OK everyone, here’s an amazing little game – the character creation engine is the game. So raise stats, unlock choices, play character – and this guy is looking for contributors/help! So go on, try it then ask him how you can make it awesomer!
I found Failbetter Games browser-based adventure game Fallen London via it’s Kickstarted sister game, Sunless Sea, a kind of nautical rogue like of comedy-horror-adventure. I quickly took to Fallen London’s playable-novel style of adventure (in fact, moreso than the brilliant but nerve-wracking Sunless Sea). As I played this game I began to wonder just why I had taken to it so much – enough to get a monthly subscription for extra elements. That’s where this essay comes in.
It’s clear this award-winning browser game has a certain something that compelled me and others. By getting my own thoughts together here I hope to make a small contribution to game analysis, as well as understand my reactions. Fallen London got me thinking about game mechanics in surprising ways, and a good analysis should help me – and others.
So let’s look at Fallen London – and what it does right. Join me, Delicious Friend.
In Fallen London you’re a newcomer to the Victorian subterranean city, which was London some thirty years ago until it was stolen below ground by strange forces. Now under control of the mysterious if often friendly Masters of the Bazaar, nominally ruled by the “Traitor Empress” that made a deal with them, it’s a haunted, weird, scary, and wonderful place. Hell is nearby and has an Embassy, living objects come from distant shores of the underground “Unterzee” and previous stolen cities ruins lie around. Also, people are mailing cats.
You walk into this as a newcomer, arrested for some reason (likely just coming there), and upon escaping embark on your own destiny. Poet, spy, mercenary, investigator, and more all are available to you. As you progress you make connections, improve your character, find lodgings, unlock further secrets, and so on. Whatever you do is up to you.
All of this happens with very well-written text and story vignettes that really bring the half-horror half-comedic setting to life. Fallen London, bluntly, is probably better written than most any game and quite a few books, somewhere between Monty Python, Eldritch Horror, and Discworld.
As I analyzed it I was able to find six areas that the game did things right. These traits and mechanics, in combination, produce a marvelous experience.
Let’s take a look.
It’s hard not to go on about the writing in Fallen London. Were it simply a series of novels or a comic series it’d be an epic experience on its own. The fact this writing is couched as a game makes it even more compelling as you live the writing. This excellent wordsmithing succeeds due to three factors:
Writing Comes First. It’s very clear that the writing of Fallen London is meant to be of the highest quality. The tale-telling clearly has come first over all else, bringing you into the setting, but also making the choices and usual actions of an RPG have a particular urgency and life to them. The writing is not just witty and illustrative – it makes your choices feel real, and the choices and plots are well-thought out.
Branching And Combining Stories. Various conditions unlock story options, stories have multiple resolutions with real impact, and the end of one of the tales may lead to several others. This produces clear choices that feel very real – and are often real as they will lock future choices on one hand, while opening others or at lest providing resources to open them.
Parts Of A Whole. Though there are many stories and “storylets” great care has been taken to make them part of a whole. A mysterious squid-faced man handing you a chunk of slimy amber isn’t a random event, but is due to a backstory. A marsh filled with giant mushrooms isn’t just a marsh, but the site of races as people have discovered that running across giant mushrooms is rather sporting. Everything is connected (finding these connections could occupy you quite a bit in the game).
Abstract Characters. One of the most curious elements of Fallen London is most characters are referred to by abstract names – the Wry Functionary, the Knuckle-Scarred Inspector, and so on. Instead of making them distant this abstraction makes them archetypical, giving them life, while also making the experience personal and unique. Everyone may encounter a Sardonic Music-Hall Singer, but it’s their own, personal one.
Representing characters with various numbers is a classic element of role-playing games. Fallen London is no different, but does it with a mix of generality, clarity, and precision.
Distinct Attributes. Characters are represented by four different Attributes – Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous, and Persuasive. These Attributes affect a character’s chance to succeed at an appropriate task with a simple random “roll,” and a success provides colorful descriptive text as well as various rewards This simplicity makes characters and characters easy to understand – but also distinct depending on how high that Attribute is.
Attributes Associated With Settings. Various areas of the setting are associated with the activities requiring a given Attribute or Attributes. A monster-haunted area may yield mostly Dangerous tasks, while a street of crime and mysterious couriers may have mostly Shadowy activities. The limited but distinct sets of Attributes in turn allows for easy definition of various areas of the game and the stories within, as well as what one may do there.
