Thoughts: Planet Crafter


My existence on this earth has been a hard one so far. I have been put here with the sole purpose of playing every single game about terraforming ever made, and while some of them haven’t been too bad none of them have tackled the core concept of transforming a planet from barren wasteland to lush paradise well at all. Surviving Mars was way more interested in being a mediocre city builder than it was any terraforming elements. Terraforming Mars is a literal board game adaptation, and necessarily limited by that fact – your terraforming activity is limited to placing a very limited number of ocean and forest tiles onto a map. Per Aspera is… not good, would be the very short version, and the longer one is a 6,000 word angry rant. Last year’s Terraformers is probably the best attempt I’ve played so far, fusing a terraforming game with a simple 4X that still allowed it some satisfying mechanical depth, but the games tended to finish early before you completed the terraformation process and so it still felt like there was something missing. Which sums up my experience with these games in general, really; I play them all in the hope that they’ll scratch the itch, but they all end up disappointing me in one way or another.

I mention this all so that I can put the next sentence in its proper context: Planet Crafter is not disappointing. Planet Crafter is the first game about terraforming that I’ve played that’s actually sold me on the fantasy that I’m terraforming.a planet. And, weirdly, it’s done it by being much more mechanically light on the terraforming than even Terraforming Mars – instead, the bulk of its effort is spent on showing the player how the environment changes around them as their Terraforming rating improves. And this is an approach that pays off in spades.


Planet Crafter is very different from the games I just listed. All of those games are strategy games, based on the logical reasoning that if you’re tackling a problem on the scale of terraforming an entire planet you need a global outlook. But maybe that’s where they all went wrong; it makes the terraforming process too mechanical, too impersonal, too about watching a series of numbers go up. Meanwhile Planet Crafter is a game that is literally all about watching a number go up, but you do it from ground level — Planet Crafter is not a strategy game, but is instead a survival game that takes some very heavy inspiration from Subnautica.

Planet Crafter starts with you being dropped onto a Mars-like planet with a small chest of supplies and given the goal of getting the planet’s Terraforming rating from its starting value of zero all the way up to the “complete biosphere” score of five trillion. You have the standard selection of slowly-decreasing survival meters — food, water, oxygen — that need topping up as you work, and there are mineral resources scattered all over the ground that you can use to build structures and machines. So you start, as is normal with these games, by building a living compartment and storage area next to your landing site. Around the outside you scatter some windmills for power, and small drills that liberate gas from the planet’s crust, raising the atmospheric pressure. Each drill makes a pathetic contribution to the Terraforming rating, increasing it by a fraction of a point per second, but they’re still useful because your overall Terraforming rating is split into the standard categories you’d expect in a game like this: Pressure, Heat and Oxygen, and later on there’s a separate Biomass counter that also contributes that’s split into Plants, Insects and Animals. The drills may be doing almost nothing to the big terraforming number, but they’re making more substantial progress for you along the Pressure track, and progression in each category unlocks more and better terraforming tech.


So, having the drills running for a bit gets you solar panel tech, which produces about four times as much power as a windmill. They also unlock a bigger oxygen tank, allowing you to venture further in your exploration of the world. There’s some cool stuff in the Heat category, so you build a couple of heaters (bizarrely, these go inside your buildings rather than outside) and this gets you a better variant of the vegetube – these are machines that you can put plant seeds inside, and then they’ll produce Oxygen. All of the new unlocks are between four and ten times more effective at terraforming than their more primitive variants, but they demand more advanced materials; pretty soon you’re wanting to build tier 2 heaters that require Iridium, but there’s no Iridium in the starting area. So you embark on an expedition to find some; mine was to the crashed spaceship wreck I could see nearby, one of several scattered around the world which are full of all sorts of advanced materials that you do eventually get the ability to produce yourself, but which are scarce and limited until you do — including Iridum. If you do go in that direction you’ll also likely find a cave entrance blocked by a huge ice wall that melts once the overall planet temperature gets to 100 nanoKelvin1 – why, that’s another reason to try and increase the Heat level!

