Limit Theory is the procedural space game from Stanford alumni Josh Parnell. VG247’s Dave Cook talks with him about his Kickstarter project, and the pressure of going solo.
Josh Parnell had his first brush with coding at the age of ten. It all started when his parents bought him a book on C++, and although the intricacies of pointers and inheritance might have confused the aspiring game developer at the outset, he stuck with it and hit the books hard,
While most ten-year-olds would have been fixated on riding bikes or playing football, Parnell had his sights set on the stars, and the promise of an infinite universe teeming with possibility convinced him to knuckle down. After a few years spent making fun, workable projects for his own amusement, Parnell decided it was time to carve out a niche in the broader industry.
He then spent two years researching procedurally-generated audio, which led to the creation of a competent music application that reaffirmed his love for coding, and a fondness for dynamic content. But still, the fledgling coder wasn’t satisfied, and yearned to put his knowledge to better use.
The desire to actually see and interact with procedurally-generated content, rather than simply hear it, gave Parnell an end-goal, and three years of burying himself in programming books, and with several Stanford courses under his belt, he’s now developing Limit Theory, an infinite, procedurally space RPG which has recently become fully-funded on Kickstarter.
“I think it’s fair to say that it all started with Morrowind.
“The freedom, the beautiful, strange, and intricate world, and the limitless number of ways that you could choose to play it. That game just blew my mind and ignited my intense love for PC games.”
“Exploration is a huge part of the game, and I’m excited to see it implemented as a real, playable career rather than the usual cool-but-not-functional role that it tends to take in space games.”
The first games you might think of when looking at Parnell’s Limit Theory are EvE Online, Freelancer, and of course, David Braben’s recent foray into Kickstarter, Elite: Dangerous. But for the developer the road to Limit Theory started with Bethesda’s RPG, as it helped him think bigger than the rigid, cinematic corridors and linear worlds that dominated the industry at the time of Morrowind’s launch.
“Morrowind forever spoiled me,” he continued, “and now I can’t go back to enjoying linear gameplay. It goes without saying that Oblivion and Skyrim drove the nails in the coffin. My next big experience was Freelancer, which afforded the same kind of freedom as Morrowind, but in a sci-fi venue. Looking back, Morrowind and Freelancer were almost certainly the most influential games that I ever played, so I guess it’s no surprise that people have noted that Limit Theory looks like “Freelancer 2” or “Morrowind in Space.”
The notion of “Morrowind in space” is a tantalising prospect, but that – believe it or not – actually undersells Parnell’s aspiration for his story-less, visually breathtaking world. Where Bethesda saw you travelling its meticulously-designed world, following its pre-written lore and falling into one of several character classes, Limit Theory offers near-unbound freedom
So in many ways Limit Theory falls closer to EvE Online and Elite, in that players are free to carve out their own persona and reason for existing with its sprawling world. There is no story, so you can adopt the role of, say, a trigger-happy pirate, or an intellectual who uses their mastery of commerce as a weapon. It’s pure role-playing at its finest, where you are free to be whoever you want to be.
This is your entirely your story, Parnell stressed, “Depending on the universe you select, you’ll start the game in one of a few possible situations. You may find yourself on a planet, or perhaps a space station, or just drifting in space. Either way, you’ll have few assets – a basic ship, a handful of credits, and perhaps a cargo hold full of goods.
“Where you go from there is completely up to you. Different players will gravitate toward different openings. Personally, I’ll probably do some easy missions to round up credits in the beginning, because I’m really looking forward to using the procedural mission system. Some players will take to trading. Others will head off to explore.
“Exploration is a huge part of the game, and I’m excited to see it implemented as a real, playable career rather than the usual cool-but-not-functional role that it tends to take in space games. One of the critical components of exploration in Limit Theory is the sensor system. Players can purchase and outfit their ships with sensor equipment of varying grades, which enable the player to record ‘snapshots’ of various game entities.
“The economy is driven by supply-and-demand and brought into equilibrium by the numerous NPC traders that roam the systems looking for profit opportunities. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of trading is the variability of demand.”
