Interview: Limit Theory Creator Josh Parnell

By Jim Rossignol on November 30th, 2012 at 12:00 pm.


One-man procedural space RTS/RPG Limit Theory is one of the most intriguing Kickstarters currently on the block. Boasting an “infinite” procedurally-generated “open-world, sandbox universe in which you can explore, trade, pirate, mine, escort, hunt, defend, build, and more,” it certainly grabbed my space-attention. Needless to say, I got in touch with the programmer behind the project to find out who he is, and why he’s making such an ambitious game.

RPS: Who are you and why are you making Limit Theory?

Parnell: Hi! I’m Josh Parnell, an avid graphics programmer, long-time space sim enthusiast, fanatical Star Wars geek, and Stanford computer science major!

To put it simply, I’m building Limit Theory because I need more space in my life. I need more trading, mining, pirating, armada commanding, and empire running in my life. There are so many great space games out there, but I just can’t find one that lets me do all that I want to do. To that end, in the hopes that I may one day live out my truest of true sci-fi dreams, I’m making the game that I want to play, from the ground up. That game is Limit Theory.

RPS: Can you explain the key ideas that led you to make this game?

Parnell: If there’s one thing that I love in games, it’s freedom. Not surprisingly, freedom is the single biggest focus in Limit Theory. Freedom to go anywhere, do anything, and live just about any kind of life you want. That’s what LT is all about, and that’s the key idea that drives nearly every aspect of development.

Beyond that, the idea of using procedural content generation (the technique that the game uses to produce game content) to build a huge number of high-quality assets is absolutely central to the Limit Theory development mentality. “All things procedural.” That’s my motto, my creed, and my guiding principle. It’s the reason that I don’t need a team of artists to build LT. It’s the reason that I don’t need millions of dollars. Frankly, it’s the one and only thing that makes LT feasible for a single-person dev team.


RPS: Why a space game?

Parnell: As I said, I love freedom, and to me, space exploration is the ultimate venue for freedom. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than being able to go anywhere in a massive universe. It’s inspiring!

On top of that, procedural generation is particularly applicable to the kinds of content found in space games. The stuff that you see in such games – planets, background nebulae, asteroids, etc. are all quite conducive to procedural generation. Ships and space stations are a bit trickier, but still completely feasible. Again, PG is the only way that a one-man team can approach this kind of project. If you set out to manually build all of the assets for a high-quality universe, well, you’d either need an army of artists or some manner of freezing time. Since I have neither, the choice is clear!

Perhaps above all else, space games, on the whole, have inspired and impacted me more than the games of any other genre. Space is forever embedded in my heart.

RPS: Is anyone else helping you out?

Parnell: Not in terms of designing or programming the game. I really love building systems alone, primarily because of the intense feeling of satisfaction that comes with thoroughly understanding each and every piece of a complex system. Moreover, it makes the development process highly efficient, because I avoid all of the overhead incurred by projects wherein knowledge is divided between many minds. I absolutely love programming, and I’m just not sure that I’m ready to let anyone else help me when it comes to writing the core of the game that’s been my dream for so long!

As for the music, I also plan to compose it myself, as I’ve been a hobbyist composer for many years and have a lot of ideas concerning the aural atmosphere that I’d like to create for this game. Several backers have given me positive feedback on the piece that I composed for the Kickstarter trailer (and subsequently made available to download for free). However, since the launch, I’ve also had several professional composers contact me and express interest in producing the score for Limit Theory. It’s possible that, if I end up feeling overwhelmed by the game development, I may turn to someone else. Still, there’s a big appeal to me in having Limit Theory be totally under the creative control of the one who envisioned it.

In the future, I will be hiring someone to create sound effects, as this is the one area of game production in which I have absolutely zero experience.

RPS: Tell us a bit more about what players will get up to in the game!

Parnell: Well now, that’s the question, isn’t it!? The wonderful thing about this question and Limit Theory is that…I can’t answer it! I can tell you what kinds of options you’ll have, but ultimately, the player will be the one answering that question. The best I can do is offer a few examples of possible paths that you could choose.

Maybe you’d like to be a trader…a classic space sim choice! As a trader, you’ll be working to outsmart a dynamic, supply-and-demand economy in which numerous NPC merchants will compete to beat you to exploiting the price differentials. As you start acquiring more wealth, you’ll want to think about expanding your fleet by hiring pilots to fly more haulers for you, so that you can spend more time crafting a business and less time flying from point A to B.

