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Interview: Limit Theory Creator Josh Parnell

"Space is forever embedded in my heart"

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!

Watch on YouTube

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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