Star Citizen

Profession-based gameplay and long-term player retention

tl;dr – Absent traditional loot and level grinds, we need a replacement psychological driver for long-term player retention – a new paradigm where players are motivated by their in-game experiences, not experience points. Investing in profession-based gameplay seems a smart way to deliver these new-paradigm experiences. So, we discuss immersion, “easy to learn, difficult to master,” and novel experiences in this context.

An assessment of mining, SC’s most developed profession, reveals it still feels like an old-paradigm means-to-an-end experience. So, I propose a new design approach employing a toolbox of pseudo-realistic concepts.

To demonstrate this new approach in action, we retool the existing mining mechanic to deliver a new-paradigm entry-level mining experience. The MOLE is then reworked to extend mining beyond entry-level and deliver a robust multiplayer experience that checks all our boxes.

Alongside gameplay, content is a significant factor in our player-experiences equation, so we conclude by examining the risk of overexposing interesting content.


The psychology behind loot and level grinds and their ever-shifting goalposts are significant drivers of long-term player retention in traditional MMOs. SC discards this old paradigm, so what’s our new paradigm?

It must have been 2013 or '14 when I heard Chris Roberts address the lack of loot and level grinds. Paraphrasing: players would log in for the in-game experiences, not experience points. As the saying goes, it's the journey, not the destination.

You can hear this shift echoed by backers when they talk of their plans for in-game ship purchases. Their excitement is typically associated more with the gameplay they anticipate the new ship will open than with the ship as an entity. Psychologically, ships are viewed more as a starting line than a finish line. Contrast with traditional MMOs, where a player's acquisition of the best-in-slot gear often marks the beginning of a hiatus, waiting for the next expansion pack.

It seems reasonable much of a player's journey will be spent engaging in activities related to in-game professions. Consequently, it's a sensible place to build significant value into player experiences.

IAE 2950 allowed my org to experience every platform currently available for SC's most-developed profession, mining. So, rather than expressing my ideas only in general terms, I’ll use mining to illustrate them in action.

What We Want From A Profession

Yes, we want an opportunity to make a profit and all that, but I'm specifically addressing what we want from the player experience while engaged in profession-based activities.

"Easy to learn, difficult to master" – This is one of CIG’s stated goals. Given there are no RPG character stats in Star Citizen, mastery will be the product of player development. Implicit in this is not every player will have the aptitude to master every game mechanic. My reflexes aren’t as sharp as they were in my twenties, and that will limit the level of mastery I can attain in FPS combat. Our goal should be to incorporate a variety of aptitudes and skill sets into our profession-based game mechanics.

Immersion – Often used to describe the feeling you're in a real world (even if it doesn't parallel our real world). In the new paradigm, it's not enough for the world to feel real. Gameplay should leave the player feeling their actions in the world are genuine.

Novel experiences – Most professions will have a lot of routine work, but, on occasion, an extraordinary element should appear in the process. These can be rare occurrences related to the profession or something from outside injected into the moment.

The Current State Of Mining

The mining process’ framework is clever, but several aspects of its implementation leave it feeling like an old-paradigm design.

It's a generic, gamified process. If a similar mechanic had come in for hacking instead of mining, nobody would have blinked. Your hacking software can mask a data stream, and you have to manage the data flow rate. Keep the rate high enough the download finishes before the masking software completes its cycle but low enough the hack remains hidden from intrusion detection systems.

So, while dumping energy into a rock till it fractures can plausibly be described as mining, there's little about the gameplay that feels distinctively like mining. On the other hand, its familiar and gamified feel aren't bad qualities to have in an entry-level mechanic.

Anticipation for the MOLE’s multi-crew gameplay initially had my team excited, but the experience quickly grew sedate. Large asteroids require multiple people to fracture, but one org member likened the level of teamwork and coordination required to “one person screwing in a light bulb while two people hold the ladder.” More and bigger lasers did little to advance the experience.

The challenge of high-end ores manifests as greater instability and narrower optimal zones. Players overcome this challenge in typical video game fashion: player reflexes, equipment stats, and consumables. Mining lasers are your swords offering a myriad of attributes (whether they make sense or not), and mining consumables are your potions offering buffs/debuffs for every occasion. This quintessential video game approach to overcoming challenges means the most challenging rocks deliver the least immersive experience.

While mining is done very well, it still feels like gameplay for the old paradigm; it’s a means to an end. For the new paradigm to succeed, I believe more emphasis needs to be placed on the means and the experience it delivers. So, what can we do to retool the process?

A Toolbox For Building In The New Paradigm

I'd like to see CIG assemble a toolbox filled with generalized, widely-applicable yet fairly basic STEM and sci-fi-stylized pseudo-STEM principles, tools, and techniques. The contents of this toolbox become building blocks incorporated into gameplay challenges and their solutions.

