Offworld Survival: Refactored Explain Unclaimed World

By Jim Rossignol on January 31st, 2013 at 8:00 pm.


Two-man studio Refactored gave us quite some cause for excitement when they recently showed off their extra-terrestrial colonisation strategy and survival game, Unclaimed World. With ambitious things being said, and Dwarf Fortress being referenced, I realised we had to find out more. I spoke to Morten Pedersen.

RPS: First up, can you talk us through who you guys are, and how you came to be making Unclaimed World? (And what was your inspiration?)

Pedersen: Lars, our programmer, after trying Dwarf Fortress once, started Unclaimed World as a spare time project just for fun. The goal was to make a game where almost everything was simulated. As a trade-off, the graphics were very simple: top-down 2D graphics. After a few months, I suggested that I make the graphics, but wanted it to be from a slanted perspective, not top-down. To achieve this, we needed to either draw isometric characters, make pre-rendered images of 3D models or load 3D models into the game. We chose the last option, which made the scope grow considerably.

In the beginning, Lars thought of making a post-apocalyptic setting, where there was a lot of focus on scavenging and improvised production. After a few months he decided on the setting we have now. It is somewhat inspired by an older science fiction book by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called The Legacy of Heorot. This decision increased the scope again, because we needed to design a whole new alien world (obviously we don’t use the book’s creations, we invent our own.)

For the nature concepts I looked at marine creatures and corals for inspiration. For example we have an order of land animals that are symmetrical on two axis (seen from the top they are square-shaped, with a leg in each corner). This means they have no front and back and don’t need to turn when they change direction. The low-tech look of the settlements and their vehicles express the fact that the pioneers use simple, rugged designs that are easy to service and replace. Everything they use needs to be something they can produce themselves, therefore the technology level on the planet is lower than what you would expect to find on Earth at the same time in the future.

The first UI design that you see in teaser number one from 2010, reflected this idea and was half-heartedly inspired by late Seventies sci-fi such as Alien. It was rather blocky, but I’m now changing the look of the UI, making it look like more contemporary sci-fi. I’m also going to develop more futuristic architecture for the settlements that they build in the next expansions.
The drawing style of the in-game graphics with the black outline and some cross-hatching is inspired by comic book artists like Moebius and Enki Bilal.


RPS: Can you talk us through how a typical game of Unclaimed World would play? What does the player have to do, and what problems do they face?

Pedersen: In the first release of the game, we depict a survival scenario. So you need to survive somehow with the resources you have at the beginning: You have a handful of people and a crashed aircraft which is equipped with basic survival gear such as a fire extinguisher, some tools, provisions etc. You have some advanced scanners and “sniffer” gadgets as well as weapons: homing bullet rifles and guns. You need to keep your people alive until help arrives – might be half a year.

The way you play the game is by setting orders on the map. You don’t control the people directly, they will decide how to carry out the orders.

You start exploring the environment to find out what kind of creatures are nearby, could they pose a threat or is it okay to setup camp in the wreck? You set up sensors around the camp. You set policies such as guard duty, level of rationing, order some repairs, decide what food to prepare and then during the night, you watch the camp members fend off nocturnal predators if they appear. Next morning it’s time to do some more exploring. You forage by “painting” a zone on the ground and indicating what items you want to be gathered – fruits, mushrooms, firewood, branches, etc.

You can set traps. You might decide to move camp if the crash site is a bad place to stay. Maybe there are harmful creatures in the area or it’s too far from food sources. You can start picking the aircraft apart, (it’s not going to fly again) stripping it for useful materials and set up camp somewhere else, building bivouacs and some fences. You craft machetes, spears, bows and arrows. You can send your people out to find suitable prey and hunt it. Butcher the animal away from the camp so it doesn’t attract predators. Then bring the meat back to camp and cook it.

Instead of killing every animal you meet, it might also be a good idea to follow them because they can lead you to better food sources.

RPS: Referencing Dwarf Fortress seems like a bold move, especially when the ASCII game is such a complex simulation – what would you say that your game does in a similar way?

Pedersen: We want to have the same free-form gameplay in a simulated world with independent agents. That’s the main similarity. We also strive for realism. Instead of inventing gameplay mechanics, we try to simulate the real world when it’s possible. Obviously we will never have the same number of features as Dwarf Fortress because of the limitations set by the graphics. But if the game is successful we will keep expanding it with more features.


RPS: You guys have been working on Unclaimed World for a while now, how close is it to being finished?

