How Outer Wilds Makes Running Out of Stuff Fun


Have you ever been in a situation in a video
game where you’ve got this really cool weapon, or a mega health potion but you don’t want
to use it, because it’s got limited durability, really rare ammo or you’ve only got so many
of them and so you go the whole game without ever actually getting to use it at all. Or
alternatively, you might find a really easy way to get items, like destiny 1’s infamous
loot cave, so you just farm that for ages instead of actually playing the game. Resource management systems are one of the
most effective tools in the game designer’s arsenal to control the way people play their
game, unfortunately, they’re also one of the most unpredictable, with a lot of well
intentioned ideas sometimes having the opposite effect they were supposed to, but I’m getting
ahead of myself. I want to break down how resource management
works, so we can work out not just how to do it well, but also how to avoid situations
where a shortage or surplus of resources tricks players into playing in a boring way. I think
these systems can be best explained with the idea of pushing and pulling. In games where
certain resources are very limited, players are pushed away from styles of play that are
inefficient or would risk them running out of a critical resource. Take Resident Evil,
which uses resource management to make even concepts like silly spanish zombies and hillbilly
dads scary. The scares in resident evil don’t come from
zombies jumping out of closets, but the creeping dread that comes with running out of the only
thing that’ll stop you from getting eaten. Bullets. Firing blindly at bad guys with your pistol
here will mean you’ll be out of ammo in no time flat, meaning that instead you’ve
got to line up headshots as well as finish off grumpy villagers with melee attacks where
you can. Both of these ammo saving tricks, which require you to either let villagers
close in or get into melee range yourself bring you closer to danger, and closer to
interesting gameplay. This is all aided by the fact that the game will sneakily increase
enemy health and lower ammo drops in response to your performance, meaning you’ll be constantly
teetering on the edge of being out of ammo, without ever completely running dry, keeping
you in that great zone where you’ve got to make tough descisions about what ammo you’re
going to use to stay alive and what you’re going to try and save, but also because having
to kill enemies with nothing but your crappy little knife takes bloody forever. The flipside of this would be the idea of
pulling, where a player is drawn towards styles of play that make effective use of very plentiful
or infinite resources. In games like Dark Souls or Celeste, infinite resources are used
to encourage players to explore and experiemnt. Dark Soul’s Estus flasks – which is a bit
of a tongue twister – replenish whenever you head back to a bonfire, so you can feel free
to chug them even during a doomed bossfight or when you’re exploring a new area, confident
in the knowledge you’ll just get them back later. Celeste’s infinite lives means that
players can experiment with finding alternate routes and secrets without fear off a game
over or losing anything more than a few seconds of progress. this helps to take away a lot
of the pressure and reminds players that failure is just another step on the journey to success. By altering the strength of these two forces,
as well as playing them against each other, designers can maneuver players into engaging
with the game in a particular way, whilst still letting them feel like they’re in
control by letting them come to that conclusion themselves. For example, in Islanders, a very cute citybuilder,
your primary limiting resource isn’t building materials or cash like you’d expect, but
space. You need to build structures in order to get points, but the more built up an island
becomes, the harder it is to find space for big, complicated structures like temples,
which generate loads of points from mansions, but are massive and hard to place, or huts,
which only generate points away from populated areas. Each building you place needs to be
considered in the context of the next hundred or so taverns towers and gardens that you’ll
be putting next to it, as you try to make the most effective use of your dwindling space
as possible, pushing players away from strategies where they just place structures without thinking,
and in doing so, creating some very pretty villages, and a more interesting strategic
style of play. Health is a great way to encourage players
to act in a particular way, because running out means dying, and people don’t usually
want that. DOOM’s glory kill system, which seems to come up all the time in my videos,
pulls players into using it because it’s an easy way to restore your very limited health,
keeping you in the fight for longer. Similarly, in Descenders, a rougelike… mountainbiking
game? You can gain extra health for completing bonus objectives that involve doing lots of
tricks or going really fast. Both of these strategies, bouncing from glory kill to glory
kill and pulling off backflips at death defying speeds are the most fun way to play, and thanks
to a bit of developer fiddling, they’re also optimal, meaning players are encouraged
to play in a way that’s more fun. It’s even possible for a resource to push
and pull in different contexts- in Frostpunk, a steampunk survival city builder that may
as well be called running out of coal the videogame, you’re never going to have enough
of resources like wood, steel and of course delicious black gold, pushing you into expanding
your cities gathering efforts to heat homes, research tech and not die- simple stuff. What’s
much more interesting is manpower, which starts off as a pulling force, people are easy to
