Per Aspera is one of those games you can become obsessed with far beyond its actual quality.
In short, the game is about terraforming Mars – a surprisingly crowded field these days. You are an experimental AI in charge of turning the red planet green, and must plan out a series of resource mines, factories, and resolve supply chain issues on your way. While you go through this process, you (the AI) will reflect on some of the philosophical ideas surrounding artificial consciousness, your role in terraforming Mars, and some political intrigue as major players swap out.
One of the reasons I don’t actually like the game is because it’s poorly paced. When you first start your journey, you have a single hub building providing minimal electricity, one worker rover, and some basic building materials. Your primary goal is to create a 2nd worker while acknowledging the existential threat of not having a Maintenance Facility, which is a building that’s required to keep everything else from decaying in the Martian atmosphere. One carrot, one stick. Okay. So what’s the path?
- Worker Factory = Parts + Electronics + Glass + Aluminum (and Steel to construct)
- Parts Factory = Steel + Aluminum
- Electronics Factory = Silicon + Aluminum
- Steel Factory = Iron + Carbon
- Glass Kiln = Silicon
- Aluminum Mine = Steel
- Silicon Mine = Steel + Aluminum
- Iron Mine = Aluminum + Silicon
- Carbon Mine = Aluminum + Iron
- Maintenance Facility = Polymer + Electronics (and Aluminum and Steel to construct)
- Polymer Factory = Chemicals + Carbon
- Chemical Plant = Aluminum + Steel
- Solar Farm = Aluminum + Electronics + Glass
Basically, every fucking thing.
So you’ll start by building an Aluminum and Silicon Mine, then a Glass Kiln. This will get you far enough to place a Solar Farm or two, as your original landing hub won’t have enough juice to power many more mines/factories. Then you can get started on Iron and Carbon Mines to fuel a Steel Factory. And so on.
This entire time though, you have one single worker rover, which means it carries a single resource at a time to a location. Does something take six total resources to craft a particular building? That’s six trips. The game offers a speed boost up to 16x, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know.
To say that the game is a slow burn is an understatement.
Having said that, I did start feeling the coals after a while. As soon as you get that second worker, things accelerate significantly. The 3rd/4th/Nth workers pop out as soon as you build the corresponding Worker Hubs, and you can get busy planning your expansion across the Martian surface. Your growth is kept in check by building limits, which is tied to Tech trees, which is tied to Research Points, which is tied to hosting human colonist and keeping them alive with Ice and Food. A lot of things to keep you busy planning and expanding.
Of course, it all grinds to a halt again in the mid-game when you slowly realize that “choices” aren’t really choices. Goal: increase temperature at Martian polar ice caps to release frozen CO2. Looking at the tech tree, you see things like “Construct Satellite Mirrors” and “Aerobrake Comets” and “Import Greenhouse Gases from Earth,” along with some lesser stuff like Greenhouse Gas Factory. What isn’t immediately obvious is that the comet is a one-time deal, and the Mirror project only heats things up by about 20% of the total. You’re back to doing all of the things, this time limited by how many Spaceports you build rather than Worker rovers.
And spoiler alert: there’s a third grind at the endgame, notwithstanding however long it takes to get a breathable atmosphere. The last two hours of my “playtime” consisted of me having the game run at 16x while I dicked around on my phone.
Ultimately though, I did stick around to the bitter end. Why? It’s hard to say. The existential musings were a bit basic compared with other titles, but they seasoned the stew. And this was a very, very long-burning stew. But perhaps in a cognitive dissonance sort of way, I began to really enjoy myself once I saw Mars starting to change. Once water appears, the game just feels different. You start needing to place Water Treatment Plants near the water, but take care that they won’t get flooded should you continue to pump up the water table. Some unique buildings require you to use craters rather than just placing willy-nilly, and that changes up how you approach base design and/or expansion.
I haven’t played many other sims like this, so I cannot really speak for whether Per Aspera is more worth your time than Surviving Mars or whatever else is out there. Hell, I’m conflicted as to whether it was worth my time to play Per Aspera at all. But I did play it for just shy of 30 hours in less than two weeks, so that’s worth something.
Pacing is an incredibly important concept in game design. Pacing can be defined by the ability of a game to remain fun and novel for a player throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the gaming experience. In other words: for a game to end while you are still having fun. Otherwise perfect games can be destroyed by bad pacing, even if you had immense amount of fun while playing, simply because you often remember your final experiences with a game more than the first ones.
