Inventory Full: Avoiding Mechanical Filler – Part II

This is the second in a two-part series on the use of filler in video game mechanics. To read part one, click here.

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No Man’s Sky is padded with so much mechanical filler that scenes like these are rarely witnessed.

In part one of this series, we examined exactly what mechanical filler is – how it differs from the type of filler game developers typically employ, and how even some of the best games rely on it a little too heavily. Inventory management, resource gathering and level design can all be altered in such a way that the player will have to spend more time contending with these mechanics than they typically would, not to fulfill some aspect of the developer’s vision of their title, but to artificially lengthen the total playtime. It’s necessary to address this trend in hopes that developers cease using the practices in modern games.

Defining mechanical filler is also necessary in order to best understand a title such as No Man’s Sky, a game that somehow manages to be both an enjoyable experience built upon a solid foundation, and one that relies on the three main pillars of mechanical filler, creating a frustrating, and at times, laborious experience.

So how did Hello Games draw misplaced inspiration from Bethesda Softworks, CD Projekt RED and Gearbox Software to artificially increase play time, with seemingly no other tangible benefits to the player or to Hello Game’s artistic vision?

Inventory Management – A One-Arm Juggling Act

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The decision to have upgrades take up precious inventory space means players will always be fighting against a bloated system.

On the surface, No Man’s Sky appears to be part survival simulator, something that in the pre-release hype Hello Games mentioned on a number of occasions. Survival games derive a large part of their strategy from inventory management, so it stands to reason No Man’s Sky would emphasize it as well. In survival games, the tools and resources the player chooses to take or leave could mean the difference between success and failure. But No Man’s Sky is, as of this writing, missing a crucial piece of the survival genre – a place to store collected items. Right now, players have their exo suit and ship available for storage, but both are so highly restrictive that even players who have fully upgraded both will run out of space very quick.

But first, we need to take a step back and address the first issue with inventory management – navigating the menus and inventories is a slow, tedious exercise. Hello Games seemed to be more concerned on the aesthetics of the menus than their functionality, and liberally took inspiration from Destiny for their look and feel. Creating aesthetically pleasing menus isn’t a bad design choice, but it should never come at the expense of functionality. Moving items from one inventory screen to the next or combining stacks of items takes far more time than it should because there’s no easy way to navigate each menu – on the console version, the process is handled with the analog stick, a clumsy replacement for a mouse, and players slowly drag the cursor over the item they want to move and slowly drag it to the slot they want to store it.

This makes crafting items a time consuming chore, and the problem is exacerbated by a laundry list of resources needed to make most items, and the seemingly random rules governing how players stack similar items in their inventory. In No Man’s Sky, players collect many resources, from minerals to components, which are used to craft upgrades to their gear, or to refuel their life support system or their ship. Minerals are stackable, meaning that the player can have many units of plutonium that only take one up inventory space, but other items do not stack, such as fuel cells for the hyperdrive or Atlas Stones (an item that is needed to complete the only stated goal of No Man’s Sky: reaching the center of the galaxy). It takes five fuel cells to fully charge a ship’s hyperdrive, and if the player makes an effort to travel to the center of the galaxy, they will need far more than five to get there. This means players will have to continuously gather the resources to make those cells, and find space to store them until needed. Adding to the constraints of this system is the fact that any suit or ship upgrade the player wishes to add takes up one inventory space. So not only do many items not stack, but the amount of free spaces is severely limited because the ability to warp the furthest distance between points takes up three of the 48 possible ship inventory slots.

Ship inventory slots are crucial, since one inventory slot in a ship allows the player to stack more of one stackable item than their suit does. For example, if I need a lot of carbon, I can gather 1,000 units of it in a couple minutes. If I store that carbon in my suit, it takes up four inventory slots. But if I transfer it over to my ship, it only takes up two. The stacking limit is restrictive even in ships (some late-game upgrades take well over 500 units of a material to make, meaning that they’ll take up two ship inventory slots), let alone in the exo suit. These restrictions mean players cannot focus on more than one goal at a time without it being a burden on their inventory. Couple this with the obtuse menus, and you have a recipe for player frustration, one that contributed to a staggering decline in active players mere weeks after release.

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The player’s inventory can fill up very quickly, and the above doesn’t even feature all of the possible tech upgrades.

