There are a lot of people exploring the vast unknown reaches of space lately. No Man’s Sky may be grabbing all the headlines, but Starbound, the open-ended 2D space life sim — which can play like anything from a classic “Metroidvania” to interstellar Harvest Moon — should also share the same conceptual spotlight.
Not to say that Starbound is really all that much like No Man’s Sky; it isn’t. Whereas Hello Games doubled down on their procedural generation to create a seemingly vast array of varied environments to discover and strange creatures to meet, Starbound’s systems measure the variability of what’s around you by using broader, meaningful context. Look beyond a mere glance and you’ll see that the two games share little beyond procedural worlds and life. Instead it’s how you interact with it.
Still, if these recent successes are anything to go by, open-ended adventures are coming back in vogue, and procedural design is a fascinating-if-nascent field in game development. And for Chucklefish Games director Finn Brice (or as you may know him, Tiy), Starbound’s extreme freedom is actually the result of the studio attempting to go down a route closer to No Man’s Sky’s — making as much of the game procedural as possible.
“One of the lessons we learned really early on is that you can add as many variables as you’d like to a procedural generation algorithm, and you don’t get any closer to a satisfying experience unless you add context and meaning,” says Brice, who started development on Starbound five years ago following his departure working as an artist on Terraria.
Too much variety was a problem. Starbound features a number of different biome types players will randomly encounter, and earlier in the game’s development that variability was even greater. But hat volume didn’t seem to add anything to actually playing it.
“All of [our environments] meant nothing more than the next one. And you just wanted to jump through them to see how things would change, and that was the experience,” Brice says. “But you never became attached to any of them. None of them stood out.”
It led to a re-engineering of how the team saw the game and figuring out how to make everything players saw have more impact.
“In a world where everything is unusual and weird, nothing is unusual and weird,” he says. “[So] we started to move away from the environment and the game world and more into the narrative and the context and the meaning, and tried where we could to procedurally generate that.”
This is really where Starbound sets itself apart in the sandbox genre. Rather than games like Terraria and Minecraft, which inspire players to make their own narrative in the absence of much official lore, Chucklefish wanted to marry the concepts of procedural generation with the attachment players get in forming their own narrative adventures by making random elements occur in context.
There is a linear story players can follow (and to be fair, No Man’s Sky has a few of its own), but even if you don’t want to complete a written arc, you can undertake procedural quests given by algorithmically generated characters with their own unique problems. In general, the team wanted to avoid the problem that can easily happen with procedural generation: Blatant variable swapping.
“It’s tempting for anyone working with procedural generation to say, ‘We have these things in our game world, how about [you] kill 10 of these or go and bring me this material,’” Brice says. “That doesn’t provide any sense of meaning, it doesn’t tell me anything about the character, it doesn’t feel like this world is a solid place that exists.”
What Chucklefish did to avoid that problem was to give Starbound’s NPCs a way to understand their environment by coming up with an internal sorting and labeling system of sorts, to give regions of the various types of dungeons names and descriptions that in-game characters could pull from on the backend.
“Tying character to the game world and making it seem like that character understands the game world, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a regular scripted game,” he says. “The character tells you to go a specific location rather than just look among the randomness.”
It all feeds into the idea of trying to create an experience that doesn’t seem like it’s been procedurally created at all, which can have interesting effects on other aspects of the game as well.
“I think procedural just inherently implies some level of context. When you present someone with something procedural, they can start working backwards through that procedure,” Brice says. “[So] maybe this monster is this color because it belongs in this environment, and what does that suggest about the monster rather than, oh, this monster’s green as opposed to red.”
The ways the team applied context to Starbound’s systems manifested in a number of different ways.
“We did things like, what would this planet look like if it was taken over by a particular race? And now all of the bird people have inhabited it, so all of their tents and things again are there,” he says. “And again, it’s trying to tell some level of story.”
Why not just tell a strict narrative story, then? For Brice, it’s the sense of the unknown that only something with procedural elements can provide.
“What drove me was trying to that capture that sense of wonder and not knowing what’s around the corner — and it could be something very different, very new, outside the scope of what a scripted game could provide,” he says.
Figuring out what makes a good quest feel good, Chucklefish looked at classic traditional RPG series like The Witcher and The Elder Scrolls. Unsurprisingly, it was organic “life that made player objectives feel good.
“[Good RPGs] make you feel like the world around you is alive and it would exist even if you weren’t part of it. I think that’s part of the magic,” Brice says. “When you have procedural worlds, you feel like this world exists because of you, and it’s the way it is because you made it that way. And you’re sort of the god of this world, and being a god isn’t always that interesting.”
Interestingly, once the game was far enough in development, the team found that players were more interested in ascribing their own meaning to the game by having the freedom to play the way they wanted to within its systems.
“We very quickly realized that when people are presented with this big world, they just want to exist within it whilst doing the thing that they enjoy,” Brice says. “We quickly came around to the fact that the things people enjoy are very different.
As it stands, Starbound players can choose to approach their own stories in a surprising number of ways: Building structures and colonizing planets, exploring the stars, fighting monsters, farming, becoming a scavenger, playing interior designer with their residence, and more. Then there’s the game’s library of fan-made mods, which offer a completely different palette of tweaks and outright reinventions.
Brice contrasts it with more typical open-world designs often seen.
“[It’s] like putting someone in a huge environment and saying, ‘Well, yeah, but you’ve got to go and kill these monsters,’” he says. “It kind of makes you wonder, why does the environment exist in the first place? Shouldn’t I have the freedom not to just explore everything but to do what I want to do in it?”
In the future, one idea that Brice wants to see is a game with some procedural generation that can create scenarios that are as contextually relevant and interesting as The Witcher. But getting to that point is probably a ways off.
“It’d be a massive undertaking, but it’d be fun to explore,” he says. “I think this is the kind of thing you could write a thesis on. And I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to just sit down and design that system. I think every time you try you’re going to learn slightly more. And then you’re going to have to just be willing to develop that endlessly.”
What Chucklefish is doing now is just the tip of the iceberg, which is great news for players and willing developers alike.
“There seems to be a huge public demand for it. It seems that gamers are willing to put money down for procedural generation,” Brice says. “I think they’re incredibly excited about the possibilities, and anything that pushes the boundaries is something people are willing to support. The opportunity is there for people who are willing to explore.”