Maybe you’re a pirate. You’ve worked hard to acquire command of a small squadron of highly-maneuverable and heavily-armed rogues…but the work pays off, because you and your men can hammer credit-laden trade convoys so quickly that reinforcements can’t even come close to helping.

Maybe you’re an explorer. You’ve purchased the highest-grade sensor equipment and a ship that moves faster than most missiles. You dart around systems, capturing scanner logs of every interesting tidbit that you pick up. You’ve accrued an immense database of planet locations, rich ore pockets, factional staging grounds, and so on. You make a living by selling your vast accumulation of knowledge.

Those lives are all possible, and they highlight just a few of the many freedoms that Limit Theory gives you – from amassing a fleet of however many units you’d like, to pursuing exploration as an actual profession, to working with NPCs to accomplish missions of your choice.

Oh, and did I mention that you can actually build your own ship or space station? Since we hit our first stretch goal on Kickstarter, we’ve officially unlocked an in-game ship and space station editor that players can use to custom build their own ship or the ships that make up their fleet. Personally, I can’t wait to see someone faithfully remake a whole armada of Star Wars ships!

RPS: Can you explain in a little more detail what the procedural generation of your game works? How can the universe really be infinite?

Parnell: Each type of asset in the game has a specific algorithm associated with it, which provides a sort of ‘recipe’ for pieces of that type of content. For example, within the engine, there’s a recipe for creating planets, one for creating ships, and yet another algorithm for producing system backgrounds/nebulae. It’s really that simple. You can think of the entire asset pipeline as being a bunch of functions that output different kinds of content. The cool thing about it is that, when I need a new asset, I don’t email an artist and wait a few days – I just run one of the functions that’s already in the code, and get my new asset in almost zero time!

Now, the fact that the universe is infinite follows from the manner in which the engine generates it. The engine does not just try to generate everything up-front, which would, of course, be impossible given the whole ‘infinite universe’ thing. On the contrary, the universe is dynamically generated on-the-fly as you push further into new systems. This means that, although the universe goes on forever, it’s not all stored on your hard drive at once.

RPS: Why Kickstarter?

Parnell: I’ve been a regular on Kickstarter for a while now, and have watched dream after dream become reality thanks to the generosity of a supportive community. It’s really a great concept, and it’s the only way that a guy like me – no big name, no big company, and no big bank account – could acquire the resources to take on a dream of this magnitude. Kickstarter is about believing in someone else’s vision, and trusting that they’re passionate, honest, and intelligent enough to pull through with it. I worked for endless nights to prepare my vision for others to see…and, much to my delight, it seems to have excited others almost as much as it excites me! People are taking a risk on my passion, and as a result, I get a genuine chance to prove to them that I’m legitimate. And believe me, I absolutely can’t wait to do so. Limit Theory’s release can’t get here soon enough!

Aside from the funding, Kickstarter also offers just about the best way to connect with people that share your enthusiasm for a project. At the time of writing, we’ve already got over 200 members registered on the Limit Theory forums, many of them actively discussing new ideas for gameplay. It’s incredible, and I’m overwhelmed at how quickly LT is becoming a community. You can’t put a price on having this kind of enthusiastic community for support and ideas, and I could never have built one so quickly without Kickstarter.

RPS: Are you worried about being buried by all the other flashy projects and big names up there?

Parnell: In the beginning, yes, I was concerned, particularly considering how prevalent space games seem to be on Kickstarter at the moment. But I hoped that if I could produce work of high quality, present myself professionally, and, most importantly, convey my passion to people, I would be able to garner attention without the big name or the flashiness (although, personally, I think some of LT’s screenshots are quite flashy)! So here we are, a week later, and I’m overjoyed at the justice in the world – the fact that my idealistic little hopes held true, that people actually recognized the quality and valued it in spite of my lack of fame – it’s uplifting, to say the least!

Naturally, I no longer have any worries. We hit 100% in under a week, we took out the first stretch goal just a few days later, and it looks like we’re in good shape to reach well beyond 200% by the time it’s all said and done. I’m in a frenzy just trying to throw stretch goals together quickly enough to keep up! Limit Theory caught on more than I ever thought it would, and I’m absolutely ecstatic that people share my enthusiasm for the vision.

RPS: Is $50,000 really enough? What will you spend it on?

