I’ve been following Astroneer for a while now and PAX East 2016 was my first chance to see the game in person. A colorful, vast game of space exploration, I don’t mind admitting I have high hopes for Astroneer.
The way the game is being built promises diverse challenges and opportunities, and the all important addition of co-operative multiplayer cements this game as something I’ll sink a lot of hours into.
PAX East not only reinforced my hopes for Astroneer, but also showed me somethings I didn’t even know to expect.
Developer: System Era Softworks
Platforms: PC, MAC, LINUX
Release Date: Fall 2016
I expected the System Era Softworks team to be showcasing the same build they did at GDC, but was in for a surprise when they showed of an entirely new build complete with new assets, dangers and vehiclles.
Right at the beginning of the demo, we see one of the new additions; a massive excavator capable of harvesting huge amounts of minerals from the earth that you wouldn’t be able to collect with your portable extractor. The idea that there will be full scale construction and excavation vehicles in Astroneer has me incredibly excited, and I can only imagine what we’ll see as the game develops.
Another thing that had me excited was the addition of a number of hazards in the game, specifically some toxic space cacti. If you got too close to these plants, or excavated close enough to disturb them, they’d let out a noxious cloud of green smoke that would kill you if you were in it. Just kill you.
Gone are the days of peaceful exploration in pre-Alpha Astroneer when your only concern was energy and oxygen. Life threatening hazards have made it into the game and are a very real concern. In addition to toxic plants, there were also sandstorms that would reduce your visibility, slow your movement, and throw about debris, the impact of which could very easily kill you. This forced you to take cover and make careful use of your surroundings. The team also mentioned that some planets would have lethal days or nights due to heat or cold, and that we’d definitely see volcanic activity in the future.
In addition, Brendan Wilson, a game engine programmer and co-founder of System Era Softworks who I talked with extensively at PAX East, also mentioned that they originally had a hunger system in the game that they were thinking of adding back into the game. He did think it might be a good addition for a future update in tandem with buildings and equipment for greenhouses and growing food (I’m getting major The Martian vibes!). This may never actually materialize, but it is an idea they have yet to take off the table.
One of the things I was most interested in talking to the developers of Astroneer about is their choice to take such a minimalist route in the design of their in game UI. In Astroneer, your UI is almost entirely diagetic, meaning the it is part of the world. You interact with elements of your UI in the same way as you would elements on the ground or pieces of machinery. This creates a very easy to understand and experiment with system that doesn’t feel like it is holding your hand.
“We started with an early prototype of the game where [the UI] was completely traditional; it was nothing like this at all, it was more like Minecraft UI or Space Engineers. You’d press “I” to bring up your inventory screen. It’s was a good system. 2D icons for everything. And then, in early play testing…we got a lot of feedback that [testers] wanted the world to feel more alive. So we thought, let’s make this way more physical. Why don’t we try to ensure that you can always see the context or the object in world and what it is doing. We kind of went off the deep end with that idea, and we decided we’ll see how far we can get with no UI, at all…There probably will be some exceptions [to UI Minimalism]; statuses, stuff like that, that will have something on screen explanation, but as far as inventory and crafting, it’s all in game.” – Brendan Wilson, System Era Softworks
This same design philosophy is carried over to the games resources. As you mine up minerals from the planet’s surface or deep underground, you’ll notice that they aren’t labeled with any sort of name (though this may change; see below). Instead, they are represented with a shape and a color. So, you might need to collect two complete Yellow Stars to build a solar panel, or two red circles for a new piece of machinery. It’s a design choice I love, giving players the freedom to get immersed in the world and feel a sense of exploration and the unknown even when picking up the most basic of resources, yet it is not without its own issues:
“That’s another thing we are experimenting with: How well does this translate? We want to collect a lot of feedback about that. It’s cool that there is no words and therefore no need for localization, but at the same time people are going have to talk about these things; what are they going to call them? They actually do have names. Internally the assets have names like laterite, malachite, hematite; different mineral names, different name for ores. What we will probably end up doing is as you mouse over a mineral it will show you the name.” – Brendan Wilson, System Era Softworks
— ASTRONEER (@astroneergame) April 30, 2016
One of the other things I specifically asked the developers about was the state of co-op; I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t specifically asked because my friends and I cannot wait to start building a moon base and tearing apart a plane together. Multiplayer is in an early state, but is functional. The game currently supports 4 players with a simple scheme where one person can host a game and others can join their server directly through Steam. This is the state that System Era Softworks is planning to go to Early Access with, but that doesn’t mean that is where they are going to stop. Their current plan, which is of course always subject to change, is to support dedicated servers and introduce more world persistence as the game nears full launch. Brendan Wilson also mentioned that they’ve been wanting to introduce some form of player persistence that is account tied, involving player appearance (perhaps in a similar form to Rust?) and other elements based on discoveries you’ve made or achievements you’ve unlocked.
Finally, as I had the chance, I asked about some of the hidden mysteries and treasures that will be hidden in Astroneer for players to find, and I am very glad that I did. Not only was there confirmation that the things we find in Astroneer will be part of some larger narrative, but System Era Softworks is planning, from the beginning, to use these discoveries to foster a community.
“We’re not trying to be hyper realistic, so yeah, there will be things, artifacts, items you’ll find that you wont understand necessarily at first. It perhaps might even take a bit of community effort to unravel some of these puzzles…One thing that is interesting to me is the idea that we can try to…we know, well, we hope that there is going to be a communtity that develops around the game online; has forums and things. We’d like to give those players that are passionate about the game something to talk about and go to the forums with, and go online and say ” I found this thing; i don’t know what it does yet.” Somebody else could be like “I found something like that to!” and they can put their heads together and figure out how they work”. – Brendan Wilson, System Era Softworks
I’m a long time Dark Souls fan, I have seen what cryptic clues and vague hints of a narrative can do to a community, and the kinds of shared experiences they can produce. I had no expectations for this kind of experience in Astroneer and I am beyond thrilled to hear that this is the direction that the developers are at the very least intending to go with Astroneer.
Seeing Astroneer hands on at PAX East 2016 only reinforced my hopes for the game. Astroneer embraces the wonder and joy of space exploration, immersing you in a world of almost limitless possibilities. Granted, some of those possibilities are going to be horrible deaths at the hands of natural disasters and alien fauna, but this is still and experience I am very much looking forward to sharing with my friends and a the game community as a whole.