The Tragedy of Maximalist Space Simulators

Star Citizen (screenshot from demo footage)

Star Citizen (screenshot from demo footage)

Recently, long-time indie developer Derek Smart criticized the people behind Star Citizen for over-promising. According to him, the scope of the project is far too big given tools, budget and timeframe.

Like Derek Smart’s Battlecruiser games, Star Citizen is a space combat simulation game with a maximalist approach – its creators even claim that they don’t want to create a game but to create a universe. The idea is simple: the player is given a large amount of freedom as he or she not only pilots a spaceship but takes the pilot’s role outside of it, making it possible to land on a planet and switch into first person mode. Another upcoming space game, No Man’s Sky, promises similar things and is also a target of similar accusations.

Clearly, the idea of a virtual universe in which the players can travel, fight, trade, and explore endlessly is an appealing one. It’s also something pretty hard to create – and in this article, we’ll take a look at the problems that need to be overcome before we get such a game.

Spacesims so far: a very brief history

Space combat simulation is one of the oldest known game genres. The first known game of this type was created in 1974 for the PLATO system but the game which codified all the genre’s common feature came 10 years later with Acornsoft’s classic title Elite an open world spaceship game allowing the player to become a trader, a bounty hunter, a miner, or a pirate. It was also an impressive feat of programming – an 8-bit computer game with a large (procedurally generated) universe, fairly complex mechanics, and polygonal 3D graphics.

Aside from a few notable exceptions that could be found in the arcades or on the consoles (especially the ones with vector graphics), spacesims were computer games – and not the ones to break the stereotype of unintuitiveness and complexity. As a result, the genre was pretty obscure for quite a long time. This changed in the 1990s and the early XXI century with the rise of the IBM PC (and IBM compatibles) as gaming machines. Suddenly, spaceship games became mainstream as everything from the realistic Microsoft Space Simulator to FPS-like Descent to mission-oriented Wing Commander, X-Wing/TIE Fighter and, of course, to Elite-like Freelancer, Escape Velocity and X.

For some strange reason, sometime after the release of Freelancer, people lost interest in the genre. While some series (e.g. X) went on, the popularity wasn’t there anymore, and spacesims went the way of interactive fiction, point and click adventures and isometric cRPGs: something played mostly by dedicated fans and created mostly by small indie devs, living in the shadow of more popular genres and dreaming of returning to former glory.

And just like cRPGs, they suddenly returned in recent years as the indie boom and crowdfunding allowed the old developers to raise a not insignificant budget and make games they dreamed of making. With the release of the next game in Elite series, the arcade-like Strike Suit Zero, and with Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky being in development, it seems that spacesims in all shapes and sizes might be back for good.

But will they give us the living universe we’re waiting for?

Putting big worlds on small disks

Elite for BBC Micro - a whole galaxy on one tape

Elite for BBC Micro – a whole galaxy on one tape

Amazing scientific fact of the day: a hard disk drive is smaller than the universe.

While the statement above will probably not blow anyone’s mind, the important thing is that there is a fundamental limit on how much information we can store inside our computers. Thus, we need to use several tricks to make our game worlds big without using up unreasonable amounts of disk space.

The first trick – and the easiest one to accomplish – is reducing detail. If you wanted to describe Earth by storing the position of every single atom on an XYZ axes, you could use up the whole Internet without getting close. Conversely, even on a cheap graphing calculator you could represent it by storing a few numerical variables and drawing a circle. Of course, the more you reduce, the more abstract and less immersive your universe becomes.

The second trick is procedural generation, used by spacesims at least since the times of Elite. The idea here is that instead of crafting the universe by hand, the developers create algorithms that makes the universe for them. This saves the disk space (although at the cost of processing power required to generate levels) and – after passing a certain world size – the manhours needed to create everything, but it has some trade-offs. There needs to be rules so the worlds actually make sense but there also needs to be enough complexity – and probably handcrafting mixed in as well – for them to not feel repetitive. And while it’s not hard to make ten planets that don’t look like a bad copypasting job, it becomes more difficult when you get into tens of thousands.

Wait, didn’t I blow this planet up?

There’s a one big problem with making procedurally generated universes: they’re not persistent. If the game shows you a star system with 5 planets every time you arrive in sector Z9, you blow two of those planets, build a space station and leave, the changes won’t be remembered – you’ll come back and the game will again generate a star system with 5 planets – or even something completely different (like a black hole), depending on an algorithm. Whatever it is, it’s not related to what you do.

That’s not to say procedurally generated games can never have persistent worlds – they do at least since Hack. It’s just that it’s a tradeoff – when you store more than just the data about the player (see: original Elite), you start to slowly lose the benefits of procedural generation. As you describe changes made by the player, your savefiles slowly but steadily grow in size as the game progresses.