come across, and massively help your city because research stations, gathering outposts,
hospitals and of course brothels all need to be staffed by people. More people means
more of those critical resources which means faster expansion and a better chance at winning…
at least in the early game. Later on, however, the balance changes, and survivors actually
become a pushing force. As the weather gets worse, your city will be swarmed with refugees
from neighboring settlements, including lots of useless hungry children. Suddenly, you’ve
got more survivors than you know what to do with, as each building only has a limited
capacity for workers, and they all need healing, feeding and heating- creating a great moral
conflict out of pushing your infrastructure to the limits in order to do the right thing,
or turning away people you once would’ve begged to join because you’ve got too many
mouths to feed as it is. By changing which resources do the pushing
and the pulling, games can shape specific, memorable experiences out of the same broad
set of mechanics, however, like all things to do with psychology and manipulating people’s
brains, it doesn’t always work. As we’ve already seen, sometimes resource managemnt
systems can trick players into having exactly the wrong experience by moving them into gameplay
styles that are exploitative, boring, or don’t engage with the best parts of the game. In
the words of Soren johnson, lead designer of civ 4 and offworld trading company. “Given
the opportunity, players will optimise the fun out of a game.” We can see this very clearly in the otherwise
great Subnautica as well as a lot of other games with survivally mechanics. In Subnautica,
the a lack of food and water pushes players into exploring slowly, making the world beyond
the safe shallows seem scary and forboding. To start with, the only way you can make halfway
decent foods and drinks is back at your base, encouraging you to build a permanent place
to live, and furthre hammering home the idea that hte outside world is dangerous, and you’ll
need to prepare in order to survive it. However, these two resource shortages are easier to
fix than the developers intended. By making an early game tool that literally cooks fish
for you straight out of the water, the thermal blade, you have an inexhaustible food supply
that also restores a little bit of h2o. This means that instead of creating tense scenarios
where you’ve got to think on your feet and make tough choices to survive in scary inhospitable
biomes, you’ve instead just got to waste time killing and cooking peepers for a few
minutes whenever you get peckish or thirsty. Eating cooked fish to restore vitals isn’t
even that efficient, particularly for water, but it is easy and it is free, so players
can’t help but do it, and in the process make the game less fun. In pokemon, and a lot of other RPGs, the fact
that you need exponentially more exp to level up is supposed to pull players towards new,
more challenging content that helps them level up much faster, but this doesn’t always
work. If there a particularly hard boss like a gym leader blocking the way, there’s very
little reason for players to not spend ages grinding away at low level stuff until they
can trivialise whatever’s in their way. And in the brilliantly named Void Bastards,
you’re encouraged to use stealth tactics and a bunch of cool gadgets like kittybots
to distract enemies and save on precious ammo, but dying just gives you a bunch of free ammo,
fuel and food anyway- removing any possible tension the game’s otherwise well thought
out systems could create. Resource management, both for the player,
and for designers is a delicate balancing act, but when it’s executed well, it can
create games that give players unparalleled freedom, but also ones that subtly direct
them towards the best kind of experience, which is kind of the best of both worlds. Speaking of worlds, let’s put everything
we’ve learned into practice as we look at all the tings the brilliant Outer Wilds does
right, and one major thing it does wrong. The Outer Wilds is all about journeying around
a mini solar system in a little rinky dink spaceship, and whilst you’re doing so, managing
your health, fuel and oxygen, which provide some great moments of tension as you jet around
deep space, and serving as a way to stop you exploring too much too quickly. However, what
really drives gameplay in Outer WIlds is the prospect of running out of time. Some small spoilers coming up, but I won’t
mention the story or show you any of the really juicy stuff, don’t worry. If you want to
skip all the spoilers, go here. See, in Outer wilds, each of the game’s planets is on
a strict schedule, this comet travels in a weird elliptical orbit that brings it close
to the sun for about a minute, brittle hollow, a hollow planet literally falls to bits over
time, and massive tornados storm across the surface of Giant’s deep lifting up entire
islands into the sky. But that’s not all, after 22 minuites of play… the universe
kind of explodes. Yeah. Now, this and the fact you get to respawn afterwards are pretty
core to the story so I won’t spoil any of that, but I do want to take a look at how
by expertly framing itself around this time limit, Outer Wilds compels the player into
engaging with the game in the most fun way possible. In order to get your head around the plot
and stop the universe going boom, you’re going to need to visit each of the planets
several times to truly put everything together, but you’ll never have enough time to explore
everything you want to in a single run. Finding an escape pod used by mysterious advanced
aliens the Nomai on the surface of Ember Twin points the way to not just a refugee city
buried beneath the surface of the planet, but also two other escape pods scattered throughout
the system. There’s no way you’ll be able to explore them all within the time limit