Not only does this constant inventory management take players away from the real star of the show, exploring planets, but it doesn’t add anything to the survival element of the title, mostly because there isn’t one. Any system that is mandatory for survival, such as the life support system, can be recharged with elements commonly found on every planet. But even here players can’t catch a break, as these systems eat through resources at an alarming rate. So while players acquire the rare elements needed to build a better hyperdrive, they must also make room for common elements so they can keep playing the game. After a few hours of playtime, the situations in which the player truly feels like they are running low on resources to survive drops to almost zero, but the struggle to manage the inventory remains well past the 100 hour mark. Again, I’m not advocating that Hello Games removes all strategic choices from No Man’s Sky, but when even the simplest task requires players to struggle with their inventory, it turns every action into a mundane chore.

But let’s say a player has grinded their way through the upgrade process, and isn’t in any rush to reach the center of the galaxy. What else is there to do? Other than exploring, there’s crafting items to sell at space stations to earn some cash (which is important, especially if they want to purchase a new or better ship). Again, just like the survival aspects, Hello Games discussed the trading elements at length prior to release, yet crafting and selling items suffer from the same issues. For some reason, the game does not allow players to mass produce a single item, so if I have those 1,000 carbon units, and I want to turn them into something called suspension fluid, I have to create each suspension unit one at a time; since they don’t stack, I need to make as many as my inventory can hold, back out of that menu and open the trading menu, sell what I have, exit that menu, then return to my inventory to keep crafting. It’s very easy to obtain 1,000 carbon, which yields 20 suspension fluids, and selling suspension fluid at a high mark-up is a great way early on to earn a few extra credits. Assuming this is the only item in a player’s inventory other than suit and ship upgrades, and assuming both are fully upgraded, the player only has access to 20 inventory slots in their suit, and an additional 24 in their ship. It takes no time at all to fill both of those completely up, and if the player already happens to have some much needed items in their inventory while trying to craft and sell items, it leads to an unnecessarily prolonged sequence of menu hopping and moving items from one inventory slot to the next.

Earning money shouldn’t be a simple process, but it should be engaging. In No Man’s Sky, the inventory management system makes earning money laborious, and far from engaging, meaning many simply give up long before they have the resources to buy a better ship, or one that suits their tastes.

Resource Gathering – When Everything Breaks for No Reason

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The constant need to recharge life support or repair a broken ship means players will always be engaging in resource gathering.

The grind to gather enough money just to buy a ship, something that seems fundamental to the game’s mechanics, is just one of many ways resource gathering in No Man’s Sky feels much more complex and time consuming than it needs to be. In short, there are no easy or compelling  ways of obtaining any items. The tactics players use to gather elements, tech upgrades, ships or multi tools is all demonstrated within the tutorial section of the game, and it never changes, evolves or opens up new possibilities.

In a video titled “No Man’s Sky Critique (of the actual GAME),” posted to YouTube by August Keller on September 8, 2016, roughly one month after the title released, Keller remarks how unlike other titles that focus on exploration and resource gathering, No Man’s Sky gives players all of the necessary tools to accomplish both tasks immediately at the start, instead of slowly rolling them out to players as they progress.

This leads to a system of progression that remains stagnant for the entire experience – since no new tools are acquired, there are no new skills to learn, no new gameplay elements to master. So how did Hello Games attempt to keep players engaged after the first few hours? By employing mechanical filler in every aspect of resource gathering.

When it comes to buying ships, the ones available to the player for purchase are outrageously expensive. It takes players an inordinate amount of time to earn enough money to buy one, so instead many gamers look for an alternative method. In No Man’s Sky, that method involves finding crashed ships with more inventory slots, repairing them, and using that new ship until they find another crashed ship that has more inventory slots. This is the only way to increase storage space – it is impossible to purchase new inventory slots for the player’s current ship (something that can be done with the player’s exo suit inventory), meaning players are forced to upgrade the hard way.

Of course, this isn’t an oversight by the developer. No Man’s Sky is designed so that any crashed ship the player finds has anywhere from one less inventory slot than their current ship to one more inventory slot. If the player happens to like the look of their current ship, they have to hope that, once they repair enough ships to reach the maximum inventory, they find either a crashed ship or a ship for sale that features the same design as their previous ship, since they can only ever own one ship at a time. Since players use this method to avoid earning enough money to purchase a ship, it means they either have to keep grinding away at the crashed ship route even after they’ve repaired one with 48 inventory slots, or just make do with what they have.

To get an idea of how long of a grind this is, the starting ship starts out with 15 inventory slots, meaning players will need to find and repair at least 33 crashed ships (if they’re extremely lucky), one at a time, until they hit the maximum of 48 inventory slots. And yet, this method is still faster than earning enough money to just purchase one (although neither method is particularly engaging). It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many players eventually get fed up with this bloated system of progression and stick with a ship that has a limited number of inventory slots.  

