Interview: Aurora, The 4X Sci-Fi Dwarf Fortress

By Graham Smith on November 21st, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

Not pictured: me, screaming endlessly.

I’m halfway through a tutorial on Aurora’s vast wiki. It’s 3375 words long, and it’s talking me through how to create a new galaxy in the 4X science fiction strategy game. I’m at the point of choosing my ‘Main Empire Theme’, and there are over 60. Canadian? Tolkein? Ancient Egypt? Demonic Realm? I scroll through and settle on Welsh. I skip ahead and hit Create Game.

At which point a galaxy forms, with suns, planets and moons, and then that galaxy’s races are born and placed, and then I’m in. I look at my own race, the Terrans. My xenophobia stat is 75. My ideal temperature is 14.00. One of my leaders is called Cadlywydd Gofod Isabella Walters.

Aurora is most commonly described as ‘Dwarf Fortress in space’, and this is why. I spoke to Steve Walmsley, who has been working on Aurora in his spare time for the past nine years. He talked to me about his boardgame inspirations, enabling roleplay and After Action Reports, and what the future holds for his game.

RPS: Can you introduce yourself? Your name, where you’re from, your day job… I read somewhere that for a while, you were making money through online poker?

Steve Walmsley, 48, from England but currently living in the Isle of Man. I lead the strategic analytics team at PokerStars, which is the market leader in online Poker. I started at PokerStars about three years ago and prior to that spent six years playing poker (live and online) for a living. Before going into poker I did a variety of different jobs, including sales, professional musician, C++ programmer, etc but eventually settled on management consultancy, running large multi-national IT projects for various blue chip companies.

The game's most visually dazzling screen.

RPS: What was the initial idea when you started making Aurora?

I originally programmed an assistant program for a pen & paper game called Starfire (mainly as a way to learn Visual Basic as I was a C++ programmer at the time). Originally designed in the 1970s by Stephen Cole (of Star Fleet Battles fame) Starfire is a game that has tactical combat, albeit much simpler than Star Fleet Battles, but it also had a playable campaign system. Well playable, if you didn’t mind spending 30 minutes to roll up each new system. It is a generalization but I do think that gamers brought up on Advanced Squad Leader, Star Fleet Battles, Longest Day, Pacific War, etc. have a lot more patience for a game like Aurora than those brought up on PlayStation shooters. In a way, I think Aurora is an attempt to recapture some of those sweeping, epic board game experiences of the 70s and 80s.

I decided to create my own game using the Starfire Assistant software and Aurora was born. At first I only made small changes but over time I revamped the entire software and while Aurora shares a few things in common with third edition Starfire in terms of flavour and genre, the mechanics are now totally different.

I wanted an epic, sci-fi game with a broad sweep of history in which I could build Empires with different personalities (for want of a better word). I also wanted a living, breathing Empire that would run partially by itself (the civilian sector and the default, conditional and cycling orders) so you could look at the strategic side of the game and delve down into detail where necessary. When aliens arrive, you should have to worry about the commercial traffic of the Empire rather than being purely military-led.

I wanted detail, complexity and variety but not micromanagement, which is why you can automate significant portions of even large battles or get involved in targeting individual weapons. It’s very important to create background and fluff, which is why there is so much emphasis on role-play aspects within Aurora and why everything is customizable so you can design your own settings. Aurora is also designed with writing after action reports in mind (something I did a lot with Starfire), so many things are setup up to allow easy transfer of information into text form.

As I converted from the Starfire software, I used many games and other sources as influences. The naval game Harpoon and the Starfire and Honor Harrington novel series are major influences, but also Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Starship Troopers and even Warhammer 40k. Many small details come from other games; the armour rules are similar to a FASA game called Interceptor while the idea of wrecks came from EVE Online. A lot of the game though is from player requests and suggestions.

The game simulates asteroids and meteors as well.

RPS: A lot of the content in Aurora is randomly generated when a player starts the game. Is it about getting around development limits, or what benefits does it offers players?

Aurora is really a game for me to play that I just happen to make available to others. With that in mind it needs to have a lot of random elements so I don’t know what is going to happen.