Parnell: Yes, $50K is really enough! One of my ulterior motives in building Limit Theory is to make a point about game development efficiency (or lack thereof). I want to show people exactly how much one can accomplish with a small budget and the immense power of procedural generation. Right now, a lot of people are skeptical that one man can make something like this on a budget of $50K. What I’d like to do is turn that skepticism around. I’d like for people to ask “why do you need millions to make this game,” rather than “there’s no way you can make a game like this without millions.” Maybe, just maybe, if Limit Theory becomes everything that I envision for it to be, I’ll be able to change that attitude!

For a precise breakdown of the budget, I’ll refer you to the first update that I posted on Kickstarter here.


RPS: What are you hopes for the future of Limit Theory? What does it mean to you?

Parnell: There’s just so, so much that needs to be done in the space sim genre, particularly at a modern level of quality. I hope Limit Theory will be a step in the right direction, but I certainly don’t claim that it will be the one space sim to rule them all. Even with all the ambitious features that I’ve got in the works, there’s still so much to do – seamless planetary landings, walking inside ships and space stations, first-person exploration of planets, multiplayer…the list could go on forever. I hope that I can spend a long time working to bring more and more features to the LT experience, whether in free updates, expansion packs, or future releases!

Ultimately, I hope that someday, using procedural generation, I can produce an experience that feels more like an alternate reality than a game. It’s quite a dream, but I’ll try to tackle it one step at a time… and Limit Theory is that first step!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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60 Comments »

  1. Hanban says:

    I shall definitely buy this game.

    • MrLebanon says:

      I didn’t want to… my wallet was like “No Leb.. no! You’ve backed too many kickstarters! STOP THIS MADNESS”

      While my heart was like “OH EM GEEEEEEEEEEEE”

      • jessicasherwood3 says:

        If you think Douglas`s story is really cool…, last month my uncles step-son easily made $4516 grafting 40 hours a month from home and their classmate’s sister-in-law`s neighbour done this for 6 months and made over $4516 in their spare time from their labtop. the guidelines on this web-site.. http://www.Google.mel7.com

  2. AmateurScience says:

    Jim, I trust you didn’t just send an unsolicited email to this poor fellow and launch into: ‘Who are you and why are you making Limit Theory?’ without preamble.

    That would be quite rude.

    Yours &c

  3. jimjames says:

    I’m excited for this project, it looks fantastic.

    I don’t think he’s going to fully prove his point about the immense power of procedural generation though. He’ll create a universe that will involve some really good looking effects and lighting but for something to look awe inspiring I think it involves artistic direction by talented people.

    Despite that, I’m backing this guy. Its his drive and enthusiasm that makes it personal.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      You’re underestimating the power of the dark side of the force. Seriously, nature and the universe in general is all mathematics, and I think you will find that mathematics can lead to some glorious beauty.

    • The First Door says:

      For many games I would agree with you, but not for a space sim. Mathematics and complex systems create utterly beautiful things without the need for artists, especially when it comes to views in space.

      For example, this is pretty awe-inspiring for me: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/entire/pr2006010a/xlarge_web/

      EDIT: What rustybroomhandle said, basically.

      • AndrewC says:

        You’d be amazed by the amount of boring there is in space. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly boring most of it is. I mean, you may think it’s boring walking to your local drugstore, but that’s peanuts to space. Really boring peanuts.

  4. golem09 says:

    If only I could procedurally generate more money to fund kickstarter projects

    • Armitage says:

      Just pedge projects that have no chance of meeting their goal. Then you have unlimited moneys!

  5. caddyB says:

    After reading this and watching the vid ( gameplay footage is worth a thousand words ), I’m convinced that he will actually deliver what he says.
    Pledged.

    Besides, he is a student and I bet he knows how to live with a small amounts of cash.

  6. shimeril says:

    I’ve already backed this. This is the one project on Kickstarter that grabbed my attention instantly. His enthusiasm and passion for this game are remarkable. Go Josh..

  7. Prime says:

    A dream coming true. I’ve backed this over Elite, I’m that excited by it. And Josh seems incredibly talented and dedicated. That for me, plus his talent for presentation, removes any doubts about his credentials or ability to bring this to fruition.

    I once told a certain Mr Braben (not directly, but commenting here) to “step aside and let someone else have a go” at bringing the space dream to a starving generation of space game fans. I didn’t realise it then but Josh Parnell was who I was referring to.