Pacing is also almost entirely subjective, often depends on variables outside of designers’ control, and is sometimes impossible to force.
I was thinking about pacing the other night as I was playing Fallout 4. I am basically at a point in the game where what I do doesn’t matter. I am level 46, I walk around in the highest-level Power Armor 24/7, I have 25,000+ caps, and have more than enough supplies to build whatever kind of Settlements I want, if I ever cared to do so.
There is nothing left to challenge me. This fact was rubbed in my face last night when I fell down into a basement area and a Legendary Alpha Deathclaw walked into the room, 10 ft away. I shot it with a Gauss Rifle around 3-4 times and it died, never having the opportunity to even attack. This is on Survival difficulty.
For all intents and purposes, I am done with the game. But the game isn’t done.
This is not Fallout 4’s fault, per se. RPGs are always tricky to balance, even when they are on rails, simply because grinding XP to out-level challenging content is a pretty standard, time-tested strategy. Add in an open world, and pacing pretty much goes out the window. Or, at least, there is an implicit expectation in open-world games that the player will supply their own pacing.
Unfortunately for me, I am utterly incapable of pacing myself.
At this point, what I should be doing is ignoring everything but the main story and plowing forward. And that is precisely what I keep intending to do. At the same time, I do not anticipate playing Fallout 4 again until after the first DLC get released, at a minimum. In such a scenario though, there is always the possibility that I put a game down and never pick it back up again. I would rather breeze through trivial encounters in order to experience interesting side quests than possibly never see them at all.
Of course, I would rather experience them in a challenging, tightly-paced manner even more.
[Update: Please note the missing link photo]
Reading some of the positive comments about Guild Wars 2’s “Explorer-friendly” questing, I cannot help but feel… confused. I understand that there are people out there that do not like traditional questing. That is fine. The problem presents itself when ArenaNet decides to go through the motions and try and placate those of us who like our themeparks to have, you know, themes. And let’s not kid ourselves: Guild Wars 2 is a themepark. Maybe one with a few sandbox rides, but a themepark all the same.
Rather than attempt to explain the problem again, and why it is a problem how ArenaNet is handling it, I am going to simply show you. My apologies to those with 16.6k baud modems.
[Edit: The following picture was accidentally left out of the series, and provides some much needed context for the remainder]
If the above is not immediately clear, I was looking at my map to see if there were Renown Heart quests undone in my endeavor to finish level 7 and start the next step in the Personal Story quest. The only available quests were set for level 8 characters, although I never saw what was down in the South-West. While it is possible to quest above your level, GW2 makes it abundantly clear that it takes levels very seriously – as evidenced enough by the fact the game will de-level you down to the “appropriate” level for questing to be challenging. [end-edit]
To be clear, I have nothing against an Explorer-based leveling game, or one that allows you to reach max level solely by PvP or chain-running Events or even grinding mobs. Hell, I do not have anything against strict sandboxes either, even if I do not play them all that much.
The problem here is one of coherency. The Personal Story thus far is perfectly serviceable, all the way up to the point where you choose to attend a dinner party and discover you need to go play outside for an hour for an entirely arbitrary reason, e.g. you haven’t leveled enough. As Keidot pointed out in the comments yesterday, it does make a certain amount of theoretical sense to structure the game this way. If you can level solely by the instanced Personal Story quests, what is the point of the outside world? Grouping them up better (instead of spacing each quest out by 2 levels) could potentially leave you performing nation-defining epic actions by level 10, diminishing the weight of your future exploits. Clustering them sounds good, e.g. 1-10 and then 15-25 (etc), until you realize that there had better be 5+ levels of interesting grinding/Event activities to participate in.
I do not have an easy solution to this problem. And believe me, it is a problem. It is one thing to be given a vague motivation to go out and do random Renown (aka Heart) quests, and be satisfied. It is quite another to be following a storyline and then be constantly interrupted to complete tasks that have nothing at all to do with the storyline itself. People talk about joys of not having to read quest text anymore, and maybe they even believe that, but this sort of textual background radiation is what differentiates the character and tone of one MMO against another.
And nevermind what this suggests more generally about the designers’ (future) abilities to pace their own content.
Skyrim, of course, is not intended to be an MMO.
That said, as I sailed past 100 hours played and started finally running out of the “named quests,” I started thinking back to when a lot of bloggers were musing on a hypothetical Skyrim Online and how great that would be. As it turns out, there is not much imagination necessary: Skyrim really already emulates a lot of the standard sort of MMO tropes. And, perhaps ironically, some of Skyrim’s other qualities sort of demonstrate why such mechanics generally do not really work in MMOs.
