Today, I'd like to talk about construction games. But I do need to revisit the last essay on RPGs, because that has direct bearing.
I discussed good bad RPGs. Basically, open-world RPGs are often considered "badly designed" - poor characters, weird pacing, 'dull' mechanics. However, judging them by more linear RPG standards is a mistake. Open world games have different specialties and their best kinds of play are different from what we have grown used to. You can't judge them by linear standards, and liking one genre doesn't mean you'll like the other.
One of the biggest features of a linear RPG is the main quest. It's right there in the name of the genre: "linear" RPG. So you have a central rail, a quest that the whole game is hung from. This affects everything about the linear RPG: how you fight, how you get and spend resources, how you level up, who you can interact with, what you can do. With a strong core, you can create a wonderful game.
In an open-world game, the main quest is typically something you do when you get bored of goofing off.
Instead, we choose our own path. There are many tiny quests scattered around the world, and we can pick them up whenever we want. Some of them might be multi-part and pretty epic, but in general they are smaller things. Moreover, the fundamental nature of progression in the game world allows us to improve along a path of our choosing even if we don't do any of those side quests. Combined, this gives us a huge amount of freedom to play as we like.
The slack built into that kind of design also allows us to easily include mods. Since there is no core quest constraining us, it doesn't matter if we include a mod that turns all the NPCs into zombies and adds a giant volcano right where you normally start the game. Everything still "works fine".
We could polish this! We could make open world games with that in mind from the start. An environment to carve a path through, rather than a train ride to enjoy.
This is exactly the same as construction games.
In the past, construction games were mostly linear. You had levels and challenges and you built to achieve those goals. There were some games that were more open, such as Sim City, but there was no content or systems in place to allow the player to truly forge their own path. The kinds of things you could do were quite limited, even if you had freedom to do anything the game could allow.
The ur-example of a linear construction game is The Incredible Machine. If linear vs open world is a spectrum, that's pretty far to the 'linear' side.
As time went on, we became better at allowing for any kind of construction.
However, we still aren't very good at it. Our "open construction" games are a lot like the early Final Fantasy games. FF6, FF7 - these allowed you to go a wide variety of places, do a lot of things. But they aren't truly "open world", because the structure doesn't reward you carving your own path.
Many other games are more truly open world. Sure, recent games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, etc. But also archaic games like Wasteland, Fallout 1, etc. The difference is not technology, it's design.
These games are structured to reward doing things however you want. The progression system is open enough that you can progress in any direction. The world is designed to offer quest fragments to you no matter where you wander. The world is structured "lumpily", so you can switch between different gameplay experiences by simply moving around - wandering the wilds, delving dungeons, or talking in towns. The player chooses which kinds of things they want to do when, and how they want to do them.
Although FF6 is a fantastic game, it isn't open like that. There is momentum built into the game, both in terms of how your stats progress and how the world quests progress. Although you can "go anywhere", there is no contiguous reward chain for going wherever you want, and there's not really much variety in the kinds of approaches you can take.
Anyway, that's where we are with open construction games.
Games like Minecraft are open construction games in the same way that FF6 is an open world RPG. You can go anywhere, build anything, but the universe isn't configured to reward you for it. Normally, the community is responsible for rewarding you for building things. That's a different topic for another day, but the point is that we can design the game itself to shoulder some of that responsibility.
Space Engineers is a bit more open than Minecraft, largely because it has more construction pressures that you can choose to optionally enable. You can choose exactly how much inventory space should be multiplied by. Whether guns need ammo. Whether power is unlimited. Whether you have to weld blocks, and how fast. Whether engines damage nearby blocks. Whether blocks can be damaged at all. Whether stations can be shaken free. Whether there are enemies, and how many, how often, how close. How safe the world is from natural catastrophes.
In addition to those environmental factors, the universe also allows you to tackle specific engineering challenges as you see fit, both large and small. Pressurized environments? Renewable energy? Docking allowances? Interior defenses? Cryo chambers? Medical bays - wired or unwired? Turrets? Mining? Refining? Natural gravity? Planets? Cars? Tools allowed or banned? Jetpacks allowed or banned? All of these can be tackled in any combination.
The way construction and use can be decoupled offer additional challenges. You can build something in creative, but intend it to be used in survival. Or perhaps it was planned in creative, and you use a blueprint to slowly manufacture it in survival. Or maybe it was created in survival right from the start, painstakingly assembled block by block. The resulting ship is just a ship, but the exact method of its design and construction radically changes the experience.
There is also room for your own personal ideas - recreating a popular starship, or making a starship that's actually a challenging adventure map, or trying to make a personal ship that suits a fictional character you created. A planetary base, a floating chair, and office building - things that make no sense in the context of the game, but make sense to the players.
The freedom to approach your construction in such a wide variety of ways, with such a wide variety of goals and such a wide variety of optional challenges is very "open".
Add in mods, and it all extends even further.
Space Engineers is a bad construction game. Compared even to something like Minecraft, it is needlessly complex without adding much of value. But those judgments don't apply very well, because Space Engineers is not a survival crafting game, nor is it a linear construction puzzle game.
Space Engineers has a survival crafting element in it, but only as an optional challenge. There is power in tackling that challenge - but the challenge is not a lump sum. You can challenge it piecemeal - create a mining ship in creative, build a refinery in survival, change the inventory rules, alter the assembler speed multiple, switch back into creative...
Space Engineers isn't structured "perfectly". I don't think it pushes things anywhere near far enough, and the bugs inherent to its multiplayer wall off at least a dozen kinds of play. But you can see hints of how things could go: a construction game where you tackle challenges with a huge amount of freedom.
One thing Space Engineers doesn't have that an open-world RPG does have is continuity. It's not easy to "chain" your constructions, so there's not much sense of history or progress between builds. I would like to see a game where designs were "chained". You build a mining vessel, and then there's some kind of reward or flow to building a refinery base that interfaces with it. You build a frigate and then there's some kind of flow or reward for building a fighter or a carrier or something that travels with it.
Space Engineers cannot do this because they have more technical debt than any other game I've ever seen, and are too creaky to implement something like that. But it's certainly possible.
Anyway, I originally had a lot more to say. I wanted to talk about Kerbal, and Dragon's Dogma, and some theoretical game designs, and adding human elements... but this is the fourth time I've written this essay, so I had better stop.
Hope you found it interesting!