The Lighthouse Customer: Space Engineers (Survival Mode)

This thing better have at least one cup holder.

Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, space-based gathering, crafting, and dying in Space Engineers’ new survival mode.

There’s a large red and white spaceship, its front end crumpled after what must have been a spectacular nosedive. There’s a tiny yellow space engineer inspecting the wreck, armed with only a handful of tools. There’s the inky blackness of outer space, the comforting glow of a distant sun, and an asteroid field of stationary rocks, chock-full of ore and minerals to mine. As the astronaut floats there, enchanted by the view, he notices a few of the asteroids — quite a few, in fact — have given up waiting for him to visit them and taken a more proactive stance. They’re delivering themselves to him. Well, at him, anyway. In an awful hurry.

Oh great. There go my insurance premiums.

Until recently, the only way to play Space Engineers was in creative mode, which gave early-access astronauts a gravity-free sandbox of unlimited materials with which to assemble (and destroy) their space creations. In the newly implemented survival mode you’ll need to mine for materials and set up production lines to fabricate parts. And, when building, you’re not just building piece-by-piece but building each piece piece-by-piece.

Some ore you have to go get, but some is being delivered.

Astronauts also need to closely manage their constantly depleting energy levels, which means that even though you can’t hear it in space, the clock is always ticking. In survival mode, using your jetpack drains energy. Operating tools drains energy. Having any system of a ship turned on drains energy, even if you’re not using it.

That last one is not a problem for me at the moment: I have no systems to leave on, or even turn on. I have nothing but a few tools, and I’m doing nothing but simply looking at my crashed spaceship, the asteroid it crashed into, and the lovely view of outer space. Oh, and those other asteroids hurtling my way. Right!

The first derelict spaceship with no monsters on it in sci-fi history.

Clearly, there’s no time to waste. My goal is to create a space platform, cover it with mineral-baking refineries and assemblers, build myself a new spaceship, and blast off this rock. I begin carving up the wrecked ship with my grinder, collecting the steel as it peels from the hull. My inventory can hold only 400 kg worth of resources at a time, and as it turns out, that’s not very much at all. That which I cannot carry slowly floats away into space, a troubling sight for someone accustomed to stuffing mountains of tree trunks and stone blocks into his pants in other, more forgiving crafting games. And, I’m not the only one hard at work deconstructing the ship: the asteroids that have been whizzing by often hit and bash free huge sections of the wreckage, sending massive chunks of untapped resources pinwheeling away into space.

Come back! I need to put you in my space-pants!

I should point out that things needn’t be quite this grim. There are a number of options when setting up your survival session. Inventory size, for example, can be up to ten times bigger than the “realistic” one I’m using. The frequency of incoming asteroids can be turned down, or they can be switched off entirely. There are more forgiving maps to choose from as well, including one with an existing space station, fully-powered generators, cargo containers full of goodies, refiners, assemblers, health stations, and working ships to get you off to a running (well, hovering) start.

This is how a smart person would have played.

Building in survival mode works a bit differently than in creative mode. Gone are the days of simply selecting a block and placing it, fully formed, into space. In survival, it’s only the mere framework of the object that appears. It then needs to be welded to completion using the resources in your inventory, meaning putting together even a single basic block takes some time. Nicely, though, you don’t need to be in possession of all the resources to begin building: your creation will wait, skeletal and unfinished, until you return and complete it. This also comes in handy in multiplayer survival games, where one player can plop down the skeleton of a structure and others can fill it in.

It's not a block, but it'll do 'til the block gets here.

This isn’t multiplayer, however. I am alone in my endeavors, and the barrage of asteroids continues, smashing not only the shipwreck but the space platform I’ve been working to assemble for a good half-hour. It becomes clear I’m not going to be able to build a big platform with a full production and fabrication line. My revised plan is this: build a small escape craft, pilot it off the asteroid, land somewhere else, and call it a win. The minimum I’ll need: a small frame, a cockpit, a reactor, a gyroscope, six thrusters, and some landing gear.

Then, suddenly, I’m dead, the victim of yet another asteroid impact. I respawn in a small ship, a tiny yellow vessel that quickly carries me back to my asteroid and promptly crashes right next to the red ship.

You're leaving in that? You're braver than I thought.

