I’m looking forward to No Man’s Sky – which is apparent if you see my Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or just talk to me. The procedural space adventure fascinates me as it pushes all my buttons – and of course I’m big on procedural generation, so of course I’m following it.
Acknowledging this, this is fair warning you’re gonna see some No Man’s Sky posts. It’s relevant to my interests, to what I do here, so I hope they’e informative and interesting.
As I’ve scanned internet posts and Steam communities, one useful insight I’ve seen is that the game may face an issue of being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” A game, in short, of great breadth but not a lot of depth. I think this concern is worth addressing, as it reveals some truths about games, procedural games, and their development.
The concern is one I feel is legitimate for some in the audience. NMS’ videos make it clear that the game presents an enormous Sandbox galaxy, with straightforward systems of crafting, exploring, fighting, trading, and reputation-building. This may be enough for many (such as myself), and certainly enough for a broad, wide adventure – but it may not be enough for everyone attracted to the premise.
The “mile wide” may stand for people, but for some people the game may not have the depth they want – or the kind of depth they want. You won’t be building structures, negotiating trade agreements, or going on elaborate story quests – hallmarks of other games and science fiction. For some NMS will have everything they want – for others it’ll be a beautiful galaxy that might not have what they want, or enough of it.
I analyze what I see from NMS’s designers and ads, because watching this dream game evolve has taught me a lot about games and procedural generation. The concern about NMS not having the depth some one made me ask, simply, what if the game tried to add more?
It’s not hard to imagine adding some more classic science fiction elements from the novels that inspired it. Take the simple alien language engine and add some negotiation and trade deals. Allow some encounters to spawn some quests – like smuggling something thorough a blockade. Maybe even a bit of building or improving buildings. Just a bit more maybe . . .
. . . and this is where it gets complicated.
First, even if there is a desire to add “more” we’re talking a game with a setting the size of a galaxy, filled with procedural content so large the devs had to make in-game probes to study the worlds. Any addition of new features could produce development nightmares, adding them onto an already careully developed and tweaked engine.
Second, the developers would have to choose what new features to add to their already polished set. What would sell? What do people want? S much work is procedural, so much unknown, can the devs predict what people will want? Will they be able to balance demands? They can’t be sure how people will react to the game – potential pirates may become explorers, traders decide to cut out the middlemen and become pirates, and explorers may drop their archiving duties to just swap rare minerals for cash. Throwing in more features requires careful consideration of how the audience will reacts.
Third, if the new items could be added, then comes the question of testing. Adding new features onto procedural content produce a new nightmare of testing it and making sure nothing else broke and all the pieces work together. That “mile wide” part means a lot more testing work when you try to make that “inch” a bit deeper.
Fourth and finally the extreme “width” of the game means that, with too much “depth” the game might become a muddle of choices and options. NMS may give you the stars, but its focus on being a kind of space exploration/survival game provides useful boundaries for play. Throw in a few more features and a game that already provides little direction could end up a muddle.
Those concerned about depth have a legitimate concern – for some of the audience (again, I think most people buying NMS who are informed will know what they’re getting). But I think the creators have a sweet spot of features for this grand enterprise, and changing beyond that is fraught with dangr.
Is it the right choice? Well, we find out in June 2016 . . .
Sorry I vanished for awhile there folks – I just moved, and that of course is complicated. Last move was a bit less hectic, so this one took more out of me – especially as I needed to buy some new furniture. So let’s do a quick roundup.
How are you doing?
So lately I’ve been reviewing how I write. Let’s take a look at where we are:
When I write I usually get a big idea, then I review and record it. I figure if it’s book worthy if it fits my goals. Then, I work on an outline (in fact I usually work on that earlier as I’m inspired and want to evaluate the idea).
So how do I write? I mean I’ve talked about getting up to the point of writing. So when does it begin and do I actually get stuff done
The above activities set the stage. I got an idea, I have an outline, I have drive. All that’s left is basically cut loose.
In short, I kind of vomit onto the page.
Actually I’m being a bit facetious. I have an outline, so it’s not vomiting onto the page, it’s vomiting into a very specific framework that lets the vomit flow into the right form.
