Zion, the last human city (The Matrix: Revolutions). A world of links.

[UPDATE May 15, 2017: Prof. Edward Harris wrote back about the project! Scroll to the end to read the reply.]

After spending a couple of weeks thinking about a Harris matrix for software (using the video game No Man’s Sky as a model), and then writing about it in Part I (making the case for software stratigraphy), Part II (explaining how to draw a software (Harris) matrix, and Part III (the matrix and underlying data, warts and all), it’s time to answer that horrible question: so what?

The purpose of the original Harris matrix in terrestrial (aka “dirt”) archaeology is to visualize the arrangement and relationships of strata chronologically. How to the layers of earth relate? What did these layers contain? The numbered rectangles correspond to data about each stratigraphic unit. A reader can look at a Harris matrix, gather data quickly by eye to get a feel for the site, and can then drill down through the data. Following this example, I think that I have accomplished the same thing with my software matrix: you can look at it for a general understanding of trends in the development of the game, can see the relationships between patches, and can then drill down into the data with specific questions.

I present again the full matrix here for reference:


At a glance, you can see that there have been a number of updates, including two major ones. These correspond to the thicker strata. Smaller updates are thinner. Next, the eye notices three shapes, circles, squares, and triangles. Some strata have all three. Some only have one shape. One can deduce that these latter patches with only one shape were rolled out to accomplish one thing, while other, larger patches covered more ground. By splitting each stratum into several sections (representing subtypes, e.g., gameplay, visuals, etc.), it is also easy to see immediately where the developers at Hello Games were focusing their efforts during post-release development cycles. For example, version 1.2, the so-called “Path Finder Update” focused largely on gameplay updates. Not only that, but it is easy to visualize that v1.2 introduced a host of brand new features. The earliest patches focused on enhanced functionality first, and later addressed bugs. For Hello Games, it would appear from the software matrix that their primary concern was largely a new and improved gameplay experience. There were bugs for sure, including ones that caused crashes, which Hello Games did address quickly. But gameplay was the main thing. I will explain why in a moment.

Based on the above observations from the data visualization, do the underlying data actually confirm what the eye discerns? For No Man’s Sky, I broke down the patches into Types and Subtypes, and have organized them in the spreadsheet below, the first tab showing all of the updates, followed by tabs dedicated to updates in each individual version. Click here to see the Full Monty in Google Drive, which I have embedded here:

Taking the patch history as a whole, it is easy to see that 41% of all items included in all of the patches were dedicated to either fixing, enhancing, or introducing new elements of gameplay. Compare that to the next level down, which is 14% for improving visuals, and 11% for the user interface (UI). From there on down, it’s single digits for other fixes, features, and enhancements. For the gameplay total stratigraphic units, these are nearly evenly split between fixes, features, and enhancements, and gameplay has the lion’s share of each of these Types when compared to the other Subtypes in the list.

When you click on the tabs for individual versions, you can see that the data are accurately reflected in the matrix as drawn, and you begin to get a sense of how No Man’s Sky has grown as a game and where the priorities were for Hello Games as they continued (and still continue) to release updates. Consider the dates of the patches (after all a Harris matrix is all about site chronology). The first patch, v1.03, was released on the same day as the game itself. This gameday patch fixed and enhanced gameplay and visuals to the exclusion of everything else, ensuring that players would have a rewarding introduction to the game.

At first, the patches came fast and furious. Version 1.04 came one week after the initial launch on PS4. Version 1.05 deployed five days after that. Three days later saw the release of v1.06, and v1.07 dropped just three days later. Version 1.08 appeared after another eight days, and then players went two full weeks before receiving v1.09. Two months of relatively stable gameplay passed before the first major update v1.10 arrived, making massive improvements not only to gameplay (20 units), but also to visuals (29 units), UI (11 units), audio (18 units), and especially procedural content generation (PCG, 36 units). The look and feel of the game changed in very positive ways, many of them subtle. Two updates appeared one week and two weeks after the debut of v1.10, and then three months passed while Hello Games worked on the Path Finder Update (v1.2), which arrived in March.

Promotional image for the Path Finder Update, No Man’s Sky v1.20. (image: Hello Games)

So what drove the creation and release of the patches, which includes two major updates? Throughout 2016 (and even two years prior), the hype surrounding No Man’s Sky was huge. Many people were captivated by the way NMS promised to deliver on procedural content generation, creating a near-infinite, universe-sized universe in a box, that created new worlds and life in the blink of an eye: a video game Big Bang. Hello Games had already delayed the launch of the game by nearly three months in the summer of 2016, focusing on improving gameplay. The launch and early weeks following the game’s release found the player community polarized, either starry-eyed or disappointed based on the deliverables either meeting (and failing to meet) audience expectations. The crowd being what it is, took to the Internet to voice their concerns (and occasionally praise), and Hello Games (under distributor Sony’s eye) began working around the clock to make the game better.

For the two major updates, many of the items in the patch lists for v1.10 and v1.20 derived from player suggestions: dedicated Photo Mode, base-building, freighter acquisition, land vehicles, custom skins for crafts and structures. In space, developers really can hear you scream. Hello Games continues to work on revising old content while creating new gameplay experiences, revealing more secrets to the game’s universe with every update. Sean Murray and his team continue to try to meet and exceed player expectation with No Man’s Sky. For Hello Games, gameplay is the thing in NMS. And this is what comes across in the matrix and its foundation data. It’s the social and cultural context of the data. And what’s archaeology and stratigraphy without context?

As No Man’s Sky progresses, I will update my matrix and spreadsheets with the new information, and will provide updates here from time to time. After completing this first experiment in visualizing software stratigraphy, I do think the exercise has merit, and does provide insight into the formation processes that occur to make a game what it is. Future attempts will be all-digital as I either make new tools or appropriate existing ones to handle matrix/helix design in 3D. But for now, I am satisfied with this first attempt.

If you have suggestions for improvement, or if you want to give it a try, let me know. My ideas are your ideas, and I hope you’ve found this one useful. Thanks for reading.

May 17, 2017: I sent the links to this experiment to Prof. Edward Harris, who replied today.

Dear Andrew,

Much of our world is composed of stratigraphic entities, if non-archaeologists realized that and in some instances turned to our archaeological principles to help to control their understanding of the development  or building of the object at hand. Therefore, I am not surprised, but surely delighted, at your application of the principles and Matrix to the evolution of your software ‘site’. What you have done, in effect, is what many archaeologists have to do (or later researchers when the ‘digger’ is dead and left no stratigraphic sequence behind) after the fact of excavation: namely, make the stratigraphic sequence (if they can !)
That is to say that the implication of your project is that principles of archaeological stratigraphy can be applied to many situations, which, on first blush, are neither ‘real’ archaeology or stratigraphic entities.
I do encourage you to complete the project and to have a section of conclusions which suggests some of the ramifications of applying the archaeological-stratigraphic method to many other problems or research projects of many, many varied natures or substances.
Best wishes and thanks for a most interesting read.

-Andrew Reinhard, sleeping awake for Archaeogaming



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