Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Why I Am (Still) Excited for No Man’s Sky

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 22, 2016

No Man’s Sky has been pushed back to an August release. This disappointed me, as I was looking forward to its original release date of this week. Like, by today. Reasons for the delay haven’t been announced, although apparently some legal trouble in the UK with the word “Sky” (because a company owns the trademark on software with that word in it, and therefore can, really, take the Sky from us) was a long-standing issue. But that was probably not the only issue. Hopefully they’ve made good use of the extra six weeks of cooking things.

At this point, the hype train for this game has set some kind of a land-speed record. There’s lots of excitement, and hardly anyone has played it, and not a lot of people outside the development team really know what to expect.

To some degree, I get annoyed at the hype. I’ve been playing procedurally-generated world games forever. One of the first RPGs I ever played (and I played it a ton) was Telengard, an early title for my then-new Commodore 64. I played Frontier (AKA Elite 2) in the early 1990s to excess. Same idea. And reminds me that I need to play more Elite: Dangerous.

The thing about these games (and Daggerfall, etc.) is that their procedural world / universe generation is fixed. While events may be dynamically generated, the map is going to be the same everywhere forever, unlike your usual roguelike. This is kinda cool because there’s a feeling of persistence there, and a shared-universe thing with other players, that makes it feel a bit more “real.”

Some of the frustrating hype about No Man’s Sky comes from people who don’t realize this kind of thing has been around forever. The whole “OMG It’s a Whole Universe!” is stupid. Any halfway decent game programmer can do that in a week. A day, if you don’t mind it being a text adventure. The trick is doing it well. And making the game built around it fun. (See all the complaints from some Elite: Dangerous players running out of interesting things to do).

NoMansSkyAs far as the other aspects of the game… there’s not much I’m seeing that seems new here. I’ve played the X series, Elite: Dangerous, Evochron: Mercenary, Galaxy on Fire 2, and a host of other space games with lots of space exploration and trading and fighting going back to Elite.  I’ve got a few in my GOG.COM and Steam accounts I haven’t even played yet. I’ve played Minecraft and Empyrion Galactic Survival and Starforge and some other sandbox survival games.  Once again, there’s nothing new or totally groundbreaking going on here. The trick is, once again, to do it well.

And that’s why I’m still excited about No Man’s Sky. While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about any one thing they seem to be doing, what we’ve seen so far looks like they are doing a good job of it all. Things so far have seemed to be of very high quality, and so there’s reason to hope the other elements are treated to the same level of quality. Here’s what I’m excited about:

Style and Appearance: Based on the screenshots, videos, and lectures… these guys really worked their butts off to make procedural generation work, and to give the game a consistent and beautiful style. And not just that, but a style that hearkens back to the pulp sci-fi covers I grew up with, by artists like Chris Foss and Stewart Cowley. They’ve clearly taken great pains to make the procedural content generation resemble hand-generated content of an unusual and beautiful style, and it makes me want to play just to take screenshots.

Lore: Besides just letting the software cobble together the universe, they’ve seeded it with some lore, specific alien races, languages, ancient artifacts, and so forth.  I like that the universe looks “lived in,” even though you may play for days at a time without encountering anything seen or touched by another player.  I hope that this helps the game spark the imagination.

Ease of Play: This is only an impression that I get from watching the videos, so it’s a hope. One of the issues with many space sims these days is that they are so delicious complex and details (good) that they are extremely complicated to get into and to learn how to play (not so good). No Man’s Sky looks like they are orienting more towards ease-of-play and a less hardcore experience. They aren’t going to be slowing you down forever for the sake of stretching out their content… ‘cuz really, content quantity isn’t going to be a problem here.

NoMansSky_MonolithContent Density: This is another big deal. Based on the videos, the worlds are pretty packed.  And packed together, within a star system. Completely unrealistically, as if lots of habitable worlds was in any way expected to be realistic in the first place. But the videos and screenshots seem to have worlds teeming with life, cave systems, and items of interest, with space ships flying overhead regularly, stumbling into space battles and stations and so forth as soon as you pop out of the atmosphere, etc. In other words, not a lot of wandering around and waiting to get to something interesting. This is a big deal.

Emphasis on Exploration: While it sounds like you are free to do things like any other space mercenary game (a good thing!), if the Hello Games folks are truly emphasizing exploration – and it seems they are – this hopefully means that they are taking pains to make it as interesting and exciting as possible. That’s a tall order, and I can only say that if they did as good a job on that as they did on the graphics, maybe it will be done right. Exploration in a procedurally generated world can get old fast, but doesn’t have to. And that’s some of my favorite kind of gameplay.

So… there’s a lot of “ifs” there. We won’t know until we play, but I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot more procedural content generation done wrong than done right, but so far, it looks like Hello Games is working hard to meet or clear the high-water mark on getting it right. Which means I may find myself lost in this game for a while.

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