RPS: Do you run into technical limitations when creating a game as complex as Aurora?

Because the graphics are so basic I don’t really run into any technical limitation. You can run the game on very basic hardware – it just takes longer to process turns. The main limitation is screen size. The minimum resolution requirement is 1280×1024 because that was the resolution of my smaller secondary monitor when I was writing the basic game. Remember, this really is a hobby project that has turned out to be popular – not a game intended for commercial release.

RPS: What made you want to create such a complex and large game?

I love the scale and detail of monster games and used to play monster board or map-based wargames in the 70s and 80s. These days it is very difficult to find computer games that offer a similar experience because commercial games have to appeal to the mass market. I created Aurora because I wanted to play that type of game and couldn’t buy it.

I think there has always been a desire from a small segment of the gaming population for this type of game. Before computer games, there were board games that took months to play, such as the World War III series from GDW, the Europa series, etc..

RPS: Do you ever think about making the game more accessible?

Accessibility isn’t really a concern. I’m not trying to make it a commercial success and the vast majority of gamers will not have the patience or inclination to learn to play anyway. Aurora appeals to those gamers for whom the mass market games don’t offer the experience they want. The gamers who will enjoy Aurora are also the gamers who are prepared to dedicate the significant time and effort required to learn how to play.

85 years till I'm out of Neutronium, apparently.

RPS: What is it that drives you to continue working on a project for such a long period of time? How do you remain motivated?

It’s fun! That’s the only reason. The chance of new features being added is directly proportionate to how much fun I think they will be. Features that I wouldn’t use myself tend not to be added. I know that sounds selfish but it goes back to motivation. Anything you want to do is fun. Anything you have to do is work.

I do take breaks from Aurora though when my enthusiasm wanes. I have a lot of hobbies and interests and not enough free time. I always find myself coming back though to play new campaigns and implement new ideas. Another great aspect of the game is the community. The Aurora forums are exceptionally good (run by Erik Luken) with everyone being very polite and helpful. We are extremely tough on anyone who makes personal comments or attacks.

RPS: You mention that you’re mostly concerned with supporting roleplay. Is it that which drives the design of the game?

Aurora wasn’t designed and then built, or even planned out in advance. It has evolved over the last nine years, with new additions and many changes to existing features. My core principles are that the game has to be internally consistent and it has to be fun. All the systems and modules in the game follow the same rules of Aurora physics, so whether you are building a missile or a battleship they obey the same principles.

It creates a very believable and immersive environment. Players are constantly coming up with new tactics and designs and I am often surprised by how ingenious they can get within the framework of the rules. I must confess that when adding new features, even hugely complex ones, I don’t plan it out or design it first. I just start programming and keep in my head a general outline of where I am going. That direction sometimes changes along the way as I have new ideas or encounter problems. This would be a complete nightmare for everyone if I was working as part of a team but it works well for my hobby programming.

RPS: You began work some time ago on Aurora 2, before putting it on hold. What’s your intent when it comes to starting fresh with a sequel?

There are two ‘sequels’ that are partly underway. Aurora 2, written in C#, and Newtonian Aurora, which is in VB6. Aurora 2 has nicer graphics but in the end Aurora was never about graphics – it’s about gameplay. It’s really an old style wargame with many RPG elements that you happen to play on a PC. The computer makes playing easier but you could replicate a lot of the game with pen, paper, some dice and a calculator. The action is taking place in your head, not on the screen. So I guess Aurora 2 is on hold because I would rather add new features than spend time making the game look prettier.

Newtonian Aurora is an attempt to create a version of Aurora based on real Newtonian physics, rather than the wet-Navy physics used in Aurora (explained away with the some techno-babble). Its a lot more advanced in terms of development than Aurora 2, a lot more complex than Aurora and has some very cool features. That is also on hold for the moment, mainly due to a lack of free time since I started my current job, but I am more likely to go back to that than Aurora 2.

I assign these leaders to fleets. I think.

RPS: Do you play many other games? What games, past or present, do you love?

