Stellaris Dev Diary #182 : The Perils of Scripting and How to Avoid Them

Stellaris Dev Diary #182 : The Perils of Scripting and How to Avoid Them

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Caligula Caesar

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Hi everyone! I am Caligula, one of Stellaris’ Content Designers, which means that I do a variety of tasks based around narrative writing and scripting - “scripting” being our term for doing things that is somewhat similar to programming, but without changing the source code. In other words, I do what modders do (though I have the significant advantage of also being able to peek into the source code and change it around when needed). Every Content Designer has their niche, and mine is that when a particularly complicated system needs to be scripted in (or, more frequently, is giving some sort of trouble - the War in Heaven still gives me nightmares...), I step into the breach.

Now, we have a lot of exciting stuff to show off in the weeks and months to come, but for today, inspired by some questions that were asked after the last dev diary, I’m going to be writing about the technical side of scripting for modders and aspiring modders, specifically with an eye on what can cause performance problems and how to avoid making bad scripts.

The Stellaris scripting language is a very powerful tool, and a lot can be done with it, but first of all, a note of caution: just because something is possible, does not mean it should be done. I can’t really stress this enough, because (and I speak from experience here) this attitude will almost certainly end up causing both performance issues and unreadable scripts that you will not be able to disentangle six months later when you realise some part of it is broken. Though it should be borne in mind that doing something in code is, by definition, faster: in code, you can check a single function and be done with it, but if you want it to be accessible through script, there’s a fair few necessary functions it has to go through before you get to checking your function (turning the line of script into a code command, checking whether it’s used in the right scope, etc etc) - hence why some things are hardcoded, and also why hacky solutions to problems can end up being quite bad. So, the first question to consider is, should I really be doing this?

But who am I kidding, I’m speaking to modders here, so of course you will do it :D So without further ado...

What causes performance issues?

Every time you run a check or execute an effect, this will take a very tiny amount of your computer’s processing power. With a few exceptions that should be used sparingly (I’ll get to those later), this is totally fine and is needed to do anything at all. It is when the check is repeated often, over lots of objects, that problems happen. In practice, this usually means pops are the cause, though running something across all planets in the galaxy is also a pretty bad idea.

As a first step, when possible, it is a good idea to control when your script is run. The best way to do this is by setting where events are fired and using on_actions (or firing events from decisions and the like) wherever possible, instead of mean time to happen or, even worse, just setting an event to try and fire every day. If a degree of randomness is needed, one could also fire a hidden event via, say, a yearly pulse and then firing the actual event you want with a random delay (for an example, check out event action.220).

Of course, not everything is events, and unfortunately, in Stellaris, a lot of stuff is done with pops! Job weights and other triggers in the jobs files, in particular, have been shown to cause issues in the past. As a rule of thumb, even if you can do super cool stuff, it is a bad idea to do any too complicated script pyromania on jobs. For example, if you were to make a job weight dependent on there being no other pops on the planet that are unemployed (using planet = { any_owned_pop = { is_unemployed = yes } }), then you are doing a regular check on every pop on the planet that then checks every other pop on the planet, i.e. pops squared. Once you reach the late game, this is pretty much guaranteed to cause issues.

So what can be done?

Avoiding nested loops, making sure your events are fired appropriately and avoiding pops when possible will get you some way, but we can do better than that. Here is my list of advice for optimising scripts:

Always use the most appropriate scope

Say you want to check something on the leader of the current country’s federation. One could, theoretically, do it this way:
Code:
        any_country = {
            is_in_federation_with = root
            is_federation_leader = yes
            <my_triggers_here> = yes
        }
This'll run through all countries in the game and see whether they are in the same federation as you, including the space amoeba country and the vile Pasharti (and who would want them in a federation?). That’s a bunch that are definitely irrelevant. So a better check would be to do it this way:
Code:
        any_federation_ally = {
            is_federation_leader = yes
            <my_triggers_here> = yes
        }
In code terms, this means that the game going from the country to the federation and then grabbing a list of its members, excluding the current country, and checking the triggers against them. So, that’s obviously going to be fewer checks. However, the best version would be this:
Code:
        federation.leader = {
            <my_triggers_here> = yes
        }
That version would go straight to the federation and from there straight to its leader in the code, with as little as possible script to code conversion needed and no need to check triggers against any countries to get there. It also happens to be the most readable (readability and better performance very often correlate…).