Every other element of resource gathering is just as time consuming. The most common way of obtaining elements is shooting at large deposits of them with their multi tool; even when the multi tool is fully upgraded for mining speed and efficiency, it can still take upwards of five minutes just to mine a pillar of heridium, a common element needed in large quantities, depending on what players want to accomplish. It’s even worse than that in the early game – in the video uploaded by August Keller, he discusses the actual time it takes to mine even a simple iron deposit. By his measurements, players will spend eight seconds shooting a single rock. In order to repair the starting ship, players should plan to shoot a lot of rocks. This is how the game starts, and the only thing that changes about this mechanic is that the multi tool laser can break down rocks a tad faster.

With multiple systems requiring resources to charge them, from the player’s ability to move between planets, around a planet or to survive a harsh atmosphere, players spend a lot of time resource gathering. Everything from thruster jets, which allow the player to take off from a non-designated landing spot and require plutonium to function, to the life support system, which needs carbon, plutonium, thamium9 or power cells to function, everything in the game needs a resource to keep it charged and ready to use. Even though resources are plentiful, negating the survival aspect almost entirely, it does mean players will constantly stop whatever they’re doing to shoot rocks and plants, navigating an obtuse menu and constraining inventory, simply to recharge life support or hazard protection. If a player tries to gather the resources needed to make energy cells to power their ship toward the center of the galaxy, they will have to either sell or drop resources to free up inventory space, meaning players might spend time shooting iron deposits to recharge one system, only to dump them to gather more platinum, use that platinum for whatever purpose, and then gather iron deposits again.

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The role of black holes is self-defeating – they attempt to speed up the time it takes to reach the center, but then force the player to repair broken tech, which means gathering more resources.

Fortunately, there is another option for reaching the center of the galaxy – players can track down black holes and use them to warp closer to the center. But there’s a problem with that system as well – every time the player uses a black hole, a random piece of technology on their ship breaks down, and it requires even more resources to repair. If the player is lucky, the technology that breaks will only require common elements, but that’s not always the case. So even when they player finds a faster path to the center, they have to stop to gather more resources.

Assuming the player stuck with the game up until this point, they will eventually reach the center, the goal of No Man’s Sky. But in order to actually warp to the center, the player needs ten Atlas Stones, a rare item players obtain from randomly occurring anomalies. The game helpfully sets players on “the path of the Atlas,” which means that once on the path, it’s simply a matter of warping to the ten solar systems that contain an anomaly that grant the player an Atlas Stone. Of course, this mechanic is padded as well – Atlas Stones do not stack, which means players will need to set aside ten inventory slots for Atlas Stones. If a player decides early in the game they’d rather have that inventory space available for the number of resources they need to upgrade their ship, they will most likely sell whatever Atlas Stones they collected. Which means, once the player warps to their tenth solar system with an Atlas Stone, they will no longer be able to follow the path of the Atlas to obtain more. So how do players obtain more stones? By purchasing them, and to no one’s surprise, the cost of Atlas Stones is ridiculously high when compared to other items. Buying a small stack of some of the rarest elements in No Man’s Sky will set the player back a couple hundred thousand credits – buying one Atlas Stone will set the player back nearly three million credits. To add insult to injury, when the player decides to sell an Atlas Stone, the amount they get for it can be measured in the tens of thousands.

There’s evidence to support that Hello Games saw these problems coming, and in the build-up they discussed how players could avoid resource gathering altogether by focusing solely on trading at space stations. Of course, this system is broken as well – players can purchase all of a specific element from one space station in one solar system, warp ten systems over to purchase more of that element, only to find that every space station in every solar system across every single galaxy shares the same inventory, meaning players cannot simply rely on trading to upgrade their ship or reach the center of the galaxy – they are forced into gathering resources, forced into using a system that is padded with mechanical filler.

Level Design – Traversing 18 Quintillion Barren Wastes

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If the player wants to find any of these, they’ll need to do a lot of aimless wandering.

Let’s focus on those space stations where players attempt to conduct interstellar trade. These stations are huge, and it’s common to be able to see them in the night sky from a planet’s surface. The scale of these stations is in line with one of the game’s goals, which is to make the player feel small and insignificant. But much like the menus, Hello Games focused on style over practicality.

When docking with one of these stations, what sticks out to the player is not only how massive they are, but also how the interiors are designed in an awkward manner. Along with the player, many NPC ships also dock at the station, and it’s here the player can trade resources or purchase ships. But the docking area is so large players will often run toward a ship to trade with it, only to see that ship take off before they can reach it. I’ve run toward a ship to trade with it, watch it lift off into space, turn around and run back toward another ship to try and trade with it, only to see that one also take off. It’s difficult to trade when there is no one to trade with, and this is only an issue because of the unnecessary size of the interior of space stations.