I play many many games. At sixteen or so, I discovered Avalon Hill board wargames such as Panzer Blitz. This was an amazing revelation as my cousin and I thought we were the only people in the world who liked wargames. I still have three copies each of Panzer Blitz and Panzer Leader on my shelves, in mint condition.

Other Avalon Hill games I still have in my collection include War and Peace, an early Napoleonic game, Flat Top, a great carrier game, Longest Day, Submarine, Bismarck and many others. I have all four of the original Squad Leader games and most of the ASL series, including many of the flat box series with paper maps such as Red Barricades or Kampfgruppe Peiper I & II.

Then I discovered Victory Games, which led me to the Fleet Series, Gulf Strike, Ambush and a lot of others, including my favourite, Pacific War, which I once played solo and it lasted months. SPI as well – my favourite SPI/TSR game was Terrible Swift Sword. GDW is also another of my favourite publishers and I have a lot of their games. Eight boxes from the Assault Series including duplicates, the Third World War series, which was a great multi-game series that I played to completion twice using all four games, Twilight 2000, 2300AD, Star Cruiser, the GDW version of Traveller, etc.

I am huge SFB fan and have a mass of Star Fleet Battles products, including every Captain’s Log since #1. I am rereading through them at the moment. Looking at my shelves I can also see several Battletech games, Renegade Legion, two editions of World in Flames, many Babylon 5 Wars books, etc. Too many games to list really. I am an RPG fan as well, particularly RuneQuest 2nd Edition, as well as Traveller, AD&D, etc.

Early computer game memories include Carrier Command and Red Lightning on the Atari, NATO commander on the Commodore 64 and one of my all-time favourites, Elite on the BBC Micro. It was the first game on floppy disk rather than tape games for the older Dragon 32 and I remembered being awestruck by the 2 second load time compared to several minutes for tape. Then the 286 arrived and eventually I bought a 386 to play Links 386.

In the golden age of computer gaming (the 90s) I played Master of Orion, Master of Magic, UFO: Enemy Unknown, Civilization, Dune, Harpoon, etc. These days I play EVE Online, Civ V, a lot of Paradox games, the Total War games, etc.

Note: This interview was conducted via email and has been edited.

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42 Comments »

  1. Hypnotron says:

    a let’s play

    • mtomto says:

      That UI…. :S I’d have better chances at curing cancer…

      • Chalky says:

        Well if they’re going for a game similar to Dwarf Fortress, they should at least try to out-do it in some aspects. In this case they clearly decided that having a terrible UI is the most important aspect to focus on. Good job lads.

        • dontnormally says:

          It’s lad. Not lads.

        • Cinek says:

          Dwarf Fortress looks better than this shit.

        • Alfy says:

          Where were you when the guy said he made the game for himself and he did not give a toss if others did not like it? I mean it’s right there, a few paragraphs above your post…

        • SuddenSight says:

          Aurora did not set out to be like Dwarf Fortress at all. In fact, the actual gameplay is extremely different from DF.

          The comparison was come up with by other people because Aurora has an emphasis on role-playing over winning and an awful, obtuse UI (two similarities with DF). But nothing else is similar.

  2. wodin says:

    Superb..indepth..time consuming game. However it takes along time to learn and even longer to create a semi decent spaceship..Sadly I took a break and have forgotten most of it and haven’t had the time to go back and start again. I’ve spent countless hours just designing spaceships (which always seemed to turn out useless at what I intended them to do)

  3. Redem says:

    Lies, all lies! “Dwarf Fortress in space”? This game makes DF look like a user-friendly cakewalk. I have no idea if the game is good or not, because I can’t effin’ play it!

    • tormos says:

      There are actually a couple of threads on the DF forums where they play Aurora and get tired of fighting the interface and give up. I would be surprised if even 5% of downloaders actually manage to come to grips with the damned game. That said, those 5% have a pretty uniquely awesome experience.

      • Redem says:

        Yeaaaah, about the experience I’ve had with it. I want to love it, but the sheer upfront complexity and interface issues are near overwhelming. I’ll give it another shot, though, seeing as it’s come up again. It sounds like just my sort of thing, if I can get past the barrier.

