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Premature Evaluation: Starship Theory

Flame bait

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.

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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 3x1 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

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