No Man’s Sky: It Can Be Done

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

One of the concerns I see expressed about No Man’s Sky is that a small team of indie developers like Hello Games just couldn’t do this. I disagree, and in fact think it’s quite likely’ll they’ll succeed.

So you know i’m not wasting your time, I base this theory on:

  • My experience in IT (20+ years).
  • My work as a software project manager (12+ years).
  • My interest in development processes (12+ years).
  • My work in procedural generation (most of my life).
  • My experience as a gamer (most of my life).

So let’s look at the reason I think Hello Games is going to pull this off.

A Focused Game

First of all, no matter how “big” No Man’s Sky seems, if you look at it, it’s an extremely focused piece of development:

  • Exploring large procedural spaces – mostly planets.
  • These spaces have procedural features, including life.
  • Mining and finding resources.
  • Dealing with hostile and non-hostile life.
  • Crafting by combining various resources to change equipment.
  • A focused set of equipment for the characters
  • Interaction with species via various actions, trees, and simple fight/aid mechanics.
  • Space travel.
  • Exchanging of good via trade games.
  • Cataloging findings.
  • All of this is done with a chosen aesthetic.

No Man’s Sky, when you look at it, is somewhere between evolutionary and revolutionary. All the parts have been seen before, its the combination of them that stands out to create a universe.

The game design is very focused – Sean Murray and company have deliberately restrained adding new features.   This means that Murray and Team can pay attention to what they want to deliver exactly. Well-defined features allow for focused development, focused testing, and good delivery. If you know what you want to do, you can deliver it a lot easier.

No Man’s Sky is delivering a very focused experience, which allows for focused development. Speaking of . . .

Focused Initial Development

The first developer on No Man’s Sky was Sean Murray himself, who built the core engine, which he eventually expanded to 4 then 13. This is the way you do core initial development.

Small, tight teams – sometimes an individual – are a great way to start a project. One or a few people, working together (often unmanaged) can deliver a prototype with surprising speed because theyre focusing on getting everything together. They’re not trying to market. They’re not trying to make it run on every machine. They’re not even making the most efficient code. They’re ot havign people constantly try and change things. They don’t have to write patches.

They’re making a start. As one guy I worked with called it – “stick smart guys in a room and feed them pizza.”

This is the kind of arrangement that I’d expect would deliver a decent prototype. It may not be perfect – it may only be a prototype that’s eventually discarded. But it lets you get the basics down.

This is exactly how I’d expect a project like this to start – and be successful. It’s a good core foundation.

Agile Development

So you have a focused plan and a core prototype. How do you polish something like this into a game? It’s procedural, it’s going to have a lot of complexities, and it’s not something you plan easily.

The not-so secret is Agile Development. Basically, tight, integrated development where teams have a large list of goals, but focus on small deliverables that are high priority, deliver quick, and focus on interaction and iteration.

Sean Murray’s team uses classic agile processes. They have a morning meeting, set goals, and do a master build in the evening.  This is all happening in roughly the same space from what I’ve seen in videos, increasing interaction.

Really, what Agile does is acknowledge that planning everything out often fails as you find the flaws to your giant plan as soon as you start. So you set goals and meet them in increments, researching them as needed, and cooperating tightly with your co-workers.  Even if you don’t deliver everything, Agile’s focus on “delivering stuff that works” means you usually get enough – or more than enough – done to meet your goals.

In short, the team at Hello Games is using the exact kind of software processes that would lead to success.

Plenty Of Resources

A team of 13 or so people may seem small, but gaming (and indeed any software development) has a number of resources to call upon.

  • There are services out there to do development or provide code. You can outsource pretty easily if needed. Not sure if the team does it, but it’s an option. There’s a lot of games made by a “team” that really involve many outsourced teams.
  • There are a huge amount of libraries, graphic tools, code engines, and more for development teams to use. You can bet that these have been used by the No Man’s Sky team – just like any other development project.  Few pieces of software are created from scratch in their entirely – and you can bet a lot of media resources aren’t.
  • There’s already lots of procedural games and algorithms and theories, from past Roguelikes to the Superformula. There’s a lot of examples to be used or to at least show what is possible.
  • People network.  You can bet the folks behind NMS were asking friends, fellow coders, and other connections for advice.

