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8 August 2016

Searching for the endgame: is No Man’s Sky the last game you’ll ever need?

As we hit a hardware ceiling, and a few established franchises dominate each genre, we may be getting closer to an “infinite game”.

By Phil Hartup

As No Man’s Sky launches this week it is difficult for even a cynic like me not to be excited. It’s a game about exploration in a procedurally generated universe. The planets, aliens and plant life are created as you play – as opposed to having been created by an art team beforehand. The net result is a universe of near-infinite possibilities, yet one that should, in theory, maintain a degree of coherence depending on how well the variables mesh.

This isn’t to say that No Man’s Sky is doing something completely new. The first spacefaring game set within a procedurally generated universe that I ever played was Elite, around 30 years ago. It was all about lugging cargo and blowing up spaceships for money. The game generated its universe procedurally because making any sort of large game space and cramming it onto a floppy disk was simply impossible.

But No Man’s Sky breaks new ground in combining the procedural generation of terrain with the procedural generation of creatures who live on it. The last modern game to try this in detail was Spore, a horrible mess that demonstrated how not to do everything that it attempted. For all its faults, in some ways because of them, Spore demonstrates a game doesn’t need to be any good to be a valuable addition to the evolution of a genre.

We tend to see videogame advancement as intrinsically tied to hardware and iterative improvements of established franchises, but the reality is more nuanced. Every genre of game is its own thread with its own history, crossovers and iterations. As hardware reaches a point where it is no longer the main limiting factor in the evolution of games, associating games with their respective console generation loses its meaning. With some genres of game commonly available, hardware can easily handle any game design – for example, puzzle games, story-driven adventure games and so on.

A side-effect of reaching this hardware plateau is that we are seeing games that are so finely-tuned that it’s hard to imagine practical ways to make them better. Such games reach a point of perfection, not in the sense of being artistic masterpieces, more in the sense of being like a spring-loaded mousetrap; there simply isn’t a way to improve them.

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Some examples of games like this would be Rocket League, Counterstrike: Global Offensive and World of Warcraft.

The first is a Goldilocks porridge game if ever there was one – add more to it and it would become too complex for the casual gamer, take anything away and it would lose the skill ceiling that gives players something to aim at.

CS:GO may well be replaced down the line with an official sequel that consumes its player base, but we’re still looking at a franchise that has been fine-tuning the same fundamentals for over 15 years.

World of Warcraft had an entire genre of games effectively dedicated to emulating it, and they all failed because they couldn’t get as many things right. Game developer Blizzard has a knack of looking at what works and what doesn’t across whole genres, and, as a result, creates games that don’t look or feel particularly original but nail whatever it was they set out to do.

In some ways this is a sobering thought; as videogames hit their design ceilings in their various genres we might be starting to see the final forms of certain games. The future of some genres could amount to tinkering and graphical improvements but with an underlying sense that this is what this kind of game is like forever – be it a football game, or a fighting game, or a driving game.

Will FIFA 36, for example, be particularly different from FIFA 16? As somebody who remembers playing FIFA 95, I doubt it. In genres dominated by a few established franchises, where does change come from? And is it even seen as necessary?

In contrast, the pioneering spirit seen in No Man’s Sky is what makes it exciting. Well, on top of the obvious appeal of flying around in space and poking weird aliens with sticks. It’s a new entry to the spacefaring adventure genre. For all the effort that has been sunk into this type of game by developers down the years, we’re still nowhere near an end point.