      • Nixitur says:

        Well, from what I’ve seen, it is really quite different from Dwarf Fortress.
        Aurora is inspired by wargames with loads of spreadsheets and everything while no part of Dwarf Fortress could really work as a board or tabletop game. Comparing it to Dwarf Fortress just because it has a clunky UI (a UI that is very different from DF’s) and random generation seems rather weird.
        So, while Dwarf Fortress players are pretty tolerant towards a bad UI and a game that really doesn’t tell you how to play, that doesn’t even take the theme or gameplay of the two games into account which are really quite different.

    • VCepesh says:

      Amusingly enough, for me it’s the opposite – much easier for me to navigate spreadsheets, multiple tabs/windows and drop-down lists than ASCII.
      As to whether it’s actually good… I cannot tell, despite around 30-40 hours with it. It kept me entertained, while I was learning it.
      I am actually interested in this Newtonian Aurora, if it ever comes out – with all the phlebotium elements thrown out in favor of harder science and maybe space-faring near-singularity civilization represented with greater thought and care. Would be almost a dream game for me.

    • li says:

      This game makes DF look like a user-friendly cakewalk.

      Ow that made me laugh. Big accomplishment here.. I wanna try it, but it looks.. austere? And as much as I love DF, it’s already too complicated for my brain in my leisure time :/

  4. tormos says:

    I have extremely mixed feelings about this game. On the one hand, I love it and desperately snatch every moment I can to play it. On the other hand, the guy who makes it won’t adapt the graphics so that it can be played at the resolution of my laptop, so I can only play it while I’m on break from school. This problem is kind of emblematic of a lot of problems I have with the game: he really doesn’t care whether or not any end user enjoys his product, and won’t do anything (eg fix the terrible UI) that might be inconvenient even if it would draw in a lot of users. I completely realize that it’s his game and his to do with as he wishes, but on the other hand it’s also my right to feel that he’s squandering a huge amount of potential audience because of a couple of errors that wouldn’t be impossible to resolve. That said, if this game sounds like it might interest you I encourage you to check it out, as forming an empire (or even exploring a distant galaxy) has a great sense of accomplishment and wonder that it is hard to find in gaming.

    • wodin says:

      Actually in one patch he did make it possible to play on the res I had at he time..so he has done it before.

      To others..the game requires alot of learning and forum reading and wiki reading..put the effort in you get rewarded.

    • Shepardus says:

      Agreed, the main thing keeping me from giving this a try is that I can’t find any way to get it to fit on my 1366×768 laptop screen. I used to be able to change my netbook’s resolution to be higher than native res, but I can’t figure out any way to do it on this laptop.

  5. Notelpats says:

    I found out about this listening to the Crate & Crowbar podcast, downloaded it had quite a bit of fun with it after going through a few tutorials. I’ve put it on hold a bit because I’m having a bit of CKII and EUIV binge at the moment, but it sure is fun.

    Also, having played quite a bit of Dwarf Fortress, Aurora is a lot more abstract. In Dwarf Fortress you actually get to see the results of most of what you’re doing, whereas in Aurora.. it’s mostly spreadsheets. Surprisingly enough, I have yet to fail in Aurora and haven’t met any aliens yet, whereas DF seems to punch you in the face first chance it gets.

  6. AcidWeb says:

    User friendly installation package

    Also it is not a game… It is a small window to your private universe :-)

    • wodin says:

      Couldn’t say it better. A game where you actually need to use your imagination..and it triggers it aswell. being a gamer from the early eighties I still know how to fill in any gaps with my imagination..and usually it’s always far better than any visual representation of someone else imagination.

  7. Phendron says:

    I feel like Toady and Steve work in a very similar fashion: the games are deeply personal projects that are only progressing because of their hyper focus on the elements that appeal to them the most. UI and UX be damned!