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By establishing a set of tools, their properties, and thematic ideas regarding how each will be used, we go a long way toward helping create a uniform feel across game systems in a multi-designer environment. It also gets us thinking about how the in-game science and engineer/mechanic roles (such as on an Endeavor) will be used to modify or tune game elements built with these tools.

The approach is abstract, so let's create a couple examples and apply them to mining. (Again, I'm not attempting to present a fleshed-out redesign of mining. I'm selecting aspects of the existing system to contrast with alternatives built using the approach I'm advocating.)

Tool #1 – waves and curves

Waves and curves have an abundance of properties (e.g., wave speed, amplitude, period, frequency, wavelength, the area under the curve, maximum/minimum slope, etc.) that designers can use to inform gameplay and place contextual constraints on.

They have a wide range of potential applications. For example, fuel efficiency curves for engines, resolution across XYZ spectrum for long-range sensors, emissions vs. output (i.e., stealth) for ship components, and so on…

So, how can we use curves to retool our mining process?

Why are players allowed to affect the rock’s optimal energy window size? After all, it’s a property of the rock. To provide a more realistic experience, let’s instead create mechanisms to improve the miner’s ability to stay within the optimal window.

For example, currently, we have no control over how sensitive the mining laser is to user input. So, let’s create engineering console functionality to provide something analogous to a joystick sensitivity curve.

By incorporating an engineering constraint, we can add some challenge and create a dimension for player skill progression. Limiting the maximum area available under the curve would prevent players from making a “responsive-everywhere” curve. So, knowing where to invest their budgeted area requires a miner to have a rough idea of the range of power the mining laser will be outputting to hold the rock in its optimal window.

Mining Laser Sensitivity Curve

A novice miner might find this range through experimentation. By charging the rock to its optimal window then attempting to hold it there for a few seconds they can configure their curve based on the laser power levels observed during the trial.

A miner develops expertise by correlating these observations with the relevant data (i.e., distance and the rock properties revealed by the scanner). So, they can begin to estimate the range for future rocks based on scanner information alone. For those willing to accept a trade-off, a computer blade could assist (or perhaps even automate?) the process.

It's a solution that replaces a gamey buff/debuff approach in favor of a real-world engineering feel – one many joystick owners are already familiar with. It benefits from developing expertise, and it creates gameplay for our mechanic role – tinkering with the mining laser, attempting to increase the area available under the curve.

Tool #2 – consumable compounds

Properties available to designers include reactivity, reaction capacity, reaction rate, etc.

Potential applications: solvents, fertilizers, refining (e.g., making amalgams), CO₂ scrubbers for life support, etc…

Rather than giving players a magic potion to debuff instability, thereby reducing the likelihood of overcharge, let’s accept overcharge will happen and give miners a mechanism to cope – by reversing the mining laser's polarity a miner can draw down the overcharge. It's a sci-fi trope we can employ to shunt energy out of the overcharge bar and back into the ship.

The reclaimed energy is directed into the ship's cooling system, but there's an additional emergency safeguard: a consumable compound built into the mining apparatus. The safeguard is engaged when the energy exceeds some configurable threshold. It's a volume of compound designed to dissipate the excess energy via sublimation (state transition from solid to gas) then expelling the gas.

In-game scientists could work to improve the reaction capacity (i.e., how much energy is consumed in the state change) (J/kg) and the reaction rate (kg/s). Reactivity could also come in to play. Now that gas clouds are in the game, perhaps some compounds react badly when expelled into specific environments.

Toolbox Wrap-up

We’ve taken two prospective tools from our toolbox, curves and consumable compounds, and used them to retool aspects of the existing mining process.

By employing this design approach, we see how even an entry-level mining mechanic can deliver an experience that feels like it was developed by in-’verse mining engineers, not a video game designer. It informs and generates content for the in-game science and engineer/mechanic roles, and it offers some limited player skill progression that isn’t entirely reflex-based.

An added benefit of designing with this STEM-based approach is gameplay trade-offs tend to feel realistic. In this example, when confronted with a particularly challenging but valuable rock, a miner has the option of turning off non-essential systems, including engines and shields, to increase available cooling capacity.

Designing A MOLE I Can Dig

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the new design approach by retooling an existing mechanic, let’s try our hand at designing from scratch a new, robust multiplayer experience for the MOLE.

Again, my purpose is to demonstrate the application of my STEM-based design approach, not to actually re-design mining. Details like ship configuration and loadout aren't relevant for my purposes. But, for ease in comparing and contrasting, I will be shoehorning my solution into the existing mining paradigm – some asteroids are too big for a Prospector to tackle.

