- Again, beautiful fish, but relative sizes are jarring

Unfortunately, the photorealistic nature of Fish Farm Unlimited‘s graphics comes at a price- placing fish which in the real world are of dissimilar size together leads to a breaking of immersion as their relative sizes in game make little sense.

Fish Tycoon being a port of an older PC game, uses sprite based 2D graphics which may appear dated to some users. The buttons are unfortunately small and occasionally hard to press accurately. The fish are pretty, and although they are fictional rather than attempting to simulate real fish are clearly based off readily recognizable aquarium fish. Because the fish are fictional, and because all of the fish being considered are small, the immersion breaking effect mentioned above doesn’t occur in this game.

FishCo has a very clean user interface with large buttons and easy to read text. The fish are sprite based (as best I could tell), although clearly some were rendered from models. The fish are sufficiently attractive for the game- though I can’t see wanting to use the screen-saver mode for any length of time.




Fish Farm Unlimited- Fish Information Screen

Like most living things, fish grow over time. Fish Farm Unlimited and Fish Tycoon both play out in ‘real’ time, and are intended to be played over several days or weeks. In Fish Farm Unlimited, the player buys fish, which appear in his tank as a small version of the adult. If the player feeds it, it will grow to adulthood over the course of the next several hours (or days, in the case of later-game fishes). If the player fails to provide food (or doesn’t log into the game for an extended period of time), the fish suspends it’s growth but otherwise is not harmed.

Fish Tycoon on the other hand, makes remembering to log into the game part of the game. The rate at which the game plays out can be selected from an options menu, ranging from ‘Stop Time’ which is useful when you don’t expect to come back to the game for a bit, to ‘2x’ which is useful when conducting a round of breeding. Fish can get sick and die while the game is being not being played.

In neither case does ‘real time’ appear have any particular relationship to actual fish development time frames. Admittedly, waiting several weeks for even small fish to reach reproductive maturity probably would make for a boring game.

FishCo, being a ‘Time-Management’ game does not tie itself to real time. It has a sandbox mode in which fish can not get sick or starve, and an ‘action’ mode in which the player is asked to complete several tasks over the course of a few minutes. If the player succeeds, he is allowed to progress to his next challenge. Within that time frame, fish grow from fry to adults, and other factors change in a balanced manner.


It’s not entirely clear whether Fish Farm Unlimited wants to be a traditional game, or a ‘social game’. It has some hooks into Facebook for sharing tanks, etc- I’m not capable of assessing the impact of that on gameplay as I don’t have a Facebook account. It also has the attention currency/real-money-linked currency model common to the social game field. Well almost… the free version of the game, Fish Farm, does use the attention/real model- players can purchase ‘Cowrie Dollars’ via in-app purchase, and earns coins by selling fish.

In Fish Farm Unlimited though, the player starts with a balance of Cowrie Dollars in addition to the starting coins, and has access to an exchange which allows conversion between coins and dollars. The dollars are used to buy certain fish which perhaps may be more popular (e.g. the clownfish) and some decorations, but more critically additional tanks and tank upgrades.

And… that’s basically the whole game. Buy fish, let them grow, sell. Buy other fish. We’ll touch breeding in a second. However, in this model there’s no way to lose*3… given enough time and interaction the player can set up any tank he likes.

Fish Tycoon- Store Mode

Fish Tycoon on the other hand provides a reset button on the main menu, in case you need to start over. There’s one currency, the Isola dollar. Most consumable supplies cost money. Selling fish isn’t exactly automatic- first the fish are moved to a selling tank, and there is a ‘sell fish’ option which moves the player’s view from his tank to a pet store- customers walk in and buy the fish. Fish may only be sold once they’re adults, and the player sets the price for them based on how quickly he wants them sold. The rate of customer generation is tied to the player’s advertising research skill. Additionally the player has skills that can be researched (at a cost of time and money) in environment and food, which both impact on fish health. The player must run his tanks at a profit sufficient to cover his research costs if he wants to win the game.

FishCo once again is completely different. As a scenario based Time Management game, the player gets a set amount of money appropriate to the scenario at the beginning of each level. Often, one of the goals of the scenario is to make $x. Everything costs money- even food flakes get charged at $0.10 or so per use. Fish grow in value up to a maximum, and may be sold at almost any time. Money doesn’t carry over from level to level however, and no extra points or award is given for exceeding the targets. Still the economy is satisfying within the context of the game.

FishCo and FishTycoon both are simulations to some degree of ornamental fish breeding, with satisfying risk/reward decision making. Fish Farm‘s social gaming economy may be satisfying, but it is not a simulation of anything, and Fish Farm Unlimited short circuits what enjoyment may be had from that decision making by providing a pathway to convert it’s attention currency into it’s real-money currency.*4

Breeding and Genetics

Small ornamental fish are generally broadcast spawners or nest builders, although some are livebearers.*5 Regardless, their small size and relatively dangerous natural environment dictate frequent reproduction and large brood sizes given favorable conditions.

Fish Farm Unlmited handles breeding by charging a cost in ‘coins’ to the player, which regardless of species generates an egg on the bottom of the tank. Given time (several hours in most cases) the egg hatches, and the fry must then be fed. Any two fish of the same species can breed once per day, and there is no heredity involved. Honestly, this is kind of silly when considering something like the neon tetra which spawns in large aggregations.

FishCo- Fish Breeding

FishCo tracks male and female fish (although its graphics do not differentiate between males and females of the same species and gonopodia are not depicted- the information is presented as text in an info box for each fish). Rather than depicting spawning behaviors, an animation is shown where the male and female fish come together and produce a number of hearts on the screen. This works well within the context of the game, and someone at Fugazo cared enough to make fry appear after breeding in the case of the livebearers, and eggs appear for everything else. Each breeding event yields 1 or 2 young. Young are always identical to their parents.