“Sensor logs can have inherent value based on the contents. For example, a log that records the location of a yet-undiscovered wormhole holds a great deal of value, as does a log of a particularly ore-rich asteroid. Through the use of this sensor log system, the player can convert discoveries into tradable commodities. The faction in control of the system containing the undiscovered wormhole, for example, may be willing to pay top-dollar to purchase the information.”
The existence of a strong and exploitable economy is vital for any space trading game worth its salt, so it’s refreshing to see Parnell put so much thought into the idea of trading scanned information as a means of charting unknown space. It’s complex, sure, but there are many ways to make a living in his universe if this method makes your brain itch.
“Mining is the primary form of raw resource gathering in Limit Theory,” Parnell continued. “There aren’t really any surprises here. To mine, the player needs to locate an asteroid rich with ore, then use a weapon or specialized mining beam to dislodge chunks of ore from the asteroid.
“These chunks must be pulled in with a tractor beam, or scooped up manually into the cargo hold. One of my favourite parts of mining is using the mining beam. Since the game is twitch-based, that means you’re in direct control of the beam, and I often find myself having far too much fun trying to burn my name into asteroids with it.”
I know what we’re all thinking here, and yes you can probably draw phalluses onto the side of asteroids if you want. But this is a world free from shackles, so if that’s your poison then you can roll with it. You can’t spend too long messing about however, as the galactic economy of Limit Theory is also dynamic, and offers rewards to those who master it quickly.
“The economy is driven by supply-and-demand and brought into equilibrium by the numerous NPC traders that roam the systems looking for profit opportunities”, Parnell explained, “Perhaps the most interesting aspect of trading is the variability of demand.
“In a dynamic universe such as Limit Theory, a great many time-dependent factors can influence demand. Construction of a new fleet by a faction preparing to go to war, for example, can naturally inflate the price of various alloys in a region.
“To be a great trader, the player will need to do more than recognize price differences – they’ll need to stay abreast of the events taking place within a given region, so as to be ready to strike when demand presents itself. Information about such events will be disseminated through news consoles on planets and space stations.”
“For me, the biggest challenge in working alone is figuring out how to maintain absolute maximum efficiency at all times. To bring a project of this size to reality without a team, I have to constantly ask myself, ‘Is what I’m doing adding maximal value to the game? ”
When you consider all of the above, it’s hard to bear in mind that all of Limit Theory’s DNA – all the mechanics, assets and engines are created procedurally through tech coded by one man. It’s a colossal undertaking that has been made significantly lighter thanks to Parnell’s generational tools.
“The amount of procedural generation used in the game is fairly staggering,” Parnell admitted. “Star systems, background skyboxes – including stars and nebulae – planets, asteroids, ships, and space stations are all generated procedurally. In terms of the items in game, Limit Theory takes a mixed approach in that some pieces of equipment and commodities are randomized, while others are fixed.
“Technically speaking, there’s not really a galaxy in Limit Theory – or, if you like, it’s all one massive galaxy. Space is organized into a hierarchical structure. Star systems make up regions, regions make up clusters, and clusters make up the universe.
“Since the universe is infinite, it’s obviously not generated or simulated all at once, which creates an interesting set of technical problems to solve. At any given point in time, different pieces of the universe will exist at different levels of detail, based primarily on the player’s location.
“For example, the system in which the player resides is always loaded and simulated at full detail. The local region, on the other hand, is loaded and simulated at a lower level of detail. Finally, the local cluster is loaded and simulated only selectively, at a very coarse level.”
Within that space, the player is doled out missions that are also procedurally generated, including information gathering, resource mining and more. However, completing missions doesn’t just result in a small fee and a pat on the back – it actually changes the game world further. For example, if a faction wants information on an uncharted area of space, you could go mining there and scan new planets or zones to help that faction’s expansion there.
“After completing the mission, the player would, of course, obtain a reward in return for the scanned data. But what’s important to note is that this action doesn’t just represent a fleeting monetary transaction. In finding and providing the requested information, the player has actually affected the knowledge of that particular faction in a very real way.
