Astrobase Command Q&A: Personality Drives the Gameplay

So Pretty.

The downside to only having time for one podcast a week is that you can’t always get on who you want when you want them. Case in point: Astrobase Command, an awesome looking space-station building game that’s very driven by the personality of the station’s inhabitants, all with a 70s flair. In the hopes of promoting the game and its Kickstarter a bit, therefore, I decided to do an actual (gasp) textual Q&A while the campaign is running. The game’s lead developer, Dave Williams, will be on the podcast at the end of the month, but the campaign will be over by then, so I sent him some questions with the hopes of better informing folks about the game. You’ll find the answers below. If you like what you read, please consider backing the Kickstarter campaign. The game is looking pretty awesome so far, and we need more awesome games. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Brian Rubin: Where did the idea for Astrobase Command come from?

Dave Williams: The first proto-idea for a station-building game with a heavy character focus (“characters are people”) was in my mind by at least 2010. It was reacting to the standard treatment of characters in RPGs as merely bags of stats whose emotional connection to the player relied on some cosmetic detail, flavor-text backstory, or ability to win rolls during various statistical contests (combat, farming, whatever).

In RPGs that claim to also have personality traits, you soon realize that your character’s “Optimist” trait is actually a +X stat buff – simply a dice roll renamed to sound personality-ish.  Your “Insightful” character just coughs up an extra dialog option in quest #237. And so forth. In such implementations the personality of the character only exists in the mind of the player, and not actually in the game. It’s like attributing a personality to a doll, based on how it’s dressed. It’s a sham. My belief is that something much deeper can and should exist!

Astrobase Command is unique in that personality traits are neither statistical buffs/debuffs nor content flags. Rather, the characters actually have a systemic representation of personality, which drives the gameplay that constitutes their lives!

The Sci-fi station building aspect comes from an affinity for science fiction themes and sandbox simulation gameplay.

Great science fiction isn’t about pewpew lasers. It’s about the drama of life under a prevalent technology which shapes culture and worldview to be different than ours on current Earth, and subsequently exploring what that means for identifiable people acting under the novel situations which can arise.

In Astrobase Command, the player builds whatever physical structure he or she wants these people to live in, using sandbox station construction mechanics. The characters exist in a logical and rational world from their perspectives (and that of the player), so what happens to them genuinely emerges from the “laws of physics” of the simulation. Due to an emphasis on choice->consequence, there is an explicit avoidance of RNG behavior.

It was during development that Astrobase Command fully evolved into being about personality-driven AIs living in a rule-based sci-fi universe, where the player sets the parameters for their lives to unfold within the simulation.

After connecting with Adam in 2013, and then Daniel and Max, production genuinely started on making what exists now. The various foundational systems were prototyped, iterated on several times, and finally re-built into their final forms. So in that sense, each step in the evolution of the idea was continually fed into my mind.

The creative experience was both reciprocal and transformative. During the development of the core personality engine, the feeling was that it lead me where it wanted to go. My brain honed in on and followed the systems design to both logical conclusions and “what felt right,” and then converted the output into a ready-for-programming format. So it is also true to say that the finalized idea for Astrobase Command came from itself, after the ball started rolling.

BR: How long has the game been in development?

DW: Four years.

BR: Why the 70s look and feel?

DW: We take it for granted in 2017, but all of the technology we use in our daily lives exists because of a couple key historic events. These include the rise of consumer electronics, the facilitation of a free and open Internet, and early standards created and enforced in hardware and software in the 1980s which had long-term repercussions in form factors, and how people think about technology at a fundamental level.

But Astrobase Command is a game where the player creates his or her species. One must try to separate out these “Earthisms” from what any arbitrary technologically advanced bipedal humanoid might naturally use as an aesthetic for his devices. To this end, we made the deliberate decision to “fork” from the 1970s, when there was still a great deal of experimentation in basic technology metaphors. Every gadget you today have might look completely different if, for example, the PC was never a consumer product in North America.

Daniel the Lead (and only) Artist has done amazing work creating this unique look-and-feel. It’s all from his efforts.

BR: I really like the desk-based UI. Where did the idea for that come from?

DW: A fundamental question of any game: “What is the player’s relationship to the game world?”  

Astrobase Command isn’t a God Game, because the characters have their own personality-driven AI, and the point is to simulate what they want to do, not what the player wants them to do. The player also isn’t The Commander, because the station has its own leader, who is a character that happens to hold the highest rank on the station.

In Astrobase Command the player is a behind-the-scenes Space Bureaucrat, or Administrator, or Project Manager (pick your word) where he or she is handing out assignments, authorizing build orders, deciding which resources are stored where, issuing promotions, and the like. The player is not a main character with “screen time,” but has agency within the station-building sandbox aspect. He or she sits at a desk and wields the tools of the trade: Datapad, Rubber Stamp, Outbox, Filing Cabinet, Trash Can, etc.

This also reinforces the immersion, by avoiding skinned UI menus (as much as possible) and other elements that pull the player out of the game. The idea is to make the interface part of the game world. The player’s desk is visually identical to the desks where the characters sit for their jobs, and the Datapad is also used in game by characters. This sort of attention to detail is very important to us!