Each station does have a terminal, located toward the back right of the landing area, where most players elect to do their trading. But even the design and layout of these areas is problematic. Players are seemingly encouraged to use a staircase to get to the second floor where the trading terminal is located, but this staircase is at the very back of the station, and for some reason it leads to an elevated walkway that doubles back toward the entrance to the trading terminal, which is not located at the rear of the station. Thankfully players can use their jetpack to simply boost up to the elevated walkway, and many players might not even realize that there is a staircase at the back of the station. Which begs the question – why is it there? And while this example is tiny and guilty of nit-picking, it’s the perfect metaphor for the rest of the bloated level design. As players navigate this universe, they constantly ask, “Why is this here?” and “”Why does this mechanic work like this?”

This confusing level design is felt everywhere, on every single planet, in every single galaxy. It’s not that the game world is too big – far from it. One of the joys I find when playing No Man’s Sky is to see just how far away planets are from each other, and the game does elicit a feeling of awe when you realize it’s going to take you two minutes to reach your destination when travelling near the speed of light. The size of each planet feels right – I can travel within a planet’s atmosphere in my ship effortlessly for thirty minutes, passing over a number of visually impressive formations, and realize I’ve only scratched the surface of what each planet has to offer in terms of scenic vistas and humbling moments of the vastness of space. But as soon as I step out of my ship to actually explore each planet, the illusion fades, and the filler rears its ugly head.

The issue arises from a peculiar design choice – when on foot, any undiscovered destination within a roughly two minute walk from the player will show up as a green circle with a question mark inside it, guiding the player to that point of interest. The problem is that the player will often run for two minutes toward this point of interest, only to find out it’s a standard beacon, and nothing more. Previews of earlier builds of No Man’s Sky indicated that these beacons played a greater significance than what they do in the final version – in their current form, they offer little more than a save point. This means players run blindly at green circles on their HUD until they find a point of interest that either has what they’re looking for, or more likely, doesn’t.

So how do players find those crashed ships, or the random drop pods that contain exo suit upgrades, or planetside trading posts? By visiting a special type of beacon called a signal scanner. These are small cubes that emit a pillar of orange light into the sky, and they can be located anywhere. Players can construct an item called a bypass chip, and use that chip at a signal scanner to search a larger radius around them for certain locales, such as shelters or transmissions. But in a pattern that seems all-too familiar by now, the four categories players can select from at signal scanners include a variety of locales, which means that if the player is searching specifically for drop pods, they need to scan for shelters, and not all shelters are drop pods. Finding a crashed ship is even more tedious – players must use the signal scanner to search for transmissions, which may (hopefully) point them to a transmission tower, and at the transmission tower they can solve a very basic puzzle which will then point them in the direction of the crashed ship. Remember – there is no guarantee the crashed ship will offer an increase in inventory size. Using these signal scanners is a must – in my 100-plus hours of playtime, I stumbled upon one crashed ship without the aide of a transmission tower.

Of course, once the player has brute-forced their way through the cumbersome level designs, and they are finally ready to reach the center of the galaxy, having stocked up on energy cells and Atlas Stones, they must first contend with the fact that Hello Games increased the size of each galaxy by ten-fold as part of their massive day-one patch. Keep in mind, they increased the size of galaxies, but did not increase the number of solar systems found within them. Since a fully upgraded hyperdrive can only move the player 1,700 linear light years toward the center of the galaxy, which for many is located roughly 180,000 linear light years away, players will need to break their ship crashing through black holes. Which means more tedious resource gathering, and managing those resources with a cumbersome inventory system.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

It may seem hypocritical to criticize Hello Games for their use of filler in No Man’s Sky in a series of essays clocking in at well over 6,000 words, but that’s how serious of an issue mechanical filler is to video games. At Theory of Gaming we believe even great games can perpetuate bad ideas, and when it happens over a long enough period of time, talented developers start to believe these poor mechanics are actually great mechanics worth emulating in their own titles.

Hello Games took the three main aspects of mechanical filler used in critically acclaimed titles such as Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and used them throughout every facet of gameplay. The unfortunate reality is it’s hard to blame them, but it’s also imperative we critique these decisions, dissect and analyze them, to overwhelmingly demonstrate how negative of an impact these mechanics have on game design.

There’s so much potential in No Man’s Sky, and despite what I’ve written here, a part of me still enjoys the title. But it could have been something more, something far greater than what fans received. With any luck, there will be a No Man’s Sky 2, and mechanical filler will be a distant memory in every virtual universe.