Lacuna Passage is an open world game and that presents a specific set of design challenges. The largest of which is the problem of realism. The term "open world" is often linked with questions related to realism such as “How big is the world?”, “How fast does time pass?”, or “What things can I interact with?”.
Reality has rules just like a game does, such as “what goes up must come down” or “there are 24 hours in a day”. You can’t break these rules no matter how hard you try, though you can introduce goals to turn reality into a game. For example, “get to work by 8AM every day or you’re fired”. The problem is that the goals set in reality often are not very fun. Lacuna Passage is predicated on a concept that could be simulated, but is slightly exaggerated to facilitate a story, increase player engagement, and decrease frustration.
I’ve already talked about the terrain in the game and how we are using real Mars data to form our landscapes, but at the same time we are fudging that data to present something more palatable to the player. True Mars landscapes are overwhelmingly expansive. In an exploration game like this, realism in relation to scale and distance would result in hours of walking just to reach that cool looking mountain in the distance… not exactly riveting gameplay. To combat this we are selectively shrinking the Mars landscapes on the distance scales while trying to preserve as much of the height scales as possible. This results in a much more varied terrain and much improved player travel times. The goal for the final game is to have the player be no more than two minutes away from a new and exciting vista. In the end we have a level of realism that is acceptable to the player without being a straight simulation.
Another important exaggeration that we are making in Lacuna Passage is in relation to time. Isolation and mortality are very important themes in the game and increasing the speed at which time passes tends to highlight them nicely. As of right now, one minute in the game equates to one hour in the real world. The Martian day is roughly equivalent to an Earth day so every 24 minutes of play a day will pass. Since another key gameplay system is survival this adds a sense of urgency to your choices. You can only survive about three real days without water so in the game you will have less than 90 minutes after you start your game to find a source of water or you will die. Even more importantly, an oxygen tank typically allows for real space expeditions that last roughly 9 hours, so in the game you will have to carefully monitor your oxygen levels and be sure you know your way back to base to replenish your supply. You might also think twice about running that distance since you will consume your oxygen more than twice as fast as you would just walking. I think this compressed time scale is the right choice for a game that otherwise does not task you with sharpshooting bad guys or any other skill-based gameplay contrivances. Time is your enemy.
Compressed scales of distance and time allow for a more engaging game world. One that reflects reality but is not bogged down with incessant accuracy. Lacuna Passage is not a space exploration simulator. It has a story to tell and wants the player to be rewarded for exploring.