Pedersen: You mean ready for the first release? It is starting to come together now. A lot of the features that were developed over the years will be left out for the first release – such as vehicle transportation – instead we are adding other features to make it a more streamlined experience.

RPS: How are you making the world? I see you are not procedurally generating it, as many small teams might have been tempted to do…

Pedersen: Procedural generation is a project in itself. We found that the easiest way to make a good looking map with the assets that we have was to enter the data ourselves. So we have a map editor inside the game for this purpose. Down the road, we could start making a procedural map generator. It would probably be very basic at first. Procedurally generating stats for plants, animals and so on is also something we are looking into. But this task could also be handled by modders to begin with.

RPS: Should we expect mods?

Pedersen: To some degree. The game data is moddable but we have not yet found a way to include new art assets such as sprites and models.

RPS: What has been the hardest challenging in building a game like this?

Pedersen: Getting the 3D model pipeline up and running has been a big challenge for us, because we didn’t have any prior experience with 3D in games. Making the terrain look the way we wanted by setting up an engine that could render all the tree sprites, terrain types and water has also taken a lot of work.

Getting the fundamental AI in place so the NPCs can handle most situations without appearing stupid! Managing CPU performance while collecting all the data the AI needs for this purpose was also hard.


RPS: Plenty of games seem to tackle survival and exploration these days, but few seem to get it right – why do you think it’s such a challenging game design concept?

Pedersen: The survival features should be in the game for a reason. And that reason is – that when there is a lack of resources, the player should still be able to fall back on more improvised methods. So the survival strategies should fit in with the rest of the economy in the game. In Unclaimed World for instance, there will often be a range of tools that can be used for a particular job. You are seldom completely without options just because you lack a particular tool.

Exploration takes place on many levels. It is not just about scouting the terrain. In our game what we want to do is have layers of information about the surroundings gradually revealed to the player, because a piece of land is rarely fully explored, there is always new information left to reveal.

First off, we have general information about the terrain – this means, where are the forests, the hills, the grassland, the coasts, the lakes etc. The pioneers have this information from the initial scan of the planet. This information is always available in the Fog of War.

Next – What can they see at a quick glance – there’s a radius around the pioneers and their sensors, similar to the lit up area you see in the typical RTS. Within this radius, animals above a certain size are visible – if they don’t try to sneak up on you.

Now, when a colonist has spent some time scouting or foraging an area, more information will appear about resources such as fruits, berries, mushrooms, firewood etc. Smaller animals also appear. This is all dependent on skill – some entities can detect food underground or smell blood, other entities have a skill to stay hidden. Many factors are in play when exploring an area. On top of the exploration levels is the research level – this is something that we might not get around to doing in the demo, it deals with the fact that much of the flora and fauna is unknown and the player needs to investigate and research the phenomena before he gets any facts about nutrition, toxins and so on, and also name them.

RPS: I can’t wait to see more. Thanks for your time.

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40 Comments »

  1. wodin says:

    Sounds great..I only hope he firs game sells enough for them to expand it.

  2. iucounu says:

    Yes please. Oh yes please.

  3. mr.black says:

    Concerning the the completely open-ended nature of some procedurally generated games and their first and foremost motivation being to survive and then explore (so Minecraft, Terraria), I often find those type of games pretty engaging and addictive, but just to the exact point where I’ve managed to build a suitable shelter and got my character out of harm’s way; so I dealt with that survival thing – I’m safe, walled in into a cave. Then my urge to play them suddenly drops considerably – I find “exploring” something proced-gen extremely unfulfilling..

    So it is spoken, and anything else is unclaimed to the World!

    • MrLebanon says:

      Really? I find exploring to be the end goal for building the shelter and becoming self-sufficient in the first place. These kinds of games leave all sorts of things to do

      Terraria though I felt once all the bosses were killed there was literally nothing to do anymoree

    • AngoraFish says:

      Civ is always most fun at the exploring and expanding phase, while my interest dies of considerably once the world is explored, borders stop expanding and micromanagement kicks in.

    • B1A4 says:

      You should try The Unreal World – Survival Horror/roguelike game from Northern places in late iron age, you never leave the first phase.

      link – http://www.jmp.fi/~smaarane/urw.html

    • SanguineAngel says:

      I know exactly what you mean. I think it depends greatly on the design though. I mean, particularly in action oriented games – procedural content runs the risk of not being detailed or personal enough and so exploring is less exciting.