So in this case, the game would check around 50 countries first the first version, 5 for the second and 1 for the third - not bad for some optimisations! Using a similar logic, it is always better to use something that isn’t checking all objects in the galaxy (esp. all pops or all planets) if at all possible but rather a filtered list, e.g. any_planet_within_border instead of any_planet = { solar_system.owner = { is_same_value = prevprev } } (you laugh, but I’ve seen it). And, indeed, one can almost always check any_owned_fleet instead of any_owned_ship.

Another important improvement we added in 2.6 was any_owned_species, which can replace many any_owned_pop checks (specifically the ones that check for traits and so on of the pop) and mean that way, way fewer objects have to be checked (in a xenophobic empire, it could be single figures for any_owned_species and thousands for any_owned_pop).

Sometimes you can avoid scopes completely

On a similar note, if you can check something without doing things with scopes, that’s always going to be better. So, if one wants to check whether a planet has more than two pops working as miners, one could do this two ways:
Code:
        count_owned_pop = {
            count > 2
            limit = {
                has_job = miner
            }
        }
Code:
        num_assigned_jobs = {
            job = miner
            value >= 2
        }
The former will check each pop on the planet and see whether it has the miner job, and then see whether the number that do is higher than 2. The latter will check a cached number that the game has already calculated and see if it is more than 2, which is much quicker to do.

Some things are just expensive

Not every check or effect is equal. Checking a flag or a value is generally pretty simple, and changing it is usually not much more complicated. If, however, the game has to recalculate stuff, then it will take longer, because it’s not just looking up a number it already knows. Creating new stuff is also more expensive, both because it’s doing something somewhat complicated (the create_species effect is, I kid you not, more than 600 lines of C++ code...), and because it’ll probably have to recalculate all sorts of values once this is done. It can be a bit tricky to know which triggers and effects are going to be bad, but as a rule, these cases are what you should look out for:
  • Anything where you are creating a new scope e.g. create_country, create_species, modify_species
  • Anything that needs you to calculate or recalculate pathfinding (e.g. can_access_system trigger, creating new hyperlanes, especially creating new systems)
  • Anything that calculates pops (changing around pop jobs on a planet, for instance)

If it must be done...

Sometimes, bad things must be done. In these cases, it is best to still use the not so great things with precision. When the game is checking triggers e.g. for an event, it’ll generally stop checking them at the first point something returns false (I’m told this is called “short-circuit evaluation”), so you’ll want to do something like this:
Code:
    trigger = {
        has_country_flag = flag_that_narrows_things_down_loads
        <something really horrible here>
    }
I recently did something like this to the refugee pop effect. It was previously a little bit insane (see 01_scripted_triggers_refugees.txt for the full horror). In total, it would check a variation of the following up to eight times:
Code:
        any_relation = {
            is_country_type = default
            has_communications = prev #relations include countries that have made first contact but not established comms
            NOT = { has_policy_flag = refugees_not_allowed }
            prevprev = { #this ensures Pop scope, as root will not always be pop scope
                OR = { 
                    has_citizenship_type = { type = citizenship_full country = prev }
                    has_citizenship_type = { type = citizenship_caste_system country = prev }
                    AND = {
                        has_citizenship_type = { type = citizenship_limited country = prev }
                        has_citizenship_type = { type = citizenship_caste_system_limited country = prev }
                        prev = { has_policy_flag = refugees_allowed }
                    }
                }
            }
            any_owned_planet = {
                is_under_colonization = no
                is_controlled_by = owner
                has_orbital_bombardment = no
            }
        }
Where it varied was simply the last any_owned_planet: It would try and find a relation with a really good planet for the pop to live on, then a pretty good, then a pretty decent, and then finally settle for just any old planet. Which is, obviously, pretty inefficient, since the list of countries that welcome refugees does not change between each of the 8 times you check it. My way of avoiding this - and making the script way more readable, whilst I was at it - was to set a flag before any of the checks, like this:
Code:
        every_relation = {
            limit = {
                has_any_habitability = yes #bare minimum for being a refugee destination
            }
            set_country_flag = valid_refugee_destination_for_@event_target:refugee_pop
        }
The checks then simply had to be “does the country have the flag, if yes, does it have a good enough planet”:
Code:
has_good_habitability_and_housing = {
    has_country_flag = valid_refugee_destination_for_@event_target:refugee_pop
    any_owned_planet = {
        habitability = { who = event_target:refugee_pop value >= 0.7 }
        free_housing >= 1
        is_under_colonization = no
        is_controlled_by = owner
        has_orbital_bombardment = no                                
    }
}
One can also similarly use if-limits and elses (and, even better, switches when possible - those are the best for performance) in triggers to narrow down the checks down and make things far more readable whilst you are at it. I recently went through the species rights files and redid the allow triggers for sanity’s sake:

(Before)
Code:
        custom_tooltip = {
            fail_text = MACHINE_SPECIES_NOT_MACHINE
            OR = {
                has_trait = trait_mechanical
                has_trait = trait_machine_unit
                from = { has_valid_civic = civic_machine_assimilator }
            }
        }
        custom_tooltip = {
            fail_text = ASSIMILATOR_SPECIES_NOT_CYBORG
            OR = {
                NOT = { from = { has_valid_civic = civic_machine_assimilator } }
                AND = {
                    OR = {
                        has_trait = trait_cybernetic
                        has_trait = trait_machine_unit
                        has_trait = trait_mechanical
                    }
                    from = { has_valid_civic = civic_machine_assimilator }
                }
            }
        }
(After)
Code:
        if = {
            limit = {
                from = { NOT = { has_valid_civic = civic_machine_assimilator } }
            }
            custom_tooltip = {
                fail_text = MACHINE_SPECIES_NOT_MACHINE
                OR = {
                    has_trait = trait_mechanical
                    has_trait = trait_machine_unit
                }
            }
        }
        else = {
            custom_tooltip = {
                fail_text = ASSIMILATOR_SPECIES_NOT_CYBORG
                OR = {
                    has_trait = trait_cybernetic
                    has_trait = trait_machine_unit
                    has_trait = trait_mechanical
                }
            }
        }
The second version will be more efficient, since it is only checking e.g. whether the species has the mechanical trait or whether the country has the assimilator civic once instead of twice, and also, the triggers in the second custom tooltip aren’t obscenely weird anymore. (I also removed all the NANDs, because they broke my brain).

Happy New Year

I can’t write this dev diary without telling you about the “Happy New Year” bug. Basically, we were playing dev MP on a reasonably large galaxy and reached reasonably late into the game, and since we were all working remotely on wildly varying computers and internet connection speeds, the performance was perhaps a tad sluggish, but still acceptable for the most part. Then, suddenly, we noticed huge lag spikes - 20 seconds and more - on the 1st of January. So noticeable were these spikes that we began wishing each other a Happy New Year each time the game froze!

It just so happened that the onset of this lag coincided with several large empires deciding to become synthetic and starting to assimilating their empires. Now, assimilation falls into the category of things that are done in script that maybe, in hindsight, should probably not have been done that way… and works by firing an event for each assimilating country every 1st of January. This event in turn fired an event for each of their planets that selected a bunch of pops on the planet and used modify_species on each of them at least once, but sometimes up to four times. This added up to a fairly significant performance hog!