Distinct Failure States. Each Attribute has a parallel failure state called a Menace that usually increases if one fails a more severe challenge – for instance failing a Dangerous challenge may result in an increase to Wounds. One can usually guess the probable results of a failure state from the Attribute involved and the descriptive text. The failure states also contain witty descriptions, such as one where spending time with a Vicar raises the Menace of Scandal when said Vicar turns out to be a reporter in disguise who assumes less than pure intentions. Failure is a story.
Unique Results Of Failure States. The Menaces can be treated by specific actions, such as taking Laudanum to deal with the Menace of Nightmares. In addition, if Menaces get too high then the character you play suffers specific effects, such as being imprisoned for having too much Suspicion. Addressing these challenges leads to further stories, making the tale one experiences both appropriate and unique.
As the character adventures, they make friends, solve cases, advance in the ranks of clubs, and so on. Representing these is done distinct from the attributes in question, often as the result of an action.
Achievements By Simple Numbers. To represent the connections people make, achievements and reputations and so on, there’s simple number scores characters acquire. These represent everything from how good a thief they are to how well-connected they may be to the police. A character may have many of these or only a few – it depends on the activities of the characters. This simple method allows for very complex character differences all with different “piles” of simple numbers.
Reputation As Number. Depending on how a character dresses, their home, and how they comport themselves, they get reputations – Bizarre, Respected, etc. that also have simple number scores, much like Attributes. The items that influence these traits, of course, often have clever and witty descriptions.
Use Of Acquired Traits. Acquired traits open up new story opportunities or may even be used like Attributes in some occasions, such as using one’s Dreaded reputation to threaten someone. Thus these acquired traits become goals, rewards, and tools while just being simple numeric stores. The drive to upgrade them also helps propel some of the game, and may inspire players to upgrade equipment and Attributes.
Progress in various ventures in Fallen London is measured by numeric scores, much like the acquired traits.
Progress Is A Number. Progress in almost anything is represented by a simple number score, often raised by challenges against Attributes or exchanging certain items. One may be “Solving a Case” and solve it when one has a score of ten. Or one may be exploring an area and solve it when one has ten points of “Exploring.” These scores are like very temporary Acquired traits, and often reset when a venture is over. These provide clear, simple measurements of progress.
Progress Influences Story. At a certain amount of “points” gained towards knowing a character or group you may unlock options such as starting a romantic relationship. Other scores may increase the challenge, such as solving a case getting harder the further one progresses, with new challenges arising. The score becomes a signal of challenges to come as well as a goal (and a player may feel their heart race as a score climbs . . .)
Negative And Conflicting Progress. These progress scores may, at times be negative or even conflict. One may be trying to outrun a rival, and as “progress” increases the rival is closer. Or one may be trying to keep one score up and another down. A few simple numbers can lead to complex stories and decisions.
Having a large inventory of “stuff” is a time-honored RPG tradition, and Fallen London is no different. However it uses the “adventurer inventory” to cover a wider range of ground, representing possessions far differently.
Everything As Inventory. Anything in one’s possession is portrayed in inventory, but this goes beyond guns or treasures. Possessions can also include knowledge, stories, or insights (each with its own description). One may thus have 1000 Clues or 50 different seafaring stories from their ventures – treated and inventoried no different than 70 pieces of Jade or a mysterious pistol. By treating everything as inventory the game allows a unique way to measure progress and address challenges – one may need to blackmail and enemy, and that story requires 3 Blackmail Materials (which a handy intriguer may have handy).
Inventory Presents Story Options. An item in your inventory isn’t just something to sell or “spend” for a challenge, be it pearls or an Appaling Secret. Inventory items often provide other story options when you select them, from acquiring other items to opening more stories, to helping you solve mysteries. A single kind of item might open up multiple options, giving you different ways to use them – each with their own descriptive text or substorm. One of my favorite examples is having Appalling Secrets – one option in using them is to try and “forget” a few of them with the hope of reducing Nightmares.