On the one hand, I’m still stranded on the exact same rock I was when I began. On the other, now there are two crashed ships to salvage. At least the newer one has a working reactor, a medical bay to recharge my suit, a storage container so I can save up resources, and even a refinery. I get back to work, managing to construct some landing gear and the basic frame of my escape shuttle. It takes several trips, regularly rocketing back to the wreckage to harvest, recharge, and deposit or withdraw materials from the cargo bay, but I finally manage to construct and complete a cockpit.

I can't blast off, but at least I can sit down. One small step.

Sure, there’s only single thruster and no gyroscope. But dammit, my little escape pod is coming along and I can actually sit in the cockpit, look at the display screens, and make blast-off sounds in my head.

The good vibes don’t last long. I climb out of my cockpit and notice, with no small degree of horror, that the rescue ship wreckage has become so battered with meteors that it has broken away from the asteroid and is floating away into space. Noooo! My health station is in there! A working reactor is in there! My cargo container with all my precious cruft in it! It’s floating away!

In a cruel twist, the ships are abandoning me.

I give chase but it’s spinning so wildly I can’t manage to enter it to retrieve my cargo, recharge my suit, or even cut a last few desperate chunks off it. Even worse, as I turn back, I see the main spaceship wreck has also detached from the asteroid and it, too, has begun floating away into space.

Okay, time to revise my revised plan. I’m just going to get in my tiny single-thruster ship and blast the hell off. I won’t be able to steer or control it, but with a little luck I’ll be able to fly in a straight line and collide with some other stationary rock out there, and if so, I’ll consider that a successful “escape” from this punishing survival mode. I jet back to my shuttle, maneuver my way to the cockpit, and then notice that something is suddenly blotting out the sun.

In space, no one can hear you yell 'NOOOOO' in slow motion.

Somehow, the massive hurtling rock misses me. Unfortunately, it completely kerplodes my tiny space station, leaving just a single, mangled cube intact. The entirety of my escape pod, what little of it there was, is completely gone.

Oh, the hell with this. I’m starting a new game with a few different options ticked. This time I’m going to play with no asteroid strikes, a pre-built station, and a few other… perks.

Call of Engineers: Ghosts. That's more like it.

Now, this is the kind of survival I can survive.


  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Gave a good chuckle that

  2. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Is this good then?

    • Bastimoo says:

      I have not played creative mode yet, but the survival mode is a LOT of fun! I recommend starting with the little yellow ship only, so it will not spoil your fun and you can start out from the beginning and build it all yourself!

      The Multiplayer – in theory – is even more awesomeness, since it includes lots of spaceshipcrashing, ramming my mate into asteroids and then salvaging his ship to build a bigger and cooler ship out of my rescue vessal, BUT there are massive lags at the moment as soon as one of us starts drilling, and this seems a common problem for a couple of people.
      They are already working on increasing performance, but if you want to play multiplayer only I would wait a bit.
      Very enjoyable game overall, recomment it at the current price!

    • Chris Livingston says:

      I’ve been enjoying survival mode a lot. Since I wrote this, I started over with just a small yellow lander on a large asteroid (no meteor strikes this time!), and have managed to build a small mining ship, an assembly line, and a nice little space platform: link to

      • Chaz says:

        Can you eventually build some sort of asteroid defense system, or will they always be chipping away at your base?

        • Chris Livingston says:

          I think the only protection right now is that you can build things out of heavy armor plate (instead of light armor like I was using in this column) which gives ships and structures better resistance. It would be cool if you could someday build automated defenses on space stations to shoot down asteroids, but I don’t think anything like that is possible now (weapons can only be affixed to ships, I think).

          • Dryver says:

            A good tip is to try to build as much as possible of your larger constructions on the shadow side of the stationary asteroids, as the impacting asteroids always seems to emanate from the direction of the sun.

          • Elethio says:

            I believe Asteroids only come from one direction if you have them set too easy, with harder levels they can come from anywhere.

            I’ve just brought this too, and having LOTS of fun in survival and creative, but I’ve got asteroids turned off for now.

            Can’t wait for new updates btw, rumor is they are working on AI so soon the random ships that can appear will start fighting back!

  3. Strangeblades says:

    “I respawn in a small ship, a tiny yellow vessel that quickly carries me back to my asteroid and promptly crashes right next to the red ship.”