After trying various solutions, it turned out the best way to fix this was to first go through every_owned_species from the country scope, check whether this species should be assimilated, and if so use modify_species to create the species it would assimilate to, setting a species flag that pointed to the species it was being assimilated from. Then, instead of creating a new species for every pop that was assimilated, the scripts were rewritten to find the already-created species that the pop should become, and simply use change_species on it. The result is still unreadable script (I will spare your eyes and not post it here), but in my tests it reduced the yearly tick by over 50%, thanks to the complicated effect (modify_species) being run as seldom as possible.

---

That’s it for me, for now! I’m guessing this was a bit of a drier dev diary than usual for most of you, but hopefully it was interesting nonetheless :) As a final note, I suspect that the more intrepid among you could call me out on bits of script in the base game that don’t quite live up to these guidelines. Please, feel free to do so, because there are few things more satisfying in this profession than taking something really horrible and making something less horrible out of it!
 
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wolkenwand

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I love these type of diaries, there are similiar kind of diary in the past about stellaris audio iirc, its hilarious.
 
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MK1980

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whenever i peek into the game files or read stuff like this dev diary i'm amazed that you guys actually work with that scripting language. is that a proprietary language? i've never seen it outside paradox games.

wouldn't it be better to use something more readable? a language based on c++, c#, vb. or any other common programming language, really. is that simply something that won't happen due to enormous amounts of existing code that would have to be re-done?
 
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SeekingEtermity

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whenever i peek into the game files or read stuff like this dev diary i'm amazed that you guys actually work with that scripting language. is that a proprietary language? i've never seen it outside paradox games.

wouldn't it be better to use something more readable? a language based on c++, c#, vb. or any other common programming language, really. is that simply something that won't happen due to enormous amounts of existing code that would have to be re-done?
Lua would be the conventional choice for this purpose; it's widely used in game modding. I've also seen games (including another space 4x, from 2006) that have what is technically their own unique programming language, but at least use something that is both clearly Turing-complete and actually compile it to binary.

Mind you, the weird Clausewitz scripting language is actually easier for people to learn than you might think, making accessibility of the modding tools much greater than if you needed a full application programming language. It's also just simpler, in some ways. For example, the scopes that are so important in modding? That's not really a thing in most programming languages. You'd need every function to take a Scope parameter (formally, or informally such as with JavaScript's abomination of a "this" keyword), which identified the current scope and gave tools for acting upon scopes. The filtering for specific scopes kind of resembles C#'s LINQ, but most programming languages don't have a built-in query language and even when they do, using it is usually a moderately advanced task.
 
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whenever i peek into the game files or read stuff like this dev diary i'm amazed that you guys actually work with that scripting language. is that a proprietary language? i've never seen it outside paradox games.

wouldn't it be better to use something more readable? a language based on c++, c#, vb. or any other common programming language, really. is that simply something that won't happen due to enormous amounts of existing code that would have to be re-done?
PDXScript, as modders call it, is Paradox's proprietary language. It's also, as to be expected, different between every Paradox game. You won't see Planet scopes in HoI4, nor scopes for tanks, and footsoldiers in Stellaris. It's perhaps the most readable thing for Stellaris modders; and honestly pretty intuitive once you've figured out the basics.

If you wish for an example; here's a planet in my Apex of the Fallen Empire mod that I've been working on-and-off on for a while now.
Code:
planet = {
        name = "NAME_Empryean_Fortress"
        class = "pc_gaia"
        orbit_distance = 20
        orbit_angle = { min = 90 max = 270 }
        size = 16
        has_ring = yes
        moon = {
            name = "NAME_Ancient_Redoubt"
            class = "pc_barren_cold"
            orbit_distance = 6
            orbit_angle = { min = 90 max = 270 }
            size = 12
        }

        init_effect = {
            create_cluster = {
                id = fe5_cluster
                radius = 120
                center = this.solar_system
            }

            save_event_target_as = strategic_coordination_center
            set_planet_flag = fallen_empire_world
            prevent_anomaly = yes
            set_owner = root
            set_controller = root
            set_capital = yes