In my solution, these too-large asteroids are assemblages of smaller fragments that, once separated, can be broken down and harvested by the existing dump-energy-into-the-rock process. The internal surfaces where an asteroid's constituent fragments join are "fracture surfaces" (or "interfaces"). How stuck together the fragments are, the naturally-occurring adhesion, varies across each interface.

Mining begins by scanning the asteroid while applying stress with tractor beams. A holographic interface reveals the internal structure (i.e., the fracture surfaces) and a map of the measured adhesion across each interface.

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Asteroids are broken apart by detonating explosive mining charges on these fracture surfaces. A clean, efficient break is achieved by placing a right-sized charge where adhesion is greatest and, moving away, adhesion decreases at roughly the same rate the energy from the explosion dissipates.

So, we need a process for miners to break down local adhesion on an interface and transform the naturally-occurring adhesion map to the desired adhesion gradient. Lithotripsy, the procedure doctors use to break up kidney stones with sound waves, is the inspiration for my idea. We could explain it as 30th-century advancements in Brillouin scattering or something.

Adhesion Maps

Functionally, it operates like the Erase Tool found in advanced paint programs such as Photoshop and GIMP. The miner "paints" on a fracture surface where they want to reduce adhesion. Typical of paint programs, movement of the brush is limited to a 2-D plane. But fracture surfaces are curved 3-D surfaces, so our miner needs a partner.

The partner’s role is to tilt the painting plane along the x- and y- axes (using the brush location as the origin). By working in concert, the two miners can maneuver the brush along a 3-D surface.

We can make this second role more engaging by adding its own dynamic element. We define the plane's equilibrium orientation to be when it lies perpendicular to a line from the asteroid’s center. Holding the plane in any other orientation requires the miner to apply a force proportional to the offset from the perpendicular. (Imagine carrying a sheet of plywood in a strong wind. The more the face is turned into the wind, the more effort is required to hold it there.) While the role can be performed using a keyboard and mouse, a joystick and throttle would provide an exceptional, high-fidelity experience.

Disrupting Adhesion On A Fracture Surface

When the miners are satisfied with their adhesion gradients, autonomous disposable drones deliver the mining charges by drilling to the designated detonation locations. The explosives are set off remotely, but what happens after the boom?

We need interesting ways for success and less-than-success to manifest. Currently, objects in space will quickly slow to a stop on their own. (I'm not sure how it's implemented, so I'll guess it's an artificial drag coefficient.) When splitting these larger asteroids, the separated fragments should initially have a low coefficient that ramps up over time. So, there’s the potential for them to really move before eventually stopping.

If the explosion isn't sufficient to overcome adhesion across all the connected interfaces, the fragments don't separate. In the cleanest outcome, minimal momentum is imparted to the separated fragments, making them easy to corral with tractor beams. Too large a charge could impart considerable momentum to the fragments, creating a hazard for the ship. A much-too-large charge could additionally pulverize portions of the rock, reducing the recoverable mass of the fragments.

In this process, player skill progression encompasses two key areas: mining charge size and placement, and the breaking down of adhesion on a fracture surface.

Mining charge size and placement – By placing the mining charge interior to a fracture surface, a novice miner can turn each surface into a self-contained puzzle. An expert miner may choose to solve a more complex puzzle but with greater efficiency. Placing a mining charge at a junction where two or more fracture surfaces meet, the energy from a single explosive can be used to split more than one interface.

A novice miner may choose to spend more time to reduce adhesion across the board, allowing the use of a smaller mining charge. An expert may make only the minimally-necessary changes to adhesion, comfortable in their use of larger explosives.

Breaking down adhesion – A novice crew's process may be characterized by a "move then cut – move then cut" workflow and involve the revisiting of spots for touch-ups. An expert crew will have opportunities to cut on the move. and the need for touch-ups will be less common.

Assessing The New Design

So, how have we done? Our new process creates two very different but complementary roles that benefit from good communication and team chemistry. It delivers a distinctively space-age-mining feel. And player progression involves the development of expertise and even incorporates a decidedly artistic skill set.

The system facilitates a considerable variety of challenges. Asteroids vary in how their fragments are assembled and the naturally-occurring distribution of adhesion across all the fracture surfaces.

We could further increase the variety of experiences by borrowing from real-world concepts like pyrometamorphism and shock metamorphism to create scenarios where a clean, efficient break isn't always the most desirable result.

There’s also ample opportunity for computer blades to assist players in developing their skills. For example, based on mining charge size and placement, a blade could display an estimated target adhesion value for the brush’s current location.

From Concept To Implementation

Having established our framework for extending the mining process, let’s again explore how the toolbox can be used while designing one aspect of implementation.

