Thursday, August 18, 2016

Castle America

A few years ago, Ed and I started "working" on a game with a German PhD student named Boris. The game was meant to be called Castle America. At the time, I wrote a very short history of the game's universe from the proverbial "current day" to the opening of the game. You can read it below.

By mid-21st century designer life forms became commonplace and served many purposes, both utilitarian and vain. They were mostly proprietary single-cell organisms ranging from carbon monoxide neutralizing bacteria to wrinkle smoothing fungus1. Due to a rather successful bacterial climate and pollution level control coupled with ever more efficient and economical internal combustion engines, the usage of fossil fuels was declining much slower than anticipated at the turn of the century. The solar power research was all but abandoned as the fresh air returned to urban centres and it seemed that being able to drive for two months on a full tank meant that oil would never run out.

In 2057, Viltran, an American corporation specializing in materials research and production, successfully introduced a plastic eating bacteria that was meant to solve the plastic recycling problem. The new life form was based on a nylon eating Flavobacterium K172 that was discovered about 80 years before and had once been the poster child of evolution. PEB quickly become a media darling – it's ATI2 peaking at 10K RPS3. Pebbies, as they soon were called, depolymerized plastic at record rates and turned it into a glucose like monomer that resembled white ash.

PEB, like almost any other designer bacteria, was hardcoded to die after one week no matter how favourable the conditions and would multiply only once – their offspring were barren. All of this changed after what came to be known as the Maastricht Outbreak of 2058 when in a newly inaugurated bacterial recycling plant one of the Pebbies' offspring inscrutably mutated the barren code out of itself. When the custodian droids whose job it was to collect the waste monomer didn't return from the consumption chamber, the human staff went in to investigate. They found lifeless droid hulls stripped of all plastic and covered in white ash. All precautions were said to have been applied but the new strain somehow got out. What followed was a mass extinction event on molecular level.

The nations scrambled in panic to stop the epidemic that was rapidly and irreversibly eroding the very cogs that kept the society going but things only got worse. The Plastic Rot, also called The Great White Plague, became the Oil Rot. Through additional series of mutations the Pebbies developed a taste for the very source of plastic. As is the wont of humankind, in times of great trouble and grave danger we turn to our brother's throat. Armies moved in to take control of uncontaminated oil reserves disregarding national borders and international agreements. The bloodshed that followed was only tempered by the rapidly disintegrating military technology. USA who had been secretly developing SBSP4 technology for two decades activated the program which gave it an enormous edge in energy production. Two days later China retaliated by crashing all of its zombie satellites into the American ones, thus bringing about true a Kessler Syndrome and perhaps forever denying humanity space travel.

It is estimated that around 30 million people died in the Oil Wars that followed the outbreak. In the next two years, 90% of human population perished due to starvation, poor sanitation and exposure. Before driving itself to extinction, Pebbies are thought to have destroyed 95% of oil and its byproducts.

The date is 2098. The remains of human civilization are sheltered in walled-in city states known as the Murrs. Most of the Murrs practice very strict immigration policy while reluctantly trading with the dwellers of the wilderness. Chunks of plastic have superseded all competing currencies – the affluent elite of the apocalypse wears it as jewellery and good luck charms. The non-citizenry that lives outside the walls consists of nomadic hunter-gatherers and bandits.

1 Most multi-cellular artificial organisms remained unstable, though a Korean company briefly tried to market affordable glow-in-the -dark kittens. The whole affair folded quite quickly after it became clear that the kittens only lived three to four weeks before succumbing to a rather grotesque form of cancer.
2Aggregate Trending Index
3Reposts per second
4Space-based solar power

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Thoughts on No Man's Sky (so far)

Pretty much everyone and their racist uncle did a hot take on No Man's Sky at this point. This isn't really hot or a take. It's more for me than anyone else unlucky enough to come across it. It's a way for me to think about game design and verbalize sporadic feelings of "oohhh" and "meh". It's also a way for me to get back into the habit of typing things.

According to Steam I have now played 13 hours of NMS which is probably more like 10 in reality. I've visited 10 systems and 22 planets. I'll start with the good things.

The Good Things:

  • The game is very much what the developers promised. You visit places, you discover species, you can name them, you mine and loot for resources and technology, you craft things, sometimes you fight, there's a mystery element to overall goal and the game looks pretty.
  • It really does look pretty. Here it's probably whoever calibrated the "randomly generated" colour scheme to blame rather than the people responsible for procgen. More on that below.
  • Space ship designs are pretty. They look plucked straight from book covers of medium trashy sci-fi from 30-40 years ago. It is refreshing to look at colourful ships instead of grey rectangles.
  • After 10 hours of play, it's still exciting to land on new planets. 
  • The soundtrack is good and fits the game. 
  • I am still somewhat interested in the "mysteries" of the game. 
  • When you're sitting in your ship and it's raining, you can hear the rain hitting the canopy. 
  • Some of the animals I've discovered looked moderately amusing. 
  • A lot of the non-procgen objects are pretty cool looking (like the ships I mentioned above). 
  • When you start the game from your desktop, it brings you straight to your character without having to go through menus.  

