I spend a lot of time thinking, talking, writing, designing, and playing video games. And one of the inevitable concerns that people have is what benefit do they individually or as part of a collective get from video games. Don’t worry, I still think pitchforks are for moving hay, and I’m certainly not turning your monitor off and telling you to go outside and play – where you would either play something video game inspired or just go over to a friend’s house. But it’s an honest question. There have been a lot of games where I’ve finished them and not been enriched, either by the journey or the destination.
I happen to be in the beta test for Edge of Space, which one of the second generation 2-dimensional games inspired by Minecraft. Terraria was the original game where Minecraft’s voxels, the 3D equivalent of pixels, were smushed back down into tiles. Terraria went into decline, as the lead designer wanted to spend more time with his newly expanded family (good man) and from what I observed, the community gradually became more entitled/dissatisfied. So with the king going out on top, the second generation of games went in to development. One of the most highly anticipated is Starbound by Chucklefish Ltd. Chucklefish was started by Terraria’s graphics designer Finn “Tiy” Bryce after development ceased. It’s a second bite at the apple with a larger team and over $1.5 million in pre-orders so far. Probably the second most anticipated is… well… it’s Terraria. After licensing out the title to separate companies for porting to both PS3 and XBox360, Andrew “Redigit” Spinks decided to resume development on the game. Expanding the world, adding creatures & biomes, and soliciting more feedback from the community.
But ok, enough game genealogy and back to Edge of Space. They’re the plucky upstart in the number three slot, and they even have Redigit’s blessing. Without any big names they’ve had to grind their way up through traditional channels – Kickstarter, Direct Sales, Desura, Steam Greenlight, and now Steam Early Access. The game has a lot of really cool and interesting ideas. The crafting system is interesting in that any tile you excavate is useful in crafting – from uranium to dirt. Each one has 3+ adjectives associated with it (such as Non-Organic, Mineral, Ore, or Radioactive) that allow it to be used in a variety of different recipes, depending on the matter you have available. This feeling of always making progress, even when you’re don’t making much vastly reduces the sense of futility encountered in other games this style. Until in the case of Edge of Space it doesn’t. I recently had a world, where I could excavate biomass out my ears, but couldn’t seem to find more than 2-3 bundles of aluminum ore (metal).
That’s when these questions like “How am I using my time?” or “What am I getting out of this?” start to creep in. When you’re facing that one rocket droid with the bugged AI – it takes 50 shots from the rifle you managed to craft and he doesn’t even drop anything. When you have to kill 83 space jellyfish to build the 50 under-powered lamps, to light the shaft where there might be – oh wait, no minerals here either. Many games fall prey to this love affair with procedurally generated content, as it’s a fast and cheap way to generate a lot of content. But that same enthusiasm is nowhere to be found when it’s time to fine tune it, to figure out how the game actually plays. I went online to try to figure out what I’m doing wrong and aside from a few small tweaks here and there basically the game is in a really early state from a systems standpoint.
One of the things that makes Terraria so great is that it cuts out a lot of the bullshit that’s such a barrier to entry to games such as Minecraft. Gone is moving blocks around in a grid to make an item – most people consult a wiki anyway. Gone is the total lack of external guidance. Added are crafting substations, that keep the number of choices from being overwhelming. And all of these small design decisions give the player a sense of progress as well as a sense of accomplishment. Edge of Space on the other hand is in the “Let’s develop this game together!” phase of beta testing, which isn’t bad but I think it put some undue stress on the dev team as it got a front page Steam banner a little while ago, which gives many people a different impression as to its playability.
As of now I’ve spent 180 hours of game time playing Terraria and it’s a game that’s given me a lot. I’ve spent time with friends in graduate school, figuring out how to kill Skeletron while we worried about our futures. I’ve played with my brother from the very beginning, getting the chance to play co-op with someone who might not always consider video games his thing – Portal 2 was the gateway drug, and we even have played some Borderlands 2 since then. I’ve weathered Goblin Armies, Snow biomes, and that one time when two Eyes of Cthulu showed up at the same time. There was my first time playing it where I didn’t understand that you had to work with the natural features of the land, and couldn’t just dig straight down to achieve any sort of meaningful progress. I feel like there’s a life lesson there, if I think about it a little bit.
Just to make my stance on this game completely clear, I think Edge of Space is incredible. I think the creative talent both in quality and quality is impressive and the focus on their community is mind-boggling. This is my personal experience with one particular world seed and a lack of understanding on how to play effectively – I will ding Handyman Games for that last one. But when you’re in the midst of something so epic and vast, without being able to accomplish your limited self-generated goals, the mind does begin to wander. As a result, I experienced something uncomfortable, isolating, alienating, and beautiful. I’m enormously hopeful that as the game progresses through beta, some of the systems will begin to tighten up, I get better at playing, and a more progressive experience will appear.