“The sheer amount of learning, of brain-stretching, of hours of frustration but moments of revelation… it excites me now, just thinking about it. Learning is something that can’t be revoked. It’s like money that you get to keep forever.”
“In all likelihood, the faction will go on to set up an outpost in the observed system, and perhaps begin a new operation therein. If the player returns to the system later, they may find new stations, mining barges, and other factional assets roaming about the system, indicating that the knowledge transaction actually had a heavy impact on the universe.
“Had an NPC beaten the player to the job and provided information concerning a different system, the faction might have expanded into an entirely different area. In this manner, I hope to imbue missions with a certain level of meaning, despite the fact that they’re procedural.”
Complete enough missions to become an influential name across the cosmos, and you might just find yourself in command of a whole fleet of ships, adding RTS elements into the mix. Add to this limitless exploration, mining for resources, escorting ships through lawless space for a fee, hunting down bounties across the stars and building a respected fleet, and you have an incredibly ambitious project. I ask Parnell if this level of responsibility ever proves daunting.
“For me, the biggest challenge in working alone is figuring out how to maintain absolute maximum efficiency at all times,” Parnell tells me, “To bring a project of this size to reality without a team, I have to constantly ask myself, ‘Is what I’m doing adding maximal value to the game? If I catch myself doing repetitive or trite labour, I’ve got to stop, step back, and ask ‘what have I done wrong?’
“That’s part of the key to developing Limit Theory. It’s not impossible to build a game like this with one person – but it does require a fairly intense regimen. There’s no time for days and days of tweaking one small piece of the game. There’s no time for writing duplicate code that could have been unified. Most of all, there’s no time for making manual assets.
“Sure, it can get daunting, but one of the many upsides to handling the entire process alone is that it’s hard to get bored. At some point, I might get a bit tired of coding. To give myself a break, I can compose music for a while instead. Or, if that gets tiring too, I can work on the website, design document, images and banners, or figure out how I’m going to approach a certain theoretical problem in the game.”
Make no mistake, Parnell is a busy man right now, but he views it with the refreshing perspective of an optimist, constantly learning through doing. So to him, all of this work is a means to an end beyond Kickstarter and the game’s eventual release.
“The sheer amount of learning, of brain-stretching, of hours of frustration but moments of revelation… it excites me now, just thinking about it. Learning is something that can’t be revoked. It’s like money that you get to keep forever. So regardless of how many copies Limit Theory sells, by release time, I’ll already have made an absurd amount of brain-money.”
“It’d be more than foolish to think that I could make the perfect game in one go. I’m well aware of the fact that Limit Theory is just the tip of a rather enormous iceberg. There’s so much more territory left to be explored.”
It’s making a great deal of real money too of course, thanks to Parnell’s Kickstarter project, so I ask him why he opted for this route over, say, an open alpha model like Prison Architect or Minecraft. Regardless, the public have fully-funded the project and helped Parnell realise the dreams he’s held since he first picked up that C++ book at age ten.
“Kickstarter’s just about the only place I know of where you can say, ‘hey, look at my dream and what could happen if you help me turn it into reality,’ and actually go on to garner enough support from a community to make the dream come true.
“No big name, no studio, and no marketing required. It’s the rawest form of support. It’s the proposal of a vision, and the acceptance or rejection of that vision by others. In the case of Limit Theory, I would say that a great many people enthusiastically supported the vision, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
“It’d be more than foolish to think that I could make the perfect game in one go. I’m well aware of the fact that Limit Theory is just the tip of a rather enormous iceberg. There’s so much more territory left to be explored, both in terms of space sims as well as procedural content generation. Given my unfailing love for both, I just can’t imagine being able to stop any time soon.
“As for Limit Theory, it seems like a very natural progression of my life up to this point. Programming, space games, procedural generation, freedom…this game is where they all come together. How could I not make Limit Theory? I feel as though I’ve been working up to it my whole life.”
If you’d like to pledge to Limit Theory, you can do so over at Parnell’s Kickstarter project page.