BR: How is the gameplay divvied up? Are there missions, is it open, etc?

DW: The core gameplay which serves as the foundation for all other systems is the station building, resource logistics and management, and crew simulation with work/life -cycle and personality-driven AI which interacts and forms relationships. This all works, but is not yet ready for player access.

Additionally, we have extensively prototyped missions, procedural system and planet generation, station sensors and mission control jobs, and a number of other sub-systems including combat with procedurally generated alien life. Even more designs are in various stages  – including extensive station security, civilian governments, trade, and diplomacy. The associated skills can be seen on the character sheet, as skills tying into personality necessitated that they be designed up front as part of the personality engine.

Our strategy as four self-funded developers is getting to alpha with the core gameplay, and going from there based on what our community wants and also the time/funding aspect. Obviously, one can do more with a wild market success than the other options.

Note with this systems-driven personality engine as a core, there is no functional limit to what and how much can be added later or over time. We have big plans for the future!

BR: How are the crewmembers generated, and how do they ultimately interact with each other?

DW: The recruitment process works like this:

Based on the size and configuration of the Astrobase, potential recruits apply to come on board. These recruits are generated from the player-created species with skills, stats, personalities, etc.

There is a station job called Recruiter, and characters assigned to the Recruiter job will each select recruits from the pool, and depending on the outcome of the recruitment process, an application might reach eventually the player’s inbox. The player may then approve or reject that character joining the station.

The strategy is both about having a station that is attractive to the recruits you want, and Recruiters who are capable of getting the best of them to apply, and using their own criteria for who they like or dislike based on the personalities involved.

BR: What are some of the issues that crewmembers can deal with? Are we talking social issues, mechanical problems and so on?

DW: All of the above!

Characters assigned to a job ultimately manage resource transactions in one form or another – maintenance personnel require the correct resources to repair something, reactor jobs cause fuel to be consumed, doctors use medicine, etc. This is supported by sophisticated resource mechanics, where resources have various properties that are associated with module components. Fluids may be transported by conduits, contaminants must be shielded to prevent contamination, and so forth.

So for example, maybe the maintenance guy hates his roommate and he becomes emotionally exhausted from arguing. Perhaps his sleep schedule makes him cranky because he has to walk 20 modules to work. Or that he is a bad personality fit for his job, because his true calling was programming recreational datapad apps! For whichever reason, if he has a bad day and fails a repair task, and a conduit breaks and some plasma leaks out and then contaminates the food storage, then everyone has a bad day from eating contaminated food. Various situations may cause character injury or death emerging from the inherent physical properties of resources, or the management and logistics of them.

In the Astrobase Command simulation, much like in our lives, social problems can cause mechanical problems and vice versa!

BR: How does the game keep track of the various relationships and stories being generated between crewmembers, and how does the player monitor them?

DW: Characters have memories which encode what happen to them throughout their day. This is a feature of the personality system.

Everything which happens to a character pushes or pulls on his/her personality, meaning the character personalities evolve over time with a nice subtle mechanism. Relationships, on the other hand, are explicitly tracked across friendship, romantic, and professional aspects. The player knows who are friends or enemies or lovers (etc) with whom, and also the events which caused this to be the case. Stories procedurally emerge out of stuff naturally happening, and because everything is tracked in the “language” of personality, the game can be very accurate and specific about how it connects to choice and consequence.

BR: Will you be able to manage multiple stations, which can then communicate and trade with one another, or is it just the one station right now?

DW: The player controls a single station. Maybe in the future there will be a good reason to add multiple stations, but not for the foreseeable future.

Keep in mind an Astrobase has no restriction to its size along any axis. The mechanics that curtail a moon-sized “Doom Star” ™ are implicit in the resource logistics, and because larger operations have inherently more points of failure. So there is compelling and balanced gameplay on both ends of the tiny/giant size spectrum.

BR: Are you alone in this universe, or will there be external parties that can help or threaten your station?

DW: An “external parties” feature is definitely something we are planning to do! The beauty of a generic personality system is that it is fundamentally designed to accommodate everything from visitors to foreign powers, in a very procedural and emergent way. It is a matter of feature prioritization and timing in the schedule, which translates to the irl resources of time and funds.

BR: What has, so far, been the most challenging aspect in the creation of Astrobase Command?

DW: The most challenging aspect during its creation has been self-funding it along the way. Now the challenge is PR and marketing, aka customer outreach, which is necessary for the success of the kickstarter.

So a thorough and vigorous thank you to SpaceGameJunkie for running this Q&A! And all our backers and fans who support Astrobase Command, to whom we are sincerely grateful!

BR: Will the game have any modding or scenario creation capabilities?

DW: A very noncommittal possible or probable, at some point.

There are tons of good reasons for allowing mods, absolutely. But supporting mods also means supporting modding tools, and supporting a pipeline, and other things. If it’s done, it should be properly done. So we’re still discussing what makes sense for us, and what’s best for the game as a whole given all the other parameters.

BR: For someone wanting to make their own game, what’s the one piece of advice you can give them to help them make it great?

DW: Make the thing that’s deep inside of you, and stay true to it!

Author: Brian Rubin

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