It had been a rough week. I’m not trying to get you to feel sorry for me. We all have a rough week sometimesAnd sometimes, more than a week. and you just have to roll with it. But when Saturday came around and it was time for my day offI take a day off no matter how busy I am. I’ve discovered this is ENORMOUSLY helpful in avoiding burnout., I realized I wasn’t in the mood for anything challenging. I didn’t want to have to fight with a game to make progress.
You might argue that this is kind of the point of video games, and that’s fair enough. But sometimes you just want to enjoy the sensation of progress without having to work for it. This is particularly true if the real world has been onerous lately.
Like I said on the podcast, I’ve been playing FTB Sky Odyssey, a modpack based around sky islands. These types of island worlds have been around in one form or another since the dawn of the game, but somehow I’ve never played one until now.
The idea is that you start the game on a tiny island floating in the endless void. You don’t have a lot of room to move around and space is fairly precious to start with, but as you make progress you’ll gather resources that will enable you to add material to the island.
This turns the entire game on its head. Instead of having access to an infinite world of resources, you’re confined to a single location. Monsters are basically a non-issueIn this particular modpack, it’s always day. That’s a bit annoying, but either way it’s trivial to prevent monster spawns when you’re limited to a small space like this.. You’re not going to be digging any tunnels or mining for resources, and there’s not much opportunity for creative buildings until you’ve made some progress.
In this particular modpack, the balance is a little… odd. You start off the game with a tiny patch of plants that grow basic resources like dirt, stone, and iron. You have to harvest these plants many times before you get enough crumbs to make a single block, and these plants can’t be grown faster using the normal fertilizing techniques of vanilla Minecraft. It looks like you’re in for a long, long process of earning blocks one at a time so you can make your farm just a little bit bigger. It seems like this is going to be a game about patience and farming optimizations.
Except, this modpack also includes the mod ProjectE. The mod has a long, complicated history that goes back to the early days of Minecraft mods and I couldn’t begin to do it justice here. The important thing is that the mod is a bit like a clicker game where you grow through compounding returns. It’s based on the idea that all materials are inherently fungible. Items can be transmuted into energy, and that energy can be turned into different items. A single block of dirt is worth 1, a log is worth 32, and a diamond is worth 8,192. So all you need to do is grow a few trees, turn them into energy, and use that energy to build thousands of blocks.
This means the introduction is a little odd. You spend your first half hour painstakingly working for every square meter of space, and then you gain access to the tools of ProjectE and suddenly blocks are cheap and expansion is effortless. From a game design standpoint you’d normally expect this to be a slow transition that takes place over the course of hours, but here it’s an abrupt change and the whole experience shifts to a completely different type of game.
It’s not wrong or anything. It’s still fun and that first half hour of crowding means you’ll really appreciate the abrupt power of ProjectE. It’s just odd because this sort of shift goes against traditional gameplay design. Your typical AAA developer would balk at creating all of those complex early-game systems and assets if they’re going to be obsolete so quickly, but in a modpack where everything is assembled from extant mods, the “cost” of those assets is effectively zero. It makes me wonder what sort of weird experimental games we’d see if creating stuff was cheaper and developers openly shared with each other.
Keeping You Busy
Like all the best modpacks, it’s very good at giving you lots of different things to work on at the same time. You check on your farm and realize you really ought to have a railing here so you don’t accidentally blunder off the edge while you’re distracted with crops. While you’re gathering materials for your railings, you see some of your machines have fallen idle. While you’re refilling them, you realize you could prevent this with a better system of automation. While you’re sorting that out, you see some of your livestock has gotten loose. While you’re cleaning up that mess, you realize your furnaces are idle. While you’re filling those up you realize your character is hungry. So you walk over to the farm and nearly blunder over the edge because you still haven’t gotten around to building that railing.
Factorio and Satisfactory both have this same feeling of working on several different related things at once. According to my wife, Stardew Valley does it too. Depending on how you play it, Skyrim et al. could sometimes scratch this itch.
