Premature Evaluation: Starship Theory

Every week we cast Brendan adrift in the black void of early access. This time, the bumbling spaceship management of Starship Theory [Steam page]

Everything is on fire, all the time. This is the fourth spaceship I’ve cobbled together out of a cramped and ill-equipped escape pod and it’s the fourth ship to die from severe internal burns. All the crew members are also dead, except one, who I don’t even bother to watch blowing up with the vessel. I quit out to start a new game before it even comes to that. I know where this story is going.

Starship Theory is difficult, and not currently in a good way. It’s tight-fisted, unbalanced, slow-moving and infested with menus. You’ll probably love it, because you’re a masochist. I’m not loving it.

It’s still a bit too all-over-the-place, in that most raw of early access ways. It aims squarely for the “losing is fun” genre but only manages to hit the “losing is actually quite aggravating because I can barely get off the floor” genre. You start in a tiny escape pod that is moving slowly forward through space. Along the way you’ll have random encounters with asteroid fields, too-close stars, and other ships (friendly and hostile). The asteroids have metal and minerals, the ships might trade you random things, and the stars are HOT HOT HOT. You have four crew members, some basic resources (metal, food, silicon and water) and more interface menus than you care to know about.

You can drag and drop these boxes of words all over the screen, and minimise ones you don’t use often, but most of them, you’ll discover, are important in some fashion. Some let you flick power on and off to certain components, like turning the engine off to free up power for the mining laser. Others list the cargo in your hold. Others list tasks or research priorities. A planning menu lets you add extra parts to the escape pod – power-generating solar panels, research stations, plant pots, CPU units, hull pieces to expand the ship, and so on. But you’ll have to discover all the exact details for yourself because there’s no tutorial to guide your hand, not even a rudimentary couple of pop-up boxes with some underwhelming “how to get started” tips. You have very much been thrown in the deep end here, except there’s no water in the pool, so you’ve broken both your legs. That lack of a tutorial can often be liberating in games but here nothing quite acts in the way you expect it to, and this quickly becomes a problem.

For example, those fires? It makes sense in the mind of sci-fi dweebs everywhere that if a fire starts and you open the airlock, the fire will go out. With FTL: Faster Than Light being something that comes to mind from the moment you look at this game, you might assume the same kind of mechanic here. But it doesn’t quite work that way. Go past a star and things get hot. Fires break out. You can put them out by having crew members around to extinguish them, and yes, the airlock trick appears to help – but not really. Heat is retained by the ship (a little meter in one of the menus shows you that temperature accumulates and “pools”) and it stays there even when the star is far behind you. To get rid of this excess hotness you need heat vents installed. Otherwise the heat stays on the ship and fires continually break out, even if your entire ship is in a state of vacuum. Fire thus becomes less of a physical emergency and more like a disease – something that needs to be purged, slowly and ineffectually. Enough heat vents will fix this, but there’s a whole other problem with this solution, in that resources are scarce. But I’ll talk about just how scarce very soon.

It isn’t only fire and heat which don’t act according to your expectations. Even building a room is an unintuitive process. To build one you need hull and floor pieces. But rather than creating a hollow space where you know you want to put the floor (and thus, presumably, an automatic ceiling) you instead need to fill a whole area with hull pieces then add the floor on top of the central hull bits. Not only is that counter to how basically all other managerial building games work (see Rimworld, the other game that immediately comes to mind) it’s also counter to your expectation of resource use. Or at east it did for me. I have to use 30 bits of metal to make a block of hull, where I will subsequently place another 12 bits of metal literally on top of what I’ve already plonked down. Why? It goes against all my builder game instincts and it feels massively wasteful.

That sense of waste would be less of an issue if you had enough resources to splurge. But the escape pod comes with a pitiful amount of metal and silicon – barely enough to build the room to put down the devices necessary to eat and drink because, yes, this escape pod doesn’t include ready-to-eat rations nor bottled water – you need to build a food dispenser and a water cooler. So you might do that. But of course your crewpeeps can’t walk through these objects, so building these essential items in your starter 3×1 pod room, while possible, just makes everbody squash up and freeze.

Because of all this, most of your starter metal is immediately used building another room just to house two devices which seem absolutely out of place on an escape pod. This does make clear that space itself is to be treated as another resource, however, and this is a great idea if your principal design plan is “FTL but you can expand your ship”. However, when you are this stingy with all resources, enforcing a cramped and impoverished start doesn’t just create an atmosphere, it impacts everything you do and progress becomes grindingly slow.

In fact, everything is grindingly slow. Your ship moves at a glacial pace, even the fast-forward button only makes a marginal difference to the game’s speed. When you finally have the mining laser necessary to source new metal, it eats up rocks at a similar snail-like rate (it also needs to be aimed manually and it adds to your heat pool, and becomes damaged after extended use without a few heat vents). Your crewfolk move from one place to another like they are swimming through mushy peas. They build new hull blocks and other parts as if they are being paid by the hour, and paid very well. It just feels like nothing ever gets done.