  8. Gap Gen says:

    I’m a little at odds with the idea that you can have an awful user interface and that it’s up to the users to figure it out. There’s a difference between depth of simulation and not thinking out the design. Then again, I get that UI design is really hard and this is limited by VB, plus as the poster above says it’s a personal project and not a commercial one, so the makers don’t really have a duty to the players per se. Plus, I love the idea of the thing, even if I’m scared to try it (I know someone who did a playthrough, and it sounded both awesome and terrifying then). I think someone said that time slows down when two sides get into combat, even if you’re not involved and can’t see the battle?

    • Arglebargle says:

      Bad UI is bad UI, for whatever reason. The worst, imo, are done by the engineers/programmers of a project, who know the thing backwards and forwards. Exactly the case here. Given that it’s something he does for himself mostly, it’s understandable. It’s an interesting blind spot though, and one that you see in many different fields.

      • Gap Gen says:

        Yes, it’s hard when you’ve worked on a project for so long to view it with the eyes of someone who isn’t familiar with it. That said, in general it’s normally possible to find an interface that exposes the maximum control for the minimum of knobs and whistles, but I appreciate it can be a specialist field and sometimes you just have to test with people. But I do find it frustrating with projects like this, where it’s clearly something special and exciting, for the author to make minimal effort to show the world how cool their idea is, and hide it behind a wall of spreadsheets. I mean, something like the Sim City series has (well, OK, had) a deep simulation running behind the scenes but the interface is quite intuitive and easy to get around.

        I mean, I get that this is the guy’s personal project and he can do what he likes, but the line “Aurora appeals to those gamers for whom the mass market games don’t offer the experience they want. The gamers who will enjoy Aurora are also the gamers who are prepared to dedicate the significant time and effort required to learn how to play.” kinda makes me a teensy bit angry – it’s not the player’s fault if you bake a delicious cake and tape it to a panther and they don’t try to eat it. If your cake is delicious, I’d love for you to want people to taste it – it’s not a case of commercialism or selling out, it’s spreading your love and your passion for what you do. Personally, I love deep, interesting space games, but I have a job and hobbies, and really don’t want to dedicate my time to learning someone’s horrible UI. I remember reading John Allison (of Scarygoround.com) saying the same thing about artists who say “check out my work if you want to, it’s probably a bit shit” – it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t brag or be a dick, just get people enthused about your thing. Again, if he just wants it to be this thing he made in VB spreadsheets one time that he doesn’t really care about too much any more and just threw up online because, then that’s fine. It’s not anyone’s duty to make games for free, after all.

  9. wodin says:

    Reading his gaming background it may aswell have bee me writing it..from the game she owns to the games he played..uncanny.

  10. markus_cz says:

    Compared to Dwarf Fortress, Aurora is a very user friendly experience. It’s relatively bug free, strictly logical and actually works as expected. In Dwarf Fortress, I spend my time not knowing what’s going on and circumventing bugs. In Aurora, I always know what’s going on and the game actually provides me with all the data and controls I need (a bit too much controls perhaps). It’s just difficult to learn but once you know how to read the Excel tables, it works really well and isn’t frustrating like DF. Steve’s comparison to complex board games actually makes sense.

    To go with the comparisons, Aurora is like using Dwarf Therapist, and Dwarf Fortress is like… well Dwarf Fortress.

    That said, I’ve learned the game only thanks to reading this beautiful Let’s Play on Something Awful.

  11. Reapy says:

    Hrm, missed this one, first I heard of it. It is a bit ‘business app’ looking. I’ve thought a bit myself about trying to do up a spreadsheet game since I spend all day writing stuff that looks like this game for work, so the code learning curve would be slight, but to me a big part of the game is how it presents the world to you in an interesting way.

    I guess I could liken this to sort of the text adventure equivalent of a 4x strategy game. Still, really cool that it exists, its just looks like the badass side project we’ve all wanted to have going ourselves.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I think the reason is that he wrote it as a coding exercise in a spreadsheet program, and doesn’t have the motivation to redo it in a more general, user-friendly setting. But I agree; I’d love to see this with a proper UI, tutorials, etc. Doesn’t even need fancy graphics; after all, in Supreme Commander for all they spent on 3D graphics, I spend most of my time zoomed out watching icons dance about.

