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Tension

Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.

Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.

While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.

I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.

In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.

Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.

If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.

ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.

In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.

ONI Goes Gold

Another Klei game has graduated Early Access, showing the world how Early Access should be done.

I had stopped playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) back in March, because I was getting a bit overwhelmed with my longest-running base, but didn’t want to start over with a fresh one because there were some pending updates. I continued holding off because the release date was going to happen soon, then it got delayed, so I waited some more. Booting up the launch version last night was satisfying, like slipping into a well-worn chair after a month-long vacation.

For the most part.

New biomes have been introduced, new machines, new elements, new critters, and a new selection of theme asteroids with random modifiers like “metal-rich” or “magma channels” or “frozen core.” There are trees now, in certain locations, and an entire engineering path in which you can burn trees for fuel, turn them into ethanol, and so on. There are also some major changes to heat deletion, specifically removing some of the cheesy methods and making it more of a hassle.

At the same time… the (optimal) early game is pretty much identical. Construct some Outhouses, dig out some 16×4 rooms, make your vertical shafts three tiles wide for airflow and future-proofing reasons, dig out a basement for your Carbon Dioxide to settle so the Dupes don’t smother in their sleep, and so on. The Research tree has been rearranged, Skills have undergone a third (final?) revision, but everything you learned about the first 50 cycles or so is pretty much the same.

The one thing that stays interesting is the placement and types of geysers that can spawn. In the beginning there were only Steam geysers and volcanoes and such, but now there are ~19 different varieties that can radically change the trajectory of your entire game. For example, having a nearby Natural Gas Vent (i.e. geyser) means you can rush an early Natural Gas Generator and otherwise skip Coal power entirely. A water geyser, in whatever form, is pretty much required for any kind of long-term survival, so it’s good to find an early one and get that concern out of the way.

In many ways, ONI reminds me of Civilization in this regard. Many of the steps you undertake are the same, although early environmental resource placement can cause you to switch strategies. By the mid-to-late game though, all roads lead to Rome and you end up doing the same sort of things, e.g. the one that work, as you coast to an inevitable conclusion.

Granted, I haven’t made it to the endgame in the released version of ONI – or in the beta for that matter – so maybe they changed things up. Hell, there are some asteroid options like Rime, wherein everything is basically frozen except for the starting biome, causing you to be very concerned about generating heat instead of having to worry about cooling everything down like normal.

In any case, Steam says I have played 80 hours of Oxygen Not Included already, so even if the release version doesn’t capture my long-term attention, it’s because I have already spent a long time enraptured in its systems. It is decidedly NOT Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress, but it is another fun game from Klei (makers of Don’t Starve). If you like failing miserably several times before becoming lord of the elements, I recommend the game.

Time-Poor

I have not had much time for gaming for the past week or so, much to my dismay, and the next few weeks aren’t looking either. And by “time for gaming” I mean uninterrupted time specifically. This uncertainty has changed my usual gaming M.O.

For example, I now float between a number of titles. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a meaty title that I prefer to digest over time. It’s entirely possible to play it for 20 minutes or whatever, but you often lose the narrative in the process – it becomes much easier to start treating it as just another dungeon crawler than some kind of grand RPG.

Other times I will boot up ARK and collect resources until (in-game) nightfall and then get bored.

I have been actively trying not to play Oxygen Not Included, because while it is still engaging as hell, my base is hopelessly riddled with the equivalent of spaghetti code, and I get caught in priority loops that paralyze my planning. “I really need to get some plastic up and running. But that requires converting crude oil to petroleum. Maybe I could use that Iron Volcano to boil it? That means I need to prep the area to handle the 2000+ degree heat. Definitely need to solve the Polluted Water situation first though. Oh, and some Heavi-Watt Wire…”

This is not, strictly speaking, a very satisfying scenario. Each day, I am playing the game that I want to play in that moment and having fun. But it’s a shallow sort of fun. These sessions do not engage my mind, keeping me thinking at work about what I’m going to do when I get home. I very much prefer games that consume my life and take up residence in my mindspace. I need games that I look forward to playing, to the exclusion of all others.

And I have those games, technically. Just not the means (e.g. time) to satisfyingly play them.

Transition Gap

Sometimes gaming progress does not happen smoothly. Instead of one thing immediately leading into another, there is a sort of gap that must be leapt across. While not insurmountable, this break in progress can become a source of resistance to continuing to play a game at all.

ONI_IronVolcano

Oh, an Iron Volcano in my Ice biome. That’s gonna be a Future-Me problem.

I am playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) again. As I have described before, the game is deceptively easy at the start, but there are disasters looming in every detail. Some things are obvious, like your Dupes running out of Oxygen. Other things are much less so, like the fact that your Dupes just dug out a section of rock – which you told them to do – and then placed the 40°C (!!) rock in a storage container in the middle of your base, and now everything is heating up. Oops.