We’ll introduce a new wave-ish curve to manage our brush. The amplitude corresponds to the degree to which adhesion is disrupted – brush "force" in GIMP – and the number of periods dictates how far into the asteroid the effect can penetrate. We create engineering console functionality allowing the miner to shape the curve over each positive half period. In effect, we're giving players the ability to create a set of custom brush "presets" under the guise of engineering gameplay.

Brush Presets

Our in-game engineer/mechanic roles could tinker with the Brillouin emitter, attempting to increase the wavelength, thus enabling larger brush sizes. Or increase the number of periods, providing more presets and allowing deeper effect penetration.

We saw previously how our STEM-based approach tends to result in sensible gameplay trade-offs. It can also naturally lead to additional gameplay opportunities based on what's already been designed.


For example, if we want to add an active role in mining for our pilot, as designed, our process has two people concurrently managing aspects of the same brush. We could create gameplay around maintaining the coherence of these brush controls. If we incorporate the depth of the brush and the composition of the intervening fragments into this gameplay, we not only give pilots something to do, it involves some degree of piloting skill.

Lastly, let's create an example of a novel experience that naturally fits into our design. Imagine you notice a subtle linear anomaly in the adhesion map of one of the fracture surfaces. What could explain it? Perhaps some ice miners stumbled upon a frighteningly dangerous substance – a protomolecule perhaps? Afraid of it but also unwilling to destroy it, they decide to stash it in an asteroid. They replaced the explosives in a mining charge drone, and the anomaly was created as it drilled its way to its hiding place.

Content – A Meta-Level Consideration

We've done our best to make the profession-based mechanics immersive and entertaining, but that's only one side of the player-experiences equation. We need to talk about the other side – content.

In a paradigm where player experiences must carry a substantial load, I believe overexposure of the "interesting" content is a real risk. With overexposure, interesting becomes ordinary.

Do you still look forward to Discovery Channel's Shark Week? The early success of Shark Week, and the shark-related programming that success spawned, has made shark "content" ordinary. Overexposed, Shark Week's programming has gone from factual to farcical in a (failed) attempt to recapture the attention of viewers.

So, paradoxically, I think SC will hold players' attention longer if the best content is doled out very sparingly. The anticipation of encountering this content can drive people forward. As soon as the content becomes too familiar, the anticipation goes away. So, players should generally be engaging with fairly mundane content.

On its face, I concede this may sound like a bad idea. But if you agree with my assertion that overexposure causes interesting content to become ordinary, the alternative means all your content, whether it started interesting or not, quickly becomes mundane.

Let's look to salvaging for an example. Truly interesting wrecks (e.g., those with original stories or mysteries behind them) should be few and far between. Even modestly interesting wrecks, those with several salvage-worthy components, should be doled out sparingly.

Much of the time, I think salvagers should be working to pay the bills until they can land the next windfall. Not quite feast-or-famine but also not regular, reliable progress. Seeing consistent progress will prompt the player to ask, “progress toward what?” Instead, we should leave them anxiously anticipating that next exceptional experience.

Keep in mind mundane content doesn't necessarily condemn players to boredom. We mustn't forget we're investing heavily on the other side of the equation. Our gameplay mechanics are designed to deliver superior moment-to-moment experiences even when applied to more-mundane content. But that doesn't mean we can't add something to the content side to help balance the equation.

Frequently, the game engine can determine if a player's been consuming mundane content. Many professions work based on contracts or missions, and they can be categorized. I'm confident we can find ways to deduce this information for those that don't.

When engaged in mundane content, we can increase the probability of a contextually-appropriate, not-so-novel experience triggering. These aren't attempts to inject an adrenaline rush or derail the player's activities; they are simple events whose purpose is to break up the routine. Frequent enough to serve their purpose; not so frequent they become a nuisance.

Examples could include anything from a stray, garbled radio signal to a faulty equipment warning light or even a mini-encounter. For our salvager, a contextually-appropriate example of the latter might be the arrival of an NPC competitor who offers a quick conversation before moving on.

Since having players consume more mundane content is integral to our professional ecosystem, we can leverage these not-so-novel experiences to help develop that ecosystem. Our example encounter is an opportunity for the player to further develop their professional reputation with an NPC peer that could lead to interesting content down the road.

Wrapping Up

Star Citizen is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Once a space sim, Chris now calls it a "universe sim." But not every aspect of gameplay, not every cool piece of underlying tech, possesses the same capacity to drive long-term player retention. We need to prioritize those that can, and we need to deliver new-paradigm caliber experiences.

(Cross-posted to Spectrum here. Please updoot and comment.)

Edit: added cross-post link to Spectrum


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