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The Final Frontier In PC Gaming

1000 channels and not a thing to watch.  This is a fairly apt comparison to the situation I find myself in now: plenty of games to play, but not a single game appeals to me much.  Times like this, I wonder if I aught to be doing something productive.  Which brings me back to game development as opposed to game playing.

My efforts in BYOND have been stymied.  The free development suite has a lot going for it because it takes me about 3/4ths as far as I need to go in order to have a cool persistent state online game before I even write the first line of code.  BYOND may not be the most popular suite out there - indeed, for some reason it seems fated to remain rather obscure - but I don't brook a lot of importance on popularity anyway.  No, what stymied me the most about BYOND is that I reached a point where I wanted to develop a game that had several maps that are swapped out rapidly - such is necessary to simulate a compellingly large universe - and I encountered a Input/Output error that prevented it from doing so.

I guess I could do what any other developer does and work with the limitations of the platform I've been given... but this is just a technical problem.  An even deeper, more widely-pervading problem I have is that I'm simply too creative to focus on what I need to do.  Or perhaps "impatient" the more accurate side of that coin - basically, I get partway through what I'm developing, wrack my brain about whether it's really what I want to do, and derail.  I've noticed a similar pattern in my rampant altaholicism when I play an MMORPG.  Basically, I'm really strangely indecisive about everything in life, and this even ties into how little attention I've paid my professional life.  Being overly creative for my own good is the positive way of looking at this snafu.

There's a holy grail in PC gaming of a sort that we - PC gamer and developer alike - have been looking for.  Notch, lead developer of the now infamous Minecraft, has recently embarked upon trying to his hand on it in developing 0x10^c.  So also have the developers of Terraria, the two-dimensional take to Minecraft, with Starbound.  PC Gamer can't stop gushing about FTL, a game that was kickstarted with a goal of $10,000 and ended up getting 20-times that much.  This is same holy grail I've been working hard to find in BYOND as well.

So what, exactly, is this "holy grail" game we've been pursuing?
Is it a simulator?  A role playing game?   A strategy game? 
Well, there's the problem.
We don't know what it is.

We know it'll take place in space and it'll be procedurally generated, and it'll be epic because there's an incredible backdrop for the imagination to operate upon from there.  But, beyond that, your guess is as good as mine how to create this terrible behemoth.

This is why everybody from Notch to myself are going to have a different approach to it.

What follows is going to be a bunch of my pseudo-philosophy on how to go about it.

Why Space?

The purpose of science is to understand the universe.
The purpose of art is to give the universe meaning.
I bring this up because this is core to the problem of this holy grail of a game, and the map to where it can be found.

This "holy grail" takes place in space because space is the ultimate blank slate to work with.  Unfortunately, when you get mired down in the technical details of simulating space, the science of it, you immediately come across the problem that space is a boring bunch of nothing.  Space is literally empty space, a few stray ions aside, what the hell did you expect?

No, the interesting thing about space is what you put in space.  For example, planet Earth, all its people, animals, places, and things interacting with each other on such personal levels so as to invoke a neigh-neverending menagerie of tragedy.  Compared to a vacuum, even an individual space ship is a fascinating microcosm.  Meaning begins with the animate.

In other words, the interesting thing about space is the interjection of meaning: the work of an artist.

Despite the difficulty that the space backdrop adds, the nice thing about a game that takes place in space is you really have no limitations on what you can do.  Also, it's the final frontier, one of the few places we've yet to go (and even may never go, given a pessimistic scenario).  Space evokes the imagination precisely because of how lacking in detail it is, unlike (for example) a fantasy RPG backdrop.

Why a PC?

The personal computer hardware platform has a few interesting traits.
  • They're ever-expanding platforms, which tend to increase in size every time there's a new computer component developed.  Whereas consoles focus on developing within a finite specification (the individual console).  Perhaps this makes them ideal platforms for developing an ever-expanding universe.  At the very least, it makes  them ideal platforms for getting the most computational horsepower brought to bear.
  • Economically, the indies are taking over the PC development because the PC is seen as less commercially viable, due to many concerns (mostly piracy).  This has lead to a philosophy of PC games being about what happens after  the initial box purchase (or pirate): subscription fee, micro-transactions, or DLC.  In this environment, a game that has less static content and more dynamic content seems more natural.
  • Also important is that the PC is a platform that can be developed upon.  This has lead to many PC games, such as Minecraft, being about making content within the game as opposed to just playing games.  (Granted, there are examples of this on consoles as well.  For example, Little Big Planet is a console game that enables the players to create content for it.  However, the PC is still best at it.) 
Why procedural generation?

In attempting to simulate a universe, what we discover is that, the more we create, the more we need to create.  These are games that grow exponentially on the development end.

Procedural generation is a goal of teaching that PC platform to generate its own content.  This partly solves the problem of exponential development by teaching the PC to make its own, but computers only have as much creativity as you put into them.

This creativity bottleneck is solved by community involvement.  In other words, we bring the people on the Internet in (usually players with a bit of technical knowhow) and invite them to create their own content for the game.

What makes this such a winning combination?

Take a look at the PC titles that have made a big splash lately, and you're going to see that some of the biggest splashes have been made by games with a lot of community involvement: Team Fortress 2, Skyrim, Minecraft, ect.  These games harness their userbase to extend the live of the game by having them create additional content for the game.  Mod communities are a big part of the PC gaming scene.

Also big (though falling somewhat into recession due to their massive numbers) are virtual worlds: World of Warcraft, EVE Online, ect.  These games also harness their userbase to extend the life of the game, but the means they do so is to have them be players within the games.  The players, themselves, are the content extension devices.  The developers just need to keep adding fuel to the fire in the form of subscription-or-microtransaction-based content development.

You'll be seeing similar waves coming from PC titles that have made good use of procedural generation: 4X games like Civilization.  Randomly generated content games like Diablo, Spelunky, other "roguelikes." And so on.

This "holy grail" of a game idea attempts to capture more of this unique PC-gaming "life extension" into a single product.  This is where the visionary game developers will go: not to create mere theme parks of content, but rather to harness to microcosm of life to procedurally generate a microcosm of a game.

There's still a ways to go.

Basically, this "holy grail" of a game is one that seeks to break down the barriers of what the players can do while simultaneously implementing enough structure as to be interesting.

When I say "break down the barriers," I mean that it's going to be a lot less narrow in focus than the games that have come before it.  A much greater level of possibilities would be represented, bordering on that coming from an imaginative game master in a pencil and paper RPG.

When I say "implementing enough structure to be interesting," it goes back to the core problem of it being space to begin with: if you just give people a blank slate, that's boring.   This is where the individual game developer's efforts are going to matter the most in the pursuit of this holy grail, the final frontier in PC gaming.

However, that said, we're back to vague hints instead of specifics again.  All of this is just stabs in the dark as to what excites me so much about the potential of these games.


I should really get to work.  My procrastination has put me hopelessly behind, yes.  However, given the scope of what I'm seeking to develop, perhaps there's little difference overall.  Just the thought of the mind-wracking involved in piercing this veil makes me wonder if there isn't some procrastination I can do instead...


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