For the most part, it is generally easier to start a new game with a new map than it is to try and fix a disaster in progress. Plus, it’s fun seeing what goodies the RNG fairies might deliver to you. Cold biome nearby? Natural Gas Geyser ready to be tapped? Awesome.

Nevertheless, there is a specific transition gap that I inevitably reach and often quit playing rather than make the jump. In ONI, that gap is the Electrolyzer. This is a device that turns water into Oxygen and Hydrogen, and is pretty much the solution for breathable air for the rest of any ONI run.

It’s also a pain in the ass.

Up to this point, you make air by burning Algae, and it’s relatively straight-forward. With the Electrolyzer, you have to worry about piping the Hydrogen somewhere else, as otherwise it will clog the ceiling of whatever room you are in.

ONI_SPOM

Pictured: mythical SPOM

In ONI-land, there is the mythical SPOM, or Self-Powering Oxygen Module. This is a solved solution for creating an effectively infinite air source with no maintenance or upkeep aside from water; a Hydrogen Power station powers the Electrolyzer, which supplies the station with fuel.

Despite there being a ready-made solution to the problem, or perhaps in spite of this fact, I typically end my ONI runs here. The SPOM is not particularly intuitive, so I basically need to copy it part-by-part from a Youtube guide. Even if I don’t create the SPOM specifically, the Electrolyzer still necessitates your base to account for mixed gases. Ignore the problem long enough, and it’ll be even more a pain in the ass later.

Finally, even with a cut-and-paste SPOM, you still need a ton of water at the ready to feed the beast. Where will all that water come from? Typically, the only long-term solution is to find a Steam Geyser somewhere on the map, but that could take a while, and possibly be nowhere close to you. If you set up a functioning plumbing system, you can technically harvest some additional H20 via that route. Of course, that will also require extensive planning of your base, and how you’ll be handling the hot water that comes out of a Water Sieve.

Good times. Or, maybe not so much.

ONI_Base2019

Made the leap, not sure I’m enjoying the other side.

I have bridged the the Electrolyzer gap before. It’s not an insurmountable problem, especially considering the ubiquitous of the SPOM design in guides. It just takes a lot of mental headspace at a very specific moment in an hitherto casual colony management sim. Or rather, it is at this moment that Oxygen Not Included reveals itself to be a more complicated beast than you have imagined.

Many games have these transition gaps. The best designed among them either shorten the gap, or get you in the habit of hopping long before you reach the gap that matters. Otherwise, the devs risk players landing on their face. Or perhaps worse: practicing to make the leap, doing so, and then being bored on the other side.

Too Much Cheese

I have always had mixed feelings when it comes to Early Access games, but not always for the same reasons as everyone else. For example, one of the biggest dangers is getting hooked on a game that just never gets completed. Money dries up, development stops, you never get any sort of conclusion. I’ve never been too worried about that – either the game was fun when you played it, or it wasn’t.

No, my biggest concern is when the game gets better or more balanced… but I’m already done.

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a colony-management game from Klei that I started playing last year and it has gotten significant updates on the regular. Some new buildings, some new creatures, a sort of end-goal to strive for, and so on. Other things have not changed over the year, and it’s questionable whether they ever will. And that bothers me because some of the things that haven’t changed are broken mechanics.

One of the mid-to-late game threats in ONI is heat. In the beginning, you’re worried about Oxygen (hence the name), so you burn algae for air. Then you run out of algae. Switching to an Electrolyser allows you to turn water into Oxygen + Hydrogen, so you focus on getting clean water to burn, while finding a use for all the unbreathable Hydrogen (generally via Hydrogen Generator to power to the Electrolyser). This is another trap though, because the “free” Oxygen getting piped out is hot, and as your base heats up, your crops will fail. Thus, cooling things becomes a top priority.

While there are a number of “legit” ways to cool things down, the Water Sieve method is straight-up broken. Water Sieves are used to turn Polluted Water into normal Water, for use in bathrooms and such. The supposed downside of this is that the Sieve itself outputs relatively hot water at 40°C, which will gradually heat up your base and ruin your crops (which typically stop growing at 30-35°C). The real issue though is that the Water Sieve always outputs 40°C water… even if the Polluted Water was at a much higher temperature. Thus you get physics-bending/game-breaking (IMO) solutions like piping your clean water out of a Water Sieve and into an Aquatuner (which cools liquid down at the expense of heating itself up)… which is being liquid-cooled in a tank of Polluted Water… that you are piping to the Water Sieve.

Clever use of game mechanics, indeed.