Quests range from “Talk to this guy,” to “Collect 20 Nirnroot,” to “Kill the Bandit Leader in a nation with an inexplicable 10,000:1 bandit to honest citizen ratio.” While there are no exclamation points over peoples’ heads, each city is so densely packed with quest-givers that your minimap – if such thing existed – would be lit up like a Christmas tree. And just like with every quest in an MMO, you never get a sense that you are actually solving anything. Give the Blacksmith 10 Fire Salts to reheat his forge? He may greet you a little differently, but his “secret technique” results in no higher quality merchandise, no larger gold cap, no discounts.
Sidequests are sidequests, though, right? Well, to an extent. The problem is when there are more sidequests than main quests, or when the main quest is boring. At some point, you give the player enough freedom to hang themselves… and they do.
See, I have completely lost the Skyrim narrative. “What am I doing? Why do I care?” Helping a dude steal a horse is supposed to enrich the game world’s verisimilitude, I guess? If that is the case, it failed. The quests are so disjointed and arbitrary that I end up feeling like a dyslexic, ADD-addled coke-fiend with Tourettes, sputtering along countryside with an ever-increasing laundry list of chores. The situation really makes me appreciate all those otherwise lame zones in WoW, insofar as the quests actually lead somewhere or enriched the background of the zone.
I have heard a lot of people lament the state of player crafting in MMOs, but again, Skyrim is a good case-in-point about where strong player crafting can lead to. Basically, I have not upgraded a single piece of gear in the last 40 hours of gameplay. Considering there is no such thing as quest XP, and I have more gold than I could ever possibly spend, the lack of possible gear upgrades essentially boils questing down to its base narrative components. Some hold up, most do not.
Short of the sandbox-esque nuclear option of destroying gear and/or permanent durability loss, I do not see a worthy payout for the costs of strong player crafting. I just completed a long questline to reconstruct a 1,000+ year old amulet whose power started a war and led to it being split into three parts and sealed away; the names of amulet keepers were to be forgotten under the pain of death. After finally reforging it, I held it in my hands and… oh, +30 to Health/Mana/Stamina? I created an amulet with +67 to Health and +40% extra Bow damage nearly 50 hours ago.
While some of this can be mitigated in MMOs by making recipes rare, requiring special crafting materials from higher-level content (which is different than normal loot… how?), and so on, strong player crafting still seems to boil down to reducing or eliminating much of the incentive to quest. Perhaps that is indeed the entire point, eh? Moving away from designer quests and into “Spam Trade chat for an hour” player quests? That is fine to do, with the assumption that the game itself is either going full quest-less, or the quests that do exist are so ridiculously fun and exciting that they are intrinsically worth doing.
Although this is not a formal review, if I had to sum up all of my problems with Skyrim in a single word, it would be “pacing.” There simply isn’t any. Even if the game revolves around doing what you want, pacing is important. I am level 51 and I can 2-shot dragons with my bow from stealth – the game is essentially over for me. And yet the main questline is not remotely near complete, nevermind the handful of other quests remaining. Yes, “I did this to myself.” If EVE gave every new player a Titan for completing the tutorial, those players would also be “doing it to themselves” for (ab)using it too.
Point being, it is the designers’ jobs to craft a well-paced game. I don’t care how sandbox your design is, I shouldn’t be allowed to break the game for myself. One of the great strengths of the themepark experience is exactly the derided “on rails” component: it will take you X days of Y quests to get Z gear. The bosses you face tomorrow will be stronger than the ones faced today. There will be a quantifiable reason to collect 10 bear asses.
After 100 hours of gameplay, clearly Skyrim is doing some things right. I have never taken more screenshots in my entire life, for example. Despite my character being completely broken, I still treat the world seriously (sneaking around when I could simply kill things straight-up) because it projects seriousness in most every scenario. But instead of making me pine for Skyrim Online, it does the opposite. I miss the strong narratives of Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I hated having to level through Burning Crusade content in WoW, but I hate tracking down 20 Nirnroots more.
Pacing is something to keep in mind when constructing your hypothetical sandbox or Impossible MMO. More options, more things to do, can actually result in less meaningful gameplay. Skyrim deserves its accolades, but it makes for a pretty bad MMO. And the changes necessary for Skyrim to be ported into the MMO world would, in fact, make it resemble nothing like its present state.