      Some games, though, the exploration is quite enjoyable I suspect in large part due to its capacity to surprise. This requires intelligent integration into the game, such as with Civ – as someone else mentioned – where the whole game can hinge on what you are able to discover around you and for a large portion of the game, the surrounding environment has a large impact on events. Dwarf Fortress is another game where the procedurally generated content is remarkable. DF is a rare thing in that the creation of procedural content is so detailed and crafted with such immense care that it all feels personable and so is able to hold your attention. Again, though, the procedural content there is tied into the game in an integral way – that content is what forms your story and gameplay experience.

      I think where Procedural content tends to lose our attention when it is largely divorced from the gameplay so to speak, or if it is so generic as to hold no interest in itself.

  4. Strangerator says:

    Wow, I haven’t thought about Legacy of Heorot for 10ish years. Somehow I get the feeling building a base near water will be a bad idea…

  5. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Becoming even more excited about this. Thanks a bunch for the impromptu interview.

    I find the graphics absolutely delicious. It seems there has been a whole lot of effort to put gobs of code on a survival engine that will appease my strategy desires for this type of game.

    But I was particularly touched by his honest admission of having no prior experience in 3D development. I know the game is being developed in C# using the XNA framework. I’ve been doing my own project with the same framework, but always feared to move to 3D exactly because I lack any knowledge of its development processes and the math involved. Hearing about someone taking that jump and actually coming up with something that just looks so gorgeous (and very tuned with my own idea of an alien world) is very inspirational.

  6. bramble says:

    Wow. Legacy of Heorot was my favorite book as a kid, and really is the foundation of my interest in survivalist-style games and literature in the present day. A game based on the themes of that book is something I’ve thought to myself would be a great thing, and my mind is blown that someone is actually doing it. Really excited about this!

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Well, I’m not sure they are basing it on the book. Certainly there’s no mention of a main antagonist race or anything even resembling the book story.

      I believe the inspiration comes only from the book depiction of species and environment inter-relationships in defining an ecosystem. It’s probably already a cautionary note to players that we won’t be controlling the world. We will be only surviving on it. And that the the “wining” strategy is to learn about the world and make the most of it while waiting for rescue. I do hope at least that’s the fundamental game concept. I’d hate to be playing yet another survival game that ends up on me being the dominant species.

    • khamul says:

      They should also look at “40,000 in Gehenna” by CJ Cherryh. Same theme, different take on it. Also a very cool book.

      Just mentioning Legacy of Herot in a game like this sets a certain bar. Where the bar is ‘difficulty’. And the easiest setting is ‘lethal’. I’m sure that they have their own unique ideas for the ecosystem, but for me it won’t be a game inspired by Legacy of Herot unless the nasty surprises waiting for you don’t just turn the nastiness dial up to eleven, but invent a whole new dial to put it on.

  7. Xyvik says:

    This reminded me of Clockwork Empires. The more types of games like this, the better I say!

    …Is RPS ever going to interview Gaslamp about Clockwork, by the way?

    • squareking says:

      Gaslamp’s been pretty active on their blog lately, but I too would like to see an interview with those funsmiths.

      And I’ve added Legacy of Heorot to my scifi to-read list!

  8. Hatonastick says:

    Gah… Completely untogether this morning (coffee hasn’t kicked in yet!). Logged in to reply and accidentally added someone (above) to my Block list and no idea how to unblock them.

    Anyway just wanted to say that the comment about “Not building near water” made me laugh out loud. I loved “The Legacy of Heorot”, was one of my favorite sci-fi books in my youth so I think it’s great to see that it has inspired at least one game — and an interesting looking one at that.

    • Premium User Badge Wisq says:

      You still see their comment listed, but it just says their comment was blocked. Unblock them with the button under the blocked comment.

  9. Engonge says:

    Some parts of terrain remind me of Dark Colony.Hmm,I spend so much time on that game.

  10. elbandito says:

    Wow, someone else has read “The Legacy of Heorot”. I read it when i was about 16 – a great book that i borrowed from my dad. I love the concept of surviving in an alien wold. Am really looking forward to this.

  11. Dominus_Anulorum says:

    They claim it is inspired by Dwarf Fortress, but does it have killer zombie elephant invasions that eat animals whole, or killer carps that turn fishing into one of the riskiest professions? Can you flood the world by accidentally tapping into underground lakes? Will the survivors occasionally decide to build ash toys menacing with spikes and, when they cannot find the materials, then go crazy and, since they had a weapon, kill everybody? Can you engrave pictures of the thousands of cats that inevitably take over? And, most importantly, CAN YOU UNLEASH HELL!!!???

