I haven’t pre-ordered No Man’s Sky partly out of laziness, partly due to funds, but this morning I figured that it’s also partly because I’m a little unsure about the staying power that the game will have.
Supposedly, there are a buffalozillion number of systems in NMS, and you can visit them all on your race to the mysterious center of the galaxy (which I’m sure someone will reach and live-stream in the first 24 hours, if not the first week, thereby ruining the whole Mysterious Center of the Galaxy puzzle). On paper, this sounds awesome; we’ve been constrained for decades by geography preventing us from going anywhere we wanted to in our games, so being able to go everywhere we want to has a really nice ring to it.
There’s the question of “why”, though. NMS’ features include being able to visit solar systems, land on planets, observe wildlife (and shoot it), collect resources, sell resources, and shoot space-based wildlife as you barrel through the universe. If you’re lucky, you might have a discovery tagged with your name, preserving your name in lights for as long as the game is operational. I’m sure that’s a big draw for some, and a good reason to pre-order, so you can get in as soon as humanly possible before all the good real-estate is taken. But what then?
Elite Dangerous has a similar set-up, minus the “land on every planet and shoot wildlife” aspect, but you can travel all over the galaxy, and that’s a time-consuming and sometimes difficult process. It doesn’t stop people from doing it, but it does turn a lot of people off of the idea of an almost-real-time space life simulator when people realize that it’s too much like work with very few benefits. Even if NMS streamlines the process of moving around and GTD, the fact remains that in NMS as in Elite, you’re merely a tourist, and not an owner or producer of anything.
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.