For those of you unfamiliar with Starbound, it’s an open-ended sandbox game with a strong focus on building and crafting, like Minecraft and Terraria. It presents a whole universe of procedurally generated worlds that you can travel between at your leisure. A strong design principle of Starbound during its development was “a story in a sandbox,” which presented the team with some interesting design challenges to overcome!
We had several goals that we wanted to reach so that Starbound would live up to its aim of presenting a typical video-game storyline with progression, without the player being forced on to a linear path. With a game like Starbound, players would want to feel like they are free to accomplish any tasks they want, but we also wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t miss the storyline!
We decided that the game’s storyline would be separated from the “sandbox” locations of procedurally generated worlds. There would be set hand-crafted missions with a boss to defeat at the end, and players wouldn’t be able to dig their way through these locations like they could on the sandbox worlds. However, they would be able to use all their equipment and weapons that they had accumulated in their travels, so that these missions wouldn’t feel too disconnected. These missions would all be optional except for the first one – that way, a new player would not unintentionally miss the storyline entirely but wouldn’t be forced to carry on with it if they didn’t want to.
Finally, we had to figure out how to encourage the player to explore between the story missions, so that they wouldn’t be given the opportunity to complete them all straight away and to also encourage players to explore through the game’s higher difficulty sandbox worlds. We decided on a system where players would have to “scan” objects and talk to NPCs on new worlds to build intel, which would lead them to unlock the next mission. This meant that players would have to travel to new worlds and find new civilizations to progress, meaning they would also encounter new content, items, and enemies on the way! We found that with this method, players who were only interested in the story content could play through the game quite efficiently, but also players who would prefer to take their time and explore the universe at their own pace would also find a lot of motivation to do so.
Starbound took us many years to complete and is a labor of love – it also presented us with a lot of fun design challenges to solve! Whether you’re an old fan or a newcomer, we hope that you will enjoy it on Xbox One when it releases later this year!