The first hour or two of the game is like this: scrounging up materials, building terraforming machinery so that you can unlock new and better terraforming machinery, and then trying to find out where to get the materials to build the new stuff. The steady trickle of new items you unlock, and the challenge of figuring out how to build them, will keep your brain occupied to the point where you might even forget about the overall Terraforming rating — but this is important too, as not only does it have its own very long line of unlocks, it also governs how the planet changes over time. The target value of 5,000,000,000,000 represents a completely terraformed world, but you’re given a slightly more modest goal to hit when you first land on the planet: 175,000. This is the point where you progress from the initial terraforming stage, Barren, to the second one, Blue Skies. Perhaps not that immediately arresting, I’ll grant you; they’re nice to look at, but it’s ultimately just the skybox being gradually switched out, and it’s this kind of weak terraforming representation of painting the planet a different colour that turned me off of all of those other games. But in Planet Crafter Blue Skies is just stage two of fifteen. The third stage is Clouds, and the fourth, Rain, is where I really started to like Planet Crafter.


You see, the Rain stage is the first time Planet Crafter shows you that it’s not just switching textures around, and that it’s actually pretty serious about this whole terraforming thing. Every other game I’ve seen that’s done terraforming has done it in a pretty coarse fashion; Per Aspera is an extreme example, where a full third of the planet turned into an ocean overnight, but the others aren’t much better. In Planet Crafter, though, once I’d been in the Rain stage for a bit, I started to notice small pools of water appearing on the ground. After a bit more, I noticed a much bigger pool of water accumulating next to the landing site – and it didn’t stop. Fortunately I’d already relocated my main base to somewhere more central and higher-altitude (one nice thing about Subnautica is that it was pretty easy to plop down a basic outpost for storage and oxygen, and Planet Crafter inherits that); I could have moved the tier 1 drills and windmills but it honestly wouldn’t have been worth the effort as they were fully obsolete, and so they were left to be swallowed up by what eventually became a massive lake. I am sure that the initial landing site being on the bottom of a lake bed is 100% intentional on the part of the developers because it’s a brilliant demonstration of how the world changes in response to your terraforming efforts — gradually rather than immediately, but significantly.

It certainly worked on me. From this point onwards I was hooked, and hooked in a way that games don’t often manage these days.


Planet Crafter’s map changing as the Terraforming rating increases is its biggest strength and most impressive achievement. Watching the planet blossom around you is tremendously rewarding, but it also has significant mechanical implications as new routes are opened up by melting ice and growing vines, and new resources are brought to the surface by plant roots. Sneakily this change works both ways, since the rising water level and (eventually) foliage spread will also conceal caves and wrecks that are otherwise quite easy to find when the planet is still in its Barren state. You won’t miss anything critical, but it’s still a good idea to get some of your exploring done early. The change is gradual in most places — you can even watch the enormous ice walls melt in real-time if you’re willing to wait for about half an hour — and there’s overlap between the different terraforming stages that makes it feel a bit more organic, so fish don’t magically appear in your lakes once you hit the Fish stage; you’ll see increasing numbers of them swimming around in the preceding Breathable Atmosphere stage if you’re in a lake that’s deep enough. There’s a few rough edges, such as exploring areas towards the edge of the map that look like they’re unfinished – but in reality they just haven’t had terraforming effects applied to them yet, and the un-terraformed version hasn’t had much time spent on it because most people wouldn’t make it out there that early. In general, though, it’s a smashing success, and the amount of change – and the variety of it – was always surprising, all the way up until a couple of hours before the end of the game.

In terms of how you as a player change the way you play in response to the changing environment, Planet Crafter also succeeds, albeit in a more qualified manner. A key element of survival games is mastery of the environment; at the start you’re scrabbling for food and water and put in a significant amount of time obtaining both, but ideally by the midgame you’ve built machines that automate that away and have moved on to more interesting problems. For example, Subnautica gave you a knife that automatically cooked fish and a water filter machine that automatically produced filtered water. But because it’s a terraforming game, Planet Crafter has an additional challenge/opportunity, in that as you change the world to make it more suitable for human life this should make obtaining basic survival resources easier. (Per Aspera screwed this up badly, eventually covering half of Mars in an ocean but still forcing you to get drinking water for your colonists by mining out aquifers.)


