Worlds Enough And Time

No Man’s Sky is an ambitious project.  It is one of the ultimate combinatorial extrapolations: 15 quintillion worlds, which is only true to the extent that a reddish world and a slightly more orange one are different worlds, or that a slight difference in topology meaningfully distinguishes one billion of those worlds from the other billion that are identical in everything except that one difference in the static noise variable.  Nonetheless, in its broadest strokes, No Man’s Sky does offer an unparalleled opportunity for exploratory and gathering gameplay.

One of the earliest lessons in my professional game design career was realizing that it is much more difficult to capture what works about a game than what doesn’t.  The errors are obvious; they jump out at the observer.  Bugs disrupt play, poorly implemented gameplay generates frustration, and as pattern-matching experts, we can always pick out something that isn’t quite right.  But, a good designer learns from what works and not just what falls short.  So, for the moment, I’m going to leave aside all of the obvious problems (crashes, repetition, opacity of systems) and focus on what works.

For one thing, NMS hits the basics: camera, controls, and character.  I’ve been playing the PS4 version, so no comment on the PC implementation, but on the console, the acceleration on the joysticks is tuned well, the FoV is what I expect from an FPS, there’s always a clear indication of what I’m pointing at, and I can adjust the key settings (inverted-Y, for example) to match what I prefer.  Not showing the player character is actually a valuable omission; given the variety of terrain and dealing with real-time morphing geometry, the animation problems of a third-person character would be a constant distraction.  As opposed to an RPG, the loot is not physical, so I have no need to see it on my character.  Similarly, omitting gravity variation from the combinatorial mix was an excellent call.  I’m sure the team must have experimented with it (given they are using Havok physics so get this practically for free), but navigating has enough challenges without dealing with gravity variations, and the animations of the ambient creatures would have been difficult (if not impossible) to get right with a wide range of gravities.

Exploring the world on foot is one of the primary modes of gameplay, and again, lots of good implementations here.  Sprinting and using the jetpack, for example, layer complexity onto movement without requiring their use or imposing penalties for failure to master them.  A beginning player can move with just the joystick; a more advanced player can use the joystick, the x button, and the sprint toggle to maximize the character’s speed across the landscape.  It’s also a solution to a long-term design problem: how to make walking/running as interesting in gameplay terms as driving.  Connected to this is the local scan function.  Rather than having the player wander arbitrarily around the landscape, the scan function polarizes the map, pointing out resources of interest.  Particularly in the sometimes extreme conditions of the harsher worlds, maximizing how much you can gather in a minimal amount of time outside your spaceship combines the navigation mechanics gameplay with a traveling salesman problem.  Yes, it’s procedural gameplay, but it works surprisingly well.  Any planet you land on will have some combination of resources distributed across the landscape, so playing hunter-gatherer is always an option.

Another win for NMS is the UI.  It’s a testament to the clarity of gameplay that most of the time, the UI fades off of the screen (with the exception of the compass, which is key to always have handy).  When you are in combat, your health and shields show up; when you are in hazardous conditions, an exposure timer shows up; when you are low on a key resource, the game alerts you, but most of the time, the UI is invisible – literally or figuratively – which is exactly what you want as a designer.  Managing the inventory screens is a little more clunky, which is inevitable given the combination of slot-based space management and a console controller; it’s probably seamless on PC.  But, again, the team at Hello Games did a great job of layering in complexity.  For a starting player, there are fewer slots to manage, and the slots occupy more of the screen space, making them easier to interact with.  As players progress and upgrade equipment, more slots become available, which would make it harder to navigate except that the players have developed sophistication in working with the system by that point.  Again, for most players, this elegance is invisible, but for game designers, take note.