In short, there’s all the resources out there the team may need to make NMS a reality – resources other games have leveraged.  In fact . . .

Public Accountability

The NMS team, despite the game’s hype, is remarkably modest.  Sean Murray seems affable and humble.  The game is getting played up, but Hello Games isn’t bragging or strutting around.  It’s refreshing.

At the same time, the NMS team has been very clear about the game and game goals and what it does.  Though there’s occasional assumptions by gamers about the game, it’s easy to find the team being very clear on what they’re doing.

They’re being publicly accountable.  They’re saying what the game is – and if they screw up, it’ll be very obvious.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone does something like this and delivers anything less.

The Conclusion

NMS has focused goals, started right, uses the right management techniques, has resource to call on, and Hello Games has been clear on what they’re doing in a way that holds them accountable.

Me, despite some concerns about the game that I’ve stated, I think Hello Games is going to deliver.
– Steve

Civic Diary 5/20/2016

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

Hello everyone, welcome to my weekly look at my attempts to be more civicly engaged.

And . . . not a lot has happened.

One job ended last week, a new job began this week, and I’ve got some vacation coming up. I’ve had a lot on my mind obviously.

Which is probably a good lesson in this entire quest to be more civicly engaged – it’s not a simple, linear process. You will get interrupted. You will need to take a break. You will have Other Stuff To Do.

I confess to some pangs of guilt as I’m busy working on this, and it’s opened up a whole new world to me – but also I realize that’s the way it is. The desire to do this is real, and it won’t go away just because I’m spending a week getting a new job.  Or anything else.

I think that’s one of the most important things of being civcly engaged is that it has to come from a “real” place. A desire for change. A desire to connect. A desire to find out what you should and can do. But you can’t fake it or do it out of guilt, it’ll be false and exhausting.

A lot of really civicly active people I see are passionate. They’re for real. This is part of what they live and breathe – and when you try to do this as well that’s what you’re evolving towards.

However I do have a few findings.

  • Still planning to attend a local political meeting in June to understand how I can get involved in GOTV. That’s gonna be a big step for me.
  • I like the place I live, and I figure next year I’ll give a look at being on a city board. I’m being realistic here as I have a lot on my plate – three books and then some. I also want to learn more about it, but the idea calls to me.
  • By following the news more I’m realizing how much does not get said. Did you realize the guy’s behind Ben and Jerry’s have been involved in protests supporting better voting rights?  They’re part of Democracy Awakening. That they got a arrested at a protest? That they’re releasing an ice cream in celebration of it? Exactly, you didn’t hear about it.  The news is not always what you think.
  • I’ve become far more aware of how ideas, often insane ones, spread throughout political consciousness. If you told me a few months ago people would be freaking out about transsexuals in bathrooms, I’d figure it’d be confined to some religious group or a single state.
  • That guide to activism I’m reading, The Little Book of Revolution, is very helpful, and I thoroughly recommend it – even as I’m still finishing it. I’m going to have to reread it a second time to develop more of a plan, but it’s fantastic.
  • By now my reviews of political news and activism ideas is pretty regular. That always keeps “tweaking” me to move forward – it’s building structure on top of the passion.
  • As people continue to rail against the political establishment – mostly Trump supporters but also some Sanders supporters – it’s clear a lot of people don’t get that an establishment gets things done. Organization is how things happen, and if you don’t like the establishment your choices are to influence, take over, or replace.
  • As much as I support protest, that’s only part of it. Protest can inspire, it can disrupt, it can influence, it can get people to organize. But it seems people value protest for protest’s sake (mostly angry screaming) and that’s even counterproductive.

I suspect I’m not going to be having a lot of deep civil insights the next week or two. But I’m going to keep posting these.

I think I like this as I’m doing this publicly to hold myself accountable. If I screw up, I screw up in front of the world (well, on a blog and anywhere from 30-150 readers). It’s nicely sobering.

Besides, the choices I make do affect the world.

