Making It With Science: A TUG Interview

TUG is an interesting proposition. A game of exploring and building, a multiplayer thing that encompasses lots of what has excited us about games over the past few years – dynamic, procedurally-produced environments, exploration, collaboration. It’s also a platform that will be exposed as much as possible to modding, and the Kickstarter explicitly supports creating tools to make that easy. It also claims to be using science and academia in its development. How can such mad alchemy be possible? It was time to ask Nerd Kingdom‘s handsomely bearded academic, Peter Salinas.

RPS: Can you explain to me who you guys are? How do you get from academia to a games Kickstarter?

Salinas: Well a lot of us are academics and scientists, a bunch are game developers and artists. For most of us this stuff really started for us about a decade ago, because we started to get into the MMO scene, the social online gaming scene, around that time. We all grew up gaming and playing Dungeons & Dragons in basements, just like everyone else, and we got to see that things were happening in these games that we were beginning to understand in our studies. When we started to see how those interactions were mapping to theories that we had about the real world, and we began to look at them more closely. We jumped into EQ and UO, World Of Warcraft and so on, and we got to see how economies could be influenced and manipulated, and how interactions of different kinds impacted on guilds socio-culturally. Essentially there was a huge boom in understanding what was happening in virtual worlds, and as time progressed we realised that what we were trying to understand, and what game developers were trying to understand, were totally in sync. But we had very different languages. When we got to talk to people working on games then we got to see how close we were, but also we got to see how much the language barrier sucked, and it sucked so much. We’d say stuff like “okay, let’s path a linear progression model and see how that can map to progressive systems of self-representation,” and basically that meant: “let’s make it so the progression system isn’t shitty, and see why people give a shit about the armour.” That’s really what stuff like that meant. So we got together, and said: we have to take what we know and try and make it fun. Let’s see if people want to jump on board in the process. That’s how TUG got launched.

RPS: But how do academic backgrounds lead into games? What sort of studies lend themselves to game development?

Salinas: Well, for example, my background is in socio-cultural studies, a psychology background. What I do is I study how people perceive things, technology and communications, videogames especially. Moses Wolfenstein, who gets a lot attention because of his name, he studies learning sciences and policy, and what that translates to in game terms is how complexity is introduced in a way that makes thing palatable, or confusing, or complicated. Policy is understanding rule-sets, so how the games are governed. Jim Gee is the godfather of videogames literacy, he is more of an advisor to us. Actually it’s unfortunate that more people don’t know who he is, because he has been fighting all the negativity towards games for many years, and he focuses on how positive games are for families, and how positive they can be for learning. Ted Castronova is a brilliant mind and a professor of telecommunications and he is a huge mythology buff, too. He is a quantitative mind, but he likes to apply that to fantastical things. He was one of the first people who realised that virtual economies existed in games, and pushed that entire area of study right forward. Dmitri Williams, he studies psychology and behaviour in videogames, and he spoke on behalf of the industry to the government to explain that games are not there to make people to crazy things, but that crazy things come from people who later want to make excuses for them. One of those procedural cop dramas made a villain out of him, actually: evil Dmitri Williams who used psychology to make evil videogames. That was kind of funny. Then Steve Levkoff handles our economics…

RPS: That’s an extraordinary range of people. How did you all find yourselves working together on one thing?

Salinas: The academic community is massively collaborative. It’s funny, right, because while the industry is based on creating worlds together, its done with the motivation of doing business, and so people hide things all the time. But the academic community gets excited about sharing information with each other. And I think the tradeoff for that is that sometimes academic information becomes nonsensical or just doesn’t have any impact whatsoever. But there are a few of us who were into videogames who wanted to see how what we knew impacted on game development itself. So we go to conferences and talk about this stuff, and over time we began to stick together more, and eventually started doing things. Making things.

RPS: I’ve heard a few academics say that all academics who study games should make games. Do you think that’s fair? How much does it actually help study?