I sit down, with my outline, and following the direction it set I start writing. The Outline provides me enough information to know what to write, and I simply do it. I rarely take the time to do any editing or revision unless I have to. My goal is to get from A to B in that outline as best as I’m able, even if it’s kind of crappy, half-assed, or understandable only to me.
(In case you wonder, yes, sometimes I eventually throw things out. But stick with me – this works)
So what’s the benefit to this? Quite a bit:
Now note that this method doesn’t work as well if you don’t have an Outline. The Outline gives you a pattern to work with (so you don’t go off the rails) and making it keeps you rethinking your ideas (so they’re more instinctive to write). Going with no Outline can result in this vomit method getting pretty incoherent.
I usually set a pace for me to write – based on the aforementioned Outline – on how much I’ll do within a certain time. It doesn’t have to be good or coherent, but I cover a certain percent of an outline within a given time.
I usually block out the major tasks of my book in terms of months, and set writing goals by weeks. This way I have the large outline of the book (done in X months) and specific, actionable goals (get 15% through the Outline in a week).
I need this pacing not just to set goals, but because the outline and the “vomit method” actually mean I can overdo it. I’ve had huge writing binges of hours where the words are coming out, and after awhile I’m exhausted. I have trouble remembering writing parts of “Cosplay, Costuming, and Careers” as I was at my desk for hours. Well I think I was.
You can too easily burn yourself out doing this – and because the goal is to “get it done” you might not realize it’s happening. A 10% decline in quality when you’re using the vomit method isn’t apparent, and you won’t notice you’re real tired until your quality is much, much worse, or the words just stop. Setting the goals helps this . . . but you might just go a bit farther.
So I pace myself, but I’ve never found a perfect method. Mostly it’s a mix of gut,pre-set deadlines, and guesswork.
That may explain a few things.
Now even though I go and just vomit onto the page, I do occasionally revise the Outline itself.
At times (less and less as I go on) you may find that things didn’t quite work out the way you expected. It’s OK to revise your outline if you realize things need to be restructured. However I’d do that as a separate task or after taking a nice break from “vomit writing.”
I also have found that in a few cases of writing you have to write in detail to know just what order things should be within your outline. You may, say, know when events happen in a chapter, but only later discover the order you tell them in may need to be done differently. Sometimes orders aren’t even apparent until you start writing – which is fine (and has been something I’ve done deliberately because I had to read over a lot of research and it was easier to find a pattern while reviewing it and writing about it).
So then I’ve got a book that’s really a fast-written dump of ideas into a reasonably planned outline. It’s barely a book at all.
Which is why, after I finish up all that writing, it’s time to go editing. That’s when a book starts to become a book.
Last time we met, I discussed that a major part of my writing is actually deciding what to do write in the first place. I don’t just go “oh, I have to write this,” I ask where it fits in my larger writing career (and, occasionally, vice versa). Part of being a writer, to me, is filtering.
But at some point the time comes to Write That Book. So I write that book – by writing something else. The Outline.
Almost every large work I write I write is Outlined, often in fine detail – fiction and non-fiction. I have it broken down into major sections (often chapters) and what they’re about, and often down to individual paragraphs.
The reason for this is multifold:
As important as this is in non-fiction, a good outline is even more important in non-fiction. A large cast and large series of plot elements can easily go “off the rails” if you don’t keep track of things. Writing a book, on say, Ball-Jointed Doll clothes may require certain cases of following instructions, but tracking three battles and twelve characters across 300 pages is going to be even crazier.
I have one friend working on an utterly brilliant story involving precognition. Imagine where they’d be without an outline . . .
So, me, I outline. And what’s a good Outline? Well, my outline tells me it’s time to discuss that . . .
So what does my outline contain? Let’s look into that before I get into how I make it. It sort of makes my goals clear.
First, a good outline contains a breakdown of the various Sections of a book – often this is chapters, but in the case of fiction it may be major events or milestones. These are the “big pieces” of the book that get you from A to B, be it learning a skill or telling a tale. The various sections are
Secondly, the Major Sections are also broken down into individual pieces, the elements that make up these Really Big Things. A Chapter on, say, writing skills may cover the major skills and their role in your career. A big event in a book, say a war, may start with how characters get involved in said war, what happens at various times, and the fallout.