If the game’s an MMO – and that’s the plan for both Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky – then you can drop the ‘slowly’ part as you need to account for the changes made by many players at the same time. If it’s not an MMO, you can still run into the same problems, as for the universe to be alive you need to have factions and NPCs whose behavior is not completely dependent on the player’s and can affect the world in meaningful ways.

The level generator is pretty good, but where’s the game?

Noctis - space simulated with all its darkness, silence and loneliness

Noctis – space simulated with all its darkness, silence and loneliness

Managing to make big, immersive, non-repetitive worlds which remember changes made to them by players and NPCs, without requiring a physics supercomputer to play and a tape library to save states is a big achievement – but it’s not the same thing as making a good game. Now, don’t get me wrong, exploring such a sandbox could be a fantastic experience. It just wouldn’t be the same as playing an open-world space combat simulator with a robust ship upgrading system, trading mechanics and a lot of enemies to blow up. And this is the kind of thing that maximalist spacesims promise.

All the things that will make a good game will of course require additional programming (which is time and money), additional assets (which is also time and money) and will consume resources when the player runs the game. If the game is to have multi-user ships like Star Citizen promises, it needs separate game mechanics for different subsystems (navigation, firing, energy management) – but it also needs either a way of integrating them in such a way that a single player can enjoy it, or the AI which can cooperate with the player.

If the game is to have FPS sections, the surface of the planets must be interesting (detailed and non-repetitive) enough for the players to even want to use it. It also requires the developers to create gameplay elements for both the ship segments and FPS segments: different enemies, different upgrades, maybe quests that take place both in spaces and on the planets – and if the world is to be truly immersive, they can’t feel like two games stiched together.

This being a game also means that it needs playtesting to find and eliminate bugs and to make the experience fun. This is, once again, time and money – and quite a lot of it as everything is multiplied not only by the fact that the game is big but also by the fact that it is random. Combined with complexity and the fact that there needs to be separate mechanics for flying the spaceship and exploring the planets, it means there are a lot of different possibilities (and possible bugs) that have to be considered and tested. For the games that want to be MMOs, even more time and money is required to test the networking script and server performance.

Down to Earth maximalism

Some of the things that both Derek Smart and the developers of modern open-world spacesims tried to achieve have been done, just on a smaller scale. The Witcher 3 is big (it has one of the biggest modern game worlds), detailed and has fairly complex gameplay, but it represents only a region of the world.

Fuel is much bigger and procedurally generated but it has fairly simple gameplay and a very small variety of terrain types. Daggerfall might have been even bigger but its procedural generation could have used some work. Dwarf Fortress is closest we have to a living procedurally generated world but it’s been in development since 2002 and it’s far from finished.

It’s also a resource hog despite the fact that it doesn’t even have graphics. Noctis is probably the biggest spacesim ever but it’s completely focused on exploration. It’s also a low-resolution DOS game written in 16-bit assembly. ARTEMIS is a multiplayer co-op game about controlling a spaceship but it doesn’t have open world or next-gen graphics.

It’s not possible to roll all those games into one, at least not without a completely unreasonable amount of time and money while creating something not playable on modern consoles and home computers. The upcoming spacesims will not deliver on all their promises in a completely satisfying manner – but this doesn’t mean they’ll be bad games.

Ultimately, game development is always about working around limitations. Neither Star Citizen nor No Man’s Sky will be a true virtual universe seamlessly combining space combat, trading and shooting while also having a living NPC population that doesn’t completely depend on the player. Maybe the graphics will suffer, maybe the FPS section will be boring and repetitive. But ultimately, the games can still be good and create the illusion of a living world. Those games will be flawed but they can emphasize their strong points and downplay the flaws in such a way that those who play them will only remember the good parts.

And if they attempt to bite more than they can chew and fail to captivate the audience in process – either because they end up buggy and unintuitive like Battlecruiser, or for different reasons – then maybe they’ll bring new ideas to the table. Maybe they’ll fail at first but then find a cult following, earning place among other ‘great but flawed’ titles. And maybe someone will look at them years later and find inspiration to try again with new technology. Ambitious games don’t always succeed (commercially, critically or even just at what they tried to do) but ask yourself this question: which game is more likely to be remembered? Yet another sequel, reboot, HD remaster, or something that tried to simulate an entire galaxy and all the planets in it?

Further reading:

Maciej Miszczyk

About

I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that’s not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.

  • JackDandy

    People will remember Star Citizen… but most likely for some pretty bad reasons.

  • Gaz Instone

    No that is strictly reserved for Battlecruiser and any other bit of software Smart damages the gaming community with :)

  • KefkaFollower

    If I’m reading right the author, we both think the same. To do the kind of game they are promising, you need to put a ridiculous amount of developers hours on it or relay heavily y procedural generation. And games with procedural generation start to feel generic/repetitive sooner than later.