Inventory Converts. Another brilliant innovation in the game is that related items, from treasures to knowledge, can often be traded up in the associated “story options” mentioned. Hints become Clues, Jade can be traded for artifacts, candles traded to a church in return for mysterious salts. “Trading up” and at times “trading down” is required to unlock stories or do tasks, and figuring this out is an interesting challenge that contains its own miniature tales. One of my favorites experiences realizing that treasures I’d gathered in a seafaring venture could be swapped up to get information that in turn I could trade for a map to let me continue my adventures.
As noted, some of Fallen London is about swapping various items or literal pieces of knowledge to achieve different goals. The entirety of Fallen London is actually about economics.
Progress Is Transactional. All of the well-written stories in Fallen London are essentially accessed by a transaction. This could be swapping a “move” to achieve something, or as complex as figuring out how to “grind” for information to get a legal document in order to get your hands on some important books. As these transactions are clearly stated and often work in a similar manner, the game is very easy to pick up – but the challenge is figuring how to pull off the transactions. After all you may want to save those Whispered Hints to solve a bigger mystery later, or your need to get your hands on seditious material requires you to choose between stealing from a group of Devils or getting into a fistfight with a book-carrying critic.
Tradeoffs Requiring Thought. The economics of the game also require one to consider tradeoffs. One may reduce the Menace of Nightmares with a good cup of wine, but a drunken night may raise the Menace of Scandal, which is best addressed by spending a few turns going to Church.
So those are my initial thoughts on what makes Fallen London work. To sum it up I’d say it’s a writing-centric game that uses a series of simple scores and inventory systems in combination to allow for complex tales, and has simple but interesting ways to portray common game mechanics and choices. That is, of course, a simple summary.
Now as for what else we can learn, let me see where my investigations – and you reaction to this essay – take us . . .
As we eagerly await the drop of No Man’s Sky (OK, I am, but considering my hobbies it’s not surprising), I noticed a thread on reddit discussing the desire for a documentary on the game. I wanted to address this and more.
In short, as I expect NMS to be successful, and certainly groundbreaking even if flawed, and yes, it’s one we should know more about.
But a documentary is just the start of what we should see.
Yes, We Need a Documentary: The game itself has an impressive history, and it’d be great to see it documented. A good documentary should go beyond just the history, but also to the influences and impact – from 70’s concept art to he modern hype. There’s a great story to tell here if done right (and Hello Games could probably make more money selling one).
Management Interview: I deeply treasure the development interviews I read in Game Informer, as I learned a lot from them that I use to this day. I want to see an in-depth discussion in Game Informer if not a professional management magazine on just how Hello Games pulled this off.
Artbook: There’s tempting concept art we’ve seen, so let’s load it all into one book, have interviews with the artists, and sell it. Yes, again more money for Hello Games, but also the artistic insights that could be gained would be impressive. Plus, great coffee table or gift book.
Procedural Lessons: After making NMS, Hello Games teams could probably teach classes in procedural generation. So, do it! Imagine what people could learn with such folks as instructors.
Fandom Study: I’m expecting a huge impact from the game – not Minecraft level, but still intense. I’ve seen the hype, seen fans creating artworks and even role-playing. I’d love to see the fans studied respectfully if it is indeed the hit I expect. Great for general or academia.
So that’s what I want to see come out of NMS documentarianism (there’s a word). Things that will teach us something.
What do you want to see?
Sorry this is late. Busy few weeks, but now I’m back to my pre-release analysis of No Man’s Sky. After all I love games and i love procedural generation.
We’re counting down to No Man’s Sky’s release in August. We’re approaching the big release, and once again I’m seeing posts on the Internet asking if it will succeed or fail. This is not unusual, but it’s time for another round of them apparently.
I’ve speculated on this possible failure before, but often concern’s about NMS focus on this component or that. From the possible sameness of worlds to uninteresting space travel, there’s concerns about some elements, of the game. These concerns are legitimate, but often they miss what No Man’s Sky Is about. There’s a larger picture here for concern.
No Man’s Sky is a game about synergy, as is fairly obvious when you step back and look at the game. Characters mine to get resources to craft new items to let their spacecraft travel farther. Their adventures may require them to fight enemies with spacecraft that they hijacked by developing rare hacking chips, chips whose blueprints were found exploring a ruined building. A strange technology, found in an alien ruin, may let someone survive on a toxic world. No Man’s Sky is all about things coming together.
