How Astroneer makes crafting fun

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the inner workings of their games. This time, Astroneer [official site].

Astroneer is a space game about hoovering up alien materials with a magic gun and listening to them plop into your backpack. And in this Astroneer has cracked something very special in crafting and resource management: it’s actually fun.

Developer System Era Software has put a peculiar focus on how resources are presented and how you manipulate them, and at its centre is an idea that’s surprisingly rare in games:

THE MECHANIC: Resources are physical

Of course, Minecraft’s crafting system is kind of physical, in that its recipes ask you to place resources in a representation of the thing you’re making. But, locked into a menu, it’s an abstraction from the game world. That’s where Astroneer does things very differently. In fact, I haven’t played with a crafting system that’s as deeply implanted in its game world.

“This sounds a little too intentional, as if I had a masterplan, which I totally didn’t,” Jacob Liechty admits to me. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

It’s not even as if Liechty was a designer when he began to lead Astroneer’s design. He co-founded System Era having been a graphics engineer at Halo developer 343 Industries, and, knowing the project needed someone to concentrate on design, he took on the role with a prototype already made. From that point, when the game was called Exo (“Which is a terrible name”), he began to feel out a different way forward.

The first thing the team worked on was the the backpack, which carries your items and displays your power and oxygen supplies, and on which are mounted your upgrades. When you select it with E, it smoothly moves from your character’s back and towards you so you can start to interact with it with your mouse. “It’s the dumbest thing that the backpack flies up into your face,” says Liechty with a laugh. “It felt really dumb in the beginning, like why is it floating in front of your face? Who’s holding it? Narratively it makes zero sense. But you get used to it, and it works great.”

That’s because the backpack holds the key to that physicality. You drag items from slot to slot, items which you can see in the backpack when you’re running around, too. And as you gather resources with the game’s deformation tool, a kind of gun which can shape terrain as well as suck up resources, you can see them collecting into a stack which then moves into an open slot in the backpack when it’s filled.

System Era considered this process, something most other games represent with a number going up on a hotbar, incredibly closely. “We were being finicky about how we thought it should work. We were considering a rail from the deform tool to the backpack and shuffled around these mechanics until they slotted into their appropriate places.”

They give you a tactile sense of involvement with the crafting system, and the idea that your resources are identifiable physical objects carries through to all aspects of managing them. To craft larger objects, such as the smelter, you’ll see holograms and names of the resources where you need to place them. “When you go find that resource in the world and you see the same icon and text, you know it’s supposed to go there. It’s what it wants. It can tell you that without a textbox to say you have to put copper there, just because we maintain that consistency across the whole board. Honestly, it’s sort of a new – I can’t really point to another game. Well, if I could point to it, I’d have copied it.”

The overriding feel to Astroneer’s crafting system is of simplicity. Currently, there are only 13 different resources, and no crafting recipe requires more than one type, and the maximum number recipes demand is two units. This is heavily influenced by the physical nature of placing resources on their holograms: there simply isn’t room on most platforms’ 3D models to present more, though Liechty has ideas for how they can be extended.

This gives a novel clarity to Astroneer’s crafting system. It doesn’t need to tutorialise it, making your first play a self-driven exploration of both your world and the system, which is neither obtuse nor hand-holdy. And the decision to craft an item doesn’t carry the weight it does in most other crafting games, where it’s all too common to agonise over using a resource for one item instead of another. In Astroneer, at least in the early game, you tend to just try it out to see what results.

It also gave System Era, who brought Astroneer to Early Access with just six people, the ability to give a great deal of attention to each resource. “Let’s say we have 50 resources,” says Liechty. “There’s no way we’d go and make individual 3D models for them. It’d take forever. And some of the resources make different sounds when you collect them. Having so few resources allows us to give tonnes of character to each one.” It forced them focus on the important stuff. “If you have this massively complex [crafting system] and all these spreadsheets, you should give the time to focus on the core experience. I’ve always hammered home that it’s far more important to make a great core experience than an OK sprawling one.”

It’s lead to a remarkably generous crafting system. Tethers are an important item which you implant in the ground to carry conduits of oxygen out into the world so you can travel further before your suit’s supplies run out. You’ll use many of them as your web of tethers grows, and you get 11 of them for each unit of compound, which is a common resource. Contrast this with Minecraft’s torches, which perform a similar role. To make a batch of four torches, you need a stick (crafted from two planks, which in turn are crafted from wood chopped from trees) and a coal (mined from common but sporadic coal deposits), or charcoal (which is smelted from wood in a furnace).

