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I'm thinking about making a game set in space, that would feature very large, procedurally-generated game world (many stars, planets and what have you). However, I foresee a big problem: cosmic space is mostly featureless. It's almost the same everywhere - the same black emptiness with stars. This is obviously bad. A large game world must be different in different places, so that the player can understand where she is, and how to get where she needs. What can I do to make different, recognizable places in space?

The game I'm envisioning is 2D (a bit like Space Rangers), with space pictures used only in background. However, I'm interested in any techniques, 2D or 3D.

Clarification What I need here is not just ability to orient in game space, but rather having different places so that the game feels more interesting. Here's an example: imagine any space-trading game (like Elite or X or whatever). You visit different star systems, but they're all generally alike: a dock to repair/refuel, a shop to trade, a bar to take missions/contracts... Some Tau Ceti III differs from KZ'ish VI mostly by name.

I believe that every place, or at least most places that player visits should be different from each other, and immediately recognizable, so that player has a sense of wonder and discovery as she explores the universe. Of course, making every star system a full-fledged 3D level with its own visual style would work, but that's prohibitively expensive even for a big-budget game. Are there any other ways to achieve this wonder and discovery?

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This is definitely a very interesting question. +1. –  The Communist Duck Apr 17 '11 at 16:28
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up vote 19 down vote accepted

Unfortunately, I can't remember where I read or heard this rule, so apologies to whoever gave it to me, but what I learned was give the player at least three points of reference.

The simplest form is a point for where the player was coming from, a point for where they're going, and a point elsewhere to help orient the other two points. If you want to encourage more exploration or have the player participate more in orienteering, they can be three arbitrary points. These features should be big - a distant nebula, a black hole, an asteroid cloud - and dominate the camera when the player is looking at them.

Three is a lower limit. You can go higher, but not much higher. If there's points of interest everywhere, they're no longer interesting. I suspect the ideal number is 3-5.

Play any open world game and you should be able to see this rule in action - Fallout 3, GTA, Assassin's Creed, WoW - from any given point on the map you'll see 3-5 major landmarks.

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You can also use this to your advantage, to create the sense that the player is lost, you could put the player in an environment without these landmarks, and the world may feel larger than it is. –  Daniel Apr 17 '11 at 17:03
    
Hi, why we need three points of references is because we intuitively do Triangulation!. Basically, we three points of references we only need to know the position of two of them to determine where is the third. Here is the wikipedia link of the formal notion, it is well explained: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulation –  Zenon Apr 17 '11 at 18:15
    
No, it's not triangulation. The distance does not matter, you don't need to have been to them before, and there's no evidence that we can subconsciously measure the angles like that. I think it's more likely that it's because it fits nicely into our ~4 chunk working memory but that's still a hotly-debated area of cognitive science. –  user744 Apr 17 '11 at 18:52
    
That's very helpful, but not exactly what I had in mind. I added a clarification to the question. –  Nevermind Apr 17 '11 at 18:53
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Probably it's failing because the English phrase you're looking for is actually Latin. :) It's "genius loci". The reason I think it's two different issues is because I view it as two different player interactions. One is finding a place and the other is remembering a place. –  user744 Apr 17 '11 at 19:39
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If differentiating your player locations is important to your game, perhaps you need consider alternative perspectives on the world.

The games you reference, and most common for the genre, are out-of-starship third-person perspectives. One alternative would be to take a first-person perspective at the trade depot, allowing the biology, culture (architecture, language, etc.) and surrounding environment (atmosphere, star light, etc.) take a more dominate role in your game.

In other words, if it is the space between is the boring/repetition parts, eliminate that and associated travel time from the player's experience.

If you're not willing to jump that far out of genre, some games have had success with color (star light and nebulous backdrops) and sound (radio noise from local culture, with possible interference from local celestial bodies).


Edit: Since you already mentioned "a dock to repair/refuel, a shop to trade, a bar", let me elaborate with some questions

  • How does star type and planet orbit relate to the habitable zone?
  • How does this affect the planet's biosphere?
  • How did the local species evolve in this environment?
  • Did the traders evolve here? If not what in the environment brings them to this world?
  • How does the biology affect the culture?
    • How large are the inhabitants, and how does that change the player's perspective.
    • What would they eat and drink? (Or more aptly, how would the player observe locals being served, since eating is probably not in the player's scope of interaction?)
    • How segregate or ingrained is the surround biology into the urban/trading post environment?
    • How is the biology adapted to the environment and the climate or weather?
  • What is the architecture like?
    • What is the scale of the architecture? Caves or hobbit holes? Skyscrapers? Castles? Arcologies? Ring worlds?
    • What colors and shapes define cultural artifacts and architectural details?
    • What materials and technologies are available for buildings? Carved in rock? Built from glass or gold? Grown out of trees or crystal nanites?
    • What environmental protection/exposure is the architecture supposed to provide? Extreme weather? Radiation? Meteorites? Ocean-going access?
  • What is the dominant economy, and how does this reflect in the values of the culture?
    • Mining? Agriculture? Trade? Science & Technology?
    • Are there different classes/castes/genders in the culture, and if so, who would the player be interacting with?
  • How would local culture or customs influence communication, trade, contracts, and the surround social environment?
    • How do they feeling about outsiders, like the player?
    • How close is the player allowed to everyday citizens, and what obstacles are presented along the way? Security outposts? Quarantine isolation? Guarded at gun point? Or just invited to the local bar for drinks? Possibly showered with gifts to smooth business relations?
    • Is the culture more formal or informal? Does the player trade with an accountant like book-keeper, or to they haggle with a dock-hand at the space dock?
    • How is trade conducted? Free trade between private parties? Government run customs checkpoint?
    • Are the NPCs prone to gossip? Do they expect bribes? Are they supportive of the local authority, or prone to rebellion?
  • In any of the above questions, is there any variety exposed to the player?
    • Are there multiple locations on a planet or in a system open to foreign trade? Are they located in different climates? Do they represent different nations? Do they share a world or social outlook?

