By now, you should all know that Notch is creating his next game—a space sim, 0x10c, that lets you wander your ship, control it through an on-board computer, land on planets, and do all kinds of other stuff that he’ll probably come up with as he goes. But, what you may not know is that a handful of other developers were already developing similar games. Very soon, we may see a renaissance of space sims that give us a level of freedom never before seen in a game.
Rodina, scheduled for its initial release this year, sits proudly among these titles. So far, there’s only one video showing off some impressive footage—including dropping from a shuttle to a planet as large as earth and watching it automatically generate the terrain without any load times.
What it all comes down to is immersion. “The perfect game would never leave the player saying ‘Why can’t I explore my ship?’ ‘Why can’t I fly down to that planet?’ I think of games as interactive virtual worlds, and so I’ve always wanted to be able to poke around and explore all the areas that aren’t necessarily related to the plot, or the combat, or whatever,” said Brendan Anthony, the developer behind Rodina over at Elliptic Games.
“Plus, you can imagine lots of gameplay happening inside the ship. Just look at this new indie game coming out, FTL, where you manage a crew inside a ship and have to deal with all kinds of internal crises. It sounds like a blast!” he said.
The vision for the game is made pretty clear on the website. It states “There has yet to be a video game which delivers the experience promised by decades of science fiction like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Firefly.” The ability to freely explore planets, ships, and space from the perspective of the captain “have yet to come together in a single game which fulfills the dreamed-of worlds that scifi fans imagine. Rodina aims to be a small step in the direction of realizing those dreams.”
Being a gamer, Anthony said his main drive is to create game he also wants to play—one that breaks down walls of interaction and exploration.
“I love games that give me the freedom to explore and create and interact, without feeling like I’m on a guided tour. Too many games take the strategy that games should be like amusement parks, with the player just going on a series of designer-created rides and staying within the park limits,” he said. “That can be fun, but it misses an opportunity to create the feeling of real discovery that games can be so good at. I’ve always wanted to make a game without invisible walls, where the player can be surprised and delighted by what can emerge out of the basic game simulation.”
What he wants to do is make a game that encourages creative gameplay. Maybe you can hack the computers of an enemy ship and disable its weapons. Or maybe you hit the wrong button and accidentally release toxic gas in your engine room.
He said there’s a reason we don’t often see this level of experimentation in games. “I think a big part of the problem is that we think of games as storytelling machines, which leads designers to thinking about quests in terms of predetermined player actions and experiences. Of course, games being inherently interactive, trying to control the player experience will create problems, which designers then need to patch over.”
But there is a solution to this, and Anthony is doing quite a bit to break from it with Rodina. “Maybe the quest is too linear, so we need to write multiple branching pathways which provide an unsatisfying illusion of choice. Or the quest is too confusing, so we need to add obvious cues (like an X on the map) which gives the benefit of removing frustration at the expense of the joy of discovery. Or perhaps the player is ruining an exciting scenario by just wandering off instead of engaging with it, so we insert invisible walls or lock their controls,” he said.
“All of a sudden the designer is in the position of punishing the player for wanting to explore—that’s cutting off our nose to spite our face. Not to be hyperbolic, but it’s literally authoritarian (with an emphasis on ‘author’).”
But when it all boils down, this level of freedom is also granted by being independent—something Anthony said gives him “complete freedom.”
“There’s nothing like being the boss, and what I would like to do is experiment with entirely self-guided, emergent gameplay. Let’s just throw out this whole idea of telling a story, and instead construct a simulated world, with hackable computers and engine systems which can be sabotaged and poison gas to pump through ventilation. Let’s make a world with problems, and let the player solve them how she will. This isn’t exactly a new idea but it’s the one I’d like to explore,” he said.
“Again, you’ll just have to wait and see how all of this relates to Rodina, and to what extent the game will achieve this goal. I’m not ready to talk about the specifics of how the game is going to work quite yet.”
Although the game is in early development, his video does some pretty impressive stuff—particularly with procedurally-generated terrain. Anthony said, “it’s clearly the most developed part of the engine,” but the rest is still in early development.
“The terrain system is based on well-known Planet Quadtree techniques. I’ve learned a lot from those who went before me, especially the Infinity Engine devs and also Alex Peterson, also known as Petrocket. Their work and blogs have been instrumental in the production of Rodina so far,” he said.
“As far as the terrain itself, a lot of work goes into making sure each terrain chunk is the right resolution, that its edges and normals are stitched to its neighbors. It’s very complicated—by far the biggest class in the game is the one that handles terrain node management. Then there is Havok Physics management on top of that, the shaders with detail textures, multithreading to allow for the terrain to be generated without a loading screen, etc,” he said.
“The real question with the terrain generator is whether or not it will hold up on other people’s machines, and whether it will hold up as the terrain, and the game in general, become more complicated. It’s a bit of a gamble so we’ll have to wait and see.”