That slowness and the ill-equipped start cripples you from the moment you set out. There are rare moments, after you’ve learned all of the backwards rules and cogs, when you feel like you might have your foot as firmly on the pedal as is possible. But then a star shows up and an asteroid field comes and an enemy ship arrives all at the same time and you start overheating but you can’t fight the fires because you’re repairing the solar panel, because you need the mining laser to work so you can get the metal to build a navigation console because you can’t warp away from this fight without one, but now one of your crewwomen has died and you don’t have a fourth guy because you sold him for money to buy metal from the next friendly ship that, in the end, never showed up and now the enemy ship, which has about ten crew and two lasers and – the knobs – loads of room inside, is slowly zapping your essential equipment and there’s no power for a drink of water because the water cooler’s tap is apparently electrical remember and you send your crew over to the enemy ship manually because maybe they can enter and board them as a last-ditch effort to fight back but of course they can’t go inside they just float around on top of everything but no problem another crewman of yours has died either of asphyxiation or thirst, you’re not sure which, and oh look the enemy ship is just leaving because it looks like they simply got bored of shooting your ship for five minutes without actually blowing it up but that’s okay here comes another star to boil your boat up, I hope you have the power to run your heat vents ha ha ha no of course you don’t, okay bye.

Except, when I wrote that giant passage, I left out any full stops. Which makes it sound pacy and interesting – a very Dwarf Fortress kind of failure cascade. In reality, all this happens in a slow, frustrating way. There’s so little you can salvage from losing just a single solar panel. So little hope or joy to gain from scrambling to survive. A lot of the time, your crew don’t even do the thing you want them to and you have to intuit from a collection of roles (captain, engineer, science, military, and general) which role will prioritise certain things. Even then, there are moments when you have engineers and you have moved the “build this CPU unit NOW” task to the very top of their list (and have all the necessary material for it) and they will simply sit there ignoring your plea, or fixing a scratch in the hull instead. It’s annoying.

I have complained a lot. At the same time, I’ve probably sold it to many of you. There is a definite means of conquering this journey and I know that people will scramble to discover it. But that’s the problem – the path to progress feels set. Like there’s a precise formula and order to the ship parts you add and a precise timing to when you should do it. That strips much of the creativity and enjoyment away for me. When progress is this slow and failure this unstoppable, what’s the point?

The redeeming thing is: I can see Starship Theory turning this around. It has all the necessary parts to become excellent, it just hasn’t put them any of them together in the right way. What it needs more than anything is a massive balance overhaul. But it also needs to re-examine the whole first impression experience. Part of that problem is expectation: if it looks like Rimworld and FTL, people are going expect a bit of Rimworld and FTL. It is in no way bad to do things differently, if they improve the game. But arguably, the way things are done here don’t feel like improvements. They just feel under-thought, under-tested. And when you aren’t taught otherwise, by any tutorial or even some tooltips, you will approach it with the assumptions of the games it looks like.

Likewise, there are a lot of small things that will improve things exponentially. Get that tutorial, give the player a starting ship with enough space for the basics (or simply get rid of food and drink machines in favour of rations in the cargo hatch), give them more metal and other resources to get building, automate the boring-as-hell mining process, have a better method of showing what tasks crewmen will do, introduce a means of automating your most important tasks by default (favouring building new things over repairing dents in the hull) – the list is long and almost as dull as waiting to die in an impossible space fire. But it all needs to be done. Hell, call it “easy mode” if you really want to keep the toughness as part of the experience. But trust me, there’s a need for it. I say all this speaking as a brute who loves games that kick the player when they’re down – XCOM, Battle Brothers, Rimworld, Darkest Dungeon. I can handle a baptism of fire. But when it comes to the fifth ship to go up in flames, I’m pretty sick of getting burned.

Starship Theory is on Steam for £8.99/$11.99. These impressions are based on build 1952279

20 Comments

  1. Ginsoakedboy21 says:

    FTL is, IMHO, one of the finest games ever made and whilst I am immediately interested in anything that seems “LIke FTL but…” or “Like FTL crossed with..” I fear that FTL is bottled lightning – a problem that has effectively been solved, and anything aspiring to be like it will always fall short. That said, this sounds interesting and it’s flaws sound fixable (and fairly typical of early access) so I will keep an eye out for a full release.

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      phuzz says:

      I still end up playing FTL for an evening even when I have half a dozen other games that could be playing. I’ve almost certainly seen everything in the game already, but I still get the itch to have yet another run though.
      Damnit, I want to go play it now.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      No way; FTL has a fantastic core mechanic, but I can imagine a dozen variations which would swap out the strategic layer for something else entirely.

      It’s like you have an RPG with an amazing combat system, but it’s mostly just a series of random encounters. That’s fine, but you could also build other RPGs with the same combat plus even more fun stuff. That would make it a fundamentally different game, but that’s a good thing.

    • Fishslap says:

      I agree with you. I even thought FTL itself got worse as they added content. It was almost the perfect game on release and couldn’t be improved. Like Tetris or Homeworld.