Astroneer’s generosity is balanced against a constraint which feels frustrating in most crafting games. Your backpack can only carry eight items compared to, for example, the 36 slots in a Minecraft inventory, each of which can usually carry up to 64 of the same item.

Why doesn’t it feel frustrating? “That’s a hard question,” says Liechty. “I remember being concerned early on about the player’s backpack. I don’t know.” He laughs. “The boisterous or arrogant answer would be, you just gotta design better. If you decide your game needs to be such and such and it needs to have an inventory with 100 slots, then that’s your fault!”

But there’s a truth in that cod-arrogance. “If you decide a limited number of resource slots is important, it just becomes a new constraint. It influences everything else, like the recipes, which will be relative to how hard it is to get those resources back to your base. We try to decide how much things cost and how many tethers you get, and you just set the resources appropriately, make trade-offs, and make sure it’s balanced and eventually end up with something that works.”

So it’s down to balance, but there’s more to the backpack’s size. For one thing, Liechty suggests that its limitation means it’s easier to remember its contents, so it’s more present in your mind and feels less cluttered. But I also find going out for resources fun; when I run out of copper, it’s not such a chore to go gallivanting out to gather more.

The deformation tool is, after all, a lovely thing, plumply reforming the land, and the ploppy sounds as resources collect and transfer to your pack (designed by Riley Gravatt) are lovely. The whole process is satisfying, especially since you’ll have used your own network of tether-lines to get to the resource spot.

It highlights something about crafting systems which so many other games seem to miss. Running out of materials doesn’t have to simply be a blocker to the thing you want to get to. Liechty puts it like this: “Content doesn’t stand in the way of content.” He means that something in a game that’s stopping you from having or doing the thing you want, well, it’s still part of the game.

“I think people have this weird ontology about what a videogame is and where the actual fun is. They’ve forgotten that in videogames there’s no such thing as a trough of non-content. There’s not just one goal in a game which you’re just trudging through to get to. The whole game is a game.”

Astroneer shows that what can be boring in many games doesn’t have to be, and that constraints, both constraints on the player and constraints on the developer, can lead to wonderful things. Such as hoovering up alien materials with a magic gun.

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25 Comments

  1. Urthman says:

    I think Minecraft was at its best when there were only a few resources and there was a pretty direct spacial connection between mining a certain volume of rock or chopping up a number of trees and building a particular size of structure. So I’m really glad to see a game trying to focus on that simplicity rather than, like most, trying to build on the Minecraft formula by introducing hundreds of types of resources and zillions of crafting recepies.

    Also, I think it’s hard to overstate the value of a really satisfying sound when you hoover up resources. Minecraft’s little “pop” that sounds like popcorn when you scoop up a dozen things at once is so perfect.

    • Darloth says:

      I was just thinking the other day that the Minecraft resource gathered and block breaking sounds are really spot on. They make doing otherwise VERY repetitive actions significantly more rewarding I think.

      Speaking of Astroneer, I find only using one type of resource for some things maybe a little too simple – I’d maybe like two resources for some of the more complex ones. There’s also some that take a whole four resources (two on each side of the vehicle bay, mostly), and those are the only ones that might benefit… maybe 2 resin, 2 compound or something, or even 2 aluminium 2 compound.

    • PseudoKnight says:

      The break sound; the pop when you pick them up; how each block you break or place makes a meaningful change to the landscape and where you can move; how none of the crafting requires you to sit and wait (in fact the only mechanic that requires actively waiting is fishing). It gets so many things right that so many other survival games don’t. Despite its flaws (seriously, no built-in anti-aliasing?!), it’s hard to find a good replacement, especially given how many mods it has.

      Also, the article states there are 23 slots. Is this bait? It actually has 36, plus the offhand and armor slots. Players have an extra 27 in enderchests. And in the latest update you can multiply your storage capacity with shulker boxes, which are end items that store 27 slots worth of items. They’re very different games, so it’s hard to compare the capacities.