  12. mnjiman says:

    I am primarily a Dwarf Fortress Player, however I did take the time to learn this game fully. After playing the game for a bit, one part of the game I simply could not stand. The Combat. Here is why I could not stand the combat: Every single time an event occur that is in radar range of your ship, the game pauses and waits for you to make a choice on how to respond. There is a way of going through it all automatically, but if its a bigger battle you are going to have to wait possibly hours letting the game run while it goes through all the combat. That to me is not fun. Maybe they fixed it since I last played it, I dont know. If they did Ill get back into it. Until the combat is fixed and it no longer extremely slow paced where I want to kill myself with a rusty spoon, I will be happy to wait and play other games that don’t tempt me for suicide.

  13. JFS says:

    “Anything you want to do is fun. Anything you have to do is work.”

    This game looks like the latter.

  14. Mr Bismarck says:

    One thing that’s fun is to use Aurora to generate a fictional solar system in which to launch your civ and then recreate that solar system in Universe Sandbox.

    Ok, not fun, but “fun.” But not “”fun.”"

  15. BwenGun says:

    I find the real joy in Aurora isn’t in the game itself, but in the world it lets your imagination flesh out. The way combat resolves itself can lead to some truly nail-biting situations as you watch a cascade of missiles swarm towards your fleet and then start praying that your Anti-Missile launchers, small mount lasers and close in weapon support can do their job well enough to let you survive. The fact that it’s all numbers on a screen doesn’t detract from that, for me at least.

    One thing I’d suggest for those interested in trying the game out is to read a few of the creators AARs, as they’re both informative and also just damned enjoyable to read if you like AARs!

    My personal favourite is the NATO Vs. Soviets campaign he did some years ago, which essentially posits the what if of what the world would be like if the Cold War hadn’t ended and had in fact spread out into the solar system. Here be a link: http://aurora2.pentarch.org/index.php?PHPSESSID=c1d79a039a2f8154b1c70e029bea9369&board=112.0

  16. Duke of Chutney says:

    he has some good taste in board war games, although Pacific War really is a Monstar! I’m one of those that downloaded Aurora and had a bash at some of the tutorials but never really got going with it, despite being a DF long time player.

  17. Cinek says:

    Ability to sell the idea is as important as the idea itself.
    This guy certainly might have had some idea at some point – deeply underneath the layers of code. But no slightest clue how to sell it. He probably wouldn’t be able to sell a gold coin to anyone for any amount of money.

    It’s horrific that something possibly so great will be wasted and unseen by anyone but the author himself and few hardcore people with no life what so ever.

    • DaveNewton says:

      (I’m not sure if this reply is going to correctly post as being a response to Cinek above, but that’s my intent)

      “Ability to sell the idea is as important as the idea itself.” only really applies if your goal is money. And thank goodness, not everything is for sale.

      So far, Steve has turned down donations, kick-starter offers, and every other attempt folks have made to give him money for this game.

      And your attack on the fan base of this game is neither warranted, reasonable, nor well thought out.

  18. felis says:

    Here’s an AAR on the paradoxplaza’s OT: http://forum.paradoxplaza.com/forum/showthread.php?534008-Ad-Astra!-…-an-Aurora-Forum-Game-run-by-blue-emu
    Alongside this I played Aurora the first time.

  19. DaveNewton says:

    Simply put, Aurora is my favorite game of all time.

    I’ve played Dwarf Fortress and games like it for years, but with Aurora, I had about 4 false-starts trying to learn the game before I finally felt like I was playing it.

    Reading Steve’s Cold War campaign log was really helpful in learning the system and was fun in itself.

    It’s not for everyone (clearly), but it’s just a real marvel of a game.

    Hats off to Steve.

  20. Kof says:

    Aurora is a great game. Very complex – no doubt. There are plenty of resources on the forums to help you learn though (tutorials etc.) – if you could be bothered to. Your first few games you’ll mess up, but is that really a problem?

    Reading the comments above, it strikes me that there are some serious Trolls about.

    You won’t find one on the Aurora forums, that much I can guarantee you.