Salinas: I think it totally does. And I think you see developers that are evolving beyond games, people who reach a point who leave the industry and look towards academia. And that goes the other way, too. It’s like this: the impact of interactions in videogames is largely mapped from the real world, right, so when you play you can say “that doesn’t feel right”, it sounds very from the hip, but there’s something very profound about that, because it’s about how people perceive a game, and that will be part of how we judge the consistency of a game. There will be a very specific way to understand that: we know from other areas of study that things that are complex will be more or less engaging depending on the rate someone is exposed to them. This is something that isn’t generally tested, and you don’t normally take the time to figure that out, necessarily, or you do it as you go along. For us understanding those intricacies happen first. For example we have been trying to work a lot of this stuff out in Minecraft, and we’ve been getting a lot of help from the modding community to do that – it’s a very open game and community. Small changes, subtle changes, can give you real insight into what worked and what doesn’t. This speaks to why we have alpha and beta processes in game development. We aren’t saying that “science is the way to understand everything”, we want to say “here are some our hypotheses and here’s how they might apply.” For an example of that: we’re not going to allow there to be any guilds in our game. We got a lot of very aggressive feedback about that, about how lazy it was, and how it was going to ruin things. But this doesn’t come from one area, this is a balance of things we’ve tried to understand from different angles: how people look in the game, and what that means for how you profile them, whether we display handles in the game world, what stats are visible to players. It all matters. These are all strange and abstract elements, but they sync out to create an experience that is more or less immersive. Once we’ve balanced them with the community we should be able to work out if they are also more or less fun.

RPS: Can you explain where the concept for TUG came from in all this? Was it one person’s vision?

Salinas: Well, it’s fair to say that this game did not come from one person. Rather, well, we wanted to look at how games map to the real world. At the dawn of time we “launched” civilisation and based ourselves around resources. In real world civilisation people’s cultures and economics evolved depending on what those people are exposed to: some places have a lot of gold, some places have a lot of iron, and so on. They would evolve culture, society, law, based on their resources. That really was our starting point for the game: how people would have evolved from the dawn of time, and how we worked as a society. From there we dropped in stuff that we liked, picked designed systems that we liked: dragons, goblins, and all that stuff.

RPS: Can you talk a bit about the player experience in TUG? What’s going to happen to that first time player?

Salinas: They’re going to dropped in some random location, and they won’t know exactly where they are. They might be by a river, they might be in mountains, they might be in a dark cave. We want them to start exploring, picking up sticks, picking up rocks, picking up vines, and seeing what they can and can’t do with those things. It really is a matter of discovering what’s going on in the environment. Players will begin to realise that the little choices they are making are either going to allow them to progress, or to get stuck where they’re at. So as an example, a player might find a rock a vine and a stick, and they might make a small axe and cut down trees, kill animals, or whatever else it is they need to survive the environment. They might discover things that are more mysterious, and less obvious… and we’re not trying to make a game that is easy for everybody, but rather a game that is circumstantial for everybody. So you might start the game in front a bear, that’s just how it might happen. But we want that to be based on a variety of possible play.

RPS: So people are going to be making their own goals? And that’s true of groups of players?

Salinas: We’re doing some interesting things on a social level. Players are going to want to co-operate with each other, or they are going to want to compete with each other, and that is going to come down to what is available to them. For the single player it’s going to be about exploring: seeing unique environments and so on. Procedural generation is a very fuzzy word, but with the maths we’re using we can create incredible caves, strange overhangs of rocks, and so on. Unique things to see. The day and night cycles and the seasons will change everything drastic, too. That will affect the kinds of creatures that appear – a mystical creature might only appear at the solstice at sunset, for example.

RPS: What would the Kickstarter money mean for you guys?