– Steve

Job Skills For The Future – Scheduling

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

So as I explore Job Skills you’ll need in the future, as the Geek Job Guru that I am, let’s talk about one no one thinks about and everyone is usually awful at.

Scheduling.

No, REALLY.

Let’s be honest right now basic scheduling of meeting, events, software launches, etc. is almost always an excruciating experience.  Why? Most people are terrible at it.  Recently I got to talk to someone who had been quadruple booked for a meeting, which I think wins him some kind of award.

So right now people are really bad at scheduling.  They don’t plan, they don’t think, they don’t check the responses.  They don’t think about launching software before a weekend.   Yes I’m bitter.

So being good at scheduling and planning events sounds like a job skill that everyone bloody well needs now.  And they do.  Trust me.

But now I want you to add what we’ve talked about previously, about working with people in other cultures and time zones and so on.  Scheduling becomes even more important in the future – says the guy who often works with India teams.

Now I want you to imagine critical technologies becoming more and more intertwined, where every software launch has more far-reaching effect every release.

I want you to imagine publicity issues of launching a book just an hour ahead or behind in this wired world.  Now ask how that’ll change.

Good scheduling is definitely a skill people could use more of now, but one that is going to be far, far more vital in the future.  But I’d also take now, thanks very much.

I think this is important enough that scheduling and planning as a basic skillset is something talented people will actually need to call out in resumes.  Note it among your planning skills, or your software launch skills, or your media release skills – but note it.

As for getting better at it, I’d recommend this:

  • Just general awareness will go far.  Take some time to watch how you schedule and plan.
  • A basic project management or planning guide or class will work wonders. Pick up a book, take a class if you can.  Get some knowledge yu can use.
  • If your company or team is bad at it, schedule (ha) a meeting to discuss how it can be done better.  You’ll learn more and you’ll look good taking initiative.

I can’t emphasize how much people need this skill now, and how important it’s going to get over time.  Remember, I belong to a profession, Project Management, that just exists to coordinate things – we exist for a reason.

Your Scheduling skills have good reason to exist too.

– Steve

No Man’s Sky: Procedural Gaming and Procedural Materials

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

As I wait for No Man’s Sky (if I disappear for a week in June, you know why), I’ve been analyzing the game, what it means, and what it tells us about procedural entertainment. Today I’d like to focus on crafting.

I love crafting. I enjoyed the Atelier series of games, finding new alchemical potions. I love Starbound‘s crafting (OK, maybe I’ll vanish in July too). You can guess that Minecraft was a revelation. This all goes back to Demon’s Winter, a vastly underrated DOS game that let you build magic items.

With No Man’s Sky, the huge emphasis on crafting has me intrigued. The thrill of finding elements, the joy of a discovered blueprint, the fun of creating the right components. I love the challenge of building the ideal loadout, and NMS is going to give me that and all of the exploration and resource collecting. I’m looking forward to it.

I will be the guy staying on one crap planet for hours because of a wealth of ruins filled with schematics. Trust me.

No Man’s Sky provides a mixture of real and made-up elements, a nice nod to both recognizability and to the proper sci-fi feel. But as I’ve watched the game, I’ve come to realize there’s another, missed opportunity that other games should take up.

Procedural elements.

Imagine a game like NMS (or NMS II, which again I feel is possible) that has procedural elements. The joy of discovery is not just felt on finding a new world or a new blueprint, a strange crystal or interesting rock formation could hold an element no one else has seen. There could be elements even the creators hadn’t foreseen, out there, lurking.

Sci-Fi and fantasy is often about strange and unusual materials. Let’s see more of that in games.

Of course to make them useful and understandable, procedural elements would need to be handled in certain ways. here’s my thoughts on it:

Where They Fit

Procedural elements would have to work into an existing crafting structure. The elements have to have some recognizable use despite their procedural nature. This would likely mean:

  • The crafting structure recognizes general classes of elements (builds weapons, catalyst, etc) and procedural elements fit a general class but have unique cases. “Iron” is the same all over, but that procedural deposit of “Dekelite” has unique traits, thought both can be used to build weapons.
  • Thecrafting structure recognizes specific elements, and procedural elements can “substitute” for regular ones and bring certain benefits. Thus “Chromatic Polytanium” may substitute for “Copper,” but any scanning device built with it has extra bonuses.
  • Items that are used to power/supply other items may provide unique bonuses. A unique element that provides energy may, perhaps, deliver double the fuel value of a common one.

