Posted on by Steven Savage

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As I wait for No Man’s Sky (if I disappear for a week in June, you know why), I’ve been analyzing the game, what it means, and what it tells us about procedural entertainment. Today I’d like to focus on crafting.

I love crafting. I enjoyed the Atelier series of games, finding new alchemical potions. I love Starbound‘s crafting (OK, maybe I’ll vanish in July too). You can guess that Minecraft was a revelation. This all goes back to Demon’s Winter, a vastly underrated DOS game that let you build magic items.

With No Man’s Sky, the huge emphasis on crafting has me intrigued. The thrill of finding elements, the joy of a discovered blueprint, the fun of creating the right components. I love the challenge of building the ideal loadout, and NMS is going to give me that and all of the exploration and resource collecting. I’m looking forward to it.

I will be the guy staying on one crap planet for hours because of a wealth of ruins filled with schematics. Trust me.

No Man’s Sky provides a mixture of real and made-up elements, a nice nod to both recognizability and to the proper sci-fi feel. But as I’ve watched the game, I’ve come to realize there’s another, missed opportunity that other games should take up.

Procedural elements.

Imagine a game like NMS (or NMS II, which again I feel is possible) that has procedural elements. The joy of discovery is not just felt on finding a new world or a new blueprint, a strange crystal or interesting rock formation could hold an element no one else has seen. There could be elements even the creators hadn’t foreseen, out there, lurking.

Sci-Fi and fantasy is often about strange and unusual materials. Let’s see more of that in games.

Of course to make them useful and understandable, procedural elements would need to be handled in certain ways. here’s my thoughts on it:

Where They Fit

Procedural elements would have to work into an existing crafting structure. The elements have to have some recognizable use despite their procedural nature. This would likely mean:

  • The crafting structure recognizes general classes of elements (builds weapons, catalyst, etc) and procedural elements fit a general class but have unique cases. “Iron” is the same all over, but that procedural deposit of “Dekelite” has unique traits, thought both can be used to build weapons.
  • Thecrafting structure recognizes specific elements, and procedural elements can “substitute” for regular ones and bring certain benefits. Thus “Chromatic Polytanium” may substitute for “Copper,” but any scanning device built with it has extra bonuses.
  • Items that are used to power/supply other items may provide unique bonuses. A unique element that provides energy may, perhaps, deliver double the fuel value of a common one.

Unique Traits

It’d be pretty easy to make procedural elements that seem very samey, so work would have to be done to vary them. The need for variance would depend on how often they’d be encountered, of course (more on that later). But traits may vary along such areas as:

  • Specific use.
  • Elements they substitute/are used for.
  • Bonuses and combinations of bonuses.
  • Disadvantages and tradeoffs.
  • Additional effects (perhaps if you make a potion with this element it always confers invisibility)
  • Physical traits (even different colors or weights).

A game that uses procedural elements should have enough variances that they’re actually interesting, unique, ad surprising. Otherwise it might not be worth implementing.

But done right it could be amazing. Imagine traipsing through a fantasy forest to discover a rare gem deposit whose naturally holy traits repel demons and confer charisma. Imagine exploring a distant world to find a fuel source that boosts your hyperdrive beyond capacity – but will wear down your spaceship.  Each finding is something unique, wondrous.

When You Can, Add Story

I’ve written about the need for procedural games to have pproceduralhistory. Same goes for procedural elements – I can’t say it’s required, but having “more” to the elements than a name and trait may be neat.

Maybe a procedural element in a fantasy game exists because a certain area is irradiated with magic. A procedural element in a SF game may have unusual energy properties because it was formed on a planet near the sun. Add something tomake the elements meaningful.

Or at least give us some flavor text for fun. Something to help us build our own story.

Oh and make sure the names are appropriate. I’d much rather find Chromatic Steel with it’s ability to make swords tht dazzle with rainbow light than a similar element called Furbonanium. Only use nonsense if it fits.

Don’t Overdo it

Finally, unless procedural elements are a theme of the game (and it may be), don’t overdo them. If you want these elements to stand out, then they have to stand out.

In any game of reasonable gameplay (20-40 hours) odds should be that only 1 or 2 procedural elements are found unless that’s a core part of the game. An element like this should be fascinating, amazng, perhaps game-changing – and overdoing it reduces the wonder.

That moment you find that rare deposit should be one you remember for the rest of the game.

So that’s my take on where NMS’ offspring should go – and a lesson we can learn from the current development of NMS. If a game focuses on the wonder of discovery and crafting, why not surprise your audience with procedural elements. Give people that unique experience that is personal – and perhaps theirs and theirs alone.

– Steve

Seventh Sanctum™, the page of random generators.

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