Friday, August 12, 2016

The Universe is Yours: Part One

Two game's released within a month of each other. They're both about exploring a vast, procedurally generated universe, and they both have the same "problem": They make space look too interesting. 

Starbound: Navigate the star map, find a planet, land on it. It's a remote planet in the farthest reaches of the universe. There's at least one racial settlement and a ton of native creatures. You do a lap of the planet, leave, and fly 20 light years away. Arriving at the system, you find a planet and land on it. This planet is toxic. There are oceans full of poison sludge and acid rains from the sky. There's at least one racial settlement and a ton of native creatures—that you saw on the same planet 20 light years away from here.

Yes, yes, I know there are Barren planets in Starbound, but they're guaranteed to have nothing on it. All you do on those planets is build. 

No Man's Sky: You start, crash landed, on an alien planet. The flora looks like nothing you've seen before. A quick scan reveals minerals that can help you fix your ship. As you move towards the mineral, you see a cute native creature. You scan it and continue on. Then you stumble across a ruined settlement. Something bad happened here, so you grab some supplies and hurry back to your ship. A quick repair later, and it's time to explore. You leave the planet, navigate the star map, and warp to a new system. The bright purple planet orbiting this star catches your eye. You land and perform a quick scan. There's new creatures here and...oh...another settlement that looks just like the one from the other system many light years away.

Note: I haven't played No Man's Sky. I'm only basing my statement on streams and gameplay videos I've seen. It's possible there are barren worlds, but I haven't seen any yet.

And so we encounter my problem. Why does every planet have life on it? To make the exploration interesting. So how do you make planet exploration interesting without forcing players to suspend their disbelief?

One option is to give the player a means to scan a planet before they land on it. Say you have a system with eight planets. The player can fly to a planet and activate their scanners.

*ping*

"Planet scan complete. Found: Two cave systems, one outpost. No life signs detected."

Okay, so now the player can make some decisions.

"I have to collect codex entries, but I know those come faster if I can scan lifeforms or talk to people. Still, that outpost may have some knowledge entries even though it's abandoned. And I may find something cool in those caves. Eh, I'll land and see what I can find."

Cool, now wait one second. The player is going to go explore your cave system. Will they find anything cool? Maybe a rare mineral that they'll need at mid-to-late game? Or the body of the final outpost survivor? There better be something worth their time, or you risk the player deciding to ignore caves even though the one on the neighboring planet has one of the best early-game weapons.

Exploration done, they fly over to the next planet and

*ping*

"Planet scan complete. Found: Rich mineral deposits near planet core, no life signs detected. WARNING: Extreme heat in desert biome."

And so the decisions continue. Now, this is just one option, and I fully admit it's not perfect nor is it liable to work well in a game. Another option is to forego procedural generation completely and hand craft your universe.

Obviously this is time consuming, and doesn't lend itself well to replayability, but imagine handcrafting a single solar system's worth of planets, moons, and asteroids. You can hide things wherever you want. You can create a planet that has a fixed rotation relative to its star and has a molten hemisphere and a frozen one on the other side. The possibilities are limited by your imagination and skill, but they're not infinite.

Would a scanning system be necessary in a game like this? Maybe, but the player doesn't have much of a choice in where they can go so why waste their time telling them what they may find. Let them explore the dozen or so bodies you made at their leisure. You can pretty much guarantee that their time spent exploring a finite system will rarely be spent in vain.

Maybe when I have more time I'll dig deeper into more gameplay systems like this and express my, potentially wrong, opinion on them. For now, I leave you with this final thought and question.

"Is a game that's wide as the ocean, but deep as a puddle, worth the same as a game that's the size of a pond, but deeper than any sea?"

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