Unique Traits

It’d be pretty easy to make procedural elements that seem very samey, so work would have to be done to vary them. The need for variance would depend on how often they’d be encountered, of course (more on that later). But traits may vary along such areas as:

  • Specific use.
  • Elements they substitute/are used for.
  • Bonuses and combinations of bonuses.
  • Disadvantages and tradeoffs.
  • Additional effects (perhaps if you make a potion with this element it always confers invisibility)
  • Physical traits (even different colors or weights).

A game that uses procedural elements should have enough variances that they’re actually interesting, unique, ad surprising. Otherwise it might not be worth implementing.

But done right it could be amazing. Imagine traipsing through a fantasy forest to discover a rare gem deposit whose naturally holy traits repel demons and confer charisma. Imagine exploring a distant world to find a fuel source that boosts your hyperdrive beyond capacity – but will wear down your spaceship.  Each finding is something unique, wondrous.

When You Can, Add Story

I’ve written about the need for procedural games to have pproceduralhistory. Same goes for procedural elements – I can’t say it’s required, but having “more” to the elements than a name and trait may be neat.

Maybe a procedural element in a fantasy game exists because a certain area is irradiated with magic. A procedural element in a SF game may have unusual energy properties because it was formed on a planet near the sun. Add something tomake the elements meaningful.

Or at least give us some flavor text for fun. Something to help us build our own story.

Oh and make sure the names are appropriate. I’d much rather find Chromatic Steel with it’s ability to make swords tht dazzle with rainbow light than a similar element called Furbonanium. Only use nonsense if it fits.

Don’t Overdo it

Finally, unless procedural elements are a theme of the game (and it may be), don’t overdo them. If you want these elements to stand out, then they have to stand out.

In any game of reasonable gameplay (20-40 hours) odds should be that only 1 or 2 procedural elements are found unless that’s a core part of the game. An element like this should be fascinating, amazng, perhaps game-changing – and overdoing it reduces the wonder.

That moment you find that rare deposit should be one you remember for the rest of the game.

So that’s my take on where NMS’ offspring should go – and a lesson we can learn from the current development of NMS. If a game focuses on the wonder of discovery and crafting, why not surprise your audience with procedural elements. Give people that unique experience that is personal – and perhaps theirs and theirs alone.

 

– Steve

Job Skills For The Future – Another Language

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

As you’ve been following along, I’m discussing what job skills are important in the future. Having covered culture knowledge, let’s lay down the hard truth about the future.

Knowing another language is going to be more important for future careers It’s becoming more important now.

Let’s take a look at the current state of things:

  • In Silicon Valley I see calls for specifically Bi-lingual jobs, with hints of it elsewhere in the US. My friends who have skills beyond English – be they professional or not – are at a distinct advantage here (and elsewhere to judge by the assorted recruiter emails).
  • If you’re in any international business, have any international customers, or just work in certain locations, speaking additional languages can help.  If nothing else you might not speak someone else’s language, but you might have a second language in common.
  • Company buyouts, acquisitions, new partnerships inevitably require you to deal with people from around the world. New vendors may not be n your state, your country, or your continent. All my previous writing on the importance of Vendor Management and Culture Knowledge being important in the future? Now you see where Language skills make those abilities even more powerful.

By the way, there’s no equivalent of the Star Trek Universal Translator yet.  I’m not holding my breath.

Right now having a language other than English is a big advantage, if not just a requirement. None of the trends above seem to be reversing, so it’s going to become more and more of an advantage – and a requirement.

My prediction is that knowing another language outside of English, with at least basic fluency, is going to be a major job skill for the future. It will give you a very big edge over others, and for more jobs it will either be required, or be something you expect to get.

I don’t see any hope of this trend reversing. If you’re young and/or have time to learn a new language, you can gain quite an advantage in the future.