    Christopher Livingston? Please tell me this happens with every death. I do so want a field of derelict craft to act as a memorial to silly.

    • phanteh says:

      If there’s no active medbay available, you’ll respawn in a new ship,. If you host a multiplayer game, you need to add a medbay for each player, otherwise they’ll spawn in new ships each time they die. I’d recommend starting a survival game with increased inventory (3x is quite manageable) and no asteroids, until you’ve got to grips with the games systems.

      Me and a few friends picked up a 4 pack in the recent sale. We’ve since sunk countless hours into a jointly constructed base / mining operation. It’s a very interesting sandbox to play with, mostly because of physics and, you know, Space. It turns out, for instance, that you can kill both yourself and your friends by flying your suit into theirs too quickly, and a grinder will always win in a fight against a drill.

      I’m also happy to report that in the short space of time in which I’ve been playing, the devs have already fixed one of the most annoying ‘features’ and added stuff I had found myself wanting in the game.

      I expect good things in the future!

      • Chris Livingston says:

        Ah, I was wondering what determined whether or not you respawned in a ship or not, since it only happened to me once. Good to know!

        Also, you lose whatever is in your personal inventory when you die. I’d been searching for ages for platinum ore to mine (to make an ore detector, ironically) and only found it on another, distant asteroid. Flying back with my pants full of platinum, I carelessly rammed myself into another asteroid. Lost it all. Now I’m very, very careful.

  4. Lemming says:

    This read like a parody version of the opening of The Stars, My Destination/Tiger! Tiger!, and that’s just great.

  5. Virsteinn says:

    I never liked playing with hazards, especially in games where you have no way of possibly defending against them. Probably the best part about survival mode, however, is that it allows you to toggle cargo ships. The biggest part of enjoyment associated with that setting is the feeling of accomplishment you get when you, for example, safely disarm any explosives on a Military ship, or when you find the Cockpit of the ship, or both. I chose the Single Platform spawn, went Survival Mode, and stole a Military Escort and a Business Shipment, and with those was able to scrap them for parts and build a Large Cargo Container for the platform I started off on. Both of them also had a significant amount of Uranium Ingots with which to replenish my dwindling reactor stock.

    Currently, I have a Small Ship under construction, which I will soon mount Drills on so as to collect a cubic buttload of ore and make the world worthy of opening to the rest of the internet once the drill lag gets fixed. No doubt I can use what remains of the ships I stole to achieve my ultimate objective of turning the asteroid field into one giant space complex.

    • Chris Livingston says:

      I’ve only boarded one ship, a military ship. It exploded. I assume that was the explosives. How do you disarm them? Just cut them away with the grinder?

      • Virsteinn says:

        Yeah, that’ll do it. On some, it’s more trial and error than anything. I just tried again with a Military Minelayer, ground into the backside and ground out the one Small Thruster that was aimed at a Warhead. Unfortunately, I still lost the back portion and a good part of the top of the front portion to another Warhead/Thruster combo, but at least this time I could fly the thing back.

        Not too long ago, I tried stealing a Military Transport, not realizing that it had Warheads on it. Four of them exploded and took out the reactors and a few other things. So, lesson learned: all Military ships will explode unless defused. Once you figure out where the Warheads are, though, the rest is a cakewalk.

        The real doozy is figuring out how to get into a ship. It’s made more difficult if you have Inertial Dampers on, because then you decelerate whenever you stop holding a particular button. With Dampers off, though, you can get yourself in a similar trajectory and velocity as the ship you’re trying to board, thus making it *much* easier to get to the bricking door without squealing your tires like Dane Cook trying to park at the Galleria.

        On Civilian ships (blue), you can expect intermediate goods like Steel Plates, Girders, Reactor Components, etc., and, if you’re lucky, some Uranium Ingots outside the Reactors, while on Mining ships (yellow), you’ll find random ore, and lots of it. Military ships (black) will have weapons, ammo, and explosives (hurr).

        I never actually keep the ships, though, because, honestly, I have no use for them. Instead, I let them sit there until such time as I dismantle them and use the parts to build more stuff. After all, so far, they’ve all counted as Large Ships, which currently don’t have drills available. And I’m the kind of person who likes to have some use in a ship besides just flying around like Jet Sparrow.

      • Zc0r3 says:

        Just count the number of thrusters outside the ship and compare them to the number in the system (k).
        Deactivate all remaining thrusters.
        If you are unshure which to leave on, deactivate all and then turn them on one by one checking if the come to live outside the ship.

  6. Trespasser in the Stereo Field says:

    Your first few sentences have caused “King of Pain” to be stuck in my head for the next 3 days.

  7. Smashbox says:

    Love your column 10/10

  8. andykarta says:

    After many tries I’ve survived survival mode without dying in what I think is the most difficult setting, apocalyptic astroids and space platform and no passing ships. With crashed ship your critical stuff has a layer or two of protection from those flaming balls of death. And with nothing, you get a med ship so you just need to fly into a hollow astroid. But with platform all your stuff is out there with a big ole bullseye. So its this race against time. First you need uranium. Get a few pounds. Pray nothing vital gets destroyed. Second start salvaging the station and underneath, build a long one block wide column with 5 or six platforms 4 by 4 squares wide on them. But your critical stuff on the second or third platform. Try to build this column so you can get as much protection from the station and the next door astroid as possible. Build a couple of floors then start disassembling and rebuilding the control panel then the power supply then the medical station, then if you’re lucky and the other stuff if its still there do the other stuff. The key is to get several layers of metal between your critical stuff and the those darn falling rocks. It won’t last for long but hopefully long enough.

    Next drill baby drill. Drill a hole in the side of the astroid large enough for a few blocks so you can get your control panel, med lab and reactor inside. A good idea is to drill a bit and then take a turn before you create a cavern (to prevent an unfortunate direct hit). Once you’ve done this you can unclench a little. Build a storage container and then try to salvage as much as the station as you can. If you’re really psycho and playing with everything on realistic 1x drill a hole in your little cavern and make another turn and you can just start dumping stuff in there and it won’t float off.

    Don’t fly too far away from your little cave home because its really hard to find it again sometimes. In fact when you got your cave done, make sure to find some landmarks that will guide you to it. Get a big landmark for the side of the astroid and then little landmarks that lead to the door. I name my landmarks, but I’m a nerd. But you do want to build a beacon asap. In realistic mode building big stuff is a real pain early on. Especially anything with silicon or silver. Big beacons are an example of this pain. But you can start a spacecraft, put a small reactor on it and build a little beacon on it. Now you can wander around the neighborhood.

    Look for a the most hollow astroid you can find. Some look loke doughnut holes. Avoid those. The best looks like it was hollowed out by some mining faction and abandoned. In my last game I didn’t find any thing like this so I made due with the cavern I started. You want to dig away from the chamber you’ve been using and then start hollowing it out. People will often say, build a spacecraft with a bunch of drills here but honestly in realistic mode the time you spend aquiring materials and building the ship you could have a nice big hole done and with the hand drill. Plus you can get it more symetrical than with a ship. Once you’ve got a nice, cavern that can hold two or three ten by ten block floors , now its time to build your drill ship. Pick a direction and drill out until you find outside. I relocate my tech to this area and drill my way out the way I came.

    Now the game kinda shifts from survival to prosperity. Your tech is safe, you got power galore. And your astroid ‘s interior is ready to hold bigger stuff, like, oh I don’t know, small starships. If you don’t turn passing vessels off and like to steal them you’ll come across another problem. You want to get them inside your astroid but it can be a major pain manuvering them in as fireballs are crashing all around them and avoiding the walls. Weirdly the best shape for an opening I found was a triangle. A rough triangle but that way you can roll the ship to find the best fit. In the last game I decided to build a dock with an extending crane arm that locks onto the starship and pulls it in. It makes me feel like a bond villian when I use it but that’s another matter. There are a few engineering difficulties with making a crane, such as how to tell if your ship is in the right location to get locked onto (when you’re still piloting the ship). But every problem has an oodles of solutions. Mine made me feel proud of myself for a few minutes. And a bit evil.

    So that’s my experience surviving the worst without dying once. I doubt I’ll be able to recreate it again, but at least I know its not impossible.

  9. kmlja00 says:

    I really liked your article! I’m playing space engineers a lot lately and I’m also starting up a blog on the Space Engineers game where I would like to write experiences from survival and dedicated server stories similar to what you did here. You gave me great inspiration to write my own articles on space engineers. If you want, have a look at my space engineers blog.

    Sincirely, gFleka aka kmlja.