With the release of Starbound 1.0, I am not¹ upset but neither impressed with the game. As I had kind of expected, the writing is a little poor, but they were trying to find a mechanical premise for advancement that fit into the game, and that is hard. So instead of rambling on about their past choices, here is a sequel concept.
1. Game theme: Colonization, Industrialization, BBEGs, and Intergalactic Politics
This is of course being written immediately after I finished writing a concept on Factorio, so it is plain to me that I just seem to have colonization games on the mind, however in practice the two games are very different mechanically.
The concept I had for Starbound's theme when it was still relatively early in its Early Access period was for starships sent into a new universe (literally "bound for new stars"), the first wave of a colonization initiative by their home planets. The new tech doesn't work right; the ship is damaged, and maybe crashes, maybe sticks in orbit. The player scrounges up the goods to get his ship minimally functional; after that, he must use repair his onboard fabrication technology so that he can send a message back home.
At this point, however, the progression of the game starts to differ *very* much from Starbound 1.0. Your first task is not to increase your weapons or technology or undertake quests for NPCs, but to create a home for more colonists that are coming through the portal. The first colonists will be a seed ship--full of technology and building specialists--but again because the technology is broken, most of their technology is ruined and you must return to nature. Make a colony; give your colonists tools; when they have tools, set them to a task of increasing their technology level or civilization level (which auto-improves buildings, and generates new buildings on the colony). Go take your functioning ship and search for more survivors or new colony ships; lead the survivors to your new home. Each colonist specializes; the specialties work together, for example, miners feed industry, farmers increase the population cap, industry increases the tech level which allows new jobs such as power generation, tech workers, researchers, and more. Derelict ships get repaired; these ships become traders, colony ships, soldiers and scouts. Your faction grows.
Along the way, you will discover that other factions are colonizing other parts of space. The sector map gains territorial boundaries, and crossing them may mean bad things. You can make friends with other factions, trade, and mutually prosper; you can also make enemies, loot, and raid. Some of the factions are native to this universe, too, and not colonists from your old worlds. The interactions you have with each are different. Your faction will begin to have its own space too, with colonies, traders, outposts, and more.
This all gets interrupted by big-bad-evil-guys, which may be one of many conceptual baddies. It could be evil entities drawn by the inter-universe travel; it could be baddies summoned by evil natives; it could be the dead remains of an ancient evil that wants to destroy all life in this universe; it could be evil chasing you to this universe from the old one (which presumably you were fleeing in the first place). With industry and unity, you hold them off.
Yet over time, the threat grows. BBEG faction spaces show up in the sector map, and they spread like locusts. Meteors carrying BBEG monsters scatter through your space, BBEG ships attack your colonies, allies spurn your requests for aid as they are hit too hard to help. You throw what resources you can into scouting, weapons research, production. You advance your shipbuilding so that adventuring teams--led by yourself, of course--can force their way into BBEG territory and find the source of the scourge. You make tactical assaults to stop the spread of territory, to steal resources and technology from them, and to find what little information you can from them. Then, finally, you think maybe you have the answer, and charge off deep into the unknown to face them at their own turf...
... or perhaps, for those people less interested in that kind of gameplay, you find a way to seal them out, build pylons around BBEG space, and found a new era of peace without sacrificing the enemy or your soldiers. With the power of civilization, unity, love, and peace, you save the galaxy and spill no blood in the process! This ending requires a lot of resource and industry, but also requires assistance from the other civilizations; the more you make peace with them, the easier it is to dedicate resources to research, and the more help you have deploying the seals.
I like the concept, and I feel that it is a much better use of the name "Starbound" and its basic mechanics--but that's just me.
2. In detail - Colonies
Terraria, and then Starbound and others, have this idea of a basic living space for a worker being a room and some basic furniture. This is a solid foundation, but it *does* very little. I propose that like the wiring system in Starbound, colonists are connected to each other and to work rooms--turrets, shops, workrooms, etc. So a workroom attached to a soldier's outpost will repair damage, generate weapons, and possibly expand the room or even move it as the colony expands.
More importantly, a mining operation underground will be connected to smelters, and those to workshops. It will also, eventually, be connected to power generators, feeding them coal and oil, and those power systems will get the colony really humming. Once you have ships, a trading post on the roof may also be connected to workshops; excess output will be traded, and better equipment will be bought, in time.
Power can also be used for shields and teleporters; shields provide some immunity to world events and weather, while teleporters have various uses including trade among colonies, connections to the previous universe (to advance certain plot points, or to get certain perks), and to get to particular coordinates in space if, for example, you happen to discover an unshielded area in BBEG territory for you to adventure from.
More pragmatically, teleporters are an easy way to set up space stations and starbases; one of the biggest real-world problems with space travel is simply getting enough mass into orbit; metals and fuels, yes, but also water and oxygen. In game, your one functioning space ship (at the beginning) is a good way to bootstrap the process, but it is not the only way. A teleporter, even a one-way device, would almost completely remove the problem. Once you have a fledgeling starbase, your civilization is headed towards self-sufficiency, and you can focus on other things.
3. In detail - Weapons
All of that simulation stuff is fun, but a side scroller does require weapons. I [wrote before](https://redd.it/2uerol) that it would be interesting to combine some concepts from another game, a PS2 game called Dark Cloud 2. In that game, weapons evolve as the user does to a certain extent; you gain "weapon XP" from kills and use that to reforge weapons with improved stats, and eventually weapons "evolve" into new ones with even better stats, slightly different mechanics, and sometimes inherent special abilities.
Applying that to a game like Starbound is an interesting challenge. "Weapon Experience" is a cartoony concept which may or may not be good; I certainly don't mind, but it would have to jive with the overall experience. Are there similar tool experiences to improve your tools? Is it all the same pool? Once you find new weapons, how--if at all--do you combine the advantages of one and the form of the other?
