Making Research More Fun

letsgo

Hi Astroneers! I’m Samantha, a game designer and one of the new members of the Astroneer dev team. I’m really happy to be here and I wanted to take some time to introduce myself to the community. I’ve got about ten years of experience in the game industry, which have strongly shaped my approach and sensibilities to game design. There are a lot of you who love Astroneer and want to see it continue to grow and evolve in the best ways, so I’ve tried to hit the ground running and start contributing sooner rather than later. The team has an established culture of transparency of development, which I think is great because I get to participate in conversation with all of you. Today I get to start a conversation specifically about the design details of my work so far – the new research system.

Allow me to take a moment to help you get to know me. It’s possible you’ve already found me in another corner of the internet – I’ve appeared a few times on Giant Bomb and League of Heels. Yes, I was the champion of video game wrestling! Actually my first game industry job was right after high school. I worked as a tester in Xbox Compliance, which is still an important part of the process of releasing games. As a test engineer I found Unity in its very early days, and joined the company as QA Director. In that position I met a lot of indie game developers, and found myself practicing making games so I could one day be an indie too. I was becoming increasingly interested in game design, and using games to provide one-of-a-kind life experiences. When it was time for me to take the jump into the lifestyle of an indie game dev, I focused on designing and programming a musical puzzle game called Sentris. I did the full indie circuit: prototype, kickstarter, greenlight, early access, and final release. I learned so much while making Sentris, including how to share the processes of design and development. When it was finished I did some contract and consulting work for games, web, and VR until this opportunity to work on Astroneer appeared. Now I’m really excited to be working with Unreal and collaborating with everyone at System Era and the player community to make our kick-ass game even better!

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that participating in the conversation with us while the game is still in Early Access and Pre-Alpha is super important. My experiences working with a community of players during Sentris Early Access was fundamental to completing the game. My style of work balances our conversations with thoughtful and detailed design explorations, prototypes, and iteration. If I design and ship some content or a new feature that you don’t like for some reason, please tell me (nicely)! And please trust that I’m doing my best work to make Astroneer as great as it can possibly be. Now, let’s talk about the first big change I’m shipping.

Astroneer’s Research System

tl;dr – the Research system works completely differently now and you should start a new game to fully experience it!

Receiving rewards and unlocking new technologies is a fundamental part of Astroneer’s game loop. As we build in more content and progression arcs, we need the research (reward) system to be able to remain interesting and delightful without so much randomness as to hinder the play experience. We’ve been playing and tweaking the new system  internally for a little while, and we all like the new experience of unlocking equipment and technologies. The goals of this feature are:

1 – Encourage exploration all over the planets

2 – Provide a sense of progression

3 – Increase the player’s functional capabilities over time.

The old system was a first attempt at fulfilling these goals, but the team believed it was in need of iteration and improvements. To illustrate how the new system is different and why we think it’s better, let’s look at the way the old system worked so we can compare.

OLD SYSTEM

unlock-system-old_1024In the old system, we had one long list of all the Research Items that could be unlocked. Every time a new Research Item (in this case, “Chest A”) is researched, a random item from this list is unlocked and removed completely. When a different type of chest (“Chest B”) is researched, the unlock is determined randomly from the list of remaining items.

What this means is that every different type of Research Item is extremely valuable the first time you find it. However every time you find another chest of type A or B, it’s always going to give you a consumable reward. The resulting min/max play strategy is to find just one chest of every type as quickly as possible to get all the unlocks. The way each type of Research Item immediately loses value after its initial research seems like an sub-optimal design. We want all chests to feel valuable, so that you as the player can get excited each time you discover any Research Item out in the world.

The system’s element of randomization makes the reward progression experience very interesting, but this specific implementation feels flat. We want to support the intentionality of players to seek out specific kinds of technologies to unlock. Maintaining an element of randomization in addition to player intentions is the tricky part!

NEW SYSTEM

The new system is different in two fundamental ways: it utilizes Reward Categories and Weighted Randomization. Individual chests within a category such as Rock or Plant have a chance to generate a reward from any number of categories, filtered through a weighted gate. Once the reward category has been determined, the specific reward selection is also filtered through weighted gates on each individual item. With this new system,  if a player wants to seek out a specific kind of unlock such as a Vehicle Blueprint, they can explore and learn which kinds of chests have a better chance of unlocking a Vehicle reward.

unlock-system-new_1024

The downstream effect of this system is that items and weights are not removed from the reward tables. Because rewards are never removed once they’re unlocked, it’s now possible through randomization to land on the same reward more than once. This case is depicted in the “Chest B / Category A” scenario above. When that happens, the system will look up which consumable items are relevant to the category of durable items being rewarded. Using this same weighted randomization system, it will generate a consumable reward with some degree of confidence that it’ll be useful to the player.

Part of making this change is testing out the idea that the play experience should require unlocking more things. So as we’re introducing this new Research system, we’ve also changed the items that are initially unlocked. Those of you with existing saved games should be minimally affected. If you really want to put this new feature through its paces, please, start a new game!

This is our first test of the new system and we eagerly await your feedback! It’s also my first contribution to the design of Astroneer and I’m really excited to hear what you think. Even if you don’t like it, please give us feedback about what we could do to make it better!

~Samantha