Salinas: Right now it would be about letting us make more modding tools, and getting more art support. The core technologies are essentially done: we developed the engine in-house for ourselves so we have more flexibility and more ability to make changes. If we get the support from Kickstarter the mod tools are the most important thing. We want to see what people will do with this stuff. That’s part of why we want to get a lot of dynamic systems in place, like lighting and shadows and day cycles and all the rest of it, so people have all that stuff already in place to make the kind of games they want to play. As for the art support, well, the core systems are there, but we want the art to flesh that out. We could do it ourselves, but right now a lot of us are working jobs to do this on the side.

RPS: So what’s the immediate plan?

Salinas: An alpha in July! We’re just finishing a few things up, adding polish like particle systems. We’re going to introduce a few design features and get a bit of feedback, and act on that. When we get to the beta we will get more of the RPG and survival features involved, and that’s happening in January 2014.

RPS: We look forward to seeing that. Thanks for your time.

TUG has just over a week left on its Kickstarter.


  1. KDR_11k says:

    Oh, so it’s not that game about flying a space tug…

  2. the.celt says:

    Please check it out. They’re just a little behind the funding curve and I want to play it!

  3. DarkFarmer says:

    weird that this is still behind and not way ahead. Among all of the minecraft-inspired sandbox building games, this certainly looks like it has the most pro weight behind it, at least from the quality of their video, concept art, and demo so far.

    I wonder if we already reached “mindshare mass” on voxelly building type sandbox games, like we did with MMO’s with WoW and DOTA-likes with LoL and there just isn’t any more mindshare left for people to care about these kinds of games. This looks way better than Starforge in terms of real promise, yet, its having a much harder time getting funded. kinda sad. but i guess thats how it goes?

    • Flammablezeus says:

      Yeah they’ve got my attention but I wouldn’t be too worried. They’ve made a lot in the past couple of weeks and they still have over a week to go. You know how it is with Kickstarter, they’ve made enough that I’m pretty comfortable that they’ll make it at this stage.

      The game’s ridiculously promising so (even though I think it’ll make it) I think people will be willing to increase their pledges if it starts to look grim in the last few hours.

  4. MadScientist22 says:

    The game and the concept seem extremely promising. I feel it’s struggling though because of how different it is. It’s obviously Minecraft-inspired but it doesn’t have an easy parallel to another game. There’s no voxel-based MMO that’s so structureless. So it makes it both fascinating and risky as a project. I for one am very excited and am backing it.

    • spindaden says:

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  5. Waysider says:

    I’ve been a long-time RPS reader, but had to create an account for the first time to comment on this game. I’m backing it, and would agree completely with DarkFarmer; of all the sandboxy, minecraftian games proposed over the last few years, this one strikes me as the most promising.

    The regular Kickstarter updates paint a picture of a very creative and dedicated team of people who have spent the time necessary to envision a game that delivers all of the procedural, exploration-filled goodness that we’ve come to expect from the genre while still offering enough in terms of fresh and seldom attempted mechanics and features that I expect the game will easily stand on its own two feet.

    If it gets created.

    I appreciate RPS’s decision to give this project a second article (and an interview no less) and hope the added exposure helps them reach the finish line with time to spare. Get out there and give it a look!

    • KillerB says:

      This is the first Kickstarter I’ve ever Backed, amazing potential…….

      Fingers crossed that it reaches its goal now!

  6. drinniol says:

    MOSES WOLFENSTEIN. Holy shit. He wins the internet forever.

  7. kzrkp says:

    The interview video was high quality – which contrasts heavily with the student engine project “my first game” clips inside. Pass.

    • siacange says:

      I think that’s because the developer’s are the artsy types, I’ll bet at least one of them has a background in film. It seems like it will be a really fun game, and possibly a niche MMO on their public servers. The lowest tier is only $10 too, which is quite a bit less than Minecraft if you bought it anytime after the Alpha.

  8. Sarissofoi says:

    No more talking heads.
    Show some arts or gameplay not some talking heads.
    I have enough of it.

    • The Random One says:

      Uh, the last video in the post is pretty much gameplay only.

    • elevown says:

      Go be a moron somewhere else. There ARE a few game clips in the first video- and the second longish video is ENTIRELY game footage!