Let’s take water as the first example. At the beginning of the game you’re picking up chunks of frozen ice from the ground and taking them to a crafting station to melt into water. Pretty simple, but still annoying. After five or six hours of this, you’ll unlock a machine that condenses water automatically from the brand new atmosphere you’ve created, and shortly after this happens you’ll be forced into using it because you’ll reach the Liquid Water terraforming stage and all of the ice that was previously just lying around on the ground will have melted – its terraforming science might be nonsense, but Planet Crafter is at least grounded in basic logic. But wait, if there’s now a big lake where the initial landing site used to be, can’t you just go and drink from that? Well, yes you can. Eventually. You need to equip a water filter item that doesn’t unlock until about halfway in, but once you have it you can just slurp water directly from the surface of any pool you find. It’s still a good idea to have a couple of water bottles in your inventory just in case, but it’s much less of a headache to keep yourself topped up.

Oxygen is a similar story. You make oxygen refill canisters from cobalt, and your buildings automatically replenish your oxygen with no requirement to even power them. As the game progresses you make successively larger oxygen tanks that extend the amount of time you can spend outside before refilling – this is nothing that Subnautica didn’t already do, though. However, just after you unlock the water filter you also unlock an air filter item; this reduces the rate of your oxygen consumption by filtering it from the atmosphere, and the reduction is increased as you improve the terraforming level. Eventually you reach the Breathable Atmosphere stage (which is stage 11 of 15, so quite late in the game) and you don’t need oxygen any more except when you’re swimming underwater.


Food is the sole sore point where the basic survival mechanics are concerned. You initially survive on “Space Food” meals that you land with and that you can subsequently find in chests scattered across the surface of the planet. You’ll also find plant seeds, and one of the first things that you unlock is a Food Grower machine – put some eggplant seeds in this, and ten minutes later you’ll have an eggplant. There’s no need to restock the seeds and it’ll keep producing eggplants indefinitely, so this is admirably low-friction – the problem is, this doesn’t get replaced by anything. At the end of the game I was still having to periodically grab food from my food growers to keep my food levels topped up, just as I was at the start; there’s a V2 of the food grower that grows it more quickly, and an outdoor farm that grows more of it, but neither of these are significant upgrades over the basic food grower, and so this is the one survival activity that does not change no matter how much you’ve terraformed the planet.

Planet Crafter’s gameplay evolves in other ways, but these aren’t related to the terraforming level at all and could be found in any other survival game. There’s no hostile life in the game – and in fact very few ways you can die outside of letting your survival meters run out — so the major overhead that you have, aside from keeping your food/water/oxygen topped up, is travel time. There are no vehicles in the game and so you have to go everywhere on foot; you gradually unlock modules that make you run faster, and one of the earlier unlocks is a jetpack which has basically zero vertical movement capability, but which will give you a significant horizontal speed boost, as well as letting you scoot up steep surfaces you’d otherwise be unable to climb and fly over lakes instead of having to swim across them. Even with these maxed out, though, bringing back rarer resources from far-flung areas is a bit of a pain; my exploration sessions were always punctuated with building supply caches so that I could dump the less valuable/less used items for later, but I’d always have to head for home whenever I was full up on Super Alloy. The oxygen and water upgrades you get at least make this easier, as in the early-midgame you’re also having to make sure you have enough oxygen and water for the trip, and it’s not a massive overhead as with decent mobility upgrades and a good knowledge of the map and the shortcuts opened up by your terraforming it takes no more than 5 minutes to get from the centre of the map to any of its edges. Still, it’s not until the lategame that this pain goes away, as you unlock two very useful things:

  • A teleporter. Gated by a rare material that you can only find in one very specific cave, so you won’t be able to build more than 2-3 until you can manufacture it yourself, but I found that that was enough.

  • Logistics drones.


The logistics drones are super useful when combined with autocrafters as they eliminate the other major painpoint in this kind of game: having to run around your various storage lockers to find the materials for a specific crafting recipe, going back to the crafting station, realising you’ve forgotten one, going back to the storage lockers… this isn’t a huge problem until you start crafting later buildings that require several tiers of crafted item, and even then you can find enough of those materials in the environment from wrecks etc. that you can get a few examples up and running before having to resort to making them yourself. Still, when you’re making the final push through the last few terraforming stages you will need to properly scale, and it’s at this point that having effectively unlimited stocks of materials that are brought to you by the drones is absolutely invaluable. It’s a simple system, too; set your ore extractor in a remote location to supply Uranium and a storage locker back at your base to demand Uranium, and the drones will take care of transporting Uranium between the two – just so long as you have enough drones, as they can only carry one item at a time.