On a personal level, I think NMS does a great job leveraging combinatorial systems in its spaceship designs.  Clearly, there are fixed body and wing types and some rules about how they can mix and match, but within those constraints, the system generates a wide variety of different-looking ships.  Sure, some are just re-palettized versions of the same geometry, but there are a lot of asymmetrical and intriguing combinations that come from the base inspirations – whether natural or artificial.  Associating dominant types with species and systems helps give the individual space stations more sense of place, as do the three different races and their variations in body and building morphology.  Similarly, the ambient alien lifeforms have a wide-ranging variety of shapes, sizes, and modes of locomotion.  The patterns become clear after a while, but the variation can create moments of discovery and wonder, essential to the sense of exploration.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental design aspects of the game is its commitment to opt-in gameplay.  As a player, you can choose at any given moment to play the ship-gathering game, the ship-fighting game, the planet-exploring game, the resource-gathering game, the trading game, or the galaxy-traversal game.  All of these aspects are readily available to the player, but only one of them is forced (ship combat cannot be avoided in some contexts).  Otherwise, it is up to the player to decide what her/his goal is, often how to accomplish that goal.  Aliens can be interacted with or avoided.  Quests do not need to be completed; they don’t block progress or hang around in a list forever.  The downside, of course, is a lack of direction, but that’s a player preference.  You can’t please everyone with the same game, and anyone looking for a directed, cinematic experience is going to be sorely disappointed.  But, the game is committed to its opt-in approach and creates opportunities rather than gates for the player.

There are, of course, all sorts of problems with the game, from performance to systems design to player communication.  With a game this ambitious, there are always going to be gaps; some are even generative – inspiring players and designers to come up with their own ideas about how to add or change something.  But, it’s practically impossible to smooth over every rough patch, eliminate every punishing set of conditions, or anticipate every combination with a game this ambitious.  A practiced professional could quibble with the game-makers’ decisions until the cows come home, but NMS fundamentally succeeds in what it sets out to do.  As a player, you can wander from planet to planet, gathering and exploring to your heart’s content.

For those of you who may still be learning the game, here is my advice:

  • Space = power.  Expand your exo-suit, multi-tool, and ship as quickly as you can.
    • Once you get your AtlasPassV1, there is an exo-suit upgrade terminal in every space station.
    • You can also look for drop-ships on any inhabited planet to get exo-suit upgrades.
    • Similarly, multi-tool upgrade stations can be found in many inhabited buildings.
      • Multi-tool upgrades are also the rewards of various alien interactions.
    • Finding a crashed ship is the cheapest way to upgrade your ship.
      • Search for transmissions at waypoints.  Transmissions can lead to observatories which can lead to ships.
        • Crashed ships will be at most +2 slots relative to your current ship.
        • You will have to repair major systems when swapping, but you can get away with just thrusters and engine if you want to work your way through a series of ships on the same planet.
    • Limit which ship and exo-suit upgrades you are using early on so that you can maximize cargo space.
      • Remember that one slot in the ship = two slots in the suit in terms of capacity.
      • You can always teleport resources from your suit to your ship; you can only teleport in the other direction when close by.
      • On the other hand, the only downside to upgrading your multi-tool is the resources it takes.
        • You may get multi-tool upgrades faster if you have filled most of the slots on your current one.  This is speculative, not proven.
  • It’s the economy, stupid.  You are going to burn through lots of units, so always be acquiring something of value.
    • On the ground, oxides and isotopes are the key to survival, but silicates and neutrals are the key to making money.
      • Also, don’t overlook planets with objects on them (like vortex cubes – 25K units/slot)
    • Look at the value of items you find.  If they are worth less than an equivalent stack of what you can gather, ditch them.
    • You can mine asteroids for rare neutrals – they’re the more pill-shaped ones.
      • You must have space in your ship inventory to collect while flying; the resources won’t go into your suit inventory (although you can manually transfer to free up space).
    • It’s good to build up a war-chest of 1-2 MM units early on.
      • There will be times when it is faster to buy components/resources from traders/terminals than to gather them.
      • Maxing your suit takes 6 MM units, and the costs continually climb, so having a million units on you helps avoid pinches.
      • A 30+ slot ship costs 7-8 MM units.  I’ve seen ships cost as much as 30 MM.
  • Combat is a resource competition. If you’re killing the enemy faster than it’s killing you, you will win.  Otherwise, run.
    • You can always replenish your ship’s shield by dumping oxides into it.
      • Always keep a stack on hand (iron is the easiest to gather, but titanium is more valuable)
      • Don’t wait until your shield is almost down – time doesn’t stop in inventory mode.
        • Depending on your upgrades, you may want to recharge at anywhere between 20% and 50%.
    • Make sure you’re attacking the right ships
      • Sentinel ships on top of pirates can quickly become overwhelming
    • On foot, an upgraded mining beam is just as powerful as a boltcaster.
    • In general, if you have enough shield, it is better to kill the sentinels and collect their resources than to run.
    • Stepping inside any building will cancel the alert level of sentinels.
      • You can practice combat or farm sentinels by camping an outpost.
      • Similarly, practice ship combat near a space station if you want an easy out.
  • If you’re following the Atlas path, do not sell any Atlas stones.
    • You will get 10 and need 10 when you reach the final step.
      • If you sell any before that point, you will need to replace them, and it costs 20X to buy them vs. what they sell for.

