You might remember that last week I enjoyed another round of mockery at the expense of No Man’s Sky. It’s become something of an annual-ish tradition around here. In this case, the application exhibited baffling windows behaviors that forced me to track down and edit settings files to get the thing to start.
Then in the comments of that same post, Mephane listed some mods that really improved the game.
Wait, modding NMS is a thing? I never even looked. This game is obviously using an extremely idiosyncratic custom engine and I sort of assumed that modding would be impossible.
But as it turns out, there are lots of mods for No Man’s Sky. Sadly, this is an unfortunate time for me to revisit the game.
So let’s talk about Minecraft, which features some pretty intense mod stratification.
Minecraft has the most extensive modding community that I know of. In general, mods are tied to a specific version of the game. If you upgrade to the new version then your existing mods will all break. Maybe they’ll malfunction wildly, maybe they’ll just stop working, or (most likely) they’ll crash the game on startup.
So a new version will come out and break all the mods, and then over the next few weeks the mods will gradually be updated by the various authors to work with the new version. About half the mods won’t get updates because they’ve been abandoned by their original authors who have since moved on to other projects / have gotten jobs / have new living situations that preclude maintaining large ambitious hobby projects. New authors come in to rescue the abandoned mods and launch new projects.
What you end up with are these various strata throughout the version history. In Minecraft, versions 1.7, 1.12, and 1.14 were all popular and long-lasting versions that got a lot of mods, while the in-between versions are somewhat more spotty in terms of working mods. This system is subject to the network effect, where popular versions get more mods and thus become even more popular, while the opposite happens to unpopular versions.
This means you need to make a choice: Do you want the version with the latest features and bug fixes but few mods, or the two-years-ago version with lots of mods that’s missing some bug fixes and quality of life improvements, or the ancient version that’s downright savage by today’s standards but has a huge number of stable ambitious mods that inter-operate gracefully?
This can be annoying, but it isn’t really anyone’s fault. This is just how things work out.
No Mod’s Sky
It’s been less than two weeks since the Desolation update was released for No Man’s Sky, and we’re still in that chaotic post-update window where lots of mods are still broken and nobody knows which ones are going to be fixed and which ones have been abandoned. I would have waited until mid-August, but other games are coming out soon so this was a bit of a now-or-never moment for No Man’s Sky and I.
Only a few mods were available to me. One that made language acquisition about 5x faster, one that made your storage slots hold about 100 times more stuff, and one that made scanning about 10 times faster. In any other game, huge multipliers like that would represent game-breaking cheats but in No Man’s Sky this brings things into the realm of “normal”.
There was another mod that promised to eliminate the interface headache where you need to hold the E button for several seconds instead of just clicking on things, but the installation instructions were a bit complicated and it sounded like it was going to be incompatible with my other mods. I don’t know. I’m really happy with how the game feels right now and I’m reluctant to mess with it.
The first year or so of NMS patches really underwhelmed me. The updates were so modest and incremental in the face of the horrendous original design that it felt like there was no real hope. The game needed a massive systemic overhaul, and instead it was getting tweaks and bonus content. In fact, some of the new features – like the proliferation of inventory screens – exacerbated the problems with the original.
But here we are. It’s been 4 years, and this game is shaping up nicely. With mods you can cure the underlying focus on inventory, and once that headache is out of the way it becomes clear that the last few updates have made massive changes to the various gameplay systems.
All of the nonsensical and inscrutable progression systems – like doing unexplained tasks for an NPC who dispenses unexplained rewards at unexplained intervalsI’m talking about stuff like acquiring the end-game hyperdrive from Polo the obstructionist jackass. – have been replaced by intuitive systems with a clear means of progression.
This game has a lot of systems that inter-operate. You’ve got your progression of ship upgrades. You’ve got a base you gradually build over time as you acquire new building materials. You’ve got a freighter that can serve as a mobile base of operations. You’ve got a fleet of frigates that can be expanded, leveled up, and sent out on missions for random-ish rewards. You’ve still got the familiar quests for Atlas and Artemis, and they’ve remained largely unchanged. But now they’re no longer choke points to progression. The game can be enjoyed as a huge sandbox without needing to run around and click through annoying / cringy text to get the next upgrade.
I honestly thought the game was beyond redemption, but the developers have proven me wrong. These latest updates are so much better than what came before. These changes demonstrate an understanding of systems that simply wasn’t present in the game before.
I couldn’t hope to cover every improvement, but let me offer up one as an example of the system-wide changes that have been implemented.