    I hope “Star Citizen” and “No man’s sky” proof my any many others wrong. Both game seems to be overreaching.

    I had pledge for a project less ambitious. Its mostly about strategic combat. Have you hear about “The mandate” ?

  • Cy

    I’m still not convinced Star Citizen will ever get a full release. My biggest problem with the game is how they keep releasing small bits of it at a time, and they can’t even make their release dates for those. I think the game is overfunded and it’s causing the devs to inflate the game from what it was supposed to be to a game that uses every single cent of the 60 or 70 million just because it’s there to be used.

  • Master Bating

    I wont say the games are too ambitious.

    I wont say they have too much scope.

    But this I know: Derek Smarts is a hack who goes to extreme lenghts to promote his own overambitious broken games.

    They are just as awful as he is and anyone taking his side on this is participating on a babys tantrum.

    You think Star Citizen and NMS are too ambitious and dissapoint so you are looking at it with relunctance?

    Well, so do I, and considering the state of the industry, I congratulate you for being a sensible sane human being in all of it.

    Just dont listen to Derek Smalls, his motives are shady at best. As dissapointing as both Star Citizen and NMS might be, at their worst they will still be better than a game developed by Derek.

  • Gaz Instone

    The Mandate looks intriguing and had not heard of it before. May be something to keep me busy whilst Star Citizen cracks on with development.

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    I’m not really taking anyone’s side here, even in this article I’ve said that Battlecruiser games were buggy and unintuitive (seriously, back in the day I wasn’t even able to run them). I also didn’t say that SC and NMS will necessarily suck, just that they won’t do all the things they promised to do. but whatever Derek Smart’s motives are, his criticism of those games is not without merit and I try to explain it here in a neutral way. it’s like when Molyneux criticized Microsoft – someone with a history of overpromising will be able to spot other overpromisers.

  • Gaz Instone

    His critiscism is really without merit though if you look at the current state of his game in the works at the minute.

    He rails at SC for returning his backer money and removing him from the the community due to his vicious, baseless accusations as well as idiotic threats of legal action yet he is quite public about banning people from the forums and the game itself of which he’s ‘developing’ – hugely ironic.

    Also hilarious that any person puts an argument to Smarts accusations on twitter is instantly blocked..

    Smart obviously bit off far more than he could chew back in the day and still does it now – a jealous man with an agenda that is not in gamers interests.

    At the end of the day SC is in development, there should hopefully be some nice surprises at Gamescom shortly. Judgements should only be made once either (a)The project fails – which I feel unlikely (b)The game is released in its entirety.

    If a good product means a longer gestation period then so be it. Considering the size and scope of the game the development time so far is neither overly surprising nor is it in anyway shocking.

    What I would like to see a gaming site do is a proper dissection of both Smarts past and present – but I fear outlets are afraid of his usual bluster about legal action against anything negative.

  • Unmotivated

    No Man’s Sky is going to crash and burn, love how the developer gets pissy whenever someone asks him what a player is actually expected to do in the game.

    “Whatever you want!” he says, as he hints at all these cool and deep mechanics that the gameplay videos never show us, opting instead of show video after video of really generic space flight and barebones planet crawling.

  • deadeye

    I point to Freelancer as an example of a space sim that has a very specific focus, and still takes place in a relatively large game world.

    While the game had some problems, the core gameplay mechanics were very solid.

    I’m really hoping NMS ends up being good, and just the developers are having a rough time really showing off what will make it fun to play.

    I don’t think it’s overly ambitious, I just think their attention is in the wrong place. We need ambition, but we need it to be focused ambition.

  • JackDandy

    Not really- Smart’s time is pretty much over.

    Star Citizen has lots of people’s money invested in it, and when it inevitably comes out disappointing, people are going to be -PISSED-.
    It won’t outright crash & burn, but there is simply no way it can live up to the expectations it fostered for it’s backers.

  • Gaz Instone

    Yeah I always find it on the funny side when people judge something before it’s either crash and burned or its been released.
    Neither has happened to SC. Just because it has lofty goals does not mean it cannot fulfil them. Certainly even if it fulfils just a fraction I’ll see it as a good result – pushing things is how we advance, even if some of that push results in failure.

  • FalseTragedian

    Wut?
    They already described the main objective of the game back when it was first announced – start at the edge of the universe and make your way to the center.
    Beside which, it’s not hard to make a popular, enjoyable game with simple, plain mechanics and procedural generation – ask Notch, if he can hear you underneath his mountain of money.

  • Tracy Mcdonald
  • Unmotivated

    Yeah but like, what do you DO?

