Size Matters

There’s a narrative going around the game development community.  Games are getting shorter, it goes; people are busy, they don’t have time.  As the average age of active gamers, and particularly paying gamers, continues to rise, game makers feel justified in making smaller, more polished, often cinematic games.  Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they make games with very short session times; what can you do in the time it takes to get coffee at Starbucks?  Simpler games are better, games with easy to understand mechanics.  Gaming is both maturing and mainstream, colonizing other media, like Japan’s Prime Minister as Mario at the Rio Olympics, a little grey around the temples, but still playful.

Lately, though, I’m starting to feel like it’s not games or gaming, it’s game developers who are getting old, who only have a few minutes to devote to something here or there.  It’s not just No Man’s Sky; lots of people have forgotten the peculiar joy of figuring out a game’s behaviors through trial and error, experimentation and exploration.  But that game is just the latest of what I suppose you could call the world-exploration genre.  Fallout 4, for example, has many of the same elements – procedural battles, resource gathering, crafting, upgrades – and at a base level, you spend most of your time wandering around the world, looking for things.  Or Shadow of Mordor; while more combat-focused thematically, it was still largely a game that was driven by exploration of its world, whether literally its geometry or the back-story in the little collectibles.

What these games all have in common is that they take a very long time to play.  The grind for upgrades in No Man’s Sky is very similar to the grind in any MMO (yet another kind of world-exploration game); covering all of the ground in post-war Boston or Mordor takes a lot of time.  On top of that, there’s extensive replayability.  In Fallout 4, there are the various storylines and factions (one of the many excellent implementations being the warning before taking a story-altering action) in addition to the world-simulation elements.  Shadow of Mordor has the revenge and fealty systems to constantly shuffle the deck for as long as you feel like playing.  It goes back to one of the early arguments for gaming – that on a per-dollar basis, it is one of the most effective forms of entertainment.

Yes, we used to play endless hours of Quake 3 or Counterstrike or Civilization or whatever your particular flavor was, but when you divided that $50 (assuming you actually paid for something) by the number of hours you played, you got some infinitesimal number of pennies, whereas you were paying $5+ per hour at the movies.  With arcades, you were paying $0.25 every 3-5 minutes, so about $4 per hour.  Hell, with early internet connections, some people were paying $2 per minute or $120 per hour to play their favorite games, or check their e-mail for that matter.  When we were young and poor, students or just starting out, the value you got from gaming was tangible.  It was better than television (the next best thing to free), but affordable in the long run precisely because we had so much energy to burn and they kept us occupied for so many hours.

For a lot of gamers, nothing has changed.  League of Legends, one of the most popular games in the world, has an average session length of 30-35 minutes, and gamers sit down expecting to play multiple sessions.  Raids in World of Warcraft are still multi-hour affairs, albeit not the insane grinds they used to be.  In terms of value per dollar spent, they still eclipse everything else in terms of media.  If you have a lot of time to kill, these are great ways to kill it.  So are free-to-play games, don’t get me wrong.  They are huge in their own ways, constantly growing, constantly evolving.  It is terrifying to think of the collective amount of time spent tapping the screen to move gems or candies or barbarians or cartoon houses.

So, both ends continue to expand.  Tentpole games aren’t going anywhere.  Yes, they cost tens of millions of dollars to make, but each one returns hundreds of millions.  Services will live as long as their player base supports them.  The high-risk areas remain the unproven and the middle ground, and indies are happily throwing themselves on as many grenades as they can find.  At the moment, we’re still in a growth market.  More people are playing electronic games today than at any point in history.  People are finding more ways to play, dedicating larger amounts of their time and resources to playing.  There’s VR/AR, location-based gaming, and so many other avenues that are ripe for development.  Surely, that can’t hold true forever.  At some point, there will be a saturation of the audience – young and old, poor and wealthy, the time-rich and the time-starved, the twitchy and the cerebral.

But, for now, surely these are the salad days.  It seems odd to say after decades of experience playing and making games, but we are still at the beginning.  There is more to invent in front of us than there are established models behind.  And yet, one thing, I would caution, remains true.  Players want time-consuming games, deep, rich, long, rewarding engagements that can last weeks and months, not just days or hours.  It’s great to create experiences, but worlds will win, nine times out of ten.

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.