  8. abandonhope says:

    Limit Theory sounds practically identical to another Kickstarter project that was funded months ago: Kinetic Void. Granted, Limit Theory has a better campaign and Parnell, at first and second glance, kind of seems more competent than the team behind Kinetic Void. Still, the similarity is uncanny. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but this collection of concepts has existed before.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/seanpollman/kinetic-void

  9. conti027 says:

    I saw this the other day waiting to get paid so I can back it. I’m really hoping they add some kind of coop. I don’t care so much for multiplayer but I really want coop. I’m also going to put some money down on Star Ciziten.

  10. youreareuoy says:

    Everybody wait a second. I’m assuming you don’t know RSI’s Star Citizen project?

    • abandonhope says:

      Everyone knows. These are two very different games.

      • RedViv says:

        And very different approaches. One goes for ULTIMATE MASSIVO-EPICNESSITY and gets boatloads of money from people so even more money can be gained from richer people, and the other wanted a mere fifty-thousand dollars.
        Not exactly hard to see which one I might find more charming.

        • Llewyn says:

          Indeed. And for those of us who grew up in the Braben & Bell glory days this kind of open-universe sandbox is hugely desirable, so long as it retains some capacity to surprise amidst all the procedural generation.

        • SanguineAngel says:

          I can only presume that being prompted to make up the awe inspiring “MASSIVO-EPICNESSITY” means you are charmed by star citizen?

          To be honest, I am a big fan of both these projects. Both have been very open, very enthusiastic and chock full of information. Also, both devs have instilled confidence in their abilities

  11. Khalan says:

    The link to the kickstarter update (just above the last screenshot) needs the period character taken off the end of the link, otherwise 404.

  12. daphne says:

    Yeah, I came to the conclusion that this guy’s a bit of a genius after reading through his old? blog. And the kickstarter pitch is perfectly presentable. Only thing preventing me from backing this is my current lack of credit card access.

  13. SuperNashwanPower says:

    Will there be bunnies.
    Bunnies or no sale.

  14. jhng says:

    Very excited to have backed this.

    It’s interesting that he says asteroids and so forth are a natural fit for PCG — in a sense, asteroids, nebulae etc are actually procedurally generated in real life.

    • AmateurScience says:

      Isn’t everything? (arguably)

      • jhng says:

        Yes, I guess so.

        Although with asteroid formation, for example, you can “see the joins” more clearly than you can with something like a coffee cup, where we have the whole intervening structure of human cognition. So perhaps it would have been better for me to say that it is interesting that the things that in real life are generated by fewer and simpler procedures (a few basic physical laws in the case asteroids — as far as I know), are also the things that are simulated with fewer and simpler procedures.

        Hmm, maybe I’m just stating the obvious…

        • AmateurScience says:

          It’s interesting. I’m fascinated by the whole concept of procedural generation/modelling, I love the idea of reducing a system into a basic set of rules pressing ‘go’ and watching the whole thing blossom before your eyes.

  15. Shadowcat says:

    I was extremely impressed by the presentation of this project. Josh says he worked hard on it, and that was very evident, and I’m glad to see him reaping the benefits of those efforts. After all, there’s really precious little on display in terms of gameplay at this stage, so I made my decision to back the project based almost entirely on the fact that he made me believe in his ability to make this game. Other Kickstarter hopefuls should pay careful attention.

    Personally I still think this is going to prove an extremely tough challenge, so it won’t surprise me if it falls short in some areas; however I get the distinct impression that Josh is entirely capable of delivering on a lot of the features he wants to include, and he unquestionably has the desire and enthusiasm, so I’ll be keen to see the end result.

  16. neofit says:

    He is 20 years old, studying computer graphics AND working on this game for 40 hours a week. God oh god, please make it so he doesn’t get a girlfriend till at least Jan 2014? ;)

    • Jasper says:

      And in return, when the game is finally finished, we shall grant him our sisters.
      As is proper.

    • maniacalpenny says:

      iirc he already has a girlfriend (I think they are still together), though clearly it hasn’t stopped him from amazing development speed.

  17. Tacroy says:

    What I really want to know is where on the sliding scale of procedural generation this is going to fall – will it be on the Minecraft side, where it just makes a bunch of terrain for you to explore, or on the Dwarf Fortress side, where aeons of colonization and strife are simulated before you’re dumped into the world?

    The real difference between the two is your place in the universe; in Minecraft, the world literally revolves around you, and almost nothing happens unless you’re there to see it. In Dwarf Fortress, the world doesn’t care one whit about you unless you flood it with magma, and you’re just another dwarven settlement struggling to get by.

