YES: Ultima Ratio Regum Dev To Build Worlds Full-Time

We’ve written about Ultima Ratio Regum before. It’s an incredibly exciting project that could end up in the same rarefied sphere as Dwarf Fortress – a complex simulation of ASCII worlds that have history, detail and depth. The current release is capable of generating a world and the basic history of the cultures that have evolved upon it, but there isn’t a huge amount to do beyond the procedural riddle puzzles contained in scattered ziggurats. A typical early feature of many games, eh?

As for the rest, it’s all detailed in the development plan and a new announcement suggests it’ll be on the road to completion sooner than expected. Developer Mark Johnson will be working on the game full-time for a year from September. And there isn’t a Kickstarter in sight.

There aren’t many games that I’ve been paying more attention to over the last few months. Even at this early stage, the game shows evidence that it might fulfill its mighty promise. The first time I generated a world and saw an entire solar system on my screen I realised Utima Ratio Regum might become a new obsession. When Graham spoke to Johnson about the inspirations that were feeding into the game, I accepted that it was an obsession I’d happily feed. Here’s a quote that explains why that is:

The key driver at this point is to make a game that moves procedural content in new and interesting ways, and also to connect on some level to my daytime work as a social scientist (hence the civilization/history generation, etc).

A large inspiration for the project is the work of Jorge Borges, an Argentinian author who wrote a lot about themes (labyrinths, infinity, etc) which resonate with roguelikes but haven’t been fully explored. I think there’s a lot of room for creating some very interesting gameplay ideas based on his work, and even though I’m over two years into the project, that’s only just now starting to come together.

Procedural generation drives so many worlds now that it’s easy to forget that it’s mostly used to create dungeons. Johnson wants to create procedural systems that can convincingly construct societies and religions.

With a game so complex and ambitious, there was always a possibility that ideas would end up on a cerebral cutting room floor, or that development would peter out over time. That’s why the announcement that it will become Johnson’s sole project for an entire year is so exciting. If we’d lost him to academia for good, the world of games would be much poorer.

Here’s the statement (almost) in full, including the reasoning for avoiding Kickstarter.

I’ve been thinking about this a while. As regular readers will know, URR has rapidly become the project in my life I care the most about, and whilst I’m currently doing a doctorate in one field of social science, I want to move into game studies before my first academic job. It started to seem that taking a year “out” would be the perfect way to combine these objectives – I could finally work on URR full-time and push ahead with it, whilst simultaneously having time to start publishing in game studies in anticipation for jobs further down the road. With a full year I know I can easily finish the entire worldbuilding segment within a year’s full-time, and that’s hugely exciting to me, and I really want to finish this block off. This means adding currencies, ships, ocean travel, mountain passes and caravans, and not to mention building interiors, NPCs, and weapons, armour, and combat mechanics!

However, even if I was fixed on the idea, there were still questions of where I was going to live, how I’d get by financially, and so forth. At first I considered doing a Kickstarter or similar – I’ve been critical of many KS campaigns in the past, and I continue to feel it can turn into a very problematic situation, but that was what I first considered. However, through a combination of trying to live frugally and the kindness of a family member, I’ll be able to survive this year. I recognized I could still have tried a Kickstarter instead, and I feel I would have had a high chance of success, but now I’d been given this option I specifically decided not to go the KS route. Sure, it would boost the publicity of the game somewhat, but it would also take several months to start the campaign, run the campaign and do the rewards (even if they were all virtual/game ones). Having been given the option not to, I don’t want to “waste” months of my URR year not actually working on URR! I also didn’t want to blur the line somewhat with URR and the involvement of money – right now it’s free, will always remain free, and I didn’t want to introduce money to the equation if I didn’t have to.

Another reason to not do KS, alas, is that in the next few months I’m not going to be able to do much URR work. Through no fault of my own the completion of my doctorate has been dragged out beyond what it should have been, and the next few months (July/August and probably September) are going to have to be very thesis-heavy. It’s annoying that this might eat slightly into my URR year (as I’ll be moving house in early September), but there’s nothing to be done, and focusing on my academic work now means that as much of next year as possible will be free. Doing a KS would just further eat into the year, and as above – now I’m lucky enough to have the option to not KS, I think the arguments for KS falter against the arguments for not doing one and starting URR coding the moment my thesis is submitted.

