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How System Era overcame creative paralysis to fix crafting system

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System Era designer Aaron Biddleton and gameplay programmer Elijah O’Rear explain how they mined their own game design to invigorate Astroneer’s flat
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 Biddleton 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.

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