    Did I miss anything?

    • frightlever says:

      You have misunderstood the term “inspired.”

      Also, carp were nerfed.

    • zeroskill says:

      Everything is “inspired” by Dwarf Fortress nowadays. It almost has become a buzzword. It’s used to sell a product. Yet, never, ever has any of those commercial games using Dwarf Fortress as an “inspiration” even come close to what that games is. You just can’t copy it. It’s impossible.

      Oh and, you forgot that time when you build an arena, deep underground, where your dwarfs would do bloody battle against fierce beasts you captured beforehand, in deadly hand to claw/jaw combat, naturally, for your personal amusement. And for dwarven population control, of course.

      Blood for the blood god.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      God I love Dwarf Fortress but every time I put it down for a few weeks I completely forget how to play and have to go through the whole freaking learning process every time I start again. I just wish it had a easy to use / intuitive UI for the love of ANYTHING AT ALL

      • JFS says:

        We all wish it had that. It’s a thing most likely more desired than Half-Life 3, I dare say.

  12. abandonhope says:

    I don’t want to know any more about it. I just want it.

  13. Joshua Northey says:

    Sounds like a great time and I will almost certainly get it unless the reviews are terrible. I am always worried with games like this that the developers will err on the side of adding more and more stuff instead of balancing the stuff they have and honing the existing mechanics.

    IMO Dwarf Fortress is barely even a game due to this problem of “more” over better, though still obviously a great achievement.

    • Premium User Badge Wisq says:

      Yeah, Dwarf Fortress is really suffering because of how it’s treated like a hobby rather than a real product. It’s just features, features, features — meanwhile, performance is terrible, bugs stick around for years, and Toady refuses to accept outside help because he apparently doesn’t find it fun to deal with other people.

      It’s his project, and he can do whatever he wants with it, sure. But my patience has run out, and I won’t be playing any more until he decides he wants to make a game instead of a slow buggy hobby project.

      • Dominus_Anulorum says:

        The bugs are half the fun though. I understand were you are coming from, but I just cannot find it in me to hate the game. It does depend on what mood you play it in. If you are looking for a standard video game then you’re out of luck. This is not the game for you. It is kind of like a super complicated FTL. You will eventually die (although it is possible to save scum). The fun is seeing how long you can last against zombie gorilla invasions.

      • frightlever says:

        Try the Gnomoria demo. It isn’t a game yet, or not much of one, but it’s only been in development for a year or so. Still a fun time-waster if you’ve previously bounced off Dwarf Fortress.

        http://gnomoria.com/?page_id=110

      • zeroskill says:

        “But my patience has run out, and I won’t be playing any more until he decides he wants to make a game instead of a slow buggy hobby project.”

        Sounds like elf talk to me.

        • SanguineAngel says:

          That’s not even a real hammer on his back… and is he just shuffling around on his knees?! He’s not a dwarf at all!!

  14. Turey says:

    Mentioning The Legacy of Heorot made this an instant purchase for me. One of my favorite series of all time. I will be very pleased if they manage to replicate the tense survival of the books.

  15. Abbykins says:

    I’d love to see more games inspired by science-fiction novels. There is such a wide diversity of concepts out there, but 90% of the sci-fi games follow the same tired tropes and themes.

    I’m midway through “The Void Captain’s Tale” in which interstellar travel is dependent on female orgasms, and keep thinking, “Wow, this universe would be a great setting for a game! I’m not sure how it would be implemented, but I’d love to see someone TRY!”

  16. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Thanks for the interview. I am wondering whether this game will be something for me to try. I find SimCity-type games interesting but I’m usually rubbish at them as they’re functioning by rules nobody explains and/or require precise planning. On the other hand, I do very much like exploring.

  17. B1A4 says:

    At first i wanted to yell: “Original WAR 2, fsck yeah!” but this is also good looking.

    So keep on good work, i guess.

  18. SanguineAngel says:

    If they manage to pull it off this could be the game for me.

  19. Ultramegazord says:

    Yes! Finally a survival RTS, loving it, amazing art style.

    • perfectheat says:

      Yes, the art style is what sold it to me. It just feels so alien and different. Can not wait.

  20. Sardaukar says:

    Caution, food storage diminishing.

    Morale is terrible.