This is not surprising as video games are about synergy. Good controls bring a character to live. Clever mechanics entice the mind that learns them and influences the game experience. Music and graphics work together to set the mood. Good games depend on pieces working in harmony.
For No Man’s Sky, it’s even more dependent on the synergy – that’s really it’s selling point. Where procedural worlds and exploration and crafting and all come together, the game offers a whole of an experience. It’s not a game with clear boundaries, which is the point – it’s a supposed seamless exploration experience. It just happens to be a very big one based on some very, very smart use of math.
This synergy is also where it can fail.
Because No Man’s Sky relies on the parts of the game coming together, there’s several possible modes of failure that can occur.
Poor Synergy: One way the game can fail is if the different parts don’t support each other properly. Perhaps the ability to acquire resources makes the crafting parts too hard – or too easy. Straightforward planetary exploration might contrast with hyperkinetic space combat, creating tone shifts that are hard for players to adapt to. If the parts of the game don’t come together correctly, the game suffers because the synergy of the promise is gone – even if the parts are good. This may be the biggest synergy risk of NMS because a dev and even a testing team would be unlikely to catch it due to being used to the product.
The Flaw: Another way I can see NMS fail is if one part of the game is done so poorly that drags the rest of the game down. Planetary exploration is an area I’ve worried about, and if it is poorly done or dull, that diminishes the thrill of the rest of the game. Truly egregious resource gathering could be another fun-killer as the rest of the game depends on that. One poor part of the game could drag the rest down – the synergy backfires when one part fails really hard.
The Drudge: NMS also has to make sure that its individual components are good enough to support the game, because though one bad component might drag the game down, so can many mediocre ones. The game may not fail on its many fronts, but if too many are uninspired or uninteresting, the synergy of them makes the game not good, but dreadfully mediocre. The synergy of game component’s can be a double-edged swords when many are just uninspired. I think people may be more forgiving of a game with one big flaw and ambition than one that just kind of plots.
Though I’m sure that Hello Games has thought of this, it’s worth considering for analyzing the game once it’s out, and for analyzing future games of its type. Synergy is the strength of the gaming art.
It’s also a place where failure can happen, even if the parts are right or mostly right.
As we wait for No Man’s Sky (and due to the recent delay, wait more than we thought), I wanted to explore just what No Man’s Sky is about and what it means for the final game.
It’s obvious I’m a big booster of the game. I even feel that everyhing NMS promises is likely due to what they’re doing and how it’s approached. I consdier a delay completely understandable and probably a good thing.
So now I’d like to take a look behind the curtain of No Man’s Sky and make a shocking statement – none of the gameplay is particuarly innovative.
Shocking? Amazing? Clickbait? No, actually the gameplay for NMS has been done before, which is both why it will succeed and why it will probably be good.
So, let’s look at what No Man’s Sky promises. A quick examination and you’ll realize that it’s almost all be done before.
A Galaxy To Travel: Seen this since the old Elite days, it was there in Captain Blood, it exist today in Elite: Dangerous, Starbound, and more. The quality of planets may vary, but no, nothing unusual here. Speaking of planets, NMS promises . . .
Procedural Worlds: Sure Minecraft brought the idea of a huge procedural 3D world, but since then it’s kind of become standard. It seems every ten games out there promises a planet-sized world or giant sandbox. NMS just promises more, though what’s appearing is really all math. On those worlds you’ll experience . . .
Encountering Life And Recording It And The World: Though we’ve seen that with, say, Pokemon snap and most games that let you name things and places. Yes, it’s nice, but exploration has been a part of games for awhile. Though while you find new ways to name creatures, you’ll be engaged in . . .
A Survival Sim: NMS offers you a chance to mine resources and avoid nasty critters in an environment that’s temporarily modifiable (yes, theres some promise of permanent, but it doesn’t sound like every grenade scar remains). We’ve seen this before in many game forms, and though the procedural nasties and environments are nice, it’s still something other’s have done. Of course while survive, you’ll be busy . . .
Crafting Items: I do not have to explain how we’ve seen crafting games before. So let’s move on to when you get tired and get offplanet via . . .
Spaceflight: Yes, No Man’s Sky lets you take off of planets, fly through virtual solar systems, and so forth. Again, we’ve seen that since back in the day of Eon or Starglider. Sure there’s space combat, which we’ve also seen. Of course to have those ships you need . . .