The only catch is that the drones aren’t truly useful until you have the maximum tier of ore extractor unlocked (which lets you select which sort of material you want to mine instead of having it mined randomly and filling up the extractor with unwanted junk – crucial for setting up a stable production chain), and this is sitting at the end of the Pressure unlock line, and to get there you’ll need the maximum level of drill, which is a long way up the Biomass unlock line. It’s nice that they made things interconnected like this, even though the connections don’t make a lot of sense; however, it also means that while you might unlock the ability to build drones about halfway through the game, you won’t be able to actually use them properly until about 3-4 hours before the end of the game. This is probably fine; I do wish it had been pitched a little earlier as I was thoroughly tired of having to carry things around myself by the time my Super Alloy and Pulsar Quartz production lines came online, but those broke nearly every single constraint on what I could build so it’s probably for the best.


So in terms of survival mechanics and production chains — the bread and butter of a survival game — it’s mostly good news. Planet Crafter makes a better fist of it than most of the examples I’ve played, and it ties the result of your terraforming into the survival mechanics decently well. Where it falls down, though, and falls down badly, is the terraforming mechanics themselves. Which I’ve already alluded to a couple of times, but it’s time to talk about it in detail: at the start of the game, to generate Pressure, I built tier 1 Drills. At the end of the game, to finish out the Pressure unlocks so that I could get my maximum level ore extractor, I built tier 5 Drills. The method did not change throughout the 25 hours that it took me to finish Planet Crafter; the drills just got bigger. It’s the same for Heat – in fact I thoroughly ignored Heat past the halfway point and built exactly one tier 4 heater, not even bothering with tier 5, and still got all of the unlocks thanks to passive Heat generation from my ore extractors. Oxygen generation is the only terraforming process that encounters a step change, and only because of how it gets combined with Biomass.

When you start the game you have access to just the three basic terraforming mechanisms: Heat, Pressure, and Oxygen. Once you get to the Liquid Water stage, though, you unlock Biomass generation, split into Plants, Insects and Animals. Insects and Animals are completely locked off until you get to their corresponding terraforming stages, so you’re mostly concerned with Plants here. Previously you’ve been generating Oxygen by sticking seeds into magic vegetubes which are somehow producing enough oxygen to oxygenate the entire planet; once you can grow plants the vegetubes are totally abandoned in favour of Algae Spreaders and Tree Spreaders, which generate both Plants and Oxygen at the same time. Algae Spreaders just work, but do not scale well; Tree Spreaders on the other hand produce an order of magnitude more Plants and Oxygen than Algae Spreaders at their first tier, and they have two more advanced tiers. So you build a couple of Algae Spreaders to get you across the Biomass gap separating vegetubes from Tree Spreaders (and also because algae is a key component of mutagens), and then you solely focus on Tree Spreaders. These need a tree seed that you need to fabricate inside a DNA Manipulator in order to function, but once they’re online they produce a ridiculous amount of Plants and Oxygen. Unlike the rest of the terraforming mechanisms, Tree Spreaders – along with most of the rest of the Biomass machines — visibly change the environment around them, with the tier 3 Tree Spreader eventually creating incredibly dense forests whose tree type depends on the type of seed you inserted to kickstart tree growth.


Now, I don’t want any misunderstandings here: I think this is good. I think this is very, very good; in fact it’s how I wish the rest of the terraforming mechanics in the game worked. The Insects machines, when you get them, work the same way; there’s a slightly convoluted process of creating bee and butterfly larvae, but once you have them you’ll see bees and butterflies everywhere, and if you add in a few Flower Spreaders you can make your base into a pastoral idyll. It’s a much more involved process compared to splatting down Drills and Heaters everywhere, and it’s got a good payoff: it’s extremely satisfying to see all of this life where a couple of dozen hours ago there was a barren wasteland.

Here’s the problem, though: the Terraforming rating doesn’t give a shit about how nice your planet looks. All it cares about is the number, and the Number Must Go Up. And the slightly mad decision Planet Crafter has made is to have all terraforming mechanisms contribute to the global Terraforming rating equally, with no regard given to how complex they are. There’s no weighting to say that actually having 1,000,000 tons of plant life is more valuable than a few more parts-per-million of oxygen in the atmosphere. And once you reduce it to a pure numbers game, you see that the numbers are wildly lopsided. Here are some examples:

  • A tier 5 Drill produces 295 pK of heat per second and 3950 nPa of pressure per second. The units do not actually matter, only the numbers matter, so this drill is contributing a total of 4,245 per second to the Terraforming rating.

