The Lighthouse Customer: Spacebase DF-9

In space, everyone can hear you scream. They're just used to it.

Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, space station simulation in Spacebase DF-9.

It’s been a rough week for my little space station. We were boarded by a squad of Kill Bots who, as you might expect, tried to kill all non-bots. A massive fire in the life support chamber nearly knocked out the oxygen supply. Now, an alien parasite has appeared, and even though my security chief easily killed it, I’m left to wonder how the bug even got aboard. Perhaps it burrowed in through that hole in the hull? The one my security chief was just sucked out of to his death? That’s probably how.

In Spacebase DF-9, the early-access space station simulation from Double Fine Productions, your first task is to select which portion of the galaxy you’d like your spacemen to die horribly in. A spot near a Warpgate sounds ideal, because you’ll have more visitors, but visitors are often hostile. A spot with a lot of asteroids means you can do a lot of mining, but also means frequent meteor strikes. There are benefits to living in an area with a high frequency of derelict spaceships, but there is also a downside, as anyone who has seen a few sci-fi movies can tell you.

I know it sounds bad, but it's just a name. Like Cape Fear.

After a few hundred thousand years of travel, my pod arrives in my chosen sector and my three astronauts set to work building their new home. I’m not much of a designer, so I just build a giant room and throw some oxygen machines in the corner, figuring I’ll just line the walls with whatever else I need. I soon learn, however, that each room needs to be dedicated to a single purpose: beds can only go in residence rooms, oxygen recyclers can only go in life support rooms, and so forth. Even worse, my room is so large I’ve used almost all the materials on hand to build it. Right off the bat, my little astronauts have exhausted their supplies.

Well, we're screwed. Might as well get some Flappy Bird in.

I quickly realize I’ve created a major problem for myself. I’ve been mining a nearby asteroid for building materials, but I need a refiner to convert the asteroid hunks into matter to build with. I don’t have enough matter to build the refiner itself, which means I’ll need to cannibalize something I’ve already built and use the resulting material for the refiner. However, the only thing I have on hand to deconstruct, apart from the walls and the floors, are my two oxygen recyclers. And so, a desperate plan is hatched: destroy my oxygen recyclers, use the material from those to build my refinery, then convert my space-rocks into matter and rebuild my oxygen recyclers… before my workers completely run out of air. With the clock ticking, I put the plan in motion. And it works!

She died how she lived: following orders given by an incompetent manager.

Okay, it almost works. I get the refiner constructed, convert some asteroids, cordon off a tiny new room, and get the oxygen machines rebuilt. Unfortunately, before my workers can take a deep lungful of recirculated air, they all asphyxiate. Luckily, a passing spaceship discharges a handful of passengers to take up residence in my horrible spacebase of death. Welcome!

The new arrivals don’t seem too concerned as they enter the station, remove their space suits, and stroll right by the blue-faced corpses of my crew floating in the airlock. I guess when you’ve been in space for a while, you get pretty used to opening airlocks and finding bobbing corpses wearing expressions of agony and horror. Soon I’ve got six citizens, and my base begins expanding.

Just when I get the place nice and filled with oxygen.

And exploding. Small asteroids smash into my base, setting my refinery on fire, as my astronauts attempt to stamp out the flames (while others, less concerned, continue their calisthenics). I instruct my builder to install a fire extinguisher, and we all wait while he first slowly welds it onto the wall, then quickly yanks it off the wall and uses it.

Soon, I’ve got a couple more things built. A bedroom with one bed for everyone to share. A small room for scientific research, in hopes that I’ll someday have enough residents that I can assign one to science duty. A food replicator, so my residents can eat (I’m thoughtful like that). Then we receive a notification: a derelict ship has appeared nearby. A dark shape is suddenly sitting there, quiet and mysterious, in the space next to us.

A spaceship with no lights on? What's the worst that could happen?

I dispatch my security team to investigate, right after I create a security team, which I do by telling one guy to stop mining asteroids and start being a one-man security team. Naturally, the moment my brand new security officer enters the airlock, a hostile alien raider opens fire and kills him. I quickly assign a new security chief and she heads over, where she lives up to the memory of my original chief by also dying instantly from lasers. I think the derelict is going to have to wait.

That's the second Luna I've gotten killed. Sorry, Lunas.

My crew, now down to just five, are all miserable, and I wonder if it’s because there’s only one bed on board so only one of them can sleep at a time. I instruct my builder to construct a room with enough beds for everyone. Rather than building the entire row of beds, he builds one and then promptly goes to sleep in it.

Desperate to restock my ship with fresh, less miserable crewmembers, I invite the occupants of a passing ship to board. They turn out to be raiders, and moments later they’re stalking through my base, gunning down my defenseless crew. Soon, the only one left alive is my builder, who is still sleeping on the one bed he built, while a row of unbuilt ghost beds stretch out beside him. They represent his to-do list, which I now strongly suspect will never get done.