      • Alex Wiltshire says:

        36! Yes! Fixed. And just to be clear that I don’t mean to criticise Minecraft in that comparison, simply to show the difference of Astroneer’s approach.

  2. battles_atlas says:

    I was just playing Astroneer today after seeing Sips’ playthru, and yes it sounds mundane but the tangibility of the resource system as described here is a thing of beauty and makes the game what it is.

    • Danarchist says:

      My wife mentioned that it was very bright and relaxing while watching me play it the other day. At the time I was trying to bury a damn forest of poison spitting plants and was frantically digging a “storm pit” when she said it. It made me giggle.

  3. HoboDragon says:

    So, is this in a way what we expected (partially) No Man’s Sky to be ?

    • trjp says:

      I’d say NO – I don’t think ANYONE expected NMS to be a survival/mining/resource gathering game did they?

      I think the only thing Astroneer offers those burned by NMS is the low(ish) priced indie game making it’s way thorough EA that might have made NMS into a decent game at some point – rather than the blatantly unfinished mess-of-a-thing it was at a AAA pricepoint?

      • HoboDragon says:

        I meant after they patched in the base building ….
        But, you know what, I think I will simply have a closer look at this game (independent of any NMS thoughts or experiences) and see for myself.

      • zbeeblebrox says:

        “Exploration” – which I would say was the primary focus of NMS – is a more demanding mechanic than people realize. That’s what it comes down to. You have to motivate people to leave, and you have to motivate people to stay. That’s a hell of a balance to strike. For most games, the motivation to explore arises incidentally as part of an unrelated mechanic. To make it the *goal*…let’s just say, even having a quintillion planets, NMS bit off more than it could chew.

  4. Someoldguy says:

    I quite enjoyed bimbling around planets in NMS collecting resources and getting lost in huge subterranean caves, but any game that makes it even more fun is great news.

  5. dsch says:

    “I think people have this weird ontology about what a videogame is and where the actual fun is. They’ve forgotten that in videogames there’s no such thing as a trough of non-content. There’s not just one goal in a game which you’re just trudging through to get to. The whole game is a game.”

    So much this.

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      AceJohnny says:

      What do you mean? I’m playing through the missions in Saints Row 4 to unlock all the powers and vehicles and weapons so that I can then start to enjoy the REAL game that’s after that. Right?

      …right?

      (See also: Mario Kart, or any non-RPG game with gameplay unlockables really)

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      AceJohnny says:

      Also that paragraph and the preceding one didn’t make sense to me at first*, only upon re-reading it in your comment did I understand what they meant.

      *and I like to think I’m pretty good at reading comprehension usually

      • Banyan says:

        That’s probably a function of how common are sentiments like “the endgame is really the point of the game” or “the crafting/resource management/issuing directions is something you have to suffer through to get to the game.” It’s hard to remember that all of these simply indicate ways in which a game is poorly made, and where it can be made better.

        • gabrielonuris says:

          In other and older words: the journey could be better than the destination. Buy unfortunately some developers indeed turn these mechanics into a chore, locking the actual fun away from their games.

  6. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I wonder about the feeling of progress and longevity of this game. Part of Minecraft’s appeal for me is that there are endless mods available and like dozens of power generators, item pipes, chest and weaponry to choose from in a given pack depending on what ressources you have and what goes together well. Packs even add questlines of sorts you can work towards.
    Usually when you explored all biomes and crafted everything the vanilla crafting game becomes boring fast but I will check this out for all the rave reviews it got.

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      Ericusson says:

      For me there is too much hype around the game at the moment.
      It is a VERY early alpha we can play with for now.

      Performance wise, I still have to see how the game would handle more than the very limited crafting there is and world terraforming on a large scale.
      The physicality is interesting but it’s also very limiting.

      But hey, magnifying glass is the way the game business coverage works.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      I don’t mean to pile this on you specifically, but you gave me an opening.

      What’s with the notion that a videogame should be able to entertain one indefinitely, even after one ‘finishes’ it? It stifles the industry, IMO, this hunt for the perfect ‘end game’.

      Books end, movies end, TV shows even end. Games can end too, and that’s OK.

      I get so mad when I see Steam reviews from people that have put 500 hours in and their primary complaint is that it got boring eventually.

