Starbound is going to be big. That’s a claim that can be made with some confidence: the game sits near the top of the Steam chart following its release under the Early Access programme. It is a descendent of Minecraft – via, pointedly, Terraria – that shares all of its predecessors’ capacity for viral success. Players mine blocks, go on adventures, and build things: only here they do it in space, across randomly generated worlds. The randomisation of planets and moons is the key to Starbound’s potential. Where its predecessors relied on Earth-analogue biomes to give each world variety, Starbound includes all of these in dozens of alien variants that dramatically alter the profile of each new territory you lay claim to.
At the beginning of the game, your character’s ship runs out of fuel above an uncharted world. This could be a hostile desert planet with long, freezing nights that force you to build a shelter and huddle close to a fire, or a bizarre alien forest where pulsating brains drip from ‘trees’ made of fleshy vines. You could end up on a perfectly temperate forest moon that has already been settled, giving you ready access to shops and shelter – if you don’t cause any trouble.
As in Minecraft or Terraria, your progress is measured in the types of materials you’re gathering and how far up the tech tree you’ve managed to climb. All planets will include minerals like iron, copper, silver and gold in some proportion – but how much, and how difficult they are to extract, varies hugely. Likewise, the diverse colour scheme of planets furnishes you with a much greater range of building materials than you would otherwise have. You might, for example, take a trip to a desert planet to stock up on the sandstone you need to build a ziggurat on a barren moon.
The random generation of planets includes just enough reality to give this 16bit-styled game surprising fidelity. The colour of light is determined by the hue of the nearest star, and if you look at the night sky you’ll see nearby planets in the distance. Then there are factors like temperature and atmosphere that might require you to build special equipment before settling a new world. Randomisation extends to fauna, too: monsters are procedurally generated based on the biome of the world they inhabit, and can be docile or deadly. Learning which animals are safe to hunt for food and which need to be avoided is key.
Your progress is guided by a quest system that indicates the next key item you need to build to progress. At specific points you progress onto the next ‘tier’, granting access to new areas of space and sometimes triggering boss battles or other encounters.
If there’s a weakness to this randomisation, it’s that the game can sometimes fail to cohere visually. Individual sprites are for the most part attractive and well-designed, and the number of detailed animations is surprising for a game of Starbound’s scope. But that won’t stop bright-yellow acid-spitting birds from roaming the green skies of a planet covered in dense pink roses. This occasional incoherence, though, is part of Starbound’s charm – it’s not the game itself that is garish, but the world you’ve discovered. It’s another experience to share.
The game is already substantial in its beta form, and the draw of the next planet is powerful. The developers claim that there are more than 12 quadrillion potential planets to discover. That’s why it’s easy to say that Starbound will be big: it already is.