While you slept, you were promoted to security chief. Also, pallbearer.

He’s dead moments later, his corpse landing neatly on the same single bed he’d built. My entire crew is dead, but two more are already on their way from a passing ship, and the fresh arrivals manage to fight their way aboard, kill the raiders, and begin the huge task of repairing the damaged base. They’re dead minutes later after another meteor strike takes out life support.

After that, no more ships pass by. No one hails my base. Nothing else happens in my little neck of the universe. My base becomes just another derelict, empty, darkened, filled only with ghosts. Ghosts and their beds.

I've killed my share of Sims, but this was especially grim.

As the saying goes, if at first you kill all your astronauts with fire, lasers, and asphyxiation, try try again! This time, I build smarter and more conservatively, I only investigate derelict ships with an actual security team, and everything goes much more smoothly until a massive freighter shows up and forcefully docks with me. Long story short, I am once again left staring at a lovingly constructed base filled with dead bodies and no new visitors on the horizon.

Don't invade me! I just got my beds built! My beds!

So… third time’s the charm? Seems that way. Clearly my biggest challenge has been avoiding mass space-murder, so I put a lot of effort into a strong security detail, and put all my scientific research into weapons and armor. Another hostile ship docked with me: I killed the crew and just added their ship to my architecture. And, as of right now, my current base has over fifty occupants and enough oxygen to support almost twice that many. It has two restaurants, a massive garden, a back-up life support system, and a research wing. And plenty of beds.

I've got beds as far as the eye can see. And they're all made.


  1. SillyWizard says:

    Ooh, nifty. This looks much more fleshed out than it did last I checked it out.

    Commenters — is this worth picking up yet, would you say? (I’m generally okay playing unfinished games, so long as they have some stuff to do.)

    • khalilravanna says:

      I grabbed it a weekend or two back and honestly, though I really enjoyed what it had to offer, what it had to offer was pretty sparse in its offerings. I felt I had pretty much done everything I could really do in 3-5 hour sitting. I’m sure later on when it has all impossible-to-win-against trappings of Dwarf Fortress it’ll be a lot more game to play, but as it stands it seems a little early to, ah, access this one.

      • SillyWizard says:

        Thanks for the info. And really, I have so much yet to do in Banished. I’m in no hurry!

      • adamsorkin says:

        Yep – this matches my experience pretty well. It’s fun to play around with – and certainly improved – but there just isn’t a whole lot of “game” there yet. It’ll get there, but I’d hold off until things are more fleshed out.

  2. Krouv says:

    Christopher Livingstone? From Concerned? Is writing for RPS? It’s like my fanfiction has come true.

  3. Beelzebud says:

    As soon as I see more people saying it’s ready to play and have fun in, I’m buying this.

  4. The Random One says:

    Looks a lot better than its first impression. I’ll wait for release, as usual, but it looks like this may not end up being a complete disappointment.

    E: Also, “Voltaire Katz” (the deceased astrominer in the first pic) sounds like the name of the main character in a 1980’s punk comic.

  5. Beernut says:

    Beautifully written. I have very fond memories of absurd situations occurring in my FTL-playthroughs and this article gave me a good idea of how more hilarious simulating a starbase migh be. :)

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      phuzz says:

      Hands up everyone who ever warped off in FTL without recovering your boarding party.
      Keep your hand up if you did it again on the next jump.

      (There’s now a warning popup if you try to jump, that has saved many of my crew)

  6. Winged Nazgul says:

    This will not be the Double Fine game that breaks my streak of buying every single DF PC game.

    But I think I’ll wait for full release.

    • Tree Frito says:

      Agreed. I’m concerned of getting burnt out on the pre-release; I think I’d enjoy going into the finished product fresh.

      I’m in a similar position with Prison Simulator. I played a bit early on and enjoyed it, but stopped until the game is closer to complete.

      Edit: I accidently stole GHudston’s comment below. Whoops!

  7. GHudston says:

    This game is guaranteed my money, but I will wait until it’s a bit more fleshed out first. The fear of early access games for me is that I’ll burn out on them way before they’re finished and miss out on playing a good, finished title with fresh eyes.

    Actually waiting that long may be a different thing entirely. Dwarf Fortress in space with a sane UI? My library is ready.

  8. Shadow says:

    “The fear of early access games for me is that I’ll burn out on them way before they’re finished and miss out on playing a good, finished title with fresh eyes.”

    Yeah, likewise. Is there any sort of projected release date for Spacebase DF-9? Many games enter Early Access mode without really knowing when they’ll get out. We might end up waiting 2+ years for a proper version of this game.