    Traveling from planet to planet is as easy as selecting it on a star map, and once you get there there’s nothing to do besides catalog the procedurally pieced together wildlife for some space shekels which you use to upgrade your only three items in a linear fashion. You can zap a resource node or two I guess? I think that gives you money too.

    Every planet looks uninhabited and there don’t seem to be any real points of interest on them. You can’t build or customize or reshape the planets, in fact if you do something the game doesn’t want you to it summons hordes of robots to drive you off the planet. In the demo video the demonstrator took like four shots at the side of a mountain and the planet police were on him in seconds.

    Minecraft actually let you do stuff. No Man’s Sky is basically Minecraft if the primary goal of Minecraft was to make a procedurally generated world and… just walk around in it.

    I really do hope I eat my words later, but I’m not holding my breath. The game looks like something I would have designed when I was 12.

  • Thanatos2k

    The Star Citizen people are crazy, and the game is starting to border on scam.

    Any sane software engineer knows you need to lock down scope on projects or you will never finish.

  • Thanatos2k

    Would you have damned Minecraft if Notch had said that while demoing it?

  • Gaz Instone

    They locked down the scope at the £65 million mark – which was some time ago.

    People move around jobs all the time – reasons aren’t always made public nor should they have to be, unfortunately this leads to conspiracy loons making shite up.

    Considering the scope the development time is neither shocking nor surprising.

  • Thanatos2k

    And yet they’re still accepting money, and shilling for more money…..

    Sure, people move jobs all the time, but anyone who does software development knows losing people near the top causes significant damage to the direction of the project.

  • Gaz Instone

    Yep and they won’t stop accepting funding from those who want to – it goes into the game so no bad thing.

    Damage? Completely depends on the make-up of the team/hierarchy so you can’t say that at all.

  • Kamille Bidan

    Wow. I was literally just talking about no man’s sky and star citizen the other day with a coworker. This article sums up just about everything I have been worrying about when it comes to the two games.

    You guys aren’t reading my mind or something are you?

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    it’s your fault for not wearing a fashionable, protective headgear made out of alluminium foil. if it doesn’t block 100% mind-reading attempts you get a full refund!

  • Fenrir007

    I always saw procedural generation as a necessary evil to space sims. It always striked me as a paradox that the games that rely the most on exploration end up being randomly generated. Sure, there is some level of human interference on the process, but on such a large scale, it always fails to cause a would-be explorer to be mesmerized by the universe.

    To me, the answer would be outsourcing the production of the universe to the community itself. Work with the community so that they might make assets and even plantes themselves that would be included in the game at the developer’s discretion. Devs would also be allowed to tweak planets if they needed them for a certain purpose.

    The community is like a perpetual motion machine. Enlist its help, and watch the universe grow.

  • Thanatos2k

    If there ISN’T damage then the director wasn’t doing anything useful. I’m not sure which is worse.

  • Gaz Instone

    Again utter rubbish. It depends on how the team was/is setup.

  • Dr.Weird

    minecraft is crap, and only autists enjoy it after a few days.

  • Thanatos2k

    It must suck to not enjoy something like Minecraft. It reveals you as a soulless tool with no imagination and the inability to create.

  • Dr.Weird

    Or you’re autistic and enjoy hitting things with a pickaxe for hours on end.

  • Thanatos2k

    Yes. Millions and millions of people must be autistic! That’s gotta be it. Surely there’s nothing wrong with you, unable to enjoy something everyon else seems to be able to do just fine. Everyone’s just autistic. That’s surely the reason.

  • Dr.Weird

    yes, 1 in 140 people are autistic, millions and millions of people are in fact autistic, good observation there guy.

  • Dr.Weird

    that makes approximately 2 million in the united states alone, in fact.

  • Thanatos2k

    That statistic is made up and wrong, as are you.

  • Dr.Weird

    you know what, I’m sorry you’re right, it’s gotten even worse http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

  • Thanatos2k

    It hasn’t gotten worse. What has gotten worse is overdiagnoses.

  • Thanatos2k

    And they ALL play Minecraft, coincidentally!

  • Dr.Weird

    THERE’S NO PROBLEM HERE I AM ALWAYS RIGHT. Sounds pretty fuckin autistic to me.

  • Thanatos2k

    You were wrong. Hilariously, embarrassingly wrong. You’ll live.

  • Dr.Weird

    hahaha, no i was right, you’re just being a butthurt autist about it, no wonder you love minecraft so much.

  • Thanatos2k

    Yes, I’m also clearly autistic just because I disagree with you.

    Wait. Maybe YOU’RE the autist. One of those self hating in denial ones. It would make a whole lot more sense.

  • Dr.Weird

    sorry mane, I’m not the minecraft player here lol