      • Urthman says:

        I paid $20 for Minecraft and it only kept me entertained for a couple of years nonstop before I tired of it and went on to other games. What a disappointing ripoff triumph!

      • syndrome says:

        “I get so mad when I see Steam reviews from people that have put 500 hours in and their primary complaint is that it got boring eventually.”

        Well, that’s more often than not a game design/advertisment fault. You see, if the game in question provided for a linear experience and a clear end-goal, people would point out this to be its greatest fault, and vice versa. Unfortunately, you can’t simply accuse the players of being wrong (especially if that’s how they truly feel about it), so clearly something else could’ve been defined better.

        Look at, for example, This is the police. It’s a finite game with a tangible goal to meet, however, as it takes the narrative approach, people complain that it has nothing to offer in the subsequent reruns because the structure of the game resembles something that could’ve been procedural.

        On the other hand, if a game appears to be an infinite game (the goal in such games is by definition not to win, but to have fun with its systems for as long as technically possible), people start to complain about how not having tangible goals hurts their ambition to complete it.

        In my view, this is the issue of how game communicates with the player, before and after purchase.

        For example, games that do not take a narrative-heavy approach and don’t guarantee well-balanced runthroughs in terms of content and playtime, tend to play in progressive loops and are advertised with a ‘roguelike’ etiquette. This is how you prepare populace for the otherwise appaling definition of fun.

        Take note in how Dwarf Fortress players embraced that “losing is fun” in contrast to how Mass Effect 3 players couldn’t bear with its horrible end game. For comparison, you could say that EVERY ending in Dwarf Fortress is as unsatisfying as ME3’s, however what we’re missing is the underlying context, even though both games have a non-linear journey that relies heavily on player input. It’s the context that sets the tone for the game’s proposition as well as its gestalt.

        This is also why we can’t compare those games side by side, even though both games are about some characters mingling and affecting the world in which their actions contribute to meaningful situations, and the only true (mechanical) differences lie in how exactly player inputs affect the state logic, and how exactly the game world is presented to the player.

        If you expand this view, you’ll understand that this is true for 95% of all games that ever existed, but we constantly compare games based on our assumptions of what they’re trying to achieve cognitively. In that light, Mass Effect 3 ending could’ve been much better based on a simple fact that, due to the way the game was designed to play out, our assumption is that its authors could’ve done a better job.

        Similarly, Astroneer is deemed as well-designed, because it caters well to people that expect its crafting part to be well-balanced and fun.

  7. geldonyetich says:

    Astroneer is one of those early access games that look so good that I don’t want to buy it before it’s released for fear that I’ll spoil it for myself. So I end up spoiling it for myself anyway by watching videos of people playing it. Ah well, take my word for it that it lingers near the top of my list of games I want to get.

  8. Kamahlk says:

    Wow, interesting coincidence. I was just explaining why I don’t like Surival Craft’em Ups much at all and how 7 Days to Die fits that bill. Astroneer on the other hand, I had fun with the game in the first two minutes of playing. I could just barely scratch the surface of why I don’t like the genre, but this article sums up much of the reasoning. 7 Days feels like such a disconnected mundane experience. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything other than spam clicking and running around randomly “surviving”. Astroneer has weight to it because everything you do feels and looks physical.

    The base gameplay is just so much more satisfying in Astroneer versus the other games in the genre. I’m having fun actually playing the game while also having fun working towards some sort of goal. In 7 Days, I’m not having fun with the base gameplay which consequently drains my interest in working towards some end goal.

    “I think people have this weird ontology about what a videogame is and where the actual fun is. They’ve forgotten that in videogames there’s no such thing as a trough of non-content. There’s not just one goal in a game which you’re just trudging through to get to. The whole game is a game.”

    This. So much this.

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    DantronLesotho says:

    As much as I have enjoyed the alpha to this (and I did!), I do wonder if the simplified crafting ethos will run counter to the longevity of the game. I’m not endorsing like, the tons of items from Minecraft or Terraria, but eventually there will be a limit, and in a game where there appears to be no end-game (so far) other than just the initial experiences, I am really curious to know how they design that balance. Much like in roguelikes, the meat of the enjoyment comes from the variation in items and circumstances you can find yourself in, I wonder if this will go in the reverse and make the setting the most variable part of it. Either way I will put a bunch more hours into this as it goes on. It’s so pleasant!

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