    Given that the universe is infinite and infinitely explorable, it seems like it’ll fall more on the Minecraft side which is kind of a shame – it would be awesome to start out with factions embroiled in a bitter war with trade embargoes and blockades. I’d love to have a procedurally generated Freelancer-esque game where you’re not the most important thing in the universe, and things go on when you’re not looking.

    • barnthebear says:

      I believe he’s stated on the forum that he plans for the civilizations and their relations to be procedurally generated too. I could be wrong, but I do think I read that…

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        In the year 245 of the Age of Syrup the people of Hurn (the Wheeled Lobster) declared war on Thrazmung (the people of the Invisible Teeth) because Thrunningangg (The Murder of Leather) stole Gronningap (The Turning of Elk), a masterfully crafted bed forged from meat. It menaces with spikes of obsidian. There is a picture of a Goblin and a pastry on the side of the bed. The Goblin is talking to the pastry.

    • Jasper says:

      Then the excellent game Space Rangers 2 may be what you are looking for. That game features one of the most alive, dynamic universes I have ever seen in a game. The game is so player-independent that the game basically plays itself, I’ve had playtroughts were I completely ignored the alien invasion and focused on becoming a planetary trader. A few ingame years later the invasion was defeated by the NPC’s.

      • Tacroy says:

        I have Space Rangers 2 sitting around somewhere in my GOG profile, I just couldn’t get past the way flying your ship is like turn-based Escape Velocity

  18. Voronwer says:

    When I first saw this Kickstarter I was truly impressed. This was the first time I’ve seen a space game that I actually liked and would consider playing. Maybe it’s the lack of cockpit sim which just isn’t my cup of tea and always ends up frustrating me.

    I’m truly glad this got funded and am looking forward to seeing what he makes of this game. That said, I’m not pledging. I already had the impression that he has no plans or idea about what to do if he gets more than his goal (which he will be getting anyway). Reading the last part about how he wants to prove what can be made with only 50k, that only confirms it for me.

    So I wish him the best and I will definitely keep an eye out for this game and buy it once it gets released.

  19. wodin says:

    Over at Matrix Games forum it has come in for some serious attacks..some seem abit suspect over the game.

    http://www.matrixgames.com/forums/tm.asp?m=3221975&mpage=2&key=&#3224184

    • MrLebanon says:

      And Parnell responded himself!

    • Llewyn says:

      Reading that thread it’s only really coming under attack from one rather gobby little shite who comes across as being more bitter about this kind of thing highlighting his own inadequacies.

  20. Sacrelicious says:

    Nope. Backed Elite all the way and this just looks a rip-off. Fair play to the lad to dedicate all his time and a succesful Ks campaign, but I’ll go with David Braben and his pedigree. As much as RPS seems to hate him, he (co)created the finest ever Space Sim and hopefully will do it again.

    • MrLebanon says:

      if sequels/spiritual successors have ever taught me anything… is that the original is almost always better…

      So i doubt it

      • Sacrelicious says:

        Yeah, Half-life 2 sucked big time. All those Battlefield games. Deus Ex Human Revolution – total pants! Total war and it’s follow ons. Plus lots of other great re-boots. Etc etc etc……

        • conti027 says:

          But yeah you know Elite has something to show… and Limit Theory doesn’t >.>
          I’m backing Limit Theory and Star Citizen maybe Elite if I actually see something but if not I’ll wait.

  21. tomeoftom says:

    I am incredibly excited for this. I particularly like his soundtrack – it’s like Morrowind in space. Beautiful.

  22. varangian says:

    >You make a living by selling your vast accumulation of knowledge.

    But would anyone use it? Not a snarky question, it would just be really impressive if more player actions actually fed back into the universe. I guess trading will do that, as whatever you buy/sell and at what price is just another set of numbers to feed into the economic model, but in many games other things, both abstract and tangible, never seem to have much effect on the world.

    Like in Skyrim, where I regularly crafted legendary swords, enchanted them with deadly destructive powers then flogged ‘em to the nearest merchant as all I wanted was the crafting experience. But did any of the (numerous) assassins and other wannabes who decided to pick a fight with me do so with one of my own swords or the equally ninja armour I was producing? Of course not, which is a shame as it would be interesting to fight against your own creations and, if they ended up killing me, funny in an ironic kind of way.