Starbound Post-Mortem: Part 3
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
Last time I wrote on how the lack of pre-production planning lead to multiple reworkings of Starbound's primary systems. This time I'll talk about an insidious force that is difficult to resist: feature creep.
Let's start with the most egregious example: food crafting and farming. Crafting is a major gameplay element of Starbound, so food crafting for items that give temporary bonuses would seem a reasonable extension. It certainly could have been, but over 200 recipes using a great variety of ingredients were added. Every ingredient needs an art asset, a script, a spawn method (whether as a drop or from an environmental item), balanced, and to be included as part of a recipe that has the same requirements. A lot of work, perhaps, but otherwise an innocuous feature, right? This is when the siren's song starts.
It's very difficult to find such a variety of ingredients for recipes when you're relying on drop rates to get them. Chucklefish came to this conclusion as well, so they thought it'd be neat if they implemented a farming mechanic. This required the addition of farming tools, growth times, seeds to plant, and methods of acquiring seeds, which means time spent on coding, art, and implementation. A lot of work, yes, but that's where it ends, right? Unfortunately, such a system does not operate in isolation. Adding the ability to farm required an overhaul of the game's economy, as prices of items needed to be rebalanced due to how easy farming made wealth acquisition. It's easy to follow how an ancillary system you think is neat can evolve into a lot of work. This is especially bad when it's work that didn't need to be done because it doesn't fit your game.
"But wait! Terraria and Minecraft are similar games and they have farming, why shouldn't Starbound?" You could try to argue that it needed to keep up with the features in similar titles, but the argument is flawed due to one reason: Starbound's theme. It is a game about planetary exploration, not colonization. You're not meant to be on a planet on a permanent basis. You're certainly capable of doing so, yes, but the game is designed to encourage a nomadic play style. Farming is in direct contradiction to this, as it requires a player to set up shop on a planet, work the land, and tend to their crops. It discourages the game's primary mechanic! The reason farming works in other titles is because you have a single base of operations that provides you with everything you need. The Chucklefish team were aware that there was little reason to colonize a planet, as your ship fulfilled this role. Rather than embracing their differentiator, however, they tried to use farming as a means of fixing a problem that didn't need fixing. And time spent on this feature is time not spent on other, better suited features. This, not unnecessary features, is the real threat of feature creep.
Another example of feature creep was the musical instrument system. Although the dev team initially used their free time to work on the instruments as a side project, it ended up becoming a prominent topic in the dev blog. It showed up on multiple occasions and required work to collect samples for over 20 instruments. Additionally, outside voice talents—Malukah for female vocals and Smooth McGroove for male—were sought for voice samples. Though the instrument feature was well-received, it is indicative of misaligned priorities, as primary gameplay systems had yet to be finalized by 2014.
So what didn't make it into the 1.0 release? One feature that was cut was unique introductory narratives for each species. Entries indicate human and Floran introductions were completed, but later replaced by a generic introduction used by all species. This made the previous work obsolete, but better than having completed them all and scrapping it, right? Part of Starbound's charm during its development were the interesting takes on the different species. The Glitch were broken robots stuck in the medieval era, the Apex were part of an Orwellian society, humanity had barely escaped an apocalyptic event, the Florans were plant creatures that ate sentient species, etc. The unique intros could have built on the pre-release excitement surrounding these species. Instead, they became a cosmetic sprite swap. Mechs are another feature that was dropped prior to the 1.0 release. This is unfortunate, as they could have added to the exploration element of the game by being required for most hostile planets.
Now, before you start to believe I only have negative things to say about Starbound, let me point out what they did right. Space stations were a feature intended to serve as bases of operations. They were replaced by personal spaceships, but they considered repurposing them as player “Guild Halls” or spaceship dungeons. Space stations were eventually cut because they didn’t fit the game’s exploration focus. This was the right call to make because game mechanics should work towards the same thematic goal. I will give half credit for not fully implementing a Pokémon-styled monster capture/raising system, mentioned in a 2013 blog entry, as they did not go through with monster evolutions. The reason I only give half credit is that monster capturing should not have made it into the game. This is not because I have any distaste for the mechanic, but instead their implementation fails to understand the appeal of the monster collection genre. The capturing of specific monsters, whose metrics such as rarity and power relative to other monsters is understood, is a big component of their allure. When the monsters are procedurally generated, the metrics are less concrete, meaning capturing monsters becomes less of an achievement.