The latest build is available to download right now and September’s update will include nomadic fortresses, hunter-gatherer settlements, improved town generation and ‘procedural generation of all door graphics’. This is wonderful news.


  1. tormos says:

    this is the best news I’ve read on RPS in a while. I’ve been assiduously following his devlogs since I downloaded an early version and just started to wander around the beautiful world he had built. Now, it even has stuff in it!

  2. Gap Gen says:

    It’s good that they’ve managed to avoid Kickstarter for now. KS is great if you have no other source of funding, but it does limit you and create a community of people you’re beholden to.

    • tormos says:

      Especially given that Mark obviously has some serious vision for the project and makes it pretty clear that he’s not interested in taking advice/collaboration from fans. Which I think is cool, because auteur projects are cool (not the only thing that’s cool, but certainly DF proves that auteur led video games can be really neat)

      • stonetoes says:

        He asks for feedback in most Devlog updates from what I’ve seen, so some advice seems to be welcome. Unfortunately he’s also said that he’s not particularly interested in opening it up to modding, which is a big negative for a lot of PC gamers I think.

        • Loque says:

          I guess that a ASCII graphics can be the n°1 reason to drive pc gamers away. I can’t produce any number but how’s Dwarf Fortress community? In numbers, I mean.

          • Gap Gen says:

            I have to say I’m a little put off by the use of ASCII graphics. I suppose it’s a way to keep costs down by not hiring an artist, but there are lots of lo-fi graphics styles you can use. Like you say, though, if there’s a community that likes that then fair enough.

  3. MistaJah says:

    He should consider Patreon.

  4. magogjack says:

    I can’t wait for this game to be done, even if on the early build I played I was pants at the puzzles.

  5. WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

    I’m very sorry to be that guy, Adam, but surely it’s “rarefied”?

  6. Kolbex says:

    So, it’s not super clear from the website, but is there actually a game here yet? What sort of interactivity does URR offer?

    • magogjack says:

      You can go to the ziggurats and solve puzzles. So its functionally at its most basic level.

  7. Voice of Majority says:

    I cannot help thinking that procedural generation of interiors should not be very high on his list. There is a mention of strategic level which is where this should get interesting.

  8. Arglebargle says:

    What’s the UI like? Troublesome UI make the game much less likely to see any play, at least around these parts….

  9. malkav11 says:

    I am tentatively excited, but time spent working on a project doesn’t necessarily equate to forward progress being made on a project, and a lot of the stuff that he’s worked on so far has seemed kind of…orthogonal to it actually being a playable game. Which is fine, it’s his project, but he might have different priorities than you do, let’s say.

  10. addahn says:

    Hey guys,
    I just realized that I have a rps I hadn’t remembered for some reason because I’m a lurker and enjoy other peoples comments much of the time more than participating. However, In regards to this particular game I really felt the need to comment.
    Mark is an extraordinary person and developer that has really set his sights far above any other game I can think of offhand (DF comes to mind, but that is in itself is an a almost cheat of an example when it comes to people thinking of examples of amazing gaming experiences). The impression I get from my emails with him have absolutely blow me away; especially considering that I’m not part of the gaming journalism community and he still would give me time of day.
    If you have interest in anything from the history to the potential of interactive computer programs you owe it to yourself to follow what this man is attempting.
    I don’t know if it will end up any fun or if it will be a good game at all, but if you do have interest in what is possible, then give this man your support and we may end up with something that could be a milestone. In short what I’m trying to say in not-so-good english is that if he manages to pull half of what he shooting for off then you should be very excited, rougelike fan or not. We don’t have too many uncompromising, brilliant people working in the industry.

  11. thebigJ_A says:

    He ought to try Patreon, or at least a Donate button.

    Lots of people, like me, would happily toss a couple bucks his way.

    And he doesn’t have to feel bad about it, or feel like money’s getting involved in his game. It’s a token of appreciation, like when I gave money to the The History of Rome/Revolutions podcast guy (I think he used that money for moving, quite correctly).

  12. Danley says:

    Jorge Luis Borges could be the inspiration for a serial harlequin romance novel at the gas station and I’d be all over it. I haven’t even read the rest of this article before needing to say so, but will now do so.

    • Danley says:

      And there’s a Dvorak setting in the options. I’m sending roses.