In the real world, I hate the feeling of being pulled in six directions at once. During my office-dwelling days I’d be trying to code, but then an artist needed my input, and while I was doing that I’d get a call from a client who couldn’t be made to wait, and while I was doing that my boss would say he wanted to talk to me as soon as possible, and before I could see my boss I’d get an email notifying me that one of the automated scripts had broken and the resulting malfunction was going to start generating tons of complaints that I’d have to deal with and suddenly I’d start fantasizing about walking out into the wilderness, stripping off my clothes, and living with the wild beasts.
But this feeling of having six different things to do at once can be relaxing and engrossing in a game. I guess the difference is that I don’t have real people making demands of me. Nobody’s going to pester me with emails asking why I haven’t gotten around to building that railing yet. There’s lots to do, but you can do the tasks in any order and at your own pace. Also, the progression systems of a game often have a lot of synergy. Getting better in one area makes it easier to make progress in another. This stands in stark contrast to the real world, where answering all my emails doesn’t give me a +15% bonus to my coding speed and reaching project milestones doesn’t give me a 50% defensive bonus against phone call interruptions.
This was probably a bad choice for an introduction to the sky islands sub-genre of Minecraft mods, but I managed to have fun with it anyway. It very quickly stops being about limited space and instead becomes an exercise in amassing vast quantities of wealth and power. You’re essentially earning your way into creative mode.
If I had to nitpickAnd let’s be honest with ourselves here: I do have to nitpick., I’d point out that the modpack suffers from the problem that plagues all modpacks: The problem of recipe inflation. Vanilla Minecraft has a system of simple, easy-to-remember recipes.
But mod authors are obsessed with recipe complexity. If a mod author were to design the pickaxe recipe, it would be an absurdist multi-stage process. First you’d craft a handle from three different specific types of wood. Then you’d have to make a grinding wheel and use it to shape the head. Then you’d need to build a brewing lab, kill a horse, and use drops from the horses to make glue to attach the head to the handle. Then you’d have to set it inside a special container until the glue cured.
Building a simple tool ends up requiring eight recipes, four machines, and twelve trips to the out-of-date and barely maintained wikiThe recipes are usually provided within the game, but you still need the wiki to figure out what machines you need, how to power them, and where to obtain their special ingredients.. It’s not a lot of fun and I don’t think it adds much to the game. You end up with your pockets full of useless intermediate parts and none of the inconvenience really creates interesting decisions for the player to make.
I guess that’s a gripe with all modpacks in general. That’s just how these things work.
Getting back to Sky Odyssey in particular, I wish the progress was more gradual across the board. As one example of many: You eventually gain access to free unlimited flight. I like that as a long-term goal, but I wish it was something you could earn a bit at a time. Maybe you’d first earn reduced fall damage. Then immunity to fall damage. Then a limited glide ability. Then basic flight. The final unlock would be the fast-moving creative mode flight. So many systems in Sky Odyssey are an instant unlock that renders previous systems obsolete, and a gradient system would be more interesting.
I realize it’s not that easy. This modpack is assembled from existing mods, and those mods are assembled from other mods, and those other mods are cobbled together from systems already in the game. It’s not really reasonable to expect a community of independent amateur volunteers with conflicting agendas to make a holistic set of mechanics like a AAA title, but this is what I was wishing for while playing the game.
I suppose this is what has kept the modding scene alive for all these years. Someone plays a modpack, thinks of something they want, and makes a mod for it. Then someone else takes that mod and adds it to a pack where it doesn’t totally make sense. And then someone else comes along and wonders why they would bother building something from “Shamus’ Flight Progression” when “Industry Expansion” offers an unlimited jetpack for half the work.
Ah well. This was a fun pack, despite my incessant whining. Sky islands are an interesting genre of mods, and I wish I’d tried one ages ago.
 And sometimes, more than a week.
 I take a day off no matter how busy I am. I’ve discovered this is ENORMOUSLY helpful in avoiding burnout.
 In this particular modpack, it’s always day. That’s a bit annoying, but either way it’s trivial to prevent monster spawns when you’re limited to a small space like this.
 And let’s be honest with ourselves here: I do have to nitpick.
 The recipes are usually provided within the game, but you still need the wiki to figure out what machines you need, how to power them, and where to obtain their special ingredients.
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