Along the same lines, I have a 100% zombie-proof base in 7 Days to Die. It’s a tower with a nearby ramp and fence, along with a half-block on the other side of the fence. To the zombie AI, this half-block would allow them to jump again and land on the tower and start eating my face. In reality, once they hop over the fence, they miss the half-block, and plummet to the ground, taking damage. From there, they run back up the ramp and try again until they die again. I still try and kill them myself for the XP, but I have all the time in the world to line up the shots or try again if I miss. The devs have added a “tantrum” mechanic whenever a zombie tries to run a path and fails, but that just means the zombie will wail on a bunch of iron spikes.

There are two “easy” solutions to my “problems”:

  1. Don’t use these mechanics, and/or
  2. Don’t play these games yet

To which I would say:

  1. Handicapping myself via willpower alone isn’t fun, and
  2. These are precisely the type of games I want to be playing at the moment

If you have a list of non-Early Access survival/crafting games that I haven’t already played, by all means, let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to be over here stuffing my face with delicious cheese, and paying for it later.

Impressions: RimWorld

After becoming a bit impatient with Oxygen Not Included, I decided to buck my principles and buy the never-on-sale RimWorld. Technically though, I did get a discount through the Humble Store (10% off), so that’s the way I’d recommend going.

RimWorld_Base

My most successful colony.

If you have not heard of it before, RimWorld is a sort of colony-management game in the vein of Dwarf Fortress, with the visuals of Prison Architect. In the default scenario, you pick three survivors of a starship crash, and shepherd them through the trials and tribulations of life on a titular RimWorld. There is technically an end-goal of researching technology/production far enough to send at least one person back into space, but it’s a bit more of a sandbox than that.

Much like with Oxygen Not Included, your colonists are basically controlled via a granular priority system, augmented by their own mood and predilections. You can request that trees are cut down and the wood used to build a new room, for example, but it’s possible your colonists will start playing horseshoes or lay down on your solar panels to gaze at the clouds.

They can and will also do things like plop down a stack of turkey leather right in the doorway to your freezer, letting out all the cold air and potentially ruining your entire meat supply. There’s no real way to force a person to do one particular thing (aside from Drafting them for combat) – the best you can do is prioritize one thing to the maximum level, disable everything else, and hope for the best.

If the above examples seem silly… that’s kind of the point. Each colonist has an entire background narrative, with expanding needs and desires that influence their actions at any given point. Romances will form between two people, then a break-up, and suddenly one or both might experience a mild (or major) psychotic break due to the mood penalty said break-up causes.

Well, that social interaction plus seeing the colony pet terrier get killed by a Cobra, the fact that their bedroom is too small, and a number of other interactions over the last few days. Butchering the dead dog for its meat and then turning the leather into a hat probably also didn’t help things.

RimWorld_Lovin

“Lovin'” provides quite the stat boost.

The emergent narrative formed by these random, interacting systems is the heart of RimWorld.

Speaking of “random,” at the beginning of the game you get to choose the AI Storyteller and difficulty of your game. The default AI will throw increasingly difficult encounters your way (modified by game difficulty), ensuring that you never reach a point at which you become entirely stable. The other two AI choices give longer periods of calm, and completely random ones at random intervals, respectfully. I can appreciate the transparency of the system, even though it makes things… a bit game-y, I suppose.

In any case, I am enjoying my time thus far. There are still a lot of game elements that do not make complete sense – the Research system in particular is difficult to wrap my head around – but the sort of little narratives that emerge are pretty interesting. So, we’ll see.

Clever Flow

Despite not being initially impressed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI), I continued playing. And now I’m very impressed with the rather clever gameplay flow that Klei has touched upon.

ONI_Base2

My most successful base thus far.

Like I mentioned before, every game of ONI starts with three Duplicants appearing in the middle of an asteroid. While you have enough supplies for a few days, there is always a bit of a frenzy of activity hollowing out some living space for your Duplicants. Amusingly, toilets end up being actually a higher priority than even water. By the end of the second day or so, I’ve got a water pump set up, some toilets, a bunch of resource compactors (e.g. storage), some beds, a Microbe Musher, and perhaps a manual electricity generator hooked up to an Algae Deoxydizer.

This is where the subtle genius of the game design kicks in.

Ostensibly, your base seems self-sufficient. The Algae Deoxydizer is converting algae into oxygen, the Microbe Musher is turning dirt and water into Mush Bars (e.g. calories). And you presumably have a nice supply of water handy. For now, everything seems fine. Emphasis on the “for now.”

The whole time your Duplicants have been running around, they have been exhaling CO2. This pools in the lower reaches of your base, turning certain sections into unbreathable rooms. Even if you dig out a trench beneath your base for the express purpose of giving CO2 somewhere to go, it never actually goes away – it will eventually become dense enough to spill into upper rooms. So, you’re going to need to research technology to try and filter that CO2. Something like the Carbon Skimmer sounds great… but using that requires turning drinkable water into polluted water. Where is that polluted water going to live? Hmm, perhaps you need to research methods by which you can filter polluted water back into drinkable water…

And round and round we go.

