MMO Mechanics: No Man’s Sky is mechanically genius (an ode to procedural generation)

No Man’s Sky has been on my hotly anticipated list for so long, and you might remember that it has had particular mention in a previous MMO Mechanics entry in which I discussed several in-development titles that promised some amazing mechanics. Awe, wonder, and the thrill of discovery pull the player onwards while specifically engineered feelings of loneliness, danger, and tedium add just enough realistic grit to make gathering and exploration feel immersive and challenging. In this edition of MMO Mechanics, I’m going to walk you through Hello Games’ stunning title with an eye on its mechanics, particularly the use of procedural generation to incentivise exploration and depth.

img 2The mechanics of language

One of the most interesting mechanics employed in NMS to create a sort of interaction-based reward for our efforts is how our characters glean an understanding of alien languages and how, by proxy, this increases the player’s understanding of what those aliens want from your character. Vocabulary is gained directly by experience and immersion within the game world: Talking to NPCs, stumbling across ancient ruins, and learning about a race’s history and beliefs through plaques can all help to build up that core vocabulary in order to make successful transactional exchanges more likely.

The sentient species each have their own languages, and players must learn the needed vocabulary to pick out some sort of meaning from the garbled mess that is early dialogue in NMS. A particular race called the Gek even uses smell to communicate, wafting vile, nauseating odours at offenders that are strong enough to permeate those exosuits! Sure, a lucky player might guess at what that NPC is attempting to convey without having an understanding of their language, but getting things wrong does usually have some sort of consequence to discourage guesswork. Learning more of a race’s language and history most definitely made me feel as though I was getting to know those NPCs and their story: I actually really missed the Gek when I jumped a few star systems away from where I first encountered them, for instance.

Reputation and trade are key components in this exploration game, so making friends and not enemies on your travels is important enough to incentivise the player to gain some rapport with the sentient species. Just as with real-world travellers and explorers, faux pas can happen due to ignorance and a lack of understanding, but the clever traveller will immerse him or herself in the native culture before pushing too far into any important interactions. I appreciate the complexity of this system and wish that mainstream MMOs would focus more on cultural diversity, traditionalism, superstition, and language to enrich the virtual worlds we conquer.

img 3Ships, suits, and space stations

Space stations are amazing hubs for NPC interactions that make star systems tick and facilitate trade between NPCs and the character. Within these stations also exists a great yet simple mechanic for upgrading your ship: You can offer to buy these NPCs’ ships, which is a convenient way to increase your inventory space by upgrading to a larger vessel. Some ships are really very cool-looking and are also procedurally generated, which is a very nice touch since ship hunting is about both form and function due to the vast array of ship part configurations that can crop up with similar practical uses.

Two ships can be mechanically identical — having the same number of slots and the same upgrades — but one can look about 1337% more badass, and I know that my rig needs a significant amount of badassery in a game in which I don’t know what my character even looks like! I’m a Guild Wars 2 gal; I’m used to focusing on the cosmetic side of games and I use aesthetics to more readily identify with my game characters. I care about how my ship looks just as much as I care about finding amazing discoveries to catalogue: Procedural generation has made the possibilities seem endless in both camps.

img 4Environmental limitations and gathering

I can’t write an article about the mechanics derived from the procedural generation in No Man’s Sky without getting into the environments we explore and the ways in which we interact with them. The limited capacity of both ships and exosuits pairs with the gathering-focused nature of the game to make the player really think about their goals and priorities in a way that is fairly unique. I am always conscious of abusing the environment I’m exploring due to the presence of Sentinels — think of them as angry eco-warrior greenkeeper drones and you’ll not go too far wrong — but I also think about how useful the resources I am gathering really are. Will I need them to further my own goals, or do I have a good chance of trading them for what I need? If not, do I really want to fill up my space with the junk until I next have an opportunity to offload? Environmental mechanics such as ambient toxicity or extremely inclement or torrid weather conditions will also impact on my gathering decisions: Suits are fed isotopes to keep them charged, and taxing environments will deplete that charge.

Your life support system is upgradeable to allow for more time in these environments, however, and run stamina and jetpacks can also be made to last longer. As we gain more competency in the wild environs of the inhospitable planets we’re exploring, we can better harness the resources we find to improve our gear and thus our general survivability, making the centre of the galaxy seem like a much more achievable final destination than it seems when we begin in our busted-up vessel on the far reaches of the galaxy.

img 5One great leap inspires the next

Procedural missions are uncovered by scanning a planet and locating computer systems, transmission stations, or trading outposts, and even friendly fauna can help the player telegraph these wild worlds. The planet surfaces are simultaneously people-light (what’s a city?) but filled with points of interest, and the game does a fantastic job of naturally guiding you along to the next cool thing to see. Much of my time is spent actually looking for what I’m trying to find: Planetary inspection is a physically visual pursuit and I get a real kick out of the sense of immersion this searching creates. A scan from space will highlight one point of interest on a planet to get you started, and then some explorative footwork can uncover the rest on the surface.

I found a nice logic puzzle, for example, that was just a number sequence in which each answer was multiplied by an incrementor to create the next number in the sequence. That quick brainteaser, however, pointed me to a shipwreck that I could fix up. Finding monoliths unfolds lore elements that help players piece together the purpose of galactic exploration in No Man’s Sky better than a strictly linear story trajectory ever could. While some planet environments might feel similar, I will always find something unique on each one that adds further meaning to my virtual journey and renews my sense of purpose as I forge my way to the centre of the galaxy.

img 1Over to you!

It’s simply too early for me to tell you definitively whether this particular gem will shape up over time, but I think that it’s a fantastic indicator of the mechanical depth offered by No Man’s Sky that I am still not sure how large parts of the game work having finally been exposed to it. While I explore more and try to discover what lies at the centre of the galaxy, I feel as though my understanding of the implications set by such complex mechanics will only grow, so I’m incredibly excited to see where that leads the MMO industry. These guys have created a whole damned universe out of a wee bit of math and a whole lot of dreams, hard work, and imagination: I applaud the way in which the amazing minds at Hello Games reached for the stars and found the centre of their very own galaxy.

Have you been playing No Man’s Sky? What do you make of the mechanics? I’m sure you have a list of suggestions and improvements you could add to the development backlog, so why not share them with me in the comment section?

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to
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