These are just a handful of questions you can consider to differentiate the player experiences. Obviously it would be a huge undertaking to address all of them in a single procedural system, but a textual prototype might help you navigate them for what is important for your vision of the player's experience.

The beauty about using culture and biology to differentiate locations, is that you can also use it to ties different places together. A starfaring civilization will bring it heritage with it, which will allow a player to recognize the similarities, as well as the differences.

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Except for food architecture, these are all a bit info-dumpy - boring unless you're the person writing them. I mean, how many of these can you answer about your home city, let alone the entire planet? How many would you care to? How many planets in Star Trek bothered to explain any of these? Play me some music, show me a painting, let me hang out in the local park for an hour. –  user744 Apr 17 '11 at 22:19
    
That's a really great list.. for a tabletop RPG. For a videogame, not so much. Implementing all this list by hand requires LOTS of resources, even when it all boils down to a wall of text (which is not really interesting). And I'm not sure how to approach procedural generation of all this info, to say nothing of presentation. The basic approach of differentiating through culture, not physics, seems sound, though, I'll think about it. –  Nevermind Apr 18 '11 at 4:15
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Show, don't tell. Use these questions to build correlations between elements in your procedural generator, rather than an even distribution of every possible variable. If the identity is self consistent, and the presentation is deep enough (no just the same menu overlaying a backdrop), the user will infer some of the backstory without reading anything. As a trading game, some of this can be communicated via the local supply and demand. What do they offer and what do they need, and is there correlation with their culture and environment? –  Anm in LA Apr 18 '11 at 15:23
    
This is really great stuff and exactly what I needed to read. +1 –  Phil Dec 3 '13 at 9:51
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I think that the best way to keep player's orientated is an on-screen mini-map.

All the RTS games that I play have mini-maps in a corner e.g. the top left corner.

The map typically stays "pointing north" and the angle of the user is shown with an arrow indicating direction etc.

In RTS games you can often navigate to somewhere hidden by the fog of war, which means the screen is blank. Yet users can use the mini-map, which is always visible, to understand where they are in relation to all the landmarks they know. Users don't get lost.

Elite had a map at the bottom, if I remember.

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This doesn't help, it just changes the question to "How can I make the minimap recognizable and easy to orient in?" –  user744 Apr 17 '11 at 18:53
    
Well I feel a bit mis-down-voted. –  Will Apr 18 '11 at 6:26
    
It is definitely worth mentioning a mini map when talking about how to make a top down play view more orientable. +1 –  Phil Dec 3 '13 at 9:44
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What i'd use in a basic set:

  • different background
  • "landmarks"
  • effects

I don't know how realistic it should be and which "dimensions" it should have, so you need to clarify most for yourself.

Ad background) I you say you're inside one galaxy, then you'll have

  • some other galaxies flying around - add them to mark different "sectors" - galaxies can look pretty different from each other (form & color)
  • The angle of galaxies can change (they're mostly flat, so it's a difference if you look at them front top/bottom or some side)
  • If you're closer to the middle of your own galaxy, you'll have more densitiy when i comes to star systems and more brightness for light.
  • close planets & suns from star system(s)

Ad "landmarks") You could use

  • asteroids
  • asteroid fields
  • destroyed/abandoned ships or stations

Ad effects) You could take a basic set of colors and lightning effects (puls, etc.) and use different combination sets for

  • unknown space animals (swarms) like whales in the sea
  • satelites
  • patroull or scientific drones
  • plasma fields
  • nebulars

This would allow a lot of combinations, so you wouldn't get into the trouble of having doublettes too soon. In every case i'd sketch your world down on paper and make soft transitions on the background/surroundings for places which are next to each other. So if solar system a is next to system b and a has green nebulars and blue pulsing plasma fields, i'd give system b one of both so it feels more "next to a".

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Most interesting places in space are in the middle of a galaxy. Most galaxies are flattened in some way and thus have a clear band of densely-packed stars forming a ring around the viewer's position. This will hold true for almost all positions within that galaxy. You can see plenty of examples from our own galaxy on Google Image Search.

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While those are great examples of how to decorate space, it's important to note they are all artificially colored. And because most galaxies are somewhat symmetrical, aiming for that level of realism when choosing landmarks doesn't help much. –  user744 Apr 17 '11 at 18:54
    
I don't think the colour is important - just the fact that there's a strip in the sky that circles your position is enough, I think. It certainly helped me when playing Elite 2: Frontier! As your answer notes, I don't think it's sufficent to be able to pin down your orientation, but it significantly reduces the number of possible ways you could be facing. –  Kylotan Apr 18 '11 at 13:00
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