The Not So Good Things:

  • The menus. No, the entire UI. What happened here? Why? What was the point? It's just pure pain. Yes, I understand, it's designed to be used with a controller but that's only part of the problem. The fact that clicking anything is a one button QTE is borderline insane. 
  • The inventory system in Terror From The Deep is better than the inventory in NMS. I dread pressing tab and/or getting the INVENTORY FULL message. If we were to define a game genre by what problem is the player solving most often, NMS would fall under "inventory management game". And this is after the developers increased the inventories for both, ships and exosuits, with a launch day patch.
  • If the lead writer and all the contributing writers wanted to end up with sloshy space opera for young children, they done did it. I guess some people like this sort of thing. I don't. It's naive exalted dribble about past and future and universe and godlike aliens. 
  • The main character keeps having a gay old time touching monoliths around the world and getting all flustered and falling over his own feelings of wonder and amazement. It's like a space opera equivalent of a laugh track. Everything the guy says comes out water clogged and limp. 
  • Yes, I guess technically, to a certain degree, every planet is unique and so is every animal. But they are unique like two coins of same value minted at the same time are unique 10 years later. Each of those coins will have slightly different scratches and maybe one of them will have a little dent. Sure, I guess most planets in real life are same desolate rocky places. Out of the (now about) 25 planets (I played a bit more since I started writing this) I only found 1 that was almost empty of life and that got me pretty excited since all the other ones have the same bovine quadrupeds filling up the landscape with their wonky animation. I'm going to get a new bullet point for the "sameness continued".
  • Not only are all the animals very reminiscent of each other with minor changes but so are all the alien made structures. There's 6 or 8 structure types you can find on the planets and though outwardly there are 3 different looking space stations (corresponding to 3 different alien races), they are all exactly the same on the inside. In every station there's a door on the left that you need to have an Atlas Pass v1 to open and door on the right that you don't where and alien is sitting next to a trade terminal. Every time. 
  • There are plants on each planet that are not just similar, but exactly the same and giving you exactly the same resource when you interact with them through the amazing one button QTE. 
  • As far as I can tell, there are 3 alien races in NMS: the science race, the trading race and the warrior race. This is not a joke. It is literally that cliche. 
  • Every time you talk to an alien, there's a 5 second wind up power point slide animation before you manage to do anything with the dialogue. It's unskippable and if there's one thing that will make me stop playing NMS, it will be this before the inventory system does me in. It doesn't help that a similar crap wind up animation plays every time you save the game or get an achievement. 
  • A lot of the cool stuff about space is missing. Because all the planets and moons (indistinguishable from planets in NMS) have the same atmosphere density and gravity, I really don't feel like I'm visiting a new place. It takes 15 seconds to land and about 5 to leave a planet. I understand that NMS isn't meant to be a simulation game. I get that. But it's meant to be about exploration. What is the point of making some planets (or moons as they wishfully are calling them in-game) if they feel exactly the same as the big ones. Any liquid is always water, there are no clouds, no binary star systems, no gas giants, no meteor craters. The terrain variation goes from about 500 metres above to 50m below sea level. That's it. 
  • The ship control scheme is abysmal. Don't remember having less fun flying a space ship in any other game. Space combat is pure and pointless pain. 
  • The sentinels are dumb. They are easy to trick and really serve no purpose. They are mostly a minor inconvenience that doesn't need to be there. Maybe later in the game it's revealed that sentinels were a mistake and that it's all just trash. 
  • Apart from the missing cool space stuff, there's a few inexplicable design decisions. For example, I don't really understand why at 32C your spacesuit's "thermal protection is falling". I grew up in a place where sometimes there was 40C in summer. I didn't have a spacesuit, I was wearing t-shirt and shorts. Same with your suit being able to withstand extreme radiation but suffering at hands of a -40C cold. Again, I've lived in a place with -30C in winter and I was wearing a warm coat. Similar strangeness happening with the inability to sell your old ships and use a star map while not in space. 
  • Death in NMS is pointless. It's a minor inconvenience. You respawn at a space station, get back in your ship (which is somehow not blown up at all), fly back to where you died and pick up all your loot that the pirates who killed you (that's the only way I died so far) have failed to pick up. I mean, the game actually tells you that they are after that very loot but once they've killed you, they just leave. It feels more like teenage vandalism than space piracy. 
  • There is no real skill required to play NMS. Which is fine. Obviously not every game needs to be skill based. But the obstacles on your path of exploration and discovery feel very artificial and inorganic - there to only delay you instead of offering any meaningful challenge that you will feel satisfied to have overcome. I'm always puzzled when the developers/publishers ask for my time after already having received my money. None of us gains anything from me wasting time on grind. I understand grind when it's monetized. It's ugly but it makes sense. When you already paid, it just feels like a cruel and unusual punishment.
  •  As art, No Man's Sky is ultimately inoffensive. It's like an ok looking piece of furniture that doesn't make you feel anything besides perhaps doubt that you really needed it.

Monday, August 15, 2016