Two-man studio Refactored gave us quite some cause for excitement when they recently showed off their extra-terrestrial colonisation strategy and survival game, Unclaimed World. With ambitious things being said, and Dwarf Fortress being referenced, I realised we had to find out more. I spoke to Morten Pedersen.
RPS: First up, can you talk us through who you guys are, and how you came to be making Unclaimed World? (And what was your inspiration?)
Pedersen: Lars, our programmer, after trying Dwarf Fortress once, started Unclaimed World as a spare time project just for fun. The goal was to make a game where almost everything was simulated. As a trade-off, the graphics were very simple: top-down 2D graphics. After a few months, I suggested that I make the graphics, but wanted it to be from a slanted perspective, not top-down. To achieve this, we needed to either draw isometric characters, make pre-rendered images of 3D models or load 3D models into the game. We chose the last option, which made the scope grow considerably.
In the beginning, Lars thought of making a post-apocalyptic setting, where there was a lot of focus on scavenging and improvised production. After a few months he decided on the setting we have now. It is somewhat inspired by an older science fiction book by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called The Legacy of Heorot. This decision increased the scope again, because we needed to design a whole new alien world (obviously we don’t use the book’s creations, we invent our own.)
For the nature concepts I looked at marine creatures and corals for inspiration. For example we have an order of land animals that are symmetrical on two axis (seen from the top they are square-shaped, with a leg in each corner). This means they have no front and back and don’t need to turn when they change direction. The low-tech look of the settlements and their vehicles express the fact that the pioneers use simple, rugged designs that are easy to service and replace. Everything they use needs to be something they can produce themselves, therefore the technology level on the planet is lower than what you would expect to find on Earth at the same time in the future.
The first UI design that you see in teaser number one from 2010, reflected this idea and was half-heartedly inspired by late Seventies sci-fi such as Alien. It was rather blocky, but I’m now changing the look of the UI, making it look like more contemporary sci-fi. I’m also going to develop more futuristic architecture for the settlements that they build in the next expansions.
The drawing style of the in-game graphics with the black outline and some cross-hatching is inspired by comic book artists like Moebius and Enki Bilal.
Pedersen: In the first release of the game, we depict a survival scenario. So you need to survive somehow with the resources you have at the beginning: You have a handful of people and a crashed aircraft which is equipped with basic survival gear such as a fire extinguisher, some tools, provisions etc. You have some advanced scanners and “sniffer” gadgets as well as weapons: homing bullet rifles and guns. You need to keep your people alive until help arrives - might be half a year.
The way you play the game is by setting orders on the map. You don’t control the people directly, they will decide how to carry out the orders.
You start exploring the environment to find out what kind of creatures are nearby, could they pose a threat or is it okay to setup camp in the wreck? You set up sensors around the camp. You set policies such as guard duty, level of rationing, order some repairs, decide what food to prepare and then during the night, you watch the camp members fend off nocturnal predators if they appear. Next morning it’s time to do some more exploring. You forage by “painting” a zone on the ground and indicating what items you want to be gathered - fruits, mushrooms, firewood, branches, etc.
You can set traps. You might decide to move camp if the crash site is a bad place to stay. Maybe there are harmful creatures in the area or it’s too far from food sources. You can start picking the aircraft apart, (it’s not going to fly again) stripping it for useful materials and set up camp somewhere else, building bivouacs and some fences. You craft machetes, spears, bows and arrows. You can send your people out to find suitable prey and hunt it. Butcher the animal away from the camp so it doesn't attract predators. Then bring the meat back to camp and cook it.
Instead of killing every animal you meet, it might also be a good idea to follow them because they can lead you to better food sources.
RPS: Referencing Dwarf Fortress seems like a bold move, especially when the ASCII game is such a complex simulation - what would you say that your game does in a similar way?
Pedersen: We want to have the same free-form gameplay in a simulated world with independent agents. That’s the main similarity. We also strive for realism. Instead of inventing gameplay mechanics, we try to simulate the real world when it’s possible. Obviously we will never have the same number of features as Dwarf Fortress because of the limitations set by the graphics. But if the game is successful we will keep expanding it with more features.
Pedersen: You mean ready for the first release? It is starting to come together now. A lot of the features that were developed over the years will be left out for the first release - such as vehicle transportation - instead we are adding other features to make it a more streamlined experience.
RPS: How are you making the world? I see you are not procedurally generating it, as many small teams might have been tempted to do...
Pedersen: Procedural generation is a project in itself. We found that the easiest way to make a good looking map with the assets that we have was to enter the data ourselves. So we have a map editor inside the game for this purpose. Down the road, we could start making a procedural map generator. It would probably be very basic at first. Procedurally generating stats for plants, animals and so on is also something we are looking into. But this task could also be handled by modders to begin with.
RPS: Should we expect mods?
Pedersen: To some degree. The game data is moddable but we have not yet found a way to include new art assets such as sprites and models.
RPS: What has been the hardest challenging in building a game like this?
Pedersen: Getting the 3D model pipeline up and running has been a big challenge for us, because we didn't have any prior experience with 3D in games. Making the terrain look the way we wanted by setting up an engine that could render all the tree sprites, terrain types and water has also taken a lot of work.
Getting the fundamental AI in place so the NPCs can handle most situations without appearing stupid! Managing CPU performance while collecting all the data the AI needs for this purpose was also hard.
RPS: Plenty of games seem to tackle survival and exploration these days, but few seem to get it right - why do you think it's such a challenging game design concept?
Pedersen: The survival features should be in the game for a reason. And that reason is - that when there is a lack of resources, the player should still be able to fall back on more improvised methods. So the survival strategies should fit in with the rest of the economy in the game. In Unclaimed World for instance, there will often be a range of tools that can be used for a particular job. You are seldom completely without options just because you lack a particular tool.
Exploration takes place on many levels. It is not just about scouting the terrain. In our game what we want to do is have layers of information about the surroundings gradually revealed to the player, because a piece of land is rarely fully explored, there is always new information left to reveal.
First off, we have general information about the terrain - this means, where are the forests, the hills, the grassland, the coasts, the lakes etc. The pioneers have this information from the initial scan of the planet. This information is always available in the Fog of War.
Next - What can they see at a quick glance - there's a radius around the pioneers and their sensors, similar to the lit up area you see in the typical RTS. Within this radius, animals above a certain size are visible - if they don’t try to sneak up on you.
Now, when a colonist has spent some time scouting or foraging an area, more information will appear about resources such as fruits, berries, mushrooms, firewood etc. Smaller animals also appear. This is all dependent on skill - some entities can detect food underground or smell blood, other entities have a skill to stay hidden. Many factors are in play when exploring an area. On top of the exploration levels is the research level - this is something that we might not get around to doing in the demo, it deals with the fact that much of the flora and fauna is unknown and the player needs to investigate and research the phenomena before he gets any facts about nutrition, toxins and so on, and also name them.
RPS: I can't wait to see more. Thanks for your time.