Ever since Luke and I unknowingly pitched a game that was basically Astroneer in our first episode of Spitball Sessions, I’ve been following the game’s development with interest and excitement. Despite being presented with a game that at the moment has some frustrating issues, especially in multiplayer, I’ve found myself able to really trust the direction the devs were going. Perhaps it’s because I think I already have a pretty good handle on how the game will eventually shape up; perhaps because the devs seem to be putting significant effort into making sure the game’s foundations are mostly solid before building upon it. So, when in their most recent patch, System Era Softworks decided to change how they handled selling hydrazine at the trading post, it really made me do some thinking about what can be gleaned from how the developers are handling the situation, and how our ‘spitballed’ game might have developed it.
As Joe Friday would say…
Let’s start with the facts. For background, hydrazine is a material in the game Astroneer (a hard sci-fi sandbox game with emphasis on surviving by using logistical planning and expansion), which is used to fuel rockets. Like every material in the game, hydrazine can be found in the ground in “crystalline” form, and sucked up by the astro-vacuum into a collectible form. Other materials in the game include energy, copper, aluminum, “compound” (likely silica), and oxygen.
There are two basic ways to divide the materials within Astroneer: some, such as oxygen and compound are directly usable as harvested; others, such as copper, are harvested as their raw material and smelted into a usable form. The other division is whether the material is finite or infinite. Hydrazine, like power and oxygen is an infinite, directly usable material and it is here that I assume the conflict lies.
Should developers allow players to use a strategy that is “unfun” if it is the optimal strategy?
The trading post is an unlockable technology that is mainly used to allow the player to compensate for a limited ability to find one resource by trading another resource that they might have in abundance, or that they may no longer need. For instance, a player looking to make a lot of trucks might have a lot of need for aluminum, and less need for compound, and so could trade away his excess to push in one direction. It’s a fairly standard concept, and even the trade costs make sense: abundant resouces like compound cost 1 point, raw smeltable resources are worth 2, refined resources 3, and rares are 4. And they are worth half this amount when sold.
And it is in light of these two factors that hydrazine can break the economy. As mentioned above, hydrazine is a basically infinite resource. There is, certainly, a finite amount of minable hydrazine. But the player also unlocks the ability to “condense” hydrazine out of the air, using nothing but a large quantity of energy. And as the game goes on, energy starts to not be a particularly hard resource to get either. In fact, once the player begins hydrazine trading, they can rapidly attain a nearly unlimited source of energy as well: the player simply trades hydrazine for resin and compound to allow him to create a massive quantity of solar panels. Add a few batteries, and the player can do several “hydrazine loops” over the course of a few minutes – starting up a series of condensors, grabbing the resulting hydrazine, and then going back to restart the machines as soon as they recharge.
It would seem, then, that System Era are concerned that allowing the player the ability to trade a resource that is virtually limitless will essentially undermine the scarcity-based economy that the rest of the game is built upon. Thus far the game’s road map appears to have been for the player to be able to earn more valuable resources as they continue up the technological roadmap – allowing them to range farther safely and encouraging them to move beyond the safe confines of their starting base to find worthwhile deposits of resources. And, at the same time, as scarcer resources became more necessary, the ability to trade away plentiful cheap resources for more important resources would be an interesting decision.
The hydrazine trading post issue throws a massive spanner in that plan by allowing a player to turtle to their heart’s content. It removes the hard choices. It makes the game less of a game. Which brings us to a question that haunts me regularly, and one that I think the devs are attempting to battle against here – should developers allow players to use a strategy that is “unfun” if it is the optimal strategy?
…the developers of Astroneer are concerned that allowing … a resource that is virtually limitless will undermine the scarcity-based economy…
It is a broad question, and one that has its place in far more expansive discussions about ‘scrubs’ and ‘yomi’ and actual, honest-to-goodness game theory. But in this microcosm, I think we can examine and ponder both that question, and why alternate solutions to the fundamental problem were scrapped.
As Will Wright would say…
A game is, at its core, a series of choices towards a purpose. Keeping some form of challenge around hydrazine, therefore, is crucial. So, let’s look at a couple alternatives that could be used to add additional choices and challenge around the hydrazine issue.
The most obvious change would be to simply make hydrazine take significantly longer to produce. Rather than the 5 seconds or so that it currently takes to make hydrazine, it could be a “slow drip” that occasionally produces a container of hydrazine every 10 minutes or so. Certainly this would cut down on the amount of hydrazine that could be made.
On the surface, this seems like an obvious, elegant solution. But think about the signicant changes it would make to the underlying world. For starters, this change would imply one of two things: either the hydrazine is collected out of the air like moisture from the desert, or it’s slowly using a constant drain of power. And while the ability to condense hydrazine like dew is an exciting mental image, and could even lead to some tough choices (for instance, if the player didn’t get around to his collectors quickly enough during the morning, the hydrazine might evaporate) it doesn’t really solve the underlying problem. A player could still easily make sure they placed a significant quantity of collectors near enough to be collected rapidly. More importantly, it still allows an end-around to forcing the player out of their base. Even if it takes longer, a determined player could still push in the direction of hydrazine collection to mitigate their risk.
