August 31, 2016 Leave a comment
Well its’ here and it’s good. Maybe not quite great but really good. I will get to a few, shall we say “wish for” points in a moment but first, let’s not forget that this is the kind of game that so many of us were longing for after the first few hours spent playing the original Elite game on the BBC B. You can fly about a near infinite universe and land on planets people! What is there not to like!?
I’ve had a go at writing something similar and while it’s reasonably easy to knock this sort of thing up now (integer seed for psudo random no. generator + procedural generation etc), the real challenge (apart from all the usual really tricky tasks of getting the game working in a stable way on multiple platforms) is in the creative variety.
Our brain is very good at categorising and spotting real diversity and creativity (ie reverse engineering, even at an instinctive level, the limited number of procedures that are creating the variations). One block of 512×512 white noise looks much like another even if they are completely different at a pixel level.
In no man’s sky, there are obviously a limited number of body parts, animations, etc that are being mixed together in a finite number of ways and forms. I think though that this game is a pretty good first attempt at creating variety in terms of planets’ shapes, vegetation and animals. I’ve not seen enough yet to fully judge but I’ve not seen any screen grabs that lead me to suspect I’m missing much.
Another challenge is that the variety has to be in some ways recognisable and familiar or we would have no way of relating to it. Invisible gas creatures, multidimensional beings, intelligences residing in quantum fluctuations or single life forms that span galaxies would all add variety but not necessarily appreciable beauty to the game. There is obviously a lot more that can and will be done to generate beautiful, creative variety, but what has been done is a really good start.
The main thing I was a bit disappointed about, is that travel is not seamless. For me, in my game, that was a non-negotiable. I wanted to be able to lock my eyes on a star in the sky and fly there without ever taking my eyes off it. That gives a sense of both the size and continuity of the universe . You can’t do that in no man’s sky. You have to use a hyper drive and that means you don’t see anything except a warp tunnel. That is a real shame.
It effectively means that each solar system is a separate “level”. In my game I love flying through space and then zooming in on a particular star and then swooping down onto a planet, without ever fading to white or a hyper drive visual. Maybe the reason they did it this way is because of the limits of 64bit floating point numbers. I try to get around that by separating space into massive cubes, indexing them with in integer x,y,z cord and then having local floating point x,y,z coordinates inside each one. As the ship moves out of it’s local cube in cube W, all the others get shunted along and W becomes the new local one.
I am still working out whether planets rotate around stars and moon around planets or it’s just that the sun rotates around the planet that you are on. Proper orbits are tricky. I added the frame work to do that into my game but it’s a bit messy and I have not yet actually implemented it.
In terms of the game play, at first it was rubbish. It felt like work gathering materials and selling them in order to by enough stuff to explore but I’m getting used to it now and finding other strategies. I’m gradually increasing my inventory sizes (buying every suit size upgrade and fixing spaceships). I would still like about twice as many storage slots though. I want to wiz about and explore the variety not slog my way snail like, from one system to another.
One of my best and worst moments in NMS was when I was trying to fix a space ship on a very hostile planet. I had to keep running outside to look for the resources I needed and then sprint back before I froze in the ice storms. Trouble was the things I needed were really hard to find and it took me an hour or so of short sprints to search a small radius all round the ship. Not much fun. But finally I found the last thing I needed and could repair the ship and get off the planet.
I once heard someone say that there are several kinds of “fun”. First, an activity that is fun at the time and fun looking back at it (telling the story of it etc). Second, an activity or adventure that was not fun at the time but great fun looking back and telling other people about it. Thirdly, there are those activities that are not fun at the time and not fun looking back. Finally, something that was a fun experience at the time but boring looking back or telling people about it. Well, no man’s sky can be all those at different time. As I took of from the ice planet, having repaired my ship against all the odds, it was a pretty cool moment. Not fun at the time, but fun looking back.
A small gripe I do have is mainly due to me not being very good at games. Basically I got a bit lost on the Atlas route thing at first, and ended up having to backtrack a little in order to get an atlas pass. Got one now, so presumably I can go off piste a bit more.
One more little thing: I find interfaces for space ships were you push the joy stick up to go up and down for to go down counter intuitive. In a plane (with a joystick etc) you pull back to go up. I have played for a number of hours and I still can’t get the hang of it, mainly because my game does it the other way round.
I know there are a number of glitches in the first releases of No Man’s Sky (on my PC there were a couple of time when the frame rate started dropping until it was unplayable and I had to quit and re-start), and if the game doesn’t work properly then that’s really disappointing. But I can’t help wondering what people were expecting from this game that has made some so unhappy.
I thought Sean Murrie’s press about the game was refreshingly honest and engaging. I can see how you can build a case against it if you really wanted to but things change. A truly captivating vision may never quite be archived fist time. I am reminded of the Harry Endfield’s character “Angry Frank”, that stared talking about a hypocritical meeting with a celebrity where he would at first give them due respect and credit for their work and then get angry when he imagined them doing something he disagreed with.
“If Murry should come round my house, and ask to borrow my PC to test his ground breaking procedural universe on, then I should say, ‘Welcome. Come in. I admire what you are try to achieve with only a tiny team. Let me get you a coke and a packet of pringles. But if he should deliver the game a few weeks late, and it only worked properly on 99% of computers, and some of the features he talked about a year ago where not in the final release, then I should say ‘Oy, Murry no!'”
Most games are ultimately a disappointment as nothing can compete with our imagination (I remember getting really excited about the early text adventures and then being let down with their limited functionality). I wonder if anyone is still making them now. Their potential is massive given that they can use the graphics card in our heads.
This game was never about the game play or the UI or even the stability. It was the fact that every person’s exploration of the universe was unique to them. You start on your own planet and take your own path. You are the first, and probably the only person who will ever visit a particular planet and enjoy it’s sights and sounds (like zooming into a tiny portion of the Mandelbrot set). In that respect the game is a great success. In terms of the future, I hope the focus is not simply on game mechanics and stability but creative variety of geography, flora and fauna. VR would be good too.
PS.Just before I posted this I was playing no man’s sky. I was making progress, when something weird happened. I sunk below the surface and could not get back up. It was an obvious bug as I could see all the back facing polygons. Tried to get near my ship to get back in to see if that would sort it. But couldn’t. Jet pack kept running out and I sunk back down again. Blowing things up didn’t work. I still think it’s a good game but I do see what people are going on about re bugs. I lost 20 mins hard mining work and 20 mins trying to get back to surface.
Maybe it would have been better if it had come out as an non-premium indi title for around £25 without Sony’s publicity machine behind it. I appreciate though that it might not have sold nearly as many copies. I just hope that the worm hole Hello games have opened up into procedurally generated universe exploration does not shut prematurely behind them and they and others continue to develop this exciting genre.
PPS. Just after I posted this I parked my space ship on top of a steep mountain in order to get near an extra space pod. I was desperately trying to scratch together enough units through discovering animals to buy it without having to fly off to somewhere to sell more stuff. Sentinels kept bugging me and I almost fell of the mountain getting back to my space ship but I finally made did it. It was really tense and exciting and I kept thinking, no one set this up, it’s just the sort of thing that happens every now and then in this universe. You get these long boring but somehow engrossing and mesmerising bits where you mine and fly and buy and sell and classify fauna and flora and then all of a sudden you are in an emergent bit of action and excitement. I think that’s pretty cool.