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The end of lawnmowing

Landing on unknown planets and exploring them is a huge part of Super Space Galaxy. Even though it’s one of the first things I ever worked on, I’m still tweaking the fundamentals of this experience more than two years into the game’s development, and this week I’ve made some changes that I think make the planets much more fun to explore.

I’d already made moves to eliminate ‘lawnmowing‘, the incentive to explore the map in big sweeps like mowing the lawn. This is a very efficient, but un-fun way to play the game that I wanted to avoid. Some of this incentive has been taken away by distributing Resources on the map. Once you find a clump of trees, it’s natural to change course and explore that.

Lawnmowing was still an issue, however. When you first arrived on a planet, you couldn’t see very far and you’re unlikely to have landed over some resources straight away. Where do you go? The natural thing to do, I found, was to simply move to the right, hoping to bump into something. Until you found your first resource-cluster, lawnmowing was still the natural move. This needed to change.

I had an idea to break up this pattern: if you could explore around your ship in circular sweeps, that would disrupt the line-like pattern of you winding back and forth. But when exactly to trigger this?

This ‘scanner sweep‘ might recharge over time, but I knew that would encourage you to simply sit there and let it regenerate. Killing enemies could recharge it, but I didn’t plan to have enemies on every map. Perhaps exploring new parts of the map could charge up a sweep, but I wasn’t sure I could get the game to recognize when you’d gone somewhere new that accurately.

One system I definitely didn’t want to use was spending in-game currency on exploring the map around you. This would make doing a radar sweep an expensive luxury that got in the way of more exciting things like upgrades. I seem to be very loss-averse and know that I would never use such an option myself.

There was also the question of controls. Once you had a scanner sweep ready, how would you trigger it? Adding another button to the game’s controls is a very ‘expensive’ way to deal with a new function. I also considered that you could trigger a sweep simply by staying still. However, that wasn’t intuitive at all. I’ve seen gamers struggle to keep their mouse still even when told to, and the gameplay of Super Space Galaxy is heavily based on movement. Sitting impatiently to trigger a sweep, even for a second, seemed like a bad idea.

I also considered having ‘scanner points’ distributed on the map that would trigger a scanner sweep, but that felt rather arbitrary. What would explain these points being positioned the way they were? I didn’t want to have man-made towers as the points, because many of the planets you explore in Super Space Galaxy are supposed to be uncharted. Having abstract points dotted around the map made less sense than having, say, fruit in the trees or iron in the ground.

These were all bad ideas, but they also seemed to cover every possible option. What on earth could I do to finish off the dreaded lawnmowing once and for all? By now I’m familiar with how the cycle of problem-solving works and I’ve developed a confidence in my own ability to fix these problems. All these ideas were bad, and I knew it. I went to bed and settled in.

Of course, now that I was resting, the right idea soon came. What if you automatically did a scanner sweep when you landed on a new planet? This didn’t feel arbitrary; after all, as you descended on the planet it made sense that you’ve have a view of a wide area from above. Having a sweep when you first land could give you a forecast of the terrain ahead and inform your first moves. It was likely that you’d see some resource-bearing tiles and head in their direction, breaking the lawnmowing pattern before it even started.

This plan turned out to work splendidly. Now, when you landed on a planet, you were given a tempting glimpse of the terrain around you. Early in my testing I found a patch of iron-bearing tiles on a Lava planet, just as I’d hoped. Now I had a reason to head there instead of just going directly to the right and hoping I bumped into something interesting.

You might find this process useful. If you’re trying to solve a new problem without an obvious answer, just think of a lot of dumb ideas! This is quite similar to Brian Tracy’s ‘Mind Storming’ exercise where you come up with 20 answers to the same question. Get the bad ideas out of the way and, if you have faith that you can solve it, the right answer will probably present itself later.

Thanks for reading,

Kenneth Dunlop


Published by Kenneth Dunlop

Earth's Mightiest Game Designer. Making Super Space Galaxy. Previously made Super Space Slayer 2.

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