I would suggest a system of base parts--for guns and electro-weapons, scavenge parts from ships or make ever-better ones with research; for weapons, find ever-better ores and improve your (or your favored weaponsmith's) skill at smithing. Find a polearm with a special you like? Have your smith (or yourself) learn the weapon until they understand what makes it tick, unlocking the special ability for similar weapons. Done with a weapon? You might be able to scavenge some parts, or some ore, from the remains when you tear it down.
Further, magic weapons can be similar. Yes, magic essences or crystals or whatnot can be used, but more than that, you gain understanding by using *and then maintaining* your magic weapon. Repair it enough and you can put the fireball enchantment on a wand instead of your old staff; fiddle with that spell-orb enough times and you may learn to cast the Light spell natively, or you may be able to enchant your clothes with it.
You will want to stack advantage on top of advantage by the end of the game. Enchant your armor, but also boost it with cybernetic parts and make it from the best ores; your ranged weapons must suit your tastes (rocket launcher or sniper or full-auto?) and your swords and shields must be the very best. Vehicles? Absolutely, although I'd prefer to drop them from orbit instead of being materialized out of nanites or whatever. Magic's okay, too, I suppose.
All of this comes from effort--yours, but also your civilization's. You can do a lot of things solo if you really want, but it will take longer. Some of the most important advantages of your civilization are utilitarian--shields against weather and meteorites, teleporters to mining operations on another planet, automated ore smelting, and so forth--but none of them are really essential.
4. In detail - The Sector Map & The Evolving Universe
I imagine the sector map as not dissimilar to Starbound's starmap, but with colored territorial zones and markers on stars that have a known or reputed colony. If you warp into someone else's territory and do normal exploration, a ship may intercept you, and they may be hostile--or not.
The different territories I imagine as a starting point correspond to the different races, but they could easily be political. Improve your communications--shipboard or your civilization's--and communicate with them. Do quests as you can to improve relations. Trade, grow, be betrayed, forgive or don't. Move markers on a map. Maybe assassinate, replace leaders. Maybe do a lot of things.
When things change on the sector map, events happen on planets. Trade ships, attack ships, colony expansions, colony damage. Sometimes, biome changes happen; volcanos, forests, ruins, crashed ships, temples, all sorts of things. Hidden facilities appear, and disappear or are abandoned.
In particular, the scourge of the BBEGs is a powerful force, no matter where it comes from. Warped planetoids appear, full of flesh and gore, from which monsters flock onto nearby colonies. They are awful, but full of powerful magic; at its core is magistone, a powerful variant of core fragments that is used in advanced construction, and increases the utility of some technologies such as teleporters. (It may even be required for teleporters; you bring some from the Old World, where the BBEGs have slipped their bonds and are running rampant. Perhaps this is Classified Information and you are only told when they begin to infect your plane.)
In any case, the BBE planetoids infect not only your space, but also your allies--and enemies. Make deals in desperation, or from a position of strength; mount an attack on an allie's BBEP or sabotage your enemies' defenses. Accept refugees or leave them to their fate. Perhaps start your own migrant fleet in deep space; with galaxy-scale teleporters and warp drives, all you need are the coordinates.
Since this is a general overview, it's difficult to put enough emphasis on this: the point of these events is to change the world *that you created*. After you put time and energy building up your colonies, they are threatened; not faceless world that you only discover, but YOUR worlds, YOUR people. The refugees you may be accepting may be the very soldiers you had fought before; you might even be responsible for their planet's demise, and they may not know it. You may also have to watch your allies die off; a poor side with good heart that just wasn't ready for the war disappears, along with a cheerful little place you had tried to support from time to time, but not quite enough to save it. It's your world, your universe at stake, and the BBEGs threaten it all--not only threatening to destroy it, but warping it in ways you can't undo, with volcanos and meteors and blood raining from the sky and people that die and will never come back.
For non-first-time players who are in on the gig, every move you make leading up to the start of the BBEG event chain is done knowing the odds. That first time, it may be very painful to see beautiful places destroyed, farms lost, mining operations decimated, your whole infrastructure turned upside-down. But in fighting against the BBEG, you gain more and more resources; traces of magicite in every slain BBEG monsrosity, more in their meteors and ships, leading to better defences and more research. In colonies, your soldiers start "producing" magicite, which gets automatically sent to workshops and researchers; when the city next evolves it will do so with magicite stores, creating magic shields and weapons, so even if you as the player are lost, your cities will start to evolve to survive in this crazy world bit by bit.
The more you come to understand it, the better you will be able to protect your people, and your home. That is the burden and the duty of being a Star-bound.
I like Starbound, in spite of my quibbles. I did end up regretting being part of early access, not because I don't like the game, but because I had to restart frequently--not only starting the game over, not only starting over my mental narrative, but sometimes learning new systems or new ways to treat the game. For a game where you get mentally and emotionally involved, it's not really a great thing.
What you can say about me without doubt is that I am ambitious to a fault, when it comes to concept pieces like this. Oh, I would love to play this game, and I'd not be at all ashamed to be working at it, but my word I have no idea how long it'd take or even how some parts of it would be wired. An interesting thing, a fun thing when it's done, but quite a project! As with so many things of mine.
Of course I am also not connected to Chucklefish, so I have no idea what they will do for an encore, if they even are in the running to do one. But, I like to think about such things. It entertains me.
¹: I am a little upset about the writing, I admit. It comes off a little bit like it was written for children, but the game's funding was built on *preorders*; it isn't parents buying it for their children, but largely adults buying it for themselves. To finally get the game and feel like, after all this time, it is targeted at a different audience is a bit upsetting. But, again, I understand.