The “constant energy drain” also doesn’t really solve the issue. Everything else in the game operates as discrete units, clearly measurable. Making hydrazine collectors no longer powered by units of power on a rechargable basis would throw the whole “energy economy” off. Rebalancing the game to make this drain consistant with the rest of the world would likely throw everything into disarray in the short term.
A more direct solution to the problem would be to not make hydrazine free to manufacture. Similar to how games with player economies handle things like crafting mechanics, hydrazine could be made into either a refinement of an existing resource or an extract (where 1 resource yields multiple hydrazines). For instance, 1 piece of coal could yield 4 pieces of hydrazine, with each hydrazine worth half of the value of a piece of coal. With this, the player again is introduced to the question of whether it is worth selling the coal for its lower value, or using the additional time and resources to refine it. And since coal has its own uses and is already rare, it could become a major choice. Of course, doubling the value would still be a problem, since it would allow the player to refine coal, sell the hydrazine to buy more, and again wind up with a logarithmic growth.
While the ability to condense hydrazine like dew is an exciting mental image… it doesn’t really solve the underlying problem.
The drawback to this option is that it’s the most likely to introduce analysis paralysis, which is when a player has multiple good options but no best option. In a situation like this, where the decision is significant and the resource rare, it would lead players to hoard it. It’s a problem JRPGs frequently run into with valuable resources; players feel the need to save them for ‘important’ bosses and so wind up beating the game without ever using them. With coal already being a fairly rare material, making it also refine into hydrazine would require it to either become more plentiful (ruining the whole point), or risk being ‘too good to use’.
Therefore, in my mind, the best alternate option is to simply hold back the tech which allows either hydrazine creation or hydrazine trading. Gating the creation of hydrazine seems like the harsher, more extreme option at first, but there’s already minable hydrazine throughout the planets. If the player was able to mine hydrazine from the ground and then either sell it or use it for rocket fuel, it would once again mitigate the turtling strategy the developers seem to be opposed to. However, as the player begins to expand to other planets and possibly needs a way to produce mass quantities for his rockets, then it would make sense to research a tech that would allow that. In addition, as the player is able to expand more easily, the benefit of free hydrazine is likewise mitigated; the decision again becomes a meaningful one: is the value of hydrazine now worth the time and energy it will take to manufacture it, or is it quicker to just go mine for the things I actually want?
Holding back hydrazine manufacture would also give an additional interesting early challenge. If players finds themselves unable to locate hydrazine early, they might find themselves seeking wide to find a minable source – an ironic turn from the earlier strategy. More importantly, it would make planetary exploration riskier and require additional pre-planning. After all, without the ability to manufacture hydrazine at any planet the player lands on, the player always has to assume that they could wind up in a place where they will be unable to get back. It removes the feeling of safety, which in a game about exploring space with only your spacesuit to protect you, isn’t such a bad thing.
This is where we come back to the article’s purpose, because it’s easy to sit here and play armchair designer. After all, I’m not the one who has to implement these ideas, or make them work within the game’s framework. Whatever my thoughts, the developers chose a route that they thought was the best solution. Assuming that all the options presented here occurred to them, is there anything we can discern from why they might have gone the route they did?
The obvious answer goes back to the concept I’ve brought up several times – trying to break a turtling strategy. Making hydrazine untradable emphasizes the need for expansion minded play, and forces the player to stop playing oil baron and instead play scout. But this isn’t ‘speculation’ so much as explanation of something already being done. Likewise, demonstrating that this shows an increased focus around multiplayer is basically an exercise for the reader. If System Era saw the game as single-player first, then allowing a strategy like this would be much more likely, but allowing one player to be able to do this end around might make other players less likely to explore, and thus adversely affect a whole group’s enjoyment.
This started as my own attempt to understand why the devs would make a choice that I myself was rather unhappy about.
So my grander speculation is that the Astroneer team is planning to either include larger spacecraft that will require significant outlay of hydrazine, or create a sort of intra-system automated network that will allow resources to be moved around between bases. This would explain why the team still wants to allow unfettered access to hydrazine. But, until that is implemented, allowing the unlimited hydrazine trade doesn’t give an accurate mirror of how the final game will play out.
It’s possible that this isn’t the end goal, and if anyone has information about this please let me know in the comments. But even if that isn’t the future for Astroneer, I hope that having taken a look at potential alternate solutions and how certain factors might weigh into their implementation might provide some insight for people following the project.
I often see people who follow Early Access games being upset that their “obvious” solution for a problem wasn’t the one implemented. I understand why it happens. Buying into a project and dreaming about what it may be someday is an intoxicating thrill. But we should be careful that our dreams not blind us to the reality of game design. It is hard, and sometimes the obvious solution is actually the most difficult one of all to actually implement.
I don’t want readers to think I am flattering myself by imaging that I understand the actual reason why the developers went the path they did. Rather, this started as my own attempt to understand why System Era made a choice that I, myself, was rather unhappy about. However, as I began to think it through, I realized that there were good reasons for it. And that is the thing I hope readers can take away. Even if developers make a choice that you don’t like, one that you know is completely and obviously wrong, remember that they’re trying to make the best game they can. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a different vision, proposing it, or even not supporting a game going in directions you don’t like. But try to at least see if you can figure out where the devs are coming from. Because you might be surprised, as I was, to find out that you’re wrong. …Sometimes.