Early Access Lessons – Astroneer Creators Experience

Communication with the audience, lost resources and voxel world.

All the teams faced problems during early access, but for the authors of Astroneer to create their space sandbox it wasn’t enough to just finish the development – they had to open a whole company and invent their procedural generation technology. After several tense years of development, Astroneer has finally emerged from early access, and now developers from System Era Softworks can look back and understand what they have been through.

On the GDC Twitch channel, System Era Softworks co-founder Brendan Wilson (Brendan Wilson) made a stream of Astroneer, during which he spoke about the experience of game development, and also described the problems encountered on the way. We have chosen the main stream.

The terrain generation system went through two main iterations. In 2016, she looked a little different from the current one. Now artists are much easier to get the image that they want to recreate. Initially, developers focused on creating the surface and network of caves, as it was difficult for them to cope with more time consuming tasks. It was hard for them to make changes so that it didn’t damage the players save.

The new system includes planets filled with content from the surface to the core. In addition, it is now possible to create truly exotic forms and biomes that can be updated without any problems. Thus, developers can add and modify algorithms that define the planet’s landscape without actually disturbing the conservation of people.

At the heart of the Astroneer world is the voxel system, which is a bit like Minecraft. The whole world consists of a grid of three-dimensional voxels, each of which stores a certain density data. This, in turn, determines the nature of the environment: if the value is positive, then this is solid earth, and if negative, that is air.

In the place where there is a transition between voxels with different values, the surface on which you can walk is determined. For this, a polyginization algorithm called “marching cubes” is used – it creates the actual geometric surface with which the collision occurs.

Deformation simply changes the value of the voxel. Therefore, with any changes, it is not necessary to rebuild the entire voxel grid, it is enough to touch only a small fragment and re-launch polyginization.

According to Brendan Wilson, the team has chosen the hard way in everything. Often at GDC, independent developers say that the game needs to make one thing unique and make everything else as simple as possible. But the studio System Era Softworks went a completely different way.

Wilson said that the problem of procedural generation is always connected in order to give players a varied experience during the passage. This is also due to the fact that an environment built according to the same rules can often look the same.

Another important problem was related to gravity during interplanetary flights. Because of the spherical shape of the planets, it was impossible to adjust the attraction in only one direction, so the developers had to sweat over the search for a solution to this problem.

According to Wilson, the problem of early access is that it is impossible to pick up and throw away something that is not working or quickly redesign some kind of mechanic. Due to the involvement of real players, developers are in the mode of constant technical support of users.

Wilson said that on Xbox One it looked like a full release, as the game had to meet certain requirements and be certified with each update. Also, the developer noted that a certain community rallied around the game, so with every update there were people who did not like the innovations. And the speed of work was significantly reduced due to the fact that each update should not “break” the game.

In addition, each update could spoil the save players. During the early access period there have been several major changes. For example, there was an update that completely changed the base creation paradigm, so developers had to write code that gave some evaluation to the old user base. And all this influenced the development.

However, early access for the team was the only way to release the game without the support of the publisher. During development, there was a strong influence of the community, which provided feedback and helped to improve the mechanics.

According to Wilson, at the beginning of the development System Era Softworks was not like a real studio – there was no office, QA department and technical support. It was early access that helped System Era Softworks to become a full-fledged studio.

Wilson also added that he really likes the independence of the team due to the fact that he can actively interact with the community. While working on AAA projects, he faced very strict restrictions on the dissemination of information about the game. And in indie studios there is an opportunity to build communication with users absolutely differently.

The developer noted that if the next time the team decides to start the game again in early access, he would like to reduce the time of this stage and immediately present a more finished project.


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