While this seems like Game Design 101, I do appreciate the flow ONI has set up here. At times, things can seem incredibly frustrating insofar as a fundamental flaw in your base design reveals itself far too late for you to realistically do anything about it. But most of the time, I just get a bit more excited to start back over with a fresh world and learn from my mistakes.

ONI_IceZone

Found a valuable Ice biome… through a Chlorine-saturated hot zone.

And somehow, these sort of things feel like my mistakes, rather than the game being cruel. “CO2 is heavier than Oxygen, so of course I shouldn’t have built my beds on the bottom floor.” “Oh, damn, I accepted one too many Duplicants, and now my food generation isn’t enough.” “Shit, I have been relying on six different machines that consume algae, and now I’m running out!”

Oxygen Not Included is still in Alpha, so there are a lot of things that can change. While I’m having more fun with it than I was originally, in the back of my mind, I also sort of recognize that the game is “solved.” As in, there are optimal base configurations that maximize output and minimize waste. While the same could sorta be said for other survival games, the issue is that ONI is all about managing a finite amount of resources. With something like Don’t Starve, I could always just strike off and head into the wilderness and take a chance.

I dunno. The asteroid itself is randomly seeded with biomes each time, so I can see encountering special circumstances that might change a strategy. For example, most people head towards Electrolizers and Hydrogen Generators, because they combo really well in powering your base and providing Oxygen (at the expense of water). I was heading that way too, before I discovered a Natural Gas Geyser – geysers being the only source of renewable resources – within sight of my starting point. All of a sudden, I was rushing to figure out how to exploit burning natural gas. “OK, it dumps out polluted water and a bunch of CO2. The CO2 scrubber deletes CO2 and also produces polluted water, so I should pipe that through a Water Sieve to reclaim the pure water, then send that into an Electrolyzer… but what about the Hydrogen?”

Like I said, there is a lot about Oxygen Not Included that can be compelling.

For now though, I’m going to stop generating new worlds and wait for some more releases to flesh out the rest of the game. The recent “Rancher” update overhauled a lot of the alien critter mechanics, invalidating certain strategies and presumably enabling a few others. I’m hoping that after a few more of those kind of patches, we’ll start to see something resembling a story-mode, and/or a way to make the march to endgame a bit more varied. The Rancher updates does this a little, but I feel we still end up with Hydrogen Generators and abusing Wheezewort (cooling plants) mechanics.

Impressions: Oxygen Not Included

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a base-building and resource management game currently in Early Access, in the vein Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld. At least, that is what people tell me, as I have not played either one of those. What I have played is Craft the World (pt1, pt2), and ONI is basically that, minus the dwarves and goblins.

ONI_Base1

My first base. Doomed to failure.

The premise of ONI is actually kind of compelling. After picking three Duplicants from a roster of randomly generated ones, they appear in the middle of an asteroid. The ostensible goal is to survive as long as possible using what resources you have available. Instead of controlling them directly, you the player can generate and prioritize tasks like digging out certain squares, constructing machines, etc, and your Duplicants will work to make that happen. Contrary to the title, some basic oxygen is included in the form of oxygen-generating rocks, but it is not nearly enough to last long-term.

Indeed, oxygen-management is indicative of what you will be working on over the arc of the entire game. In the beginning, you will create machines that convert algae (mined from special squares) into oxygen to supply your base. However, your Duplicants exhale CO2, and that will gradually accumulate in the lower reaches of your base (science!). So, eventually, you are going to need to either research technology to convert that CO2 into some other form, or at least pipe it elsewhere. Meanwhile, you also have to grow food, find water, and research some method of disposing of all the poop (or polluted dirt, if you prefer) your Duplicants generate. Have I mentioned there are germs and stress to worry about too? And the fact that you are in the middle of an asteroid, so the whole “pump the CO2 elsewhere” is really just delaying the problem for another day?

ONI_Gases

Gas management is much better in my current base.

As of right now, I do not believe there is a story or “campaign mode” for ONI, and I do not know if there is any planned either. The goal is to survive as long as possible, and there are some very optimized base configurations out there to ensure that is the case. However… I’m not sure that is enough for me, game-wise. Klei’s other popular game, Don’t Starve, also features an implicit goal of surviving as long as possible against escalating threats. The end-state of death there though, usually comes from violence or mistakes rather than slowly running out of finite resources. I felt much more agency in Don’t Starve, in other words, even if the outcome was very similar.

What I will say is that Oxygen Not Included grabbed my attention very early with a compelling premise, and makes me wish there were more Terraria/Starbound/etc survival games out there that I haven’t already played . Hmm… maybe it’s time for RimWorld then…