Tom Hooper aka Atomp
My seeming inability to fully envelop myself in Dwarf Fortress has again taken me to new and interesting alternatives which in this particular case is the sci-fi colony sim RimWorld. There’s a great deal of Dwarf Fortress here however it’s married with some Prison Architect for the sake of keeping a complex and deep simulation accessible and all of this with a Firefly-esque sci-fi western feel. The idea is that a group of three survivors have crash landed on a distant planet at the edge of populated space and as such development is limited as it so often is at the frontier. This is a pretty classic science fiction trope and I for one don’t mind as it is a really cool setting for a colony/city/town building game. This is, much like many of my games of interest, a Kickstarter success story. The campaign ran during October last year (2013) and generated $268,000 CAD of the $20,000 CAD goal which is an impressive feat and showed how much interest there is in combining a sci-fi setting like that of FTL with a Prison Architect style management sim. It does help that the Kickstarter was a strong presentation and the primary developer has some damn good credentials (he has a published book on game design). In short when I eventually get around to writing an article on the Kickstarter/crowd-funding development model RimWorld will very likely be sitting pretty in the ‘Success’ column.
The gameplay in RimWorld is somewhat like Dwarf Fortress however there is a much higher consideration for the life of your colonists as you have only a few of the to begin with. No-one is disposable here and each individual is important and vital. Tied into this is the simulation of the colonists themselves, all of whom have moods and personalities. In this sense they are somewhat like Sims, they will like or dislike certain environmental concerns such as dirty floors, corpses or room decoration and can under certain circumstances have a mental breakdown. The latest patch actually introduced a rather overpowered mind altering event which has a significant negative modifier on mood. This is being patched to balance it a bit and can be patched manually with a simple one line config edit however it was somewhat influential in the loss of my first colony which despite having a fairly good base modifier on mood thanks to a nice interior was attacked by pirates which involved a lot of negative modifiers around seeing friendly and stranger deaths, corpses and other such grim realities of violence. This is really where the danger in RimWorld lies; not in starvation as in some management games but in defensive combat and keeping your colonists happy. The game does a good job of displaying the relevant information and keeping you informed on what is doing what in regards to the colonists’ mood and happiness.
My first colony for example was actually fairly successful for a first attempt. It must be said that the game design is such that the entire experience was astoundingly intuitive and it was very easy and quick to get going with an absolute minimum of fuss. There are no long winded tutorial sections or walls of text, instead the game allows you to just play the game whilst occasionally prodding you in the right direction. Either way my first colony wound up being an above-ground colony consisting of a single large wood-based compound. This was my first mistake as this turned out to be very difficult to defend and not very strong at withstanding attack from mortar shells. On the other hand it was also relatively cheap and easy to expand the building to accommodate more people in their preferred room size; bloody enormous. Seriously these people must be a tad claustrophobic because avoiding the ‘Cramped Environment’ negative mood modifier is difficult, they’ve evidently never lived out of a single small student room for a year. Everything was going well as I had food production sorted and even had some squirrel meat on the menu. My power requirements were being met by a geothermal generator and a handful of solar panels and research was progressing nicely, providing the colonists with luxuries like carpets. Then the attacks came, which for a relatively indefensible position were actually beaten back on a surprising number of occasions. Eventually the strain began to really beat down people’s mood and a besieging by a group of pirates proved too much as the required counter-offensive took the lives of three colonists, incapacitated one and drove one into a mental breakdown. It was therefore necessary for the one remaining sane colonist to save the incapacitated and subdue the breakdown victim… which was too much for the poor scientist and they too had a mental breakdown. That was really a kick in the teeth as having successfully beaten off the pirates with relatively little damage done to the base the survivors either bled out or broke down.
The beauty of games like RimWorld (and RimWorld excels at it) is the ability to generate stories. There are stories with characters, plots, events and whilst much of it is procedurally generated the overall effect is the creation of plots and tales so vivid and interesting that they could easily be expanded into something of their own right. I love this kind of game, as it has the same appeal as the likes of Crusader Kings 2, FTL or even Kerbal Space Program (everyone has a story of a brave rescue mission to save a crippled lander) in the regard to the potential for dynamic narrative generation, making stories that you want to share. Whilst much of RimWorld’s content is not complete, there is enough for the purposes of generating stories and as development progresses, the content will expand and the pool of potential story elements and events will grow. This is exactly the kind of game that excels in Early Access as once the primary systems are in place it only gets better as content is added rather than running the risk of spoiling half of a prebaked story over and over in testing. Currently with the development patches and additions certain things can be unbalanced on occasion but these don’t seem common and fixes or fix information is often swiftly provided. The developer has interestingly integrated a strictly opt-in gameplay data upload to allow him to collect actual play data to debug and provide design feedback so perhaps the likelihood of major problems occurring will decrease with this addition. There’s a very good reason that this review is longer than usual and why I’ve had 3am bedtimes for the past few days (afternoon/evening shifts allow stupid stunts like that).
The aesthetic is very similar to Prison Architect however I would venture to say that it is actually prettier. The lighting and shadow effects are accurate to the time of day and the weather and wind effects create an attractive and surprisingly immersive feel to the game. Thunderstorms feel appropriately wet, windy and loud and when over your base give that warm and fuzzy ‘indoors’ feel that being in a building in Minecraft during a storm does. I found this quite profound for a top down management game but it certainly gives the base/colony you construct that ‘home in the wild’ feel. The sprites and icons are clear, providing the player with an uncluttered view and a clear idea of what’s going on. The interface design is similarly so, generally staying out of the way and providing an intuitive route to information when needed.
Availability is very good for RimWorld with simultaneous Windows, Mac and Linux updates. The system requirements are equally accessible with the CPU recommendation being a fast Core 2 Duo or a Core i3 with a GPU requirement of Intel HD3000 minimum. This means that I can appreciate it on my beloved Lenovo Thinkpad X220 as its moderately aged Sandy Bridge i5-2520 is able to do the game justice, especially on Debian with Gnome3 (As a side note, older Thinkpads and Debian make perfect bedfellows). I have to say that I appreciate these factors greatly from a personal perspective as it gives the game some real portability potential; an ideal train journey game if ever there was one. Pricing is interesting as it might seem a little steep: The base game package including Early Access is $30.00 (approx £17.50) available from the RimWorld website. There is no Steam release yet however this base cost does include any potential Steam keys when it eventually does hit Steam. I’d say that the game is absolutely worth the cost at this stage of development as enough has been implemented to provide a satisfying play experience right now. I’m also happy to pay that because of the message that it sends, Ludeon Studios and Tynan Sylvester are proving almost perfect Early Access developers with regular communication, updates, a keen sense for community feedback and platform agnosticism. This is the type of development that a crowd funding optimist like me might envision; a game funded by the community and painstakingly developed with active feedback from that community by a responsive developer/development team. No publisher bullshit and no shareholders spoiling perfectly functional ideas with their money grubbing ways *cough*EA*cough*.