  2. TheDandyGiraffe says:

    They build new hull blocks and other parts as if they are being paid by the hour, and paid very well.

    What’s this I sense, a faint smell of space Thatcherism? Colour me disappointed, Brendan.

    Otherwise, a brilliant read, as always.

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      I smelled the same thing as I wrote it, and then I decided to keep it in, because I’m horrible.

      • FredSaberhagen says:

        Brendan is paid by the hour, and paid very well

        • JarinArenos says:

          Brenden is paid by the word, and not paid very well at all, so he can’t afford to throw any of them away.

  3. Baines says:

    Starship Theory and FTL should have different behaviors for fire, because they are modelling different causes.

    With FTL, you have events temporarily boosting the heat level of a small section of the ship. Something bursts into flames, and the fire will then spread, but extinguishing the fire will put you back to normal. It is akin to someone starting a fire by dropping a lit cigarette in a trashcan filled with paper.

    Rather than a cigarette in a trashcan, fire in Starship Theory is more like a forest suffering weeks of high temperatures without rain. In Starship Theory, fires happen because your ship has built up so much heat that it simply starts bursting into flames. Putting out a fire stops the immediate burning, but it doesn’t remove the conditions that caused the fire. To stop the fires, you’ve got to dump that excess heat into space.

    Starship Theory certainly can use some refinement, in many areas. But that doesn’t mean how it models fire is fundamentally wrong.

    On a side note, it is arguably more like Rimworld than FTL.

    • Malarious says:

      Similarly, the criticism with the “hull” building falls flat if you consider it in the context of a _space game_. Obviously you need to build the structure first before you lay down the floor because otherwise there’s nothing to build the floor on, _because you’re in space_.

      • brucethemoose says:

        The question isn’t necessarily about realism, it’s about whether they’re necessary as game mechanics.

        I like the fire thing. But the hull thing just feels like unnecessary padding to me. From a gameplay perspective, placing floors and walls accomplishes the same thing: the extra step just adds complexity for no reason.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      If the inside of your spaceship is consistently hot enough to make things spontaneously burst into flames, then those flames are the least of your problems, because you are literally living (briefly) in an oven.

      Also, as a general space-thing, even really stupid sci-fi knows that you need oxygen for stuff to burn. Unless all of your furnishings are made of oxidizer, it shouldn’t be possible for things to ignite in a room with no atmosphere.

  4. catbert7 says:

    This seems like an overly judgmental and pissy review for a game that just released in early access, especially since the dev has already expressed interest in addressing pretty much every issue listed here. Yes, the game has no tutorial, a difficult start, and some unintuitive elements. I bought it after watching a short YouTube let’s play video and I got through all the difficult stuff on my first run with a little planning so it’s not that difficult to overcome these things. I’ve been enjoying the game quite a lot, even with the limited content. Looking forward to what’s in store.

    • Vacuity729 says:

      Do you see that bit in the title where it says “Premature Evaluation”? That means the review is part of a regular column series of early access reviews. They’re all written by the same person, and so all get roughly the same “overly judgemental” treatment. Frequently followed by one or more comments stating how the review is unfair to an early access game.

    • sneetch says:

      I think Brendan covered the fact that the game has great potential a couple of times.

      But just because a game is in early access doesn’t mean it gets a free pass, if you’re charging money for it you should expect people to criticise it “as is”.

      Especially given the massive caveat that early access brings; only by it if you’re happy with the way it is now and are willing to accept that it may or may not change in a way you like (or at all). Finally, the dev expressing interest in addressing issues is not the same as them actually doing so.

  5. nitric22 says:

    Sounds way to difficult. Off to start my first ever play through of Dark Souls 2 instead.

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    MajorLag says:

    You know, the heat model in this is actually a lot more realistic than the one in FTL. Vacuum is a really great insulator, so once you’ve acquired heat it’s difficult to get rid of it because there’s nothing to conduct or convect it away, you have to radiate it away. If you rename “heat vents” to “radiators” then that’s pretty close to the real solution (except, why are they powered?). Venting atmosphere will take some heat with it, but then you have to somehow make more atmosphere and even a very unrealistic way of doing that is going to generate more heat than it ultimately gets rid of.

    Of course, realism is often not the best idea for gameplay as might be the case here, I’m just saying that unintuitive isn’t always incorrect.

    • beleester says:

      You still don’t get a fire without oxygen. The idea that your ship builds up heat that needs to be vented is pretty intuitive, but the idea that your ship can burst into flames when the interior is hard vacuum isn’t.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      Yeah, I love the idea of having to rigorously track and radiate heat. I *don’t* like that the symptom of overheating is “deck plates randomly combust,” instead of system failures and heat stroke.

      And yeah, “heat vent” is a bad name. You’re not venting hot air like you just got central AC installed, you’re radiating it from big fins/panels.

  7. Mud says:

    My eyes are more on this same like game and it’s free, Shortest Trip to Earth.