When Astroneer, the delightful sci-fi sandbox adventure from System Era, was preparing to exit Early Access, the team stumbled across a rather alarming issue: the game's crafting system was stagnant.
As explained by System Era technical designer Aaron Biddlecom and gameplay programmer Elijah O'Rear during their GDC Summer talk, addressing the issue was like "trying to perform open heart surgery on a conscious patient." The team begun second guessing themselves as they assessed the issue, which was something of a red flag because it implied they didn't understand their own game.
To overcome that creative paralysis, the pair treated Astroneer like an archeology dig site, mining their own design to reconcile their conflicting visions for the crafting system, which became apparent when they both suggested a contradictory fix.
"I was coming at it with an outsider's perspective, while Aaron was really familiar with the existing gameplay and how players were engaging with it," explains O'Rear. "Soon after we started working on the [crafting] update, we both accepted that we both had valid points, and diving into Astroneer's mechanics wasn't so much to prove who was right, but to find some missing piece of design that could reconcile our perspectives."
So, what was the issue? In short, it seemed like Astroneer's crafting system was causing player engagement to drop. It was "flat" and appeared to sap player motivation due to the fact it hardly changed after the first hour. O'Rear believed the system lacked a big moment that shifted gameplay.
He wanted to add more crafting modules that would introduce extra resources, but Biddlecom pushed back. He believed Astroneer needed to preserve the "laid back, low stakes vibe" that formed a core part of its identity. While the overall crafting loop was shallow and repetitive, it still had lots of moving parts that competed for player attention -- though it wasn't clear how the game actually benefited from that added complexity. As they battled over those issues, they quickly realized they were fighting over the problem of "cognitive load."
"Normally when you hear that term it's in a negative context, as in you have too much of it. But you can just as easily end up with not enough, which results in losing player engagement. This was the problem Elijah was pointing to with our crafting system," adds Biddlecom. "Its core loop centered around just three simple steps that the players repeated ad nauseam. You mine resources out of the ground, toss them into the smelter, then use the output to print new items. On top of that, all but one of those three resources were available on the starting planet.
"At the same time, we had added several additional crafting stations. And instead of creating a stable long term loop, they began chipping away at the simple elegance that players had found to begin with. From my perspective, I felt like we were already placing too much cognitive load on players, to the point that we were losing them to frustrating complexity."
Rather than discarding one argument, the pair decided to harness each other's strengths -- the fresh perspective offered by O'Rear and Biddlecom's deep understanding -- to solve the problem.
By working together to mine their own design and fill in their respective knowledge gaps, they eventually found a solution. The system needed more depth, but not at the expense of burdening players with more information. That meant preventing the existing crafting modules from becoming redundant by giving them more unique resource outputs.
"Having more modules that made unique resources gave us a way to expand the resource table without adding tens of new deposits, which would be pretty disruptive to the game. Resource acquisition could tie into additional game systems in a more fundamental way. And most pressingly, it would expand the depth of the crafting system without needing new modules, while simultaneously reducing the cognitive load caused by the current disjointed system."
The fact that it took two conflicting ideas to land on that solution is important. According to O'Rear, it proves developers should be willing to challenge their assumptions, which is easier to do when you bring another voice into the fold.
"[Once we implemented the change], the experience we intended the player to have started lining up with how we were incentivizing them to play Astroneer. If you're struggling to align your design incentives and intent, challenge the assumptions you're making on each side of that divide. This can reveal a hidden or flawed assumption," he explains.
"If you're still struggling to challenge your assumptions, collaborate with someone who has a very different vision for the design. It's easy to get attached to the way things are and take it personally, but let it go. This can be difficult to practice, but it's a powerful way to get through problems that have got you totally stumped."