  • A tier 2 Beehive produces 358 grams per second of Plants and 390 grams per second of Insects. It contributes 748 per second to the Terraforming rating.

  • A butterfly farm with the absolute rarest type of butterfly in it (which provides a 1400% multiplier) will produce 1,050 grams of Insects per second, for 1,050 total terraforming per second2.


So already this is wildly unbalanced away from Insects; in terms of contribution to the Terraforming rating the Drill is between 4-7 times better. But the reason I didn’t finish the game by spamming Drills is because of the existence of the tier 3 Tree Spreader, which with the most basic type of seed in it will still put out 10,625 oxygen and 1,562 plants per second, for a whopping 12,277 Terraforming rating per second – nearly 3 times as much as the max level Drill! And this is before adding other multipliers; better tree seeds add a multiplier to the output, stacking Machine Optimizers nearby with Oxygen-boosting fuses in them add another multiplier to the output (no such booster exists for Insects), and finally for all terraforming resources you can launch rockets into space to provide a stacking 10X global multiplier to that resource – and the Oxygen-boosting rockets are much cheaper and easier to build than the Insect-boosting rockets.

So there’s absolutely no reason to go into Insects — or by extension Animals, since this requires progression down the Insects line to unlock the Genetic Extractor. The optimal configuration for reaching 5 trillion terraforming points is eight Tier 3 Tree Spreaders with high-quality seeds clustered tightly around a collection of Machine Optimizers, and then spamming as many Oxygen rockets into space as possible. And it’s not like this isn’t still a lot of work to build, but I’m annoyed about it for two reasons. One is that it encourages degenerate play; I’m never really concerned with the appearance of my bases in survival games so I don’t bother with cosmetic furniture etc. and every spare scrap of wall space is occupied by a crafting station or a storage locker, but I would have expected variety or layout or surface coverage to matter somewhat in a game about terraforming. Here, though, every single mechanic is encouraging me to go all-in on the most effective thing, and I’m not even being incentivised to spread the Tree Spreaders out a bit; instead I have them all clustered in the same area for the Machine Optimizer bonus and the result is a ridiculous-looking super forest in the middle of an otherwise-empty field. The other is that, well, I could have just completely ignored Insects and Animals, which feel like fairly major aspects of the game. The only reason I even bothered with them was because I was curious about the mechanics, and I did have some time to kill while waiting for the overall Terraforming rating to tick up to its final goal. And it turns out they’re nice to look at! But that’s all they are.


And for a game whose major strength is managing to get you to suspend your disbelief as the world around you believably transforms over the course of about an in-game month, not encouraging the player to actively contribute to that transformation through smart building placement — and in fact encouraging the opposite — is a big failing. It’s by no means a critical one; I wouldn’t care about it anywhere near as much if I saw it in another game, but in Planet Crafter the change is the point, and so it’s a nagging irritant here where it wouldn’t be in something like Subnautica, especially when the rest of the terraforming process is so well-handled.

I guess the fact that this bugs me so much is partly a reflection of how smart Planet Crafter is almost everywhere else, though, like making sure the player can’t accidentally consume all of a limited resource and leave themselves unable to build key machines to progress by periodically delivering more materials via asteroid strike. I also very much appreciated the lack of peril from external sources (as fun as the Reaper Leviathans were in Subnautica, they wouldn’t be a good fit for Planet Crafter) and it was relaxing and stimulating to explore its ever-changing world in search of secrets while planning out my next goals. I think there’s quite a lot for the players who do enjoy the more cosmetic base-building aspects of survival games to engage with here, in spite of the game’s failings; you can craft a planet in this game, or at least a small chunk of one, even though you don’t particularly have to. For me, though, it was more than enough to see the process of terraforming finally done right in a game, and Planet Crafter pairs that hook with survival gameplay that’s never less than competent and, more often than not, extremely well thought-out.

  1. The units used to measure each terraforming category increase are nonsense if you think about them for more than a second, but you’re not really supposed to – they don’t have any real meaning, it’s the number next to them that’s important.
  2. Neither of these is the highest tier of Insect-generating building, but I don’t know how good the tier 2 Butterfly Dome is because I didn’t manage to generate enough Insects to unlock it. Which speaks for itself, really.
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