Supplies And Trade: Space trading games have been around for decades as well. NMS sounds like it has a relatively simple mine-and-trade, make-and-trade, and get-credits-and-trade game. Nothing much new, though some of your interactions will involve . . .
Alien Races: NMS is going to have various races and factions. You’ll interact with individuals and do things that affect reputations with various factions. In turn, that’ll affect how they treat you. It’s neat, and the language system is nice (though you may see similar mechanics, such as the ones in Out there), but again, we’ve seen it before.
So, No Man’s Sky, when you look at the parts, has been done before. In fact, it’s kind of been done to death in separate pieces.
Which is why the game will not only work, but probably be amazing.
So the fact that NMS has a lot of standard gameplay elements is a good thing.
First, it means that they can be done. There’s precedent, research, examples, and more for the creators at Hello Games to draw on to make the game work. There’s math and there’s code and there’s a sense of history to know what to do and what not to do.
Secondly it means Hello Games is using familiar mechanics which means the game will (probably) be quite playabe. The game’s familiarity is going to make its wide, procedural universe, accessible to people.
Third, it means the game will proably be well polished because it builds on familiar ideas.
It’s great NMS is made of so many common parts, because all these common parts can be done well and in a playable manner. That means the combination . . .
. . . the combinaion will probably be amazing.
Take all these familiar mechanics and ideas. Polish and organize them. Now link them together coherently in a universe made from procedural algorithms so you experience effective gameplay in an infinite set of worlds. Now give it that unique 70’s sci-fi cover look.
That’s the magic. No Man’s Sky is both evolutionary and revolutionary, building on familiar parts, but tying them together in a way that hasn’t been done yet. It’s not the components, it’s the combination, all these popular elements tied together tightly to give you a galaxy, a universe.
So, no, NMS rally doesn’t push the boundaries of games so much as it has many mechanics merged together to create the experience of exploring the universe. That means it can succeed, that means’ it’ll be accessible – and that means that it’s probably going to be pretty amazing.
What’s behind the CUrtain? Not The Wizard of Oz working a con-job, but more a group of actors putting on a show. We look behind the curtain and see “yeah, these folks are doin a pretty good job.”
Now we can enjoy the show in Agust.
So anyway, the game is delayed. Though I’d like to address some of the bizarre reactions on it (including death threats to the lead and to a reporter), as I’m focusing on the game I’d like to discuss the delay. Also there’s only so much I can write “stop it you morons.”
So, NMS delayed. Good.
Why do I say good? Because that’s a sign of two things:
First, as noted earlier, the NMS team seems to be doing everything right to actually make the game work. Right focus, right methods, etc. The fact that they can outright say “no, we need more time” means they’re aware enough of what they’re doing to take more time.
Secondly, the fact they will admit this in public, for a game whose hype has become a living thing entirely separate from their own efforts, is a good sign for the final product. Unless the problems were epic, they probably could have gotten away with a flawed game with a day 0 patch or something. They didn’t – that speaks to an honest about getting a good product.
The delay tells me NMS is probably going to live up to the (actual, not imagined) hype. The team can say “stop, wait” as opposed to tossing out a game that – let us be blunt – would probably get a lot of love anyway.
I’m reminded a bit of Starbound, another game that I’m looking forward to (and that sadly, I will have to play through before OR after NMS because its pure crack to me). The team has taken extra time to work on it, but as of the last beta I played – and I played through the game 3 times Early access – it’s evolved amazingly. Time can make a better product (ask Blizzard).
The delay may be painful for some of us, but it’s just another sign we’re going to get a good product.
One of the concerns I see expressed about No Man’s Sky is that a small team of indie developers like Hello Games just couldn’t do this. I disagree, and in fact think it’s quite likely’ll they’ll succeed.
So you know i’m not wasting your time, I base this theory on:
So let’s look at the reason I think Hello Games is going to pull this off.
First of all, no matter how “big” No Man’s Sky seems, if you look at it, it’s an extremely focused piece of development:
No Man’s Sky, when you look at it, is somewhere between evolutionary and revolutionary. All the parts have been seen before, its the combination of them that stands out to create a universe.
The game design is very focused – Sean Murray and company have deliberately restrained adding new features. This means that Murray and Team can pay attention to what they want to deliver exactly. Well-defined features allow for focused development, focused testing, and good delivery. If you know what you want to do, you can deliver it a lot easier.