In the original game, there was this space station called the Anomaly. It would show up completely at random every few hours. Inside were a couple of NPCs: Nada and Polo. Polo was an amalgamation of about 10 different horrible design decisions and I spent an article exploring and explaining all the things wrong with him. I highly recommend revisiting that post if you don’t remember it, but here’s an excerpt:
Each time you randomly encounter Polo, he’ll require you to have reached some milestone on your journey. Kill X spaceships, destroy X robots, save up X galactic space-bucks, survive an accumulated X hours in extreme weather conditions, scan X alien animals, learn X alien vocabulary words, etc. He presents these milestones to you, in order, whenever you stumble onto one of his outposts. You don’t know what his next challenge will be, so you can’t prepare for your next encounter. If you run into him and discover you need to invest a bunch more time to meet the next goal, then you need to continue on your journey, grind out the requisite tasks, and then wait for him to show up again.
This is a bizarre way of doling out rewards in an open-universe sandbox. “Go anywhere! Do anything! Find things that are fun for you! But in order to make progress you have to jump through these specific hoops, in this specific order.” Just… what? This is the antithesis of everything else the game is trying to do! It’s basically engineered to create frustration and bottleneck your progress on other tasks.
Polo only recognizes one achievement per visit, even if you’ve completed a bunch of them. If I’ve completed challenges 4, 5, 6, and 7 but got stuck on #3, then once I complete #3 I can’t turn in #3 through #7 all at once. I have to turn in #3, then wait a couple of hours for Polo to show up so I can turn in #4, then wait a couple more until another random encounter lets me turn in #5, and so on. And remember, you don’t have any way of knowing what’s coming (unless you read the wiki) so you’re more likely to “waste” one of these rare visits just figuring out what you need to do.
So the main progression was a series of blind rewards that could only be obtained by completing unexplained goals for an obnoxiously written character that only showed up randomly, creating a linear progression that was profoundly dissonant with the premise of the game. That was the No Man’s Sky experience in a nutshell.
But now? Now the Anomaly is awesome. You can summon the space station at will. Inside, you find a player nexus. You can see real players coming and going like in a traditional MMO quest hub.
Polo and Nada are still there, but now there’s a sprawling complex around them full of various types of upgrade / research terminals where you can progress through various technology trees. Things that Polo used to hand out at randomRandom from the player’s perspective. The rewards came in a fixed order. are now integrated with the rest of the mechanics. You still need to work to unlock gear, but now you can see what your choices are and how to obtain them, and you can decide which areas you want to focus on.
There are a lot of new NPCs hanging around now, and each one seems to focus on a different aspect of the game. They’re mostly a way to reward progress or nudge you to engage with different systemsLike, there’s a guy who will appraise things that you’ve cooked, which is a handy way of telling the player about the new cooking mechanics., and they don’t require you to click through four or five screens of awful blather before they get around to telling you what you need to knowEh. There’s still room for improvement here, but it’s SO much better than what came before..
Maybe Give it a Try?
The whole game is filled with improvements like this. I know I’ve spent the last four years dumping on this game, but I think that the changes are large enough that I can honestly recommend it. To be fair, I did need to use a few mods to smooth out the interface headaches, so keep that in mind. You can either fuss around installing mods or you can accept that your first few hours with the game are going to be spent fussing with a ridiculously limited inventory. But if you can make it over either of those hurdles, this game has lots of cool things to see and do.
If you shelved the game years ago or if you avoided it due to the bad press, then now might be a good time to give it a[nother] chance. I know I have a reputation as a guy who complains about everything, and maybe that leads people to conclude that I’m always looking for things to complain about. But honestly, I’m happy when things are headed in the other direction. I find the No Man’s Sky redemption story to be kind of heartwarming.
 I’m talking about stuff like acquiring the end-game hyperdrive from Polo the obstructionist jackass.
 Random from the player’s perspective. The rewards came in a fixed order.
 Like, there’s a guy who will appraise things that you’ve cooked, which is a handy way of telling the player about the new cooking mechanics.
 Eh. There’s still room for improvement here, but it’s SO much better than what came before.
What did web browsers look like 20 years ago, and what kind of crazy features did they have?
Artless in Alderaan
People were so worried about the boring gameplay of The Old Republic they overlooked just how boring and amateur the art is.
Push the Button!
Scenes from Half-Life 2:Episode 2, showing Gordon Freeman being a jerk.
Let's ruin everyone's fun by listing all the ways in which zombies can't work, couldn't happen, and don't make sense.
The Best of 2018
I called 2018 "The Year of Good News". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.