FishTycoon is a little different. Any fish can be bred to any other. On inspection for each fish you are told what its ancestors were to two generations back and by breeding you get different fin and body types. Fish are neither male nor female in this game, all are livebearers, and any fish may become pregnant.

The breeding aspect is the major part of the game, as the player is asked to find the ‘7 magic fish’ by experimenting with different crosses. Different breeds are worth more or less, and some require certain stages of research in fish environment to survive- it’s not uncommon in the early game to try a number of crosses and log in later to find several dead baby fish in the aquarium. Each breeding normally produces 1 offspring unless the player has found the ‘Magic Fish of Fertility’, in which case each breeding will produce 2. Only 2 traits are heritable, and each has several phenotypes. Unfortunately the 2 expressed traits are body plan and fin type, which together make up the ‘species’ name- ‘species’ in this case being more akin to ‘breed’ in dogs than any biological concept of species.

Fish Tycoon- The left cross makes sense, the right one does not

Both FishCo and FishTycoon use a ‘Child, Teen, Adult’ terminology for the age of their fish, which feels odd- some fish have post-juvenile sub-adult developmental stages but I don’t think that’s particularly common. Fish Farm Unlimited just tells you how many hours in real time until it’s fully grown. All three of the games sidestep the questions of culling, and the different care strategies needed to raise fry versus older fish.*6

Water Quality

When I initially mentioned fish raising games, Ann, a part of whose job is raising thousands of fish per year commented:
“Interesting, I didn’t know that there were fish keeping games, do they present real water quality problems?”

The short answer is no.

A slightly longer answer is that the two games which most clearly would like to be considered as simulations ignore water quality altogether. Fish Farm Unlmited has no environmental impact on fish health or value (although placing decorations adds ‘happiness’ which affects growth rate), and tank space limitations are not based on dissolved oxygen levels or nitrogen cycling capacity, they’re hard coded limits (a given tank can not more smaller fish than larger ones). Fish Tycoon does slightly better in that some fish are more fragile and will slowly die if the player hasn’t researched a high enough level of ‘fish environment’ or added the appropriate equipment (heaters, etc).

FishCo- Water Change in progress

Oddly, the one game which does treat water quality is the game that isn’t a simulation. FishCo does introduce water that becomes ‘dirty’, requiring water changes. Higher levels of the game have different types of filters, different medicines to treat specific illnesses, etc. However, within the context of the level they are mere gameplay mechanics- the player is not allowed to anticipate water becoming dirty and change it in advance, but is being tested on his ability to perform the change action when the indicator demands it. Additionally, water becoming dirty does not appear to be linked to the biological load on the tank, overfeeding, etc. Nor is it quantified (NH4 has risen to …).



Fish Farm Unlimited and Fish Tycoon don’t make any real attempt to model behavior beyond fish moving toward food. In neither game do fish school, defend territory, or agress against other fish. In Fish Tycoon, all of the fish are based on types that would be common to community aquariums, but Fish Farm Unlimited missed a chance to do something neat here.

FishCo- Cichlid behavior warning

FishCo generally does not model behavior, although some large fish will eat smaller fish. Interestingly, once again FishCo is the only game of the three which recognizes that different species of fish have different dietary requirements, with some fish wanting flakes, and other expecting brine shrimp, etc.


Fish Farm Unlimited- Who can dislike neons?

FishCo is in my opinion the most fun of the three*7– partly because of its increased detail despite not being a simulation at all, and partly because it doesn’t demand Tamagotchi-like levels of attention. The discrete levels rather than a continuous campaign are a drawback compared to Fish Tycoon, and a tank in Fish Farm Unlimited with 15 neon tetras is a nice visual in itself.

Unlike Carnivores:Dinosaur Hunter which I wrote about earlier, these games are depicting activities which are commonplace in the real world. Each made different choices about what to simplify or abstract in their depiction of the topic of fish raising. All three games have their place, and if I’ve been a little hard on Fish Farm Unlimited, I should say with it’s graphics it makes a perfectly nice toy- just not much of a game. Fish Tycoon and FishCo have their roots in the casual PC market, which demand slightly greater complexity than the screen-saver and social gaming markets that Fish Farm Unlimited comes from. But the goofy economics and breeding models detract from all the games for anyone with even casual knowledge of aquarium fish. Which is odd because people with casual knowledge of fish are exactly the people you would expect to want to play a game about raising fish. It may be important to leave out extraneous detail when designing a game, but it’s equally important to know what material is extraneous in the first place.


*2- The same developer markets several virtual aquariums that don’t claim to be fish farming games. Notably, these allow for rotation of the tank.

*3- Some fish eggs have a value of 0 immediately after they’re laid. Additionally most juvenile fish, and many items sell for less than their purchase price. So it may be possible to spend yourself into a situation where you have no money at all. This would require some very deliberate action though.

*4- Worth noting here that if that pathway didn’t exist, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the game at all.

*5- I had assumed all aquarium livebearers are ovovivaporus- fish in which fertilized eggs develop internally but with no connection to the host parent, rather than vivaporus- fish which develop via a placenta-like structure connecting the developing fetus with the mother. But as it turns out, some freshwater Halfbeaks -are- vivaporus (specifically family Zenarchopterinae). Fish are cool. 8)

Of course, they’re not exactly common aquarium fish either.

*6- It is possible the various developers are suggesting that only 1 fry in a large brood survive per breeding, without presenting the various failures. If so, that context is not made clear by any of the games. This is also not reasonable for commercial breeding operations.

*7- This review was based on the 1-hour demo version. I’m actually planning to buy the full version, but I just ordered a new computer and figured I’d wait until it arrived. :)

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