  9. Derpentine says:

    I’m fairly sure Jim is getting some kind of kickback from these chaps. Either way, Procedural World looks far better and although not exactly showing too much gameplay, I’m gonna go with it turning out to be far more interesting due to actual research implementation (and rather neat technical talks :)) than this pseudo-scientific crap these chaps are… whatever they are pretending to do with it.

    • ColdSpiral says:

      I’m pretty sure your tinfoil hat is on a bit tight. You’ve made the same complaint in all two of the articles Jim has posted about TUG. You know that procedural world generation is already a thing, right? That a bunch of games have already applied it at different levels of realism beyond minecraft voxels? Procworld is certainly looking interesting, and I’d sure love a bit of RPS coverage for it as well, but that doesn’t mean these guys can’t make their game or, you know, discuss it on a gaming site. Accusing RPS of being shills whilst crowing about a different project -again- comes across as a tad hypocritical.

    • elevown says:

      What because he’s talking about this game as opposed to another one ive never heard of? Why are YOU pushing proc world? YOU are the one who sounds like you are getting kick backs- or work for em even lol.

      Im sure you dont though, you sound just like another entitled internet idiot who thinks if people dont love or want or cover the things you like they are just idiots or obviously being paid off.

      Go back to playing in a literal sandbox it seems to be more at your level than a procedural sandbox game.

  10. fuzziest says:

    I think this game seems way too early in development for a kickstarter considering they are inexperienced devs. This isn’t like hearing a pitch from Tim Schafer, these guys need a solid demo and they don’t have it. Their ideas are interesting but it needs more time in the oven.

  11. scatterlogical says:

    I’ve backed this, it looks pretty sweet – except they NEED to come up with a better name. “The Untitled Game” is just a stupid failure of imagination.

  12. mwoody says:

    I want to understand this game, but nothing I’ve read or seen differentiates it from Minecraft it any way. ANY game with multiplayer is going to be influenced by social dynamics in the way they describe, and I’ve heard absolutely nothing in concrete gameplay terms about how their supposed focus on these aspects translates to gameplay innovations.

    The tech demo above in particular looks like minecraft made by someone who doesn’t understand that the seeming simplicity of notch’s graphical style was a large part of its charm.

    • MrLebanon says:

      Read the KS updates.. The game really has nothing in common with Mc. They’re shaping it into a pseudo mmo-rpg

      Pseudo in the sense that it will be released with mod tools and mod integration in mind, that sever hosts can host whatever variant mod of the game they wish, and that it doesn’t need to be played online

      In the latest update they’ve mentioned how new characters start as children and age as you play. Similar mechanics with pets which grow into steeds and fighting animals.

      I haven’t heard anything about mining, and the crafting portion is very dynamic… Similar to under the ocean.

      Ever day or 2 they put a new update up and I’m very excited with what they are planning

  13. Cinek says:

    nice concept art, but the game itself looks horribly disappointing, and smells like yet another Minecraft clone. No need for that. We’re sick of the original already, can’t take any clones.

  14. BTAxis says:

    What I’d want from a minecraftlike (let’s pretend that’s a word) is an interactive environment. Minecraft’s worlds are mostly static shells that only ever change when the player does something to them. It’d be nice to have something to react to as a player, other than random monsters. So far, I haven’t seen or heard anything that indicates this game might scratch that itch.

  15. abandonhope says:

    This definitely seems to be worth a ten spot, but I’m a little hesitant about the idea of waiting a full year while others play with the beta. Part of the appeal of purchasing Minecraft early on (for $13 IIRC) was getting to play as it developed. This seems fairly integral to the experience for this sort of game, not something that should be spun out for extra money.

  16. Crainey says:

    While somewhat curious of their actual ability to cerate a fun game, I am pretty excited about how they REALLY think about how their design decisions effect the player, it should make for an interesting game.

  17. SaVi says:

    Visual Studio 2012 Dark Theme. You see it once, you see it everywhere.

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  19. KarenYoung57 says: