I recently completed No Man’s Sky (or at least, as much as you can complete it). Spoilers will appear in my design analysis so you are forewarned. This is a new series in which I pick apart the bad components of games and attempt to fix them through my knowledge of game design.
MAIN STORY SPOILERS BELOW
No Man’s Sky is a Minecraft styled planetary resource collection adventure game. You collect resources, turn them into upgrades that make you more efficient, and then explore the galaxy. The primary goal is to get to the center of the galaxy, and if you succeed you are rewarded with another galaxy to explore. That is effectively where I stopped playing the game. There is a side story about Atlas, which allows you to create a new star, but otherwise seems to tell you that following the path laid out by the developer is a fool’s errand... However, I haven’t fully translated the Atlas’ words yet.
I planned to redo the Atlas quests in the new galaxy, but as it turns out, the Atlas questline never comes up again, so even if you collect 100% of the Atlas words (if that's even possible), you have to do that BEFORE you engage in the Atlas questline. A frustrating design choice, to say the least.
One of the main problems with No Man’s Sky is that the sense of progression that makes the early portions of the game so compelling, quickly falls apart once you have the majority of upgrades and complete your 48 slots of inventory space.
These two things effectively cuts down on 70% of the fun exploration aspects of the game. Buildings become much less important (only trading areas where you can sell goods off are still needed), and it makes exploration much less fun.
Progression – Sub-space Home
The most important thing missing, and the one that actually had me baffled when I never got it in my playthrough, was a place to call home. A place where you could store critical materials you wanted for later, as well as capture and place creatures and plants you had found on your journey. The whole time I was seeing crazy things on planets (and taking screenshots), I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I had a house to decorate and I could grab these plants and animals and put them there? Then allow other players to tour your home for that sense of achievement and sharing that is sorely lacking from the game.
Add on yet another layer of building and creating inventory space in the home and you have another 10+ hours of good times for the player. Just require the player to be outside a planet’s atmosphere to access it (same as the warp drive), and you have plenty of reasons for them to fly in and out of planets for the additional storage.
Inventory Fix – Progression
The easiest and most obvious fix for this is to add tabs for inventory space on the player. If they had simply done that, the players sense of progression and the need for Units (the in-game currency) would remain throughout. For example, if they just added one tab and made each new slot cost 2 million units, people would be very interested in gathering money and filling in those slots.
Continue the cost increases on the inventory slots, and you effectively maintain the sense of character progression for at least one entire playthrough. Add up to 5 tabs and I doubt anyone would ever complete their inventory in years.
Upgrades Fix – Progression/Variety
For a game that relies so heavily on procedural generation of planets, animals, and perhaps even galaxies, it’s bizarre to me that they wouldn’t look for procedural variation in their itemization. They have all the variables needed to do so, and it would have added many many many hours of additional gameplay for people who like to collect things.
So for example, instead of having a Sigma, Tau, and Theta that is an incremental upgrade of your mining beam’s ability to destroy rocks. Why not have a Sigma, Tau and Theta version that varies in where its stats are focused. So you might find a Beam Focus Destruction Sigma, which destroys chunks of a resource faster as you are mining than the Beam Focus Spread Sigma, which increases the area of the resource being destroyed. You could have individual variation within that where you expose the stats, and see that you found a Beam Focus Spread Sigma that affects 50 to 100 cm more than the other Beam Focus types, and thus you now have variation and incremental periodic upgrades for players to be seeking.
If you wanted to cheat, you could even check what they have on their multi-tool and put a leash on the range of what they find next (e.g. they have the 60cm version, so when that type drops again, it’ll be 61cm to 70cm). All of the upgrades can be generated in this way, adding a significant amount of replayability (as people change tactics from one to another), as well as keeping that feeling of progression throughout.
Upgrades Recipes – Progression/Variety
Along with the Upgrades Fix I mentioned, you could maintain the recipe building by adding a secondary pop-up window during the construction process where you get to tweak your variables on the thing you are creating. However you can only tweak them to the degree that you have found that level of upgrade.
In the prior example, if you build a Beam Focus Spread Sigma, you can only build one with a spread up to the number of cm of the upgrade type you have found. Alternately, you could forego building anything and require players to find these upgrades in the world and then apply them to their ship or suit. Either would work, though the latter would require a bit more work, and the former would have the player’s recipe menu explode to gigantic proportions. Allowing the player to tweak the variables once they’ve “learned” a recipe would feel more appropriate for the game.
Inventory Fix – Buy/Sell/Trade
One of the most annoying oversights, and the easiest to fix, is to simply add a button or modifier key that allows you to increment or decrement excess resources by 1 inventory slot worth of that resource (250). Each inventory slot on the character is 250 resources, so having a modifier that allows you to instantly set your selling of a good to 250 makes perfect sense. It would have cut down on probably the most annoying aspect of selling resources in the game, and it’s undoubtedly an easy fix.
The Path of Atlas – Story/Progression Fix
What a horribly missed opportunity here. I can’t even fathom why they would build this unique space, screaming for a boss fight, and then simply not do one in it. Not only that, but the main point of Atlas seemed to be to indicate that the player following the path the developer set out for them was enslaving themselves to the developer’s will when they should be out exploring on their own and doing what they want. I got it... I got it.
I still have to get enough Atlas words to translate the full text of what Atlas was saying (as opposed to what the narrator was intimating), but I doubt the gist of it will change too much. That said, if the point of Atlas was to make the player feel enslaved and like the path was pointless, add on a bunch of normal MMORPG style quest lines into the Atlas using the procedurally generated stuff.
For example, you go to Atlas 1 and it looks at a planet in the system and tells you to go get X Venom Sacs (or Gravitino balls, or whatever) and bring them back to it. Maybe it tells you to go to a nearby planet with animals and to name them all Poosnake. So many things could have been done to add hours of gameplay onto that main path, but I did the whole Atlas series in probably an hour just jumping from one to the next. No boss fight, no real sense of loss (hell those Atlas stones made me a ton of units), and an obvious somewhat ham-handed message that I was trapped in a simulation. Meh.
The Ending – New Galaxy Fix
To be fair, this actually was my favorite part of the game. What??? If you don’t know, what happens when you reach the center of the galaxy is that it pans back out to the edge of the galaxy and then you find a new galaxy, and you are crashed on the surface there with every system on your ship and multitool wrecked.
You must dismantle your upgrades to get the iron to rebuild your mining laser, but other than that, you're starting from square one. Only this time you probably already have maximum inventory space, so the feeling of progression is almost gone. After that, it's all the same, other than the variations between the planets.
The journey was supposed to be what mattered, but either through ambivalence or ineptitude we were given hope that there would be so much more, and the game slowly grinds that hope into stardust.
You can watch the ending:
Procedural Planets Player Markers - Player Generated Content Fix
With all those procedurally generated galaxies, there are probably more missed opportunities in No Man's Sky than there are grains of sand on the beach.
Why did they not develop even simple tools that would allow players to leave their marks within the worlds? To drop a cache of goods in an amazing underwater cove they discovered? To place a sign indicating where a player might find a massive dinosaur looking creature with a unicorn horn.
I find these amazing worlds, and see signs of simulated life, but the only indication of another human being out there is the name they put on the planet.
I never found a named creature, a named plant, even that would probably have been sufficient because of the great effort I put into naming some of my more interesting finds. However, those names never appeared to me, and as I came to the end of my 169 hour journey with No Man's Sky, it became apparent that all the names I had written into the world would wash away with the tide as well.
It's a lonely universe out there, and I guess that was their point..