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It's Full Of Stars? So What?

Just when I was starting to get some creative expression done, Starbound's early access came out!  So, over the past couple days, I played it as hard as possibly could   I stopped playing just in time to write this blog entry before I need to go back to work, and I'm just a little miffed about that having frittered away my free time like that.
Before anyone takes the time to tell me: yes, I'm quite aware that Starbound borrows a lot from Terraria.  They're both essentially "Minecraft, if it was done in 2D, and the savings in technical overhead was translated to adding more to do."  If you're pretty bored of Terraria, then it follows you should be bored of Starbound as well.

Yet, even though I'm pretty bored of Terraria, I thought Starbound was reasonably enjoyable.  The reasons are pretty simple:
  • Starbound is slightly more realistic.  It's not about killing mobs and collecting hearts anymore; Starbound is a survival game, you need to worry about hunger and temperature.
  • I like the Sci-Fi setting, and Starbound is a Sci-Fi game, with spaceships and fancy armors to show for it.
  • Starbound is, in many ways, more advanced than Terraria.  
    • It has tweaked the scale so the character is 3 1/2 squares high instead of 2, and everything feels a little more immersive and better animated.  
    • Starbound has better fluid dynamics.  
    • Starbound has procedurally generated monsters with advanced attacks.  
    • Even the equipment is procedurally generated... albeit it's not quite as diverse as Borderland here.  
    • Starbound has virtually unlimited worlds: instead of just one planet, you explore a huge universe of more planets than you could possibly visit.
That said, I'm done with Starbound for now.  Why?  Because I've exhausted the potential of the current "Beta Stage 1" version that has been released for early access.
This is far as I'm getting this version.  Yes, that's not the most original name for a character.
 Currently, making progress in this version of the Starbound beta goes something like this:
  • Start out in alpha sector (planets of levels 1-10), get a few steps of the guided tutorial done before it tapers off into giving you the item you need to summon a boss.  It neglects to mention you can travel all around the alpha sector by chucking wood into your ship's furnace to refuel it.
  • Turns out that the boss is level 10, which means he'll flatten you in one or two hits unless you craft silver armor or exploit.  But, if you defeat him, he'll drop a component that lets you build a crafting table that unlocks access to the next sector.  
  • Go to beta sector (planets of levels 11-20), and you'll have new things to craft.  The quest line ended at summoning the last boss, so currently you need to figure out on your own that you need to build a robot to fight.  
  • Summon that robot, he turns out to be level 20.  The best possible armor you can craft is level 15, which means you'll die in two hits.  It's unlikely you'll be able to beat the robot in a toe-to-toe fight unless you're so good at twitch gameplay that you need to play I Wanna Be The Guy to feel challenged.  
  • I defeated the robot by exploiting: sealing it in a room and whacking it through a wall with my humongous broadsword until it was defeated.  Just like before, the level 20 boss drops a crafting component that lets you build a crafting table that unlocks access to the next sector.  There's a very predictable pattern here.
  • So now you're in Gamma sector, get new things to craft, and find that the planets have a threat level of 21-30.  Because you're still wearing that level 15 armor that was the best possible thing you could craft in the beta sector, you will die if an enemy so much as sneezes at you.  
  • You need to get platinum armor.  Platinum is an extremely rare ore in the beta sector, but possibly more common in the Gamma sector.   Since the Gamma sector mobs can kill you in one hit, it's a chore to try to do anything there.  Once you get platinum armor, you upgrade it with titanium ore, which is actually pretty common in the Gamma sector.
  • One of the things you can craft is a fake princess tied to a post.  Hmm, I wonder how I will summon the boss that drops a component to unlock the next sector?   It's a moot point; I'm not going to bother considering how difficult it is to get my hands on platinum right now, and I actually don't see a crafting recipe for the next crafting table, so Gamma sector is probably as far as you can go.
Clearly, this is only a problem with this early version of beta.  Starbound has probably been recently rebalanced and Chucklefish has not quite got around to adjusting all the items in the game to reflect this.  Either that, or they were deliberately trying to keep the players stuck in beta sector.  The result is the same: whether I like it or not, my progress in this game is stymied until they get around to fixing the balance.

The question you should be asking here is, "Is Starbound going to be worth playing when it is finished?"  Of course, like any credible reviewer given an early beta copy of a game, I'm going to answer, "It's too early to say."  But lets speculate a bit, anyway...
One of the better sights to be found in Starbound: a Glitch village, at night.
I think the lead thing Starbound is lacking right now is some compelling reason to build.  Because the wandering monsters are not quite as belligerent as they are in Minecraft or Terraria, it's not about having a safe place to bed down.  In fact, you can teleport back to your ship, safely in orbit, any time you are on the planet's surface.  So why build a structure at all?

Yet, even if you did need to build a safe haven in Starbound, experience has shown it would not change a whole lot in the long run.  It's a fault inherent in the game's basic genetics, because it's the same problem Minecraft had before Terraria rendered it 2D.  As a descendant, Starbound is also a game that says, "Here is a sandbox, there are monsters, but the primary draw is a procedurally generated universe to explore, and you have complete flexibility to reshape it.  That's it, have fun."  Challenge is moot; the only goals you really have in this game are those you invent for yourself.

In other words, Starbound is a sandbox that exists to be a sandbox. Some people think that's great, but I want something more.  The trouble is that there's a compelling lack of purpose to something that is-for-the-sake-of-being-itself that leaves unanswered a fundamental question, "Why?"  Unlike a thinking being, a creative artifact cannot self-affirm; if circuitous logic is problematic, then a logical construct that self-affirms is problematic for the same reason.  As a self-affirming creative artifact, Starbound introduces an essential disjointedness with reality that tells me, in the long run, there's no good reason to play Starbound.

In practice, a Minecraft player usually substitutes a purpose of their invention as a reason to play.  This usually involves building something great using the tools provided by the engine.  I did that in Minecraft and Terraria, and when I was done I discovered that, while having built something was fairly cool, building something doesn't do a damn thing.  Thus, substituting one's own purpose is ultimately a red herring.  So here I am in Starbound, there's plenty of parts to build with, but I still can't fathom why I should bother building anything!

The problem might be a little worse in Starbound because moving from planet to planet so rapidly means each planet is that much less worth building on.  At most, you could choose a "home" planet for its aesthetic qualities. Otherwise, might as well just gut every planet for resources and move on; aside from their unique appearance, what's any one planet really good for besides strip mining?

The quick fix is going to be Starbound's inclusion of a much bigger quest line.  The simple trappings of a story would provide some purpose to the grind, but the story we have in this version of the beta just trails off into nothing at the end of the alpha sector.  If the quest line went on significantly longer, perhaps to the point where there was no additional technology to unlock, then I could at least say that the game gave me a goal from start to finish, and this was a compelling game for the duration it took me to get there.

However, Starbound's procedural generation capacity begs something significantly less static than a prefab story.  Something more persistent should add significance when the story is exhausted; they should add some kind of end game activity.  For example, an ongoing intergalactic 4X game going on, possibly spun out to be massively multiplayer so all the Starbound players are involved?  Hah, that's thinking a little too big, maybe.  But you get the idea: a more long-term purpose than just a pre-crafted story; some kind of procedural perpetrator of an ongoing placeholder story.

Just what will Starbound deliver?  "It's too early to say."  What will Starbound modders deliver?  That's another thing entirely.   In this way, as to whether Starbound is ultimately worth playing, only time will tell.

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