No Man’s Scope
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This is where Prince ascended to after death
As required by a discussion of all things space-borne, we need to bring EVE Online into the discussion, specifically in this case as an example of how to do space sandboxes correctly. EVE doesn’t have as many systems as Elite or NMS. You can’t land on planets. There’s very little wildlife to shoot, and when there is, it’s almost never the reason people are playing. What has always kept people coming back to EVE was the potential to make a mark of some kind in the game world. The most overt method was to join a corporation, get into nullsec, and play the territory game which saw groups of players exerting ownership of sections of the game world by producing and defending player-created structures. For players for whom the PvP aspects didn’t excite, there are a whole lot of mechanics that can be experienced, like wormhole exploration, production, mining, and planetary harvesting. When you put it all together, EVE‘s universe may be orders of magnitude smaller, but it gives players a pathway to translate their accumulations (ISK, resources, ships) into ownership.
Elite doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t seem that NMS does either. Both games are “about” exploration, and I put “about” in quotes because every game is technically about exploration, since we’re always pushing forward into areas of the maps that we’ve never been to before. In themepark games, there’s a tight control over the journey which allows designers to provide a different experience with each discovery, making the discovery not just functional, but also aesthetic and emotional. With sandboxes like Elite, NMS, or EVE, there’s none of that. The colors and shapes might be different, but the reasons and, more importantly, the tangible artifacts you get out of each subsequent discovery, doesn’t change. If theme parks are linear, offering crafted zones filled with challenges of increasing magnitude and increasing rewards, then sandboxes are cyclical, offering more of the same. In order for this to be a real draw, then, sandboxes need to provide you with a way to make your little part of that cycle a reason to continue the cycle. EVE lets you own and create; Elite, not so much, and NMS…I’m not sure what it’ll offer, if anything, to drive people from system to system other than because it’s the only thing to do in the game.