  9. RanDomino says:

    in b4 DF in space

    • P7uen says:

      Was that not the intention? But from this article it seems a bit more like Theme Hospital than DF to me (not that I’d complain about that at all). Can any alpha people give their opinions?

      • FriendlyFire says:

        If it wasn’t readily apparent, the game’s name is a double wordplay: Spacebase DF-9. The 9 comes from Deep Space 9, the DF from Dwarf Fortress.

        They’re wearing their inspiration on their sleeve. Literally, if they have DF-9 shirts.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Triple wordplay; DF is also “Double Fine”.

          • Anthile says:

            Well, we don’t usually do triple puns around these parts. Not since the seal clubbing incident of 2005.

          • DuneCat says:

            Damn you Anthile for forcing me away from being a mere lurker of these comments; that comment made me giggle helplessly.

  10. teije says:

    This looks like loads of fun. (But think I’ll get my son to be my early access guinea pig until it’s closer to done.) I wonder if there ever will be a “done” on this and all the other alpha/pre-alpha/still building the framework/whathaveyou in progress & under construction out there right now.

  11. Dachannien says:

    Based on the review, it seems like this game still has the biggest problem that it had when I picked it up a while back: there’s no difficulty setting suitable for beginners.

    I heard that they added a sandbox mode, but the sandbox mode gives you infinite cash. What I really just want is a mode that lets you build under the normal game rules, but that doesn’t include getting F’ed in the A every three minutes.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      My assessment of it is that it’s just started to get “fun”. The interface needs a little work, but there’s enough feedback about individual crew as well as the mechanics of the game that make it “tough but fair” as long as you’re willing to lose your first several stations to the learning curve, just like Dwarf Fortress. Your first couple crews will almost certainly asphyxiate, then the next will starve or succumb to building order error-related catastrophes, then the next will die from the earliest possible random catastrophies, but eventually you will learn how to make stable environments in which your crew are actually happy most of the time and even doing research to make things even better.

      There’s still tons of bugs to be squashed, and it’s far from feature-complete, but it’s started to be fun. Like Alpha Minecraft right after Redstone but before the Halloween Update.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Actually, that sounds like it’s recreating the DF problem where once you’ve sussed out how to survive your first year in a region, there is no challenge left. All the difficulty is front-loaded and beyond that there’s only self-enforced conducts, like megaprojects (which I can’t really see being possible in this since it’s 2D, lacks flowing water and magma, etc.). Fortresses come to an end through boredom.

        Ok, that’s not entirely true. In DF you can also Dig Too Deep and encounter adamantine and various horrors for later difficulty, and that’s sssort of the game objective. I’m, again, not sure how that can translate to DF-9.

        • Fiyenyaa says:

          Also as the years go by, Kobolds will attempt to pilfer items, Goblin children snatchers will try to steal Dwarven children, then finally The Goblin armies will invade – easily crushing any resistance if you happen to not have an army.
          DF Forts can easily die without digging too deep or any self-imposed challenge.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          Well one of the main things that’s already implemented is the first version of tech and research. Even in it’s primitive stage it gives you plenty to do once you’ve built all of the basics and everyone is more or less happy. The way it works is that you have a bunch of basic upgrades to research, and a bunch of more advanced upgrades that require you to salvage data cubes from derelicts. You can only research one thing at a time per “research zone” (laboratory), but more scientists and Science Consoles per research zone mean faster research.

          It’s a bit like the Library from Dungeon Keeper but shifted to being a slower, long-term thing that requires some user control (choosing what to research) rather than a main building which cranks out upgrades automatically. And some of those upgrades require blueprints that need to be captured from enemy Keepers.

  12. maicus says:

    One of my favourite things about this game so far is the way derelicts and ships naturally become part of the architecture of your space station – it creates a more unpredictable flow that stops you from just building on standard grids. You have to roll with the punches structurally.

  13. MadTinkerer says:

    “Another hostile ship docked with me: I killed the crew and just added their ship to my architecture. And, as of right now, my current base has over fifty occupants and enough oxygen to support almost twice that many.”

    Whether that was an intended design choice, or a purely serendipitous emergent thing, It’s become the core strategy for me. As long as you allow at least small subset of your crew to naturally train their security skill to average by building gyms while keeping them assigned to other tasks (some characters will be more enthusiastic and get more happiness just from working out, so it’s good to have some facilities for this even if you’re not specifically training anyone for security duty) and then swapping everyone to security the instant invaders announce their intentions, you stand a decent chance of minimal casualties.

    Then, once the dust has settled, claiming the invaders’ turf as soon as possible gives you lots and lots of free resources whether you choose to demolish everything for the matter or re-purpose most of it as it stands. For sites with sparse asteroids, this is essential to the prosperity of your base. For sites with plenty of mining material, it’s just fun.