No Man’s Sky is delivering a very focused experience, which allows for focused development. Speaking of . . .
The first developer on No Man’s Sky was Sean Murray himself, who built the core engine, which he eventually expanded to 4 then 13. This is the way you do core initial development.
Small, tight teams – sometimes an individual – are a great way to start a project. One or a few people, working together (often unmanaged) can deliver a prototype with surprising speed because theyre focusing on getting everything together. They’re not trying to market. They’re not trying to make it run on every machine. They’re not even making the most efficient code. They’re ot havign people constantly try and change things. They don’t have to write patches.
They’re making a start. As one guy I worked with called it – “stick smart guys in a room and feed them pizza.”
This is the kind of arrangement that I’d expect would deliver a decent prototype. It may not be perfect – it may only be a prototype that’s eventually discarded. But it lets you get the basics down.
This is exactly how I’d expect a project like this to start – and be successful. It’s a good core foundation.
So you have a focused plan and a core prototype. How do you polish something like this into a game? It’s procedural, it’s going to have a lot of complexities, and it’s not something you plan easily.
The not-so secret is Agile Development. Basically, tight, integrated development where teams have a large list of goals, but focus on small deliverables that are high priority, deliver quick, and focus on interaction and iteration.
Sean Murray’s team uses classic agile processes. They have a morning meeting, set goals, and do a master build in the evening. This is all happening in roughly the same space from what I’ve seen in videos, increasing interaction.
Really, what Agile does is acknowledge that planning everything out often fails as you find the flaws to your giant plan as soon as you start. So you set goals and meet them in increments, researching them as needed, and cooperating tightly with your co-workers. Even if you don’t deliver everything, Agile’s focus on “delivering stuff that works” means you usually get enough – or more than enough – done to meet your goals.
In short, the team at Hello Games is using the exact kind of software processes that would lead to success.
A team of 13 or so people may seem small, but gaming (and indeed any software development) has a number of resources to call upon.
In short, there’s all the resources out there the team may need to make NMS a reality – resources other games have leveraged. In fact . . .
The NMS team, despite the game’s hype, is remarkably modest. Sean Murray seems affable and humble. The game is getting played up, but Hello Games isn’t bragging or strutting around. It’s refreshing.
At the same time, the NMS team has been very clear about the game and game goals and what it does. Though there’s occasional assumptions by gamers about the game, it’s easy to find the team being very clear on what they’re doing.
They’re being publicly accountable. They’re saying what the game is – and if they screw up, it’ll be very obvious.
Frankly, I don’t think anyone does something like this and delivers anything less.
NMS has focused goals, started right, uses the right management techniques, has resource to call on, and Hello Games has been clear on what they’re doing in a way that holds them accountable.
Me, despite some concerns about the game that I’ve stated, I think Hello Games is going to deliver.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
With No Man’s Sky (NMS), the giant procedural space game coming out, I am gladly analyzing as A) I game, and B) I love procedural generation. So let’s turn back all my speculation on what could be and focus on what could go wrong.
As much as I am enthused about it, I can see areas where the game could have problems. I’m going to explore these areas, so we can review how right/wrong I was – which should be useful to measure both my predictive abilities and how the NMS team works!
Now to make this more useful, I’m going to rank the chances these things could go wrong as Red (at least 50% chance), Yellow (50-25%) and Green (under 25%). These are not necessary interest-killers or will make it a bad game – but it would be a problem for enjoying it and experiencing the game.
Now let me get predicting:
High-pressure Survival Grind (Red): NMS is a survival game, but my concern is that the game is going to mix high-pressure survival with tedious grind – you’ll be on the edge of your seat all the time, but the edge is going to feel the same and never end. That’ll get both stressful and boring, and that would be an interest-killer.
Hopscotch (Red): Planets may be procedural and bursting with detail, but I’m also concerned that planets could be clusters of neat stuff separated by not so neat. This means hat exploring a planet is really a game of scanning-and-flying hopscotch that will also turn into a kind of grind. My concern is that this would not be optional but required to really experience the game.
