If you've ever played 2019's My Time At Portia (and given that game's popularity, statistics suggest a bunch of you have) you'll know the appeal. It's a life sim set in a post apocalyptic world where, instead of punk metal bikinis and murder, the vibe is regrowth and bright colours; a sort of juicy 3D Stardew Valley with an emphasis on crafting.
But now the sequel My Time At Sandrock is launching into early access on May 26th, bringing a whole new region to restore. Sandrock may look more traditionally post-apocalyptic, being as it is a sandy outback populated by cowboys, but it's still got a helping-hands community feel at its core, plus an interesting eco-friendly angle and an all-new multiplayer mode. But its origins were much more modest. As Pathea Games' executive producer Zifei Wu tells me, Sandrock originally began life as a My Time At Portia DLC pack.
"At a certain point, what we wanted to do for the game kind of expanded beyond the scope of a DLC as far as cost," he explains to me via a Zoom call from Chongqing, where the studio is based. At the time, Pathea spoke to My Time At Portia's publisher Team17 about the DLC, but in the end they decided to just start making a whole new game. Pathea are also publishing Sandrock themselves this time. "Like originally, we actually asked the director if we could make it smaller, and she didn't want to," he adds, "And when David joined, the story kind of blew up even bigger."
The David in question is David Peck, one of the lead writers on the game who was also on the call. He commented that the brief history of Sandrock was "all new to me" back then, and that his favourite thing about working on the game has been writing all the weird, off-the-wall characters. Sandrock has a cast of over 30 Old West-esque NPCs to give you quests and keep you company even in single-player, which has proven quite the task for Peck and his writing team.
"The writers will get together and just basically pitch jokes and have a laughocracy," says Peck. "Whoever comes up with the funniest line, that's usually what we end up going with." That said, he stresses that they're not trying to go too out of bounds with it. "We don't want to make it completely crazy because it is meant to be an immersive game. So we don't really want to break the fourth wall. Unless it's really tasteful."
As in Portia, you're coming to a community that's a bit on the ropes in Sandrock - and as a fledgling Builder, you'll be creating things in your workshop to help the community out. Due to the precarious ecological situation, Sandrock has a ban on cutting down trees, and you have to keep up a decent stock of water to keep your workshop going. Having played an earlier build of Sandrock earlier this year, the town itself is desperately picturesque, located beneath a dramatic spur of red rock with a saloon, several shops, a church, and even a research station. According to Peck, though, "the town that you see at the beginning will look nothing like the town you end up with."
This is a decision that's partly been driven by feedback from the community. "With Portia, we asked the players what they liked the most about the gameplay," explains Wu. "And pretty much most of them said changing the city, and changing the environment because of their efforts. That was the most satisfying part of it."
As a result, Sandrock hopes to capture that same sense of super-satisfying progress, with the difference this time being that the devs have a much firmer idea of what Sandrock's whole story arc's going to be ahead of time - Wu told me there's one plot point they've been over about 20 times. You start out gradually, adding things like street lamps and little buses to make the town feel more alive and functional. People, Peck said, like having a lot of tasks. They like having things to do.
Pathea, too, has had a pretty full plate these past few months, albeit it for much more worrying reasons. Indeed, our conversation actually took place at the end of last year, just before the Chinese government tightened restrictions on games companies hoping to get publishing licenses, resulting in thousands of studios shutting down. In November, Wu said the team was working hard on the game: "I think the only thing we're waiting on is the certification from the Chinese government. And that's not going anywhere yet. You just have to go with the flow as far as that's concerned." If nothing else, this release date is confirmation that Pathea have finally made it through.
And on the other side is My Time At Sandrock. There's farming, crafting, deep ruins to explore, friends to make, and that new multiplayer - with regular updates to early access players promised as well. One of those games that, if it's your jam, you're going to want to slather it all over your toast every morning.