meaning you’ll have to make some interesting choices in deciding which mysteries to solve
now, and which to leave for later. This not only helps to build anticipation and suspense,
but gives each restart a sense of purpose, as there’s always a new breadcrumb trail
of clues to follow, and each planet is stuffed full of secondary details and plotlines that
both flesh out the main plot, but also add something new and interesting to discover
on repeat visits. By having time as the game’s main pushing
resource, you’re forced to master the strange and unexpected ways each planet changes, whilst
also coming to understand all the hidden routes, secrets and areas dotted around the map to
get to where you need to go without running out of time. Because time is such a limited
resource, but death is merely a setback, Outer wilds pulls you into making these exhilarating
and ultimately lethal journeys of discovery to get just one more piece of the puzzle before
the universe explodes and you’re kicked back to your home planet once again, it’s
a fantastic little loop, and without it, the game’s brilliant sense of carl saganesque
scientific wonder just wouldn’t work If the game gave you infinite time, or was
simply static, there’d be no pressure to push out into the unknown and to take suicidal
risks in search of knowledge, but if the punishment for death was too steep, you’d be too scared
to take the plunge and explore some of the game’s most mysterious and most interesting
areas. Using these resources together, Outer Wilds pushes and pulls you into exactly the
position you need to be in to appreciate the game to its fullest. Originally, I planned to end the video right
here. However, late in my Outer wilds experience, I stumbled upon a pretty infamous puzzle that
kinda rubbed me the wrong way. Secondary mild spoilers for an endgame puzzle, go to this
time to skip ‘em you know the deal. I’d explored every planet, found out exactly what
I needed to do to finish the game, and it was time to execute on the plan. The first
step, however, involves waiting on ash twin, a desert world, for a very specific time window
that happens for a fraction of a second in a very specific place, people who’ve played
the game know exactly where I mean. Because this event only happened near the end of the
22 minute cycle, and it was only available for a tiny window when this big sandstorm
was in exactly the right placem suddenly, a lack of time was a much stronger motivating
factor than normal, and that was a problem. What was normally a really well designed resource
shortage pushed me into just waiting on this bridge for ages not really doing anything,
as going to complete sidequests might mean I’d miss my window of opportunity, and would
need to wait for 10-15 minutes all over again. I was in a bit of a conundrum. Playing in
what seemed like the most effective way possible and taking as few risks as I could meant that
I wasn’t doing what the game was supposed to be all about, exploring and discovering
new and interesting places, not just waiting around in old ones. In these sorts of situations,
I’ll almost always pick the more effective, less fun option, just like Soren claimed-
but this time, I decided to do something different. So, instead of playing sensibly and just waiting
around for the sandstorm, I went exploring, finished a sidequest that starts with these
weird teleporting quantum rocks, and actually had a really fun time rushing back to Ash
Twin just in time to start the endgame sequence. It was here that I realised the waiting around
problem wasn’t really even the fault of Outer Wilds, it was a problem with me. Boring
strategies like subnautica’s food exploit, or avoiding risks in Outer wilds, or even
holding onto those too cool to use weapons in RPGs are nearly always going to be optimal,
because they ignore two of the most important resources out there, your time and your fun
– and whilst clever devs have gone some way towards mitigating these problems, they’ll
never be able to truly fix the fact that efficiency and fun are always at odds. So the next time you catch yourself playing
in a way that’s more efficient or safer but is less fun, maybe think about switching
things up: Use those cool limited items and don’t rely on a single overpowered but boring
strategy. Sure, this might not be what the game is encouraging you to do, and it’s
not the optimal way to play, but it is a hell of a lot more entertaining. And, at the end
of the day, isn’t the best way to play a game what optimises the amount of fun you’re
having and makes the best use of your limited time? And that’s why when you see me playing
games badly, I’m actually just optimising fun- it’s not that I suck at games it’s
all completely deliberate. Why are you looking at me like that? Hi and thanks for watching, before I do my
usual patreon spiel, I’ve decided I may as well use my one hundred and twenty five
subscribers to promote some smaller and way better channels so I’m going to do it here
from now on. And the first channel I’m going to shout out is the brilliant first five,
a channel that’s all about reviewing small games, or the first five hours of bigger ones,
it’s a very neat twist on an established format and Alex does a great job, check him
out. But anyway, let’s get to the people who
really matter, my generous patreon supporters. Alex Deloach
Aseran Auno94
Baxter Heal Brian Notarianni
Calvin Han Colin Haman
Chill Daniel Mettjes
Derk-Jan Karrenbeld Feetsalot
Jessie Rine Jonathan Kristensen
Joshua Binswanger Leit2
Lucas Slack LunarEagle1996
Macewindow54 Patrick Rhomberg
ReysDad Samuel VanDer Plaats
Strategia in Ultima Yaron Miron
Chao Thanks for watching, thanks for putting up
with me and my slow release schedule- I’m working on it, I swear! And you have a great
day now. Bye!

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