            add_building = building_ancient_palace
            add_building = building_fe_dome
            add_building = building_fe_dome
            add_building = building_fe_stronghold
            add_building = building_fe_stronghold
            add_building = building_affluence_center
            add_building = building_affluence_center
            add_building = building_nourishment_center
            add_building = building_class_4_singularity
            add_building = building_class_4_singularity
            add_building = building_class_4_singularity
            add_building = building_dimensional_fabricator
            add_building = building_dimensional_fabricator
            add_building = building_nano_forge
            add_building = building_nano_forge
            add_building = building_nano_forge
            while = {
                count = 20
                add_district = district_city
            }
            while = {
                count = 52
                create_pop = {
                    species = owner_main_species
                }
            }
            root = {
                set_policy = {
                    policy = artificial_intelligence_policy
                    option = ai_outlawed
                    cooldown = no
                }
                set_policy = {
                    policy = robot_pop_policy
                    option = robot_pops_allowed
                    cooldown = no
                }
            }
            root = { create_fe_servant_robots = yes }
            last_created_species = { save_event_target_as = fe_servants }
            while = {
                count = 52
                create_pop = {
                    species = event_target:fe_servants
                }
            }
            create_fallen_empire_starting_navy = yes
            create_fallen_empire_army = yes
            set_timed_planet_flag = { flag = AotFE_add_defending_general days = 1 }
        }
    }

You can see things that are pretty self explanatory in it, such as "name", "size" and "class",that determine what you know well about the planets in Stellaris, alongside more complicated things, such as generating the planet's population and buildings on generation. I think that PDXScript is good for that; you can do basic things very easily, but it's still able to do things that are far more complex.

Mind you, this code is for only one planet in an entire solar system.
 
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Hi everyone! I am Caligula, one of Stellaris’ Content Designers, which means that I do a variety of tasks based around narrative writing and scripting - “scripting” being our term for doing things that is somewhat similar to programming, but without changing the source code. In other words, I do what modders do (though I have the significant advantage of also being able to peek into the source code and change it around when needed). Every Content Designer has their niche, and mine is that when a particularly complicated system needs to be scripted in (or, more frequently, is giving some sort of trouble - the War in Heaven still gives me nightmares...), I step into the breach.
Loved the tech details! Most of it isn't news, exactly (aside from there being some scope selectors I didn't know about), but it's great insight into both how the game is built and how to mod it (and why its performance is... like that).

One thing I'd really love to see from the Clausewitz language, aside from just better performance all around, is some consistency. There are way too many places where you should be able to put basically arbitrary conditions or effects, but can't (and sometimes can't modify the properties from the outside, either). For example, there's no way to make the upkeep of something dynamically depend on some condition. You can make the upkeep of a whole class of things (e.g. buildings) within a given scope (e.g. a particular planet) have some modifier, which can potentially affect upkeep, but there's no way to directly set or adjust the upkeep of anything dynamically; it's set when you save the file. Similarly, there are a bunch of places where you can't use various kinds of logic, not because they don't fit there but because the script parser is doesn't seem to have a generic "expression" type (or is overly restrictive in where it's used) and instead expects some specific type of content when all it really needs is a boolean or integer or string or something.

My next request would be better handling for variables and scoped saved targets. These are both incredibly unwieldy in the current system, and also a massive source of bugs. For example, before the Weapon Trails anomaly was made globally unique, it would show up for every player in a multiplayer game. Each could get a nice Relic World out of it, but only one would get the dig site. Why? Because the dig site was set to appear on the rubricator_planet saved event target, and there was only one such saved target no matter how many rubricator planets were created. Now, I'm not saying we should have let everybody have their own rubricator, just that if the saved event target had been a little more logical (scoped to a player, or a list of targets, or whatever), it would have worked smoothly instead of very visibly bugging out. Other issues like this are common. On the flip side, while saved targets can generally be used as the right-hand side of any expression that takes their object type, variables can't; this, combined with the severe limitations of variables in general (no arrays or dictionaries, no non-numeric types at all in fact), makes them a really painful tool to do anything with. Doing actual math or comparisons - the things CPUs are literally best at of all operations, the second-most basic building blocks of digital computers beyond simple logic gates - requires stupidly large blocks of unreadable (and probably unperformant) copypasta code.
 
