Startopia, released in 2001, is a simulation / strategy game where you manage a space station and its visitors. You play as a sort of Peeping Tom Big Brother with little control over what the population below you decides to do. The goal is to build a large commercial centre where the various types of alien visitors can happily mingle and spend their money, and perhaps use a measure of violence to displace any competition present on the space station.

Startopia game screenshot, Salt Hog

Links: Developer's postmortem, Retrospective, Game guide, Game info.


As it turned out, I ended up not playing Startopia much. The replay value was hurt by something, and it took me a while to figure out what. It could not be the complexity of the game, because it has a lot of buildings, different terrains, several species and each person has individual stats. There's SimCity'ing, trading, cultivating, waging wars, etc etc.

So, when you start a new game, you're presented with the same visual every time (a claustrophobic hangar bay with a flat gray floor). Even something simple as a different floor texture could have given a feeling of "new". Having unique floor textures for each section could also be good for giving the player a better sense of location when floating around as the all seeing eye.

On top of this, each new game is very similar mechanically. You start on the lowest level, on the same flat floor, working your way up the tech trees in a similar way each time. It's a bit like playing SimCity and you start on a flat lawn every time with nothing new to explore, and nothing for your city to grow around and adapt to. And, eventually you're able to sculpt terrain to suit your fancy anyways. There are some random factors nudging decisions around (and game settings), but it was not enough, I feel.

The game is more focused on city building than waging small wars, so it's nice to be able to build monuments and decorate the streets with flower pots. I wish there were more decorative items though, perhaps street textures to make the pedestrians happy. The Station floor gets monotonous quick. And, despite featuring a wide selection of things, it somehow feels like the game eventually offers little variation or surprises, visually.

This is further aggravated by the fact that the aliens don't have unique textures, and can only do one job. You'll have the same 3-5 clones working in your same looking laboratories every game.

It's nice that the aliens have unique stats, but since their textures are all the same, it's hard to memorize a particular character that you're fond of.

The side walls are sort of nonsensically greebly and don't really add to the scene. Perhaps it was a framerate choice to partition the game into narrow, tall decks.

Another problem is that the influx of random visitors, leading to a sort of even distribution, tends to make the cities very samey.


Here's how I'd address these problems, with near infinite resources at my disposal:

You'd play on a one-level ring world, with some terrain already in place. Unlike in Startopia, this terrain is harder to edit, so you'll to adapt to it (perhaps the masses have to be slowly shuffled around). Starting in a hot-wet region will make it easier for certain aliens to get by (Sirens). Since the amount of land area is finite, removing terrain could have a negative effect on the nature-loving aliens, and a positive effect on the urban ones. It becomes a resource to consider.

Startopia ring world

Since the ring is just one level, it's easy to get a nice overview of your creation, and stuff at a distance will provide a nice visual backdrop. Perhaps the organic terrain can be used to make the ring edges more pleasing to look at. Hills or Seas. There could be certain blocky architectural features of the ring structure that can't be edited at all, though perhaps be hidden under water or buried under dirt.

Something simple as being able to lay down various street textures could make city building more fun. Pedestrians could get some bonus for walking on properly paved streets rather than the ring world default floor. Crowds might upset some types of aliens, so keeping traffic flow in mind could be important.

The ring worlds are some sort of derelicts left behind by a dead race, and the various factions (trade alliances?) arrive to set up trading posts. Competition is fierce, and these factions are engaged in skirmishes, but not quite war. Each faction attracts different types of aliens, and this, along with the local environment, ensures that each game throws some sort of curveball at the player. For example, two different factions might both attract Salt Hogs, but one attracts lots of Sirens, Targs, Kasvagorians, and the other Grays, Turrakken, Monks. It's a big universe and while it's generally a good thing to have clear predictable roles for the game pieces, I think diversity and disagreement within a species is a necessary element in order to properly fill out the ranks of the factions.

Since the selection of aliens available to the player is limited, the aliens should be able to do all jobs, with varying proficiency. Salt Hogs are generally bad at science, but perhaps there are a few ones with good resumes out there. Imagine a Salt hog is a scientist robe. Too cute. The aliens would need different clothes depending on employment (and unemployment, previous occupation).

Startopia art, Salt Hog, Scuzzer, Turrakken Grays, Sirens, Skrasher, Karmaramans, Kasvagorian, Vermin, Memau, Targ

Actor telltale

The mood bubbles and disease textures work well as methods of informing the player of the state of a character in Startopia. Perhaps some information about job and rank could be included in the employee badge seen over the head of a character.

Even with unique skins for each character, it's hard to make a player fond of his employees and customers when there's so much demanding the player's attention all around the space station. This could be somewhat remedied if the characters kept diaries/logs which the player could read to learn about past events. I think it would be hard to make diary entries interesting... but they could inform the player about stuff like, a character having thought that the lavatories are too far away, or that the Sirens near work are being too noisy. This is stuff that a player could act upon, but might not catch in a log-less world.

When looking out over a city, seeing people walking around, it's hard not to wonder what they're all doing and where they're going. This is information which is partially contained in the mood bubbles, but sometimes it would be nice to know more details about source and destination when city layout is so important to the game.

In Sim City, you can see crowded streets being filled with cars, and skyscrapers will appear if a commercial area is successful. Crime can be seen on a heat map of sorts. In Startopia litter will appear if the cleaning droids aren't doing their job. Showing trends on a larger scale like this is good because it informs the player about the macro state of the game.

Some time later I want to elaborate on construction, crafting and researching. I feel like plopping down buildings effortlessly takes away a little from the sense of achievement, and some sort of dynamic crafting/research system with emergent complexity and scalability could make that aspect of the game feel less exhaustible.

Startopia screenshot with skeletons, trash and vermin.

Finally, a colony just for space vermin.

Byline: Niklas Jansson, 2012