Vague Patch Notes: The stuff that has me excited about Stars Reach

in awe of the size of this lad

Raph Koster is a smart guy. Not just an experienced one (he’s that, too), but a smart one. The man knows his stuff front to back, and while there are things on which I may disagree with him, it’s not like it comes from a place of disrespect. Having said that, I know Stars Reach is not exactly 100% my jam because while our talented editor-in-chief has been waiting for a conceptual Star Wars Galaxies 2 for years, the prospect does not sell me on the game because I do not have a burning desire for Star Wars Galaxies in the first place, and only some of that is the “Star Wars” part.

But as I mentioned at the start, Koster is a smart guy who has not spent the past several years sleeping, nor is he trafficking on the idea that he made a beloved game hoping to bleed your Nostalgia Dollars out through a Kickstarter. (He’s not doing a Kickstarter at all, which is a mark of distinction right there.) So today I wanted to highlight some of the things that already have me nodding my head in appreciation of his upcoming game.

So what now?

Story and guidance in a sandbox space

I’ve written a whole column about how sandboxes need to provide guidance and a path for players to follow just like any other video game; the gist is that it’s all well and good to let players just unleash themselves on the world without any sort of guidelines, but if you don’t have a goal to start working toward, it’s going to be harder to hook people. And if you don’t have a sense of a world and a place to care about, it gets even more difficult.

SWG had the benefit of the attachment to the intellectual property, so some of that was just pre-baked into the game. Stars Reach does not have that. But it’s very clear that Koster is aware that he needs to have some guidance and story rolling even as he wants to let players shape big chunks of what is happening and what the state of the world is. This is a complicated line to cut, no bones about it, but it’s also an important one because when done correctly it allows for not just guidance but investment in the game world.

We all know that no game really allows you to do anything. Every game has built-in limits and rails. But a game that gives you no idea of where you’re going, why you’re doing it, or even what you’re building toward is hard to hook into for a lot of people even with a wide-open sandbox. Creating space for a narrative, an evolving concept, and a place for players to get locked into the worlds around them is a great way to get players in the door and eager to build and play.

And when you pull that off right, that’s the sort of thing that gets people eager to kick up some sand in the sandbox. Which brings me to my next topic.


Making use of tech

While Koster has definitely harnessed his own buzzword with “cellular automata” and is doing his best to make fetch happen, it’s also very clear from his own words that he knows what his system is made to do. Calling it the most advanced procedural generation ever is a good flex as well, but it also leverages something that is easy to lose track of amidst the nearly civilization-demolishing levels of false hype around AI. And Koster clearly knows this because he points out that these models are basically just Markov chain engines as generative tools.

For the scale of what he wants to build, you absolutely need some procedural generation to flesh out the galaxy simply because the alternative is flatly insane. You cannot hand-craft thousands of planets and manually govern every scrap of life on each one. But you can hand-craft parameters and then let the planets respond appropriately. And as he points out, if you get enough players into the mix willing to mess with it, what’s out on the other side won’t feel quite so random any longer.

Procedural generation does not fill the need for content, but the point here is that it’s not being used to do that. Procedural generation is being used to fill the need for materials. The content is how you handle it. I can’t rule out that it’s going to have some hands elsewhere in the game’s content pipeline in theory, since I haven’t played the game and am not working on it, but what we’ve seen so far is a really smart use of advanced technology to fill up space in a laudatory way.

But there’s another, more subtle thing that is here in every line even of just the feature list, and even with things we don’t know about yet.

The game is trying different things

Right in our initial interview, Koster makes it clear both that he’s aware of the potential for griefing outside of PvP and the need to address it, even if the team is clearly not completely settled yet on how to do so. And I don’t begrudge him not being there yet. I think that it is hard to come up with a system that allows boundless player freedom while also making sure that you don’t spell curse words on the side of your spaceship.

But nothing was in there about the social penalty for PvP. Sure, we know that player-run planets will likely be able to set some rules for doing so, there will be some emergent systems, but Koster is not pulling out one of the most tired penalties for bad behavior and acting like this time it’ll prevent people from being jerks, which makes sense as he’s admitted to his past mistakes on that front.

That, in and of itself, gives me hope. There’s a lot of stuff in here that is embracing older design philosophies, but there’s nothing that gives me the sense of trying to apply an old solution that didn’t work before in the hopes that this time it’ll solve the problem. It’s clear to me that this is being made as a new game, trying new things, and exploring new angles and approaches. That is a good thing.

We’ve had several years of nostalgic projects that pull ideas directly from the past while ignoring the reasons why the industry and games have changed. This is not what Stars Reach is doing. It is not looking back on the older days and saying that everything was better in the antediluvian Before Times and we are now fallen; it’s looking at how things have developed over the past decades and saying, “What if we build what we wanted back then but didn’t have the tech to do? What if we try new solutions? What if we bring back some old ideas and some new ideas to boot?”

Sure, all of this is going to be execution-dependent, and the man himself says that the proof is in the pudding. (Ironically, before I read the interview I used that exact phrase, and Bree noted that he had also used that phrase.) But I think it’s starting from the right place. There are things I’m not yet sold on, sure, but I’m very interested to see where this is going from here even as someone on the periphery of the potential audience.

(Minor postscript: If you’re looking for the column where I write about things I’m not excited about, it’s coming on the seventh of never.)

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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