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Stardystopia: Thoughts On Doublefine's Spacebase DF-9

Spacebase! How Low Can Your Oxygen Go?

In Spacebase, no-one can hear you scream 'but it's only an alpha.'
Spacebase is pre-beta. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly pre-beta it is.
Spacebase: the unfinal build.
My god, it's full of missing features.
They should've sent a QA guy. So alpha. So alpha... I had no idea.

I've been playing Doublefine's new strategy-management game Spacebase DF-9, which launched on Steam's oft-abused Early Access service yesterday. I'm comfortable with saying that now probably isn't the right time to buy it - i.e. it feels too early for early access - but I'm equally comfortable with appreciating what it's ultimately aiming to do even if it's nowhere near doing it yet.

Here's the summary - you're the unseen manager/god of a base in space, which needs inhabitants if it's going to be become anything but needs resources, airtight rooms, airlocks, air supplies, beds, pubs and defences against invaders if it's going to gain and keep any of those. It's a sandbox of sorts, and the ultimate plan is to grow it into a richly-detailed simulation of life in the vacuum.

Therein lies the rub. When I gripe about Spacebase feeling too early, I'm not really talking about roughness but content. This isn't a bugfest, it's a tease. It comes across somewhat like a well-polished proof of concept, or even a demo, rather than the rich simulation dev chatter promises it will be. Sure, it's going to get updated regularly, but I couldn't say how many times I'm going to want to fire it up again to find out what's new: I really would rather wait until I'm sure I can have a substantial experience, building an epic space base filled with surprises, stories and disasters.

Dwarf Fortress has been the touchstone reference (hence the dual pun in that DF-9), but Double Fine's highest debt goes to Introversion's Prison Architect here. Both in terms of the business model - putting out the foundations of construction for a cash sum, then using that funding to drip-feed new and expanded creativity options over time - and quite a few elements of the design. Fortunately, unlike the breathtakingly cynical Godus, it doesn't feel born of a mercenary urge for revenue rather than a well-intentioned idea. Spacebase feels good-natured and excited to exist, it feels like it's going to go somewhere, and it feels primed to eventually tell wonderful stories even if it doesn't yet have all the language it needs. The list of planned features is hugely tantalising, but does describe essentially an entirely different game to what we have right now.

Again, Dwarf Fortress is a particularly high bar to aim for, and it's better for you and Spacebase both if you try to put it out of your mind. In its current form at least, it's much more akin to a traditional management game - of the Bullfrog variety - bunking up with the clean brutality, minimalism and sci-fi survivalism of FTL. There is the dragging and dropping of room-shapes with easy mouse controls or keyboard shortcuts for the well-memoried, there is the placing of items both functional and decorative, there is the mining of rocks in pursuit of wealth, and to some degree there is the meeting of your populace's basic needs. That said, it's less about joyful construction than it is perpetual fire-fighting, trying to achieve all you can before the uncaring vacuum, as implacable as the mighty river which slowly erodes its banks over centuries, finds a way to wipe you out. For all the very obvious influences in Spacebase, that does give it a distinctive tone.

This isn't the usual comical, faintly whimsical Double Fine approach. Its characters are stocky and cute, they have vaguely Sims-like nonsense conversations with each other, they'll perform exaggerated press-ups when bored and the very slim roster of buildable objects includes Space Rugs and Space Dressers, but it's not a funny ha-ha game by any measure. It's a game about trying not to let people die suddenly and horribly, and usually failing.

I'm not sure whether having the bodies of everyone who died on my watch lie perpetually on the floors of my disaster-prone spacestation is part of the design or just that the feature to clean 'em up isn't in yet, but the place quickly looked like a Total War game had stopped by for tea. Some were murdered by raiders, some were killed by giant space-weevils, some were sucked away into space when a wall breached (actually, maybe I can get rid of the corpses that way...), but mostly they asphyxiated. A fire knocked out most of the oxygen recyclers, and my builders and maintenance staff were too slow to fix and replace. Everyone died. A raider destroyed an airlock door. Everyone died. I plum neglected to build enough air supply units for the base's gradually increased headcount. Everyone died. I fouled up extending a room and essentially left it without a floor, yawning into the vacuum. Everyone died. It's a merciless game, and again far more time is spent fighting fires than it is actually expanding or even having particular goals.

