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Game Design In Theory

Astroneer, or, how to do survival games right

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Astroneer is the only “survival” game I’ve genuinely enjoyed.

This is kind of a complicated statement, because there are some games that are called survival games which I don’t consider to be survival games. For example, Valheim is considered a survival game, but to my knowledge, it has no starvation mechanic, which places it firmly in the action-RPG camp for me.

In order to be a survival game, a game must have some resource which the player needs in constant supply–food, water, et cetera. This is also the reason I hate most survival games. First, a quick recap of the previous post:

Grind is not interesting.

And most survival games, sadly, build grind into their entire design. Food must be hunted down or farmed–harvested–always an action that the player must partake in, no matter how time-consuming or banal. If there are interesting mechanics to work with, I can sort of deal with this; Vintage Story’s soil mechanics, combined with the ability to create cellars and preserve foods, makes it far more about planning than merely finding enough soil, water, and animals. But even then, I typically play with a mod that adds trot lines and snares, because I’m more interested in planning ahead and creating meals than I am in the act of hunting. (It doesn’t help that Vintage Story has Minecraft-ish combat–pre-1.8 combat, at that–and most animals are surprisingly dangerous.)

It gets worse with games like Unturned, where you’re expected to manage a food meter, a water meter, a sanitation meter, and your healthbar–all while zombies besiege you on all sides. I’ve had decent runs in Unturned, but only because I found a building with a fenced-off backyard early on. And I appreciate the devotion to ‘realism’, but realism and interesting mechanics do not overlap perfectly, and it’s important to start from a design that gives the player at least a shot at survival.

Astroneer does it better.

Primarily by removing grind from the basic mechanics. You have two resources, oxygen and energy, and they are both available in infinite supply from very early in the game; the tricky part is that they are only available if you are connected to your starting habitat.

This creates an exploration-centric game, where you are technically still worried about survival, but don’t have to care about running out of time–so long as you do care about where you are and what your infrastructure looks like. There’s no need to constantly right-click on the oxygen machine to refill your oxygen tanks–your tethers do that for you, and you can craft tethers so cheaply that–once you’ve stockpiled a bit–you can start leaving chains of tethers across the landscape, making paths that can be followed to key resources and caves.

Astroneer does it right by shifting the focus from the day-to-day acts of survival to the long-term logistics of survival–of expansion. It never feels like a grind, because most of the resources you gather are going toward new, exciting things, and you’re never really under pressure to build anything. Did you know that the game doesn’t pause when you hit the menu button? I didn’t notice for a while, because Astroneer is designed in such a way that as long as you’re standing near your shelter, you’re okay.

It helps that it doesn’t bother with combat. So many survival games just slap combat into their game as an afterthought, with very few even bothering to add damage types or even meaningful differences in attack speed. Rarely, if ever, is survival game combat good–because its origin is in Minecraft’s monsters, which are a resource drain first and an interesting fight never. So, rather smartly, Astroneer makes all of its health hazards static objects–plants. Each plant does something different to cause trouble, but A) they’re all easily dug up from the soil and B) they have a clearly defined threat zone which does not change. You do not have to engage with the “combat” system, and if you do, it is over quickly and does not cost you anything but a bit of time.

In short, Astroneer does not waste the player’s time. It doesn’t demand repeated, menial tasks, nor does it spend time on a half-assed combat system.

Also there’s basebuilding.

So I touched on this in the last post: the fun part of “survival” games, for me, is creating a base of operations and expanding it to support my adventures. I don’t care about farming, really; I care about building toward a big journey. This is why games where your food supply is extremely limited or tied to one location tend to frustrate me. This is also why games like Unturned, where food is unreliable due to loot RNG, just kinda piss me off.

Astroneer starts with infinite oxygen and energy, but it very quickly gives you a new thing to spend resources on: machinery. You can leapfrog from the smallest size of 3D printer to the largest size within half an hour, and these printers enable you to make all sorts of neat machinery. From furnaces to melt down minerals to research facilities, you’ll be building ever-larger structures to support your expansion–oh, and each machine will automatically take materials from any inventory on the same platform. This gets even more powerful thanks to your ability to easily drag and drop entire storage racks between mounting points–take a storage unit off your tractor and place it on the furnace platform, and it’ll start smelting right away.

Each platform you place also provides oxygen and energy to your suit, once it’s hooked up to your main habitat, so the more you build, the less you need to rely on tethers. The further you progress in the tech tree, the more options you unlock for expanding your base–and the more you expand your base, the more room you have to wander around in. Once you have vehicles, you basically never have to worry about air outside of the base again, though you do have to worry about depleting the tractor’s batteries. Good thing you can just make more batteries and strap them onto the storage unit on your tractor’s trailer! Objects continue to function even when they’re sitting in an inventory slot–hell, you can pick up a battery and strap it to your backpack, and it’ll supplement your suit’s main supply. Loathe as I am to use this phrase, everything just works, and it enables all sorts of fun ways to explore, expand, and experiment.

And that’s what I’m here for. I don’t care about managing my oxygen supply, so Astroneer makes oxygen management simple: Either you’re hooked up to an oxygenator, or you’ve got X seconds to find one again. I don’t care about managing my energy supply, second verse, same as the first. What I care about is building on a small foundation until I can explore the whole planet, and Astroneer delivers.

Update: 2021-11-23

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