Hardspace: Shipbreaker is one of those Early Access games that already felt more-or-less complete when it first released. After 25 hours slicing steel and (carefully) dismantling nuclear reactors in zero-g, I've gotten more than my money's worth out of Blackbird Interactive's unique space labor sim.
But Blackbird isn't nearly done with Shipbreaker, a fact that was very clear after the team told me about the major addition coming to the game tomorrow: act one of a fully-voiced campaign. The momentous "Salvage Your Future" patch will also bring a revamped difficulty system, more ship varieties, and reworked progression.
"This is the biggest update we have ever developed," said lead game designer Jennifer Scheurle. "It's super exciting for us." Game director Elliot Hudson says Salvage Your Future aims to "completely reimagine the beginning of the game."
If you've played Shipbreaker, you'll know that the current beginning already has little bits of story. After being accepted to work as a shipbreaker for the ruthlessly capitalistic LYNX Corporation, and escaping from an Earth ravaged by the effects of climate change, the player starts working to pay down an initial debt of billions to the company. The debt functions as an overall goal to work toward, but the figure is so outlandish that it’s improbability is more commentary than anything. Right now, that opening is all you get beyond the occasional voice log left behind in the ships you dismantle.
How Shipbreaker's science fiction world relates to reality has been a challenge as Blackbird figured out the story it wanted to tell. "We're trying to be dystopian about it. And yet, the modern day world is just getting weirder and weirder as we're doing this. And it's getting more and more difficult to be satirical. But we're trying," Hudson said.
Scheurle added, “We read the news and talk about what it’s like to live in our current capitalist society, the knock-on effects, and how that affects working and workers’ rights. It influences our game and how we want to tackle our story. We want to discuss how people should have a say in their futures and how work relates to that.”
Don't expect to be taken out of the action with dialogue wheels or anything. Blackbird wants to maintain Shipbreaker's current uninterrupted pace. Fully-voiced characters will periodically talk to the player over radio during jobs and send messages to your habitation module between shifts.
Blackbird is treating the story as part of the early access process as well. Act one is arriving in tomorrow’s initial patch with placeholder voices provided by Blackbird developers. “We are, as always, keen to develop this together with our community and see if our chosen form of storytelling works for them,” Scheurle said. The placeholder voices will eventually be replaced by a “diverse cast” of professional actors once the community is satisfied with the story’s implementation.
And yes, you’ll still have to pay back LYNX—Hudson said the ludicrous debt remains the “base” of the campaign.
Reworked progression and ship variants
On the gameplay side, Salvage Your Future is making big changes to progression and difficulty. Currently, ship complexity is broken down by easy, medium, and hard. Starting tomorrow, ships will instead be distinguished by “hazard levels,” or how dangerous they are to work on. “You decide what you want to play and what you want to tackle,” Scheurle said.
The new distinction goes hand-in-hand with a new streamlined progression. The requirements to climb through certification levels are being simplified to be clearer and “much more focused,” according to Hudson. This can be seen in the new work order system that moves away from the current model of only requiring certain parts of a ship to be salvaged, like computers or thrust engines.
“[The old work orders] created this behavior of just hunting and pecking for certain objects and then throwing away or ignoring the rest of the ship which, obviously, we didn’t like,” Hudson said. “The cutters in the game talk about ‘using the whole buffalo’ and that just wasn’t happening.” Hudson hopes the changes will encourage players to salvage the whole ship.
Ships themselves are getting tweaked, too. “We noticed that [ships] can all kind of feel the same even if they’re named different things and are meant to have different roles.” Hudson hopes the revamped ships will make each craft feel like distinct puzzles that can be mastered. “Industrial ships feel quite different than the transport ships and civilian ships feel different from science ships.” Hudson and Scheurle teased a new science variant of the Mackerel class ship coming in tomorrow’s update that feels “completely different” from the others.
The new story and all the other cool stuff unfortunately means that progression will reset for all players in the Salvage Your Future update. “We want people to play through the game from the beginning,” Hudson added. “And also so much has changed that we couldn’t have the same compatibility, unfortunately.”
Looking ahead at future updates, Blackbird is also planning on adding a new elemental hazard to ships: radiation. The developer isn't ready to talk about how exactly shipbreakers will handle radiation, but Scheurle told me that it will interact with some existing hazards (ice, fire, electricity). Apparently, managing it will be a bit more complicated than just turning off a fuel line or staying out of the way of an arcing current. Scheurle adds that radiation is an example of how Blackbird wants to make its hazards more prominent in future updates. "Some of our hazards are a little binary—you're either in really bad shape or you're good," she said. "We want to have more in-between with hazards that are not completely catastrophic right away and that you can counteract or have to be careful with."
Further on, Blackbird plans on reinventing the habitation module to be a fully 3D space the player can walk around (in addition to upgrading tools and reading text logs like always) and "personalize." Act two and three of the campaign story are also in the works. With so much still left to do with Shipbreaker almost a year into early access, I was wondering if Blackbird has a target in mind for when the game will enter full release. "It's totally still a moving target for us," Hudson said. Even if the day when Shipbreaker is "done" is unclear, I got the sense that the arrival of the campaign is a major turning point for the game.
The Salvage Your Future update releases tomorrow, May 6. Until then, I suggest you say goodbye to your completely upgraded save files and get ready for what sounds like a new era of Hardspace: Shipbreaker.