    • Chris Livingston says:

      The other benefit of claiming other ships is it gives the asteroids somewhere else to strike. Much better for them to hit the mostly-unused crew quarters of a derelict than, say, your primary life-support room.

  14. Mittens89 says:

    “Colour me interested”
    “Shut up and take my money!”


  15. LionsPhil says:

    I look forward to reading how everything then proceeds to go horribly wrong the third time.

  16. Listlurker says:

    I’ve been playing Spacebase DF-9 pretty much since the alpha version appeared on Steam and, despite the various in-progress bugs, I love it.

    In my opinion, it strikes a nice balance between the building/managing/pride-in-creation games like The Sims, and the “Oh God, Oh God, we’re all going to die!” survival aspects of a game like FTL.

    Basically, it’s a building game where you have to watch your ass. :-)

    (Free Tips: make sure an emergency alarm and a fire extinguisher are among the first things you build in any room. Also, oxygen takes awhile to generate and spread, so as your base gets larger, build more atmo rooms. Technicians are your friend — they maintain what you’ve already built)

    The dev team for the game seems to be a relatively small group at Double Fine, but they are aware of most of the bugs people are reporting, and they communicate with the alpha testers, sometimes directly, on the official forums. Bugs do get fixed when solutions are found.

    Right now, some of the more pernicious bugs (which you can usually play around, but not always) include the fact that certain base citizens will fall into a deep depression and never come out of it, no matter what you do (decorating rooms with real plants and monitors and other “amenity” things sometimes helps), and sometimes Security Teams won’t enter derelicts when you send them with a beacon. Also, as Christopher mentioned, citizens’ handling of work tasks is not always as immediate or as logical as one would hope.

    All this said, if you can handle a few bugs, I’d say this is already a fun game, even in alpha. Be sure to check the official forums if you have questions or need a hand with something.

    Hope this helps!

    • skyedawg says:

      If you like “building game(s) where you have to watch your ass” you should check out Gnomoria (another early access game), and if you really want to test yourself you should try Dwarf Fortress.

      • Listlurker says:

        Thanks for the tips; it’s much appreciated!

        I confess, I’ve been soured on Dwarf Fortress because of this one guy on the Spacebase forum who used to complain loudly that all the game “should” be was Dwarf Fortress in Space.

        People would post feedback to the devs about the default difficulty level (there’s only one right now) being too high and sucking the fun out of the game for them (the difficulty level was a bit bugged, as it turned out), and this guy had the temerity to lecture random posters to the tune of “You’re doing it wrong if you don’t like dying a lot, because dying in space is fun! The problem is YOU,, because this game MUST end up being exactly like Dwarf Fortress in Space!”

        So, yeah, I’ve never played Dwarf Fortress, but it’ll take me a while to stop associating it with this condescending little treasure. :-)

        Still, I will check out your suggestions. Thank you!

  17. Listlurker says:

    Forgot to mention: hold down the right-mouse button and drag to move around the map. For some reason, it took me forever to figure this out.

  18. Noviere says:

    I’m glad this is shaping up. I paid for it months ago, but don’t plan on playing it til it is done. I kept hearing that “OMG teh patches are so slow and dun add nuffin” so it’s good to see a lot of progress has actually been made since it “launched.”

    • Listlurker says:

      My experience has been that they typically release something once a month, and that it often either switches on, or reveals entirely new, gameplay functionality.

      Last time, for example, they brought in science labs, tech research, and scientist careers for your citizens.

      This month has been content-light because Double Fine does that “Fortnight Festival” (or whatever they call it) where all the DF team members get to leave their projects and create new projects for two weeks.

      So, not a lot happening this month, so far, but the Spacebase team did say they’d be back at it, working hard, once the company “Fortnight” was over.

      The people saying the patches are too slow, and that there’s nothing in them? I suspect that may be the “I want everything and I want it NAAAAOOOOOW!!!one!!” crowd, or people who don’t really understand what they bought into when they bought an alpha.

      It’s a small game, being worked on by a small team, who are pushing it forward as fast as they’re able, because they clearly like what they’re making.

      My opinions, anyway. Cheers,

  19. lofaszjoska says:

    Was this built with the Shadowrun Returns toolkit? Because the visual similarities are uncanny.

    • Listlurker says:

      I’m pretty sure Spacebase DF-9 was built in-house, with all-new assets. The devs sometimes talk about what their Art Guy is cooking up for the next release.

  20. Artiforg says:

    I’ll wait until DF-9 is complete before I jump in, still not convinced there’s enough content for a pre-release purchase.

    I want more Lighthouse Customer please, this was brilliantly written. It made me laugh throughout.