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glee8e

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Is it possible to give Greater Than Ourselves edict a similiar visit? I can confirm it is causing noticeable lag especially when it is first introduced and everyone is turning it on like crazy.
 

Blitzcat

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I still have a hard time adapting the scripted_effect, scripted_trigger and other structures that have changed since 2.3.
 

Eios

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Pretty enjoyable read. Sidenote, are there any updates in regards to the faster game load branch being available to us plebs?
 
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RaygunGoth

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wouldn't it be better to use something more readable? a language based on c++, c#, vb. or any other common programming language, really. is that simply something that won't happen due to enormous amounts of existing code that would have to be re-done?
Legibility is actually a key reason for many games not to rely so heavily on coded content, and to instead favour script. :) XML and other markup languages are very common for games with a lot of narrative, and for titles which are intended to be open for modding.

PDS titles include a great deal of triggers and modifiers, and so the script we use is that bit more complex — but by separating code from more human-readable script, we can focus more on narrative design and writing to match it. It helps spread out a team's core competences about a bit, and also tends to smooth out development pipelines since we don't usually have to interact with source files. The same is also true for art assets and scripts.
 
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Caligula Caesar

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One thing I'd really love to see from the Clausewitz language, aside from just better performance all around, is some consistency.
Me too. I have my own particular bugbears - stuff like a trigger not working in a scope where I would expect it to, or calls to "species = <event_target>" allowing only a species event target in some places and e.g. leaders and pops as well in others. That and effects failing without decent error logs. It's something we've been getting better at, gradually, though :) (Helps that I know some C++, so when I get particularly annoyed by something not working, I make it work :D )
Whats difference between any_owned_pop_species and any_owned_species?
There isn't one, except for any_owned_species working in planet scope too. I suspect any_owned_pop_species was kept so as to not break existing script, or something.
 
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Caligula Caesar

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whenever i peek into the game files or read stuff like this dev diary i'm amazed that you guys actually work with that scripting language. is that a proprietary language? i've never seen it outside paradox games.

wouldn't it be better to use something more readable? a language based on c++, c#, vb. or any other common programming language, really. is that simply something that won't happen due to enormous amounts of existing code that would have to be re-done?
An interesting question. I'm not really qualified to give an answer on that, but what I can say is that before I worked for Paradox I was a modder (on Stellaris - I really was speaking from experience when saying "be careful about doing too insane things", because my old mods are not the greatest for performance!). I found it pretty good for being able to pick up and learn how to do stuff, certainly more so than if it were written in a more complex programming language - which is a benefit, because it lets us hire talented writers as CDs without them having to also know X or Y programming language. On many days, I wish the scripting language were simpler, so that it would be easier to just write something and chuck it in the game - but also, I have the other perspective, since I now know some proper programming, and there are so many things I wish the scripting language could do but that it probably won't any time soon (more ways of eliminating copy-pasta, for instance...).
 
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Balamut2227

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Good day! Thank you for a DD today :)

I have one little question. Stellaris forum have a separate section for suggestions from players. Were the ideas from there ever useful for the game development?
 
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Olterin

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A wonderful diary to read, helps understand where in particular some performance hogs can be if one is not too familiar with modding. Reading somewhat between the lines, does this mean that there are more performance optimizations than just that assimilation thing being worked on? :p
 

Katsue

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Thank you for dealing with assimilation lag. I had a recent game as a Tree of Life Hive Mind where assimilation would pause the game every New Year for five minutes or more at a time. The only solution was to use genetic engineering to speed up the assimilation process.
 

correctamundo

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Interesting. Though mostly unintelligbe to me since my profession lies within the biologic ascension and gene clinic sphere. :D
 
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