Repeatedly, I came back from a total wipeout because a passing ship delivered new crew to me, the eight minutes of oxygen in their spacesuits usually lasting long enough for them to patch up the most immediate damage to my base and turn it into a fragile oasis of oxygen once again. I'm not sure about the reliance on these regular visits as the primary means of increasing or replacing base inhabitants - it's an overtly gamey mechanic that stands in the way of my base being a living, breathing thing.

That leads on to the largest issue I have with the game itself, which is that in the game's current alpha state crew don't much feel like they matter, either individually or collectively. They're just a resource, one that it's annoying not to have enough of, but not one that feels precious or deserving of careful cultivation.

I'd be absolutely fine with absolute callousness being front and centre, but it seems a little at odds with how Spacebase is presented - crew's random names and appearances, the listing of favourite bands and foods, the star ratings for their skills at building, maintenance, security, mining or bartending, the list of existential crisis-tinged faux-Twitter updates if you click on them, and most of all the air of loneliness to the whole affair. Maybe if and when they have more to do, more ways to have individual adventures, it'll hurt to see them suffer and die. Right now all they can do is build and mine and repair and bartend and occasionally shoot invaders, and they do all of these extremely unreliably.

I'm unclear as yet quite how much of this is design or a current lack of tools to shape the situation, but most disasters occurred because my guys took bloody forever to perform urgent tasks. With a fire raging, oxygen ebbing or invaders invading, they'd lurk around the bar, do those bloody press-ups or jet off to an empty room in an explored derelict and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. Just now I watched an airlock door gradually degrade through use, down to 60%, 50%, 40%, 20% health (door health!) until it finally broke down and two guys got sucked into space. I watched my six maintenance crew do nothing about; walk right past it even. It's not like they were living their lives, like those Fortress Dwarves - they were just lurking pointlessly. To some degree I can use doors to save my skin - suck invaders out the airlock, or preserve the rest of the base's oxygen by locking down a room with a damaged door - but the uselessness of crew was maddening. I missed the quiet reliability of those little FTL dudes.

While no two players of Spacebase will have quite the same experience, right now they will hit the same Is This It? wall. You build one of each room. You then expand them, or build additional ones to provide for the slow influx of new inhabitants. Everyone will die once or twice. You'll incorporate a derelict into your base. And then. And then you either repeat yourself, or you think 'I'll wait for the next update' and you quit and maybe you read some patch notes later that make you think 'aha, yes, I have to try that', or maybe you're knee-deep in another game by that point and you just can't be bothered.

Justifications of Early Access stuff or not, first impressions matter, and while Spacebase most certainly does not make a bad one (quite the opposite, in that I immediately wanted more of it) my concern is the disconnect between current reality and future plans. This alpha runs out of gas while it's still very much exploring the lands of cute little management game rather crossing the border into detailed, surprising simulation. But I can tell it's itching to go places, I can tell it's been made with a strong sense of what's going to engage and challenge rather than, as with Godus's cheerless clicking, purely to facilitate empty progress. Space-heart very much in the right space-place.

I think it's going to be great, eventually. I just really wish I hadn't played it yet, because feeling like I've exhausted it already may hurt my urge to come back to when it's surely better, fuller, longer, stronger later on. I wish they'd put a few more months into it before 'launching', I really do: but that a few of these things were there from the off. Even if you're so sold on the concept that you want to help fund Spacebase right now, for your own sake, please wait a while to actually play it: I'm fairly confident it'll be worth it.

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