I love that quote by Robert Browning because its so empowering, especially when you're working on a project with an insane scope. [grin] Since I've been thinking about galaxy generation stuff all day, I'll just jump right into it...
Ysaneya and evolutional made some great points in responding to the last entry about galaxy generation here: Essentially, focus on creating a certain number of content rich places, then design the gameplay so that the content rich places are easy to get to.
But if a galaxy has differientiated regions, some boring, some exciting, I fear that players may blame the game for allowing them to do something that they won't have a positive experience doing-- namely, traveling to the boring places. Just like games that allow you to trap stupid AI, or reward creep and save, or provide lucrative rewards for uninteresting risks, players often feel compelled to do what a game allows. I don't know why, but I think it can't be ignored.
So if you offer them a galaxy, how do you make it interesting to go everywhere?
To answer this question, I'm going to break the problem into two domains. How do you create interesting interstellar space, and (a more granular problem) how do you create interesting planets?
Quick Detour: Why Is "Interesting" Interesting?
In games, interesting seems to come in two flavors: One which emotionally impacts the player strongly but often fades quickly, and another which reinforces the meaning (or the whole point) found in playing the game.
Beauty and immersive environments, I think, offer the most striking but short-lived embodiment of "interesting." Seeing places you've never seen before and witnessing breathtaking vistas and colors is very satisfying initially. But over time it's like being given an expensive gift every day. After awhile, the value fades as the experience becomes routine. (This isn't to say that beauty shouldn't be used-- it certainly should! But it shouldn't be relied upon exclusively to maintain player interest.)
OTOH, I think a more enduring form of "interesting" arises solely from the utility of the objects and environments found in a game. "That's nice, but what can I do with it," is something I've heard many a game reviewer and player say.
If this concept has any merit, then is it possible to look at the utility of the immense space of a galaxy and design the game from that standpoint? I think so.
Interstellar / Interplanetary Utility
So in a huge, open-ended space game, what is a heaven for? The answer depends heavily on the palette of gameplay options the player has.
In most space games, the interestellar / interplanetary medium exists as nothing more than a void you fly through and fight in. Because the gameplay palette is often limited to flying and fighting (and occassionally trading), space has no real point. The last thing you need is more of something which, while pretty, does nothing for you.
As a constrast, consider the map of a 4X empire game. Civilization on a HUGE world has a massive number of individual locations (game squares). Any one of them can do something useful for you, and there are layers of complex considerations for when to travel to, change or claim any one square.
Even though Civ is primarily a combat game, the ability to do more than just fight in any particular square means that the utility of game squares in general can be more varied. A square in Civ, for instance, can be excellent for providing shelter to a wounded unit. It can be a great resting place before a big strike. It can be used by a slow unit to lose a fast pursuer. It can provide water to nurture a city, be a source of disease, or play a pivotable role in winning or losing the entire game.
So why can't interstellar / interplanetary space be composed of a kind of terrain? The first step, I think, must be in expanding the gameplay palette. We need to be able to do more with a "patch of space" than just fly and shoot through it, and so our ships need more than just flying and shooting capability. If we handle suspension of disbelief, space can be wildly varied.
In Straylight, I'm going to use the idea of "average anomalies" and pair it with wormholes in order to give space terrain. Rather than conceptualizing interstellar space as an empty void, the plan is to mix and mangle science and sci-fi ideas to claim that variances in everything from the gravitational constant to rifts and dimensional misalignments create anomalies that range from the mundane to the spectacular. Within these regions gameplay will be jinked in different ways depending on your ship's loadout and the dynamic you've established among your crew.
The regions themselves, like a cell in Civ, will be areas that can be claimed, damaged and terraformed. Wormholes (of several different flavors) will provide the economic and military context for moving near or through these regions. As you grow in strength and the tech level of the empire you're a part of evolves, I plan to allow you to link regions in order to create larger regions.
What this ultimately does is make the game universe a strategic map. Mixed with a heuristic that mimicks expanding and contracting factions and empires, I think that plain old boring space will become much more lively. You'll find yourself entering a region with a host of strategic concerns which (if I do my job right designing this) will be simple to start with but grow more textured and nuanced as you expand.
Combined with a wider gameplay palette, I think there may be enough variability possible to fill up even a seemingly massive galaxy.
Ugh... that was much longer than planned... I'll touch on planet surfaces in the next entry. I think a similar approach can be used, but in order to really justify the expense of creating planets, I'm going to describe an idea I have involving "gameplay that follows you."