 

– Steve

Civic Diary 5/13/2016

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

And welcome to my weekly examination of how I’m doing in being a better citizen.

For those of you just joining, I was inspired by Anil Dash to find a way to be more regularly civicly engaged.  This is the result – a weekly diary to keep myself accountable and inspire people.

My big focus initially had been A) Following my assorted representatives, B) Following and joining relevant organizations, and C) Making efforts to at least write my representatives on issues, and of course D) Voting.  That was a start.

I’ve been thinking over how there’s two kinds of civic engagement – Strong (highly organized, vertical organizations like political parties, PACs, and political orgs), and Weak (more local, distributed, casual efforts that, like the power of weak links in networking, having profound effects by accumulation).  I did a lot more Weak work but not enough Strong work.

The simple fact of the matter is if you want to be civicly engaged, really make a difference, you have to get involved in some of the organizations out there.  So now I’m wrestling with what’s appropriate for me.  I’m waiting until June or so before I really try to answer this – but i’m leaning towards voter registration drives.

Now my latest findings:

  • First people are awful at talking about politics, and our media doesn’t help – we argue, we snipe, but we don’t engage.  I’d heard about The Little Book of Revolution by David Akadjian and Maiez Mehdi, a guide to talking to people about politics.  I’m reading it now and it’s really thought provoking – I’ll share more later.  Short form is it’s got great advice on engaging people and getting them involved – and it’s very goal-oriented.
  • I’ve started following my local political party (Democrats, natch) and plan to attend a local meeting to get a feel for getting involved politically.  Again just following a group on Twitter reveals a wealth of information.  My default interest, as you may guess, is GOTV.
  • Your local political parties provide a ton of ways to get involved.  Ever sat on a board?  Raised funds?  There’s a lot you can do – though how local (or national) you want to get may affect your options.
  • My local Democratic club had contact info for both Clinton and Sanders supporters, which was pretty cool.
  • I’m seeing the importance of “Weak Links” as well.  Just running events for a club really makes a difference for people.  Organizing people matters perhaps as much as anything else.

So that’s it for now.  Any insights on your end?

Started your civic diary yet?

– Steve

Sailor Moon Update 5/12/2016

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

And where’s the Sailor Moon Book?

. . at the editor. Sorry, no much of an update there.  It’s a waiting game now.

I’m hoping to get it back this month- if we get it in time, Bonnie and I can edit it together as we’ll be visiting each other.

We can hopefully do editing all in one go, which will easily beThe book itself is not large – about 160+ pages when formatted for print – so we can probably manage a first run edit in a reasonable time.

At that point we’ll likely do a handoff between us, each take one more shot at editing, then I’ll format it for Kindle and Print. Print pre-copies are also great to look for problems.

Still on track for September, so stay tuned!

– Steve

Way With Worlds Update 5/12/2016

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

Whew! Guess who’s got a book about Worldbuilding, formatted for Print and Kindle? This guy.

Of course that doesn’t mean the book is ready, it’s ready-ish. I’d reached the point where I’d edited the hell out of the book and decided it was time to format it – formatting is a great way to find all your editing mistakes as you go through the book. Now I’ve got a Kindle version that looks good and a print version on the way so I can check it out.

Which of course means I’ll probably find plenty of mistakes – print copies are great for that. But at least now any changes will be made to the configured, checked, edited, and most importantly ready-to-go final copies.

(which I realize doesn’t make them exactly final, but you get he idea)

So what this means is that Way With Worlds Book 1 is in its final rounds. Barring any major accidents, it’ll definitely be out late July.

Of course the reason I’m not pushing it faster is:

  1. I have book 2 coming from the editor in less than a month, and I figure a go-over of that may help.
  2. I’ve got the Sailor Moon book coming back from that editor and really need to take a crack at that with my co-author, so we’ll probably blow a whole weekend editing.

Still, it’s closer all the time. I think you’ll find it’s worth the wait . . .

– Steve

No Man’s Sky: My Concerns

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

With No Man’s Sky (NMS), the giant procedural space game coming out, I am gladly analyzing as A) I game, and B) I love procedural generation. So let’s turn back all my speculation on what could be and focus on what could go wrong.