 

Thoughts on Alphabear

I love me some Spry Fox.  Dan Cook, David Edery, what’s not to love?  These are brilliant, ethical, exploratory artists working at the cutting edge of the interactive medium.  For me, it has the same sort of brand loyalty as Blizzard: I’m going to purchase what they make at full price and with no regrets.  Alphabear is no exception.  It’s quick to learn, hard to master, and provides a remarkably deep engagement for the simplicity of its interface.  If you’ve ever enjoyed word-making games like Scrabble or Boggle, download it now; it’s free and you’ll love it.  $5 gets you unlimited play time.

My wife continues to be delighted by the game and plays every day, but I’ve stopped.  When I realized that the bear bonuses continue to increase semi-exponentially, it broke a fundamental tension for me.  At that point, the difference between skilled play (being able to put together longer, more complex words) and long-term play (the meta-game of unlocking and upgrading bears) tilted inexorably in favor of the latter.  I’m sure that this evens out eventually, that at the end of the progression, the difference in scores is determined more by skill than time investment, but I’m not really interested in grinding to get to that point, as much as I enjoy the process of playing the game.

It’s a personal bias, no doubt, but I’ve always felt that the tension between what you can achieve currently and the promise of being able to achieve more – in a meaningful fashion – is at the heart of gameplay.  As flawed a dichotomy as it is, this is part of how I separate games from toys.  Games have a skill progression; toys don’t.  I’m not going to spend a lot of time justifying that, as it’s fairly arbitrary, and there are all sorts of overlap points where skill with toys can be meaningfully differentiated from non-skilled play.  But for me, at the point that I realized spending time grinding out matches was more important to my progress than my score in those matches – that I fundamentally could not progress without spending match after match inevitably falling short of the goal due to predetermined design math – Alphabear fell into the classification of “time-waster” rather than “game”.

It’s not that I’m opposed to grind in itself.  Hell, I played more hours grinding WoW than I did following quests or learning new skills.  But, the grind was subservient to mastery – it was necessary to the end-game, but not determinative of success.  I think that this dynamic is also a component of why I find the Elder Scrolls model of RPG progression less than satisfying.  Yes, there is something intuitive about getting better at things the more you do them, but I’m not looking for a game experience where I need to spend hours upon hours jumping – without any sense of purpose – to become superhuman.  There’s a point where the skill progression curve gets overtaken by the time investment curve, and for whatever reason, that invalidates the skill progression for me.

As a game designer/developer, establishing and maintaining this tension – keeping players involved over the long-term because there is skill reward as well as stat reward – is a key component.  In the free-to-play world this often gets mistaken for monetizing effectively – maintaining the tension between what you can do and what you want to do within the limits of your monetization tolerance.  However, that is a bastardization of the core dynamic.  It’s one of the reasons why hard-core gamers continue to resist free-to-play, games-as-a-service, and microtransactions, because too often they have tried to buy butter and been handed margarine.

Clearly, Spry Fox is not one of those companies playing bait-and-switch with gamers’ expectations.  Probably to their corporate detriment, the monetization approaches in their games are extremely loose.  It is not in any way required to monetize to get the best out of their games, and I would bet that they make less money as a result.  So, I look forward to their next release avidly, and I fully intend to pay money for it – even though that is not going to be required – but for now, at least, Alphabear goes into the back folders of already-played games, even though I never got to play the last word.