Pacing (Red): You start out with little equipment on a distant world, have to survive, and eventually build your technology and resources. Sounds standard, but unless the game is carefully designed, you could experience highly erratic pacing – most likely a slow start but a surprisingly fast end if you max out equipment (see below). I also see potential pacing issues in different worlds and goals making it extremely hard to predict what one has to do to achieve a goal – because of the procedural generation.
Every Planet Different – And The Same (Yellow): I’m pretty confident the planets themselves will vary interesting, but not quite confident every planet will be different enough to warrant interest in exploring it a lot. I could be wrong (which I why this is yellow), and the NMS team seems to want to avoid this, but I can’t shake the concern. It seems like there’s a lot of impressive math, but what I’ve seen suggests some relatively standardized environments and all planets are single-environment. That can get boring – it’ll be new then quickly seem the same.
Stretches Of Boredom (Yellow): I don’t mind a bit of boredom or peace. But one of my concerns about NMS is that it’ll have uncontrollable stretches of boredom, stuck on dull worlds and sectors of space. Good visuals and environments will alleviate or eliminate this (yes, you spent 30 minutes looking for a mineral but it looks awesome).
Topped Off (Yellow): There’s supposed to be all sorts of ships and blueprints to find, but I’d be concerned the game could have some people max out their equipment and the like too early – loosing challenge and initiative. It’s procedural, so it may be hard to put pacing into the game. This is part of my larger concern about Pacing (above).
The Hunt (Yellow): Certain items, equipment, minerals may be vital for parts of the game, for equipment – but for some players they may be out of reach (again, due to procedural generation). If it’s not something people can find/buy/substitute for in a reasonable amount of time the game may be frustrating.
Same Old Equipment (Yellow): We get various ships, suits, and Omnitools, but from what I see they’re mostly about premade traits and various plugin spaces. Not sure they’re going to be that interesting after awhile. Are you going to go that far to get an Omnitool that moves a plugin space to one grid cell further rightward?
It Doesn’t Hold Together (Green): Though I trust Hello Games on the Lore, I’m concerned that it won’t be experienced enough, in enough context, to keep interest. The game may not need a story, but it’s sense of experience requires Lore. The whole thing could not cohere, have no sense of “there.”
Different, But Not Different Enough (Green): I’m mostly confident Hello Games can deliver varied worlds – but not entirely convinced it’ll be different enough for a whole game. I’m concerned that past a certain point – say about 70% of the way – things will start looking too much alike. I’m aware we’ve only seen a limited subset of worlds, but I’m not totally convinced. Yzheleuz and Phlek do give me some hope. This is one of my lesser concerns, but if planets aren’t different enough from each other and individual planets are large stretch of “same” (above) it’d get boring fast.
So there’s my concerns, roughly boiling down to:
What concerns do you have?
I’m hyped for No Man’s Sky, the space exploration game that uses math to give us a procedural universe – since it’s all constructed from equations, the game has quintillions of possible world to explore. On the rare time two people find the same world, it would be the same for both due to – math.
But as I’ve read and watched the news on NMS, there’s also talk of the lore of the game. The story, the meaning. The developer Hello Games has been very cagey on it, for obvious reasons – they don’t want to spoil the “story” in the game.
This lore, however, is already designed as far as we know. That brings up something I think it a potential disadvantage in NMS – and in many procedural/random games. A lot of the “story” is disconnected from the way the setting is made. The lore is set, and at best sets the stage for the generation of the world – or at worst isn’t just connected anyway.
This means in many cases the randomness of the world is sort of meaningless even if there’s some meaning in the components. There’s no history, just algorithms. Why is the dungeon built the way it is? Why are these artifacts on this world? I see little to no attention paid to not just generating a setting but the meaning behind it – the history – in many a game.
Like it or not, a lot of these procedural games are about making something that seems “right” but doesn’t have much real history. Now I love procedural games, I can get into them, but I admit this flaw, and I think the art is limited by this disconnection. There’s no “real history,” just a shadow play of numbers.
But this also gives us an insight into what future procedural games could be.
What if large chunks of their history, their backstory, are generated? What if, in turn this history affects the generated environments. What if this history is part of the lore characters find, from the names of places to the powers of procedurally generated items? Perhaps the characters themselves are connected to some procedurally generated lore.
Procedural history is procedural meaning, and that brings the game further to life.
Maybe NMS will inspire enough people to do even more procedural work, some will look at procedural history for their games.