As much as I am enthused about it, I can see areas where the game could have problems. I’m going to explore these areas, so we can review how right/wrong I was – which should be useful to measure both my predictive abilities and how the NMS team works!

Now to make this more useful, I’m going to rank the chances these things could go wrong as Red (at least 50% chance), Yellow (50-25%) and Green (under 25%).  These are not necessary interest-killers or will make it a bad game – but it would be a problem for enjoying it and experiencing the game.

Now let me get predicting:

High-pressure Survival Grind (Red): NMS is a survival game, but my concern is that the game is going to mix high-pressure survival with tedious grind – you’ll be on the edge of your seat all the time, but the edge is going to feel the same and never end. That’ll get both stressful and boring, and that would be an interest-killer.

Hopscotch (Red): Planets may be procedural and bursting with detail, but I’m also concerned that planets could be clusters of neat stuff separated by not so neat. This means hat exploring a planet is really a game of scanning-and-flying hopscotch that will also turn into a kind of grind. My concern is that this would not be optional but required to really experience the game.

Pacing (Red): You start out with little equipment on a distant world, have to survive, and eventually build your technology and resources.  Sounds standard, but unless the game is carefully designed, you could experience highly erratic pacing – most likely a slow start but a surprisingly fast end if you max out equipment (see below).  I also see potential pacing issues in different worlds and goals making it extremely hard to predict what one has to do to achieve a goal – because of the procedural generation.

Every Planet Different – And The Same (Yellow): I’m pretty confident the planets themselves will vary interesting, but not quite confident every planet will be different enough to warrant interest in exploring it a lot. I could be wrong (which I why this is yellow), and the NMS team seems to want to avoid this, but I can’t shake the concern. It seems like there’s a lot of impressive math, but what I’ve seen suggests some relatively standardized environments and all planets are single-environment. That can get boring – it’ll be new then quickly seem the same.

Stretches Of Boredom (Yellow): I don’t mind a bit of boredom or peace. But one of my concerns about NMS is that it’ll have uncontrollable stretches of boredom, stuck on dull worlds and sectors of space.  Good visuals and environments will alleviate or eliminate this (yes, you spent 30 minutes looking for a mineral but it looks awesome).

Topped Off (Yellow): There’s supposed to be all sorts of ships and blueprints to find, but I’d be concerned the game could have some people max out their equipment and the like too early – loosing challenge and initiative. It’s procedural, so it may be hard to put pacing into the game.  This is part of my larger concern about Pacing (above).

The Hunt (Yellow): Certain items, equipment, minerals may be vital for parts of the game, for equipment – but for some players they may be out of reach (again, due to procedural generation). If it’s not something people can find/buy/substitute for in a reasonable amount of time the game may be frustrating.

Same Old Equipment (Yellow): We get various ships, suits, and Omnitools, but from what I see they’re mostly about premade traits and various plugin spaces. Not sure they’re going to be that interesting after awhile.  Are you going to go that far to get an Omnitool that moves a plugin space to one grid cell further rightward?

It Doesn’t Hold Together (Green): Though I trust Hello Games on the Lore, I’m concerned that it won’t be experienced enough, in enough context, to keep interest. The game may not need a story, but it’s sense of experience requires Lore.  The whole thing could not cohere, have no sense of “there.”

Different, But Not Different Enough (Green): I’m mostly confident Hello Games can deliver varied worlds – but not entirely convinced it’ll be different enough for a whole game.  I’m concerned that past a certain point – say about 70% of the way – things will start looking too much alike.  I’m aware we’ve only seen a limited subset of worlds, but I’m not totally convinced.  Yzheleuz and Phlek do give me some hope.  This is one of my lesser concerns, but if planets aren’t different enough from each other and individual planets are large stretch of “same” (above) it’d get boring fast.

So there’s my concerns, roughly boiling down to:

  • Most concerned about serious pacing/challenge issues
  • Mildly concerned about equipment, resources, and variance on a planet.
  • Slightly concerned about lore coherence and worlds varied enough.

What concerns do you have?

– Steve