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Building A Better Sci-Fi Game

When it comes to video games, sci-fi fans have always been blessed. Not only has there always been an abundance of games set in the final frontier, but select sci-fi franchises have played an important role in the industry. Shooters like Halo, Resistance, and Killzone have been trumpeted by Microsoft and Sony as reasons to buy their respective consoles, and there's no shortage of gamers who would call Mass Effect their favorite current-gen RPG series and StarCraft II their favorite RTS. But whenever I play a game set "where no man has gone before," I can't help feeling to the contrary, due to some key sci-fi characteristics that haven't been fully explored by the industry. Caution: This will be the nerdiest thing you read today.

Flexing Your Creative Muscle:
To me, the most valuable attribute that a sci-fi story affords its creators and consumers is the unabashed creativity that the fiction can support. When you're dealing with outer space, no sci-fi gadget is too impractical and no alien too ridiculous. The original Star Trek television series reveled in its own absurdity, and was the better for it, but most sci-fi games are surprisingly practical.

It's not that franchises like Halo and Resistance lack creativity, but many of their design choices feel like they're driven by necessity, with aliens broken down into familiar enemy types, and weapons that conform to common gameplay mechanics. I don't just want to play a game with creative elements -- I want a game that celebrates its creativity.

The Mass Effect series does an admirable job of striking a Star Trek-esque vibe with its wide array of sentient species -- you never know what kind of strange creature you'll encounter at the next space port. Unfortunately, you only interact with most of these creatures through a dialogue tree, and Mass Effect's gameplay is standard fare.

Making a game that plays well will always be a developer's top priority, so it's understandable that some concessions need to be made when crafting an out-of-this-world adventure. However, if you really want to capture the attention of a sci-fi nerd like me, don't be afraid to have fun with your fiction. Seemingly impractical design choices can spark interesting histories and politics for your aliens and worlds. It's better to be campy and interesting than too serious and boring.

Space Is The Place:
Here's the thing: a lot of science fiction may be full of ultra-powerful weapons and exotic alien babes, but there's really only one fantasy that defines the genre -- exploring the unknown. When Luke stares wistfully at Tatooine's setting suns, he's not thinking about how to best conserve his ammo or what ship upgrades he wants to invest in. He's yearning to experience something beyond the constraints of his boring life. In a way, that's the same reason many of us play video games, but somehow sci-fi games always seem to muck up their sense of exploration and discovery.

Both installments of Mass Effect managed to make exploring the galaxy a grind. The Mako sequences from the first game let you feel what it was like to set foot on an alien world, but every planet you went to was painfully barren. It may have been realistic from a scientific standpoint, but if exploring a planet is so boring that it feels like a chore, you've missed the point.

In a way, Mass Effect 2 was even worse; it forwent hands-on exploration for a tedious mineral scanning minigame. Occasionally you could land on a planet for an impromptu mission, but these were comprised of linear levels that played out like any other shooter.

Virtually every sci-fi game on the market tasks players with the same mission: Save the planet/galaxy/universe from certain doom! Compare that to the mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which most nerds probably have memorized: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." Which sounds more fun to you? I've already saved the world more times than I can count -- let me discover a new one instead.


Exploring Minecraft's blocky worlds is more fun than most sci-fi games

As odd as it may sound, the game that I think best captures the excitement of discovering a strange new planet isn't a sci-fi game at all -- it's Minecraft. Every player who starts Mojang's sandbox game is given his or her own unique world, and gameplay strikes a perfect mix between exploration and survival. And you can forget mineral scanning -- Minecraft makes gathering resources fun and rewarding at the same time. Throw in some rudimentary tools that allow you to create your own structures, and it's no wonder over a million gamers have already bought the beta.

If a sci-fi game could translate Minecraft's essence into discovering and colonizing alien worlds, it wouldn't need action-packed set pieces or a plot that places the universe in peril -- the sense of spreading humanity's reach through the galaxy would be satisfying enough. Not that shooting some aliens every now and then would be a bad thing...

Up Next: Ships, Squads, and Space Combat...

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