Each Section has a specific goal, getting from A to B. If its complex, not always clear, or needs precise pacing, I break it down further into subsections – major events, major points, etc. For my nonfiction I may go as far as to break down what each paragraph is about.
You probably realize now that my Outline is, essentially, a fractal. A Section has a start and a finish – and a goal. So does each part of it. So may each paragraph if I outline that far.
Sure this sounds like it may take time – it may or it may not (sometimes this stuff nearly writes itself). I stop when I have enough information to know I can start. You can overdo it.
When you really get “in the zone” of building the Outline, it can happen fast, it can be instinctive, and it can be powerful. You truly know your subject after awhile, and it just flows.
Let’s talk about creating it in detail.
So how do I create that outline? That . . . is both organized and not, depending on what I’m writing. There’s a few methods I use to get started, depending on what works and what my mood is. Then it’s mostly the same.
Methods to get started:
Which method works best? That’s really something you have to try for yourself – and it depends on the subject. Stories usually work with a mix of A to B or The Probe. Nonfiction works can fit any in my experience – and you may not know which is best for a subject until you fail at it once.
So once I get started, and have a basic Outline, I then review sections, figuring out what has to go in them. At this point since I know the goals of the book, I can pretty much write from A to B each section. I cover each major issue that has to be covered at the very least.
If a book is larger, I often do several “Sweeps” fro start to finish, getting the Outline straight, reviewing it, and often adding more and more detail to the book – breaking each major Section or Chapter down further and further. Sometimes, as noted I literally get to the level of figuring out what each paragraph covers.
How far do I take this? Usually “until I have enough to start writing” or “I’ll know it when I see it.” One can usually tell, instinctively, if a book is ready to go.
While doing the Outline, a few things to try out . . .
So as I work on my Outline there’s a few things I do or try out:
So once my Outline is done, I make sure to store a copy of it. Because now it’s time to start writing . . .
So the Food Generator is getting close to a Beta release. How does this look?
I’m pretty pleased with it. Some more setup and vocabulary is needed, but I’m pretty happy with it. It sounds real.
If not always appetizing.
Judging by the response I should just call it beta NOW.
What do you think? Sound good?
And here you go, the Beta of the Reality Show Generator! My friend Ewen inspired me when he created a Reality Show game, and I figured I’d see what would happen when I tried it. Plus it gave me a chance to try out some techniques for analyzing data which I covered earlier – short form, very effective, faster, but kinda less exciting than winging it.
It doesn’t cover the huge range of crazy titles you may see as many are individualized, but I think it does a pretty good job. be sure to leave feedback so I can tweak it!
OK, so where am I with Way With Worlds? Here, let’s break it into bullet points to make it easier.
At this rate I don’t know what else to say except to occasionally post updates. It’s really in editing and making great covers – and yes, I’ll start a book section here as mentioned for Sanctum-related works.
A context to create randomly generated books? I’m so there – though it sounds like it’s got a way to go in some areas. Do dig the idea of a choose-your-own-adventure book.
Hope everyone’s doing good. I’ve been busy post-holiday – mostly catching up on all sorts of things I couldn’t do during the holiday. Frankly didn’t get as much done as I wanted, but I also actually took a bit of time off as I needed it. That holiday travel is not relaxing . . .
Reality Show Generator – Haven’t done much on this, but the notes are all there. Once I get a bit further on my projects I can see when I can do this. In theory it will go fast because the analysis is done. But man, that analysis wasn’t that exciting . . .
Way With Worlds – Pre-readers are done for the first book (well now it’s two books, I finished the split)! So now it’s time to integrate feedback and ship it off to the editor next month. Still aiming for a later-summer release.
Creative Paths – I’ve been putting my theories of creativity and how people create into a small book, a guide to understanding how you create and how to practice other methods. That should be out in January!
Other Things – Not too much up now, taking it easy, so keep generating!