We recently spoke to Adam Bromell, co-founder of System Era Softworks. This fledgling studio recently burst into the limelight with a viral trailer of their first title: a charming space exploration sandbox game called Astroneer.
SYSTEM ERA SOFTWORKS
Adam started off as a self-taught 3D artist, but worked in the big leagues for quite some time. “I worked at Relic Entertainment for a few years,” he recounted, “Where I worked on Space Marine, and Dawn of War 2, and previous to that was a company that’s not around anymore called Threewave Software, where we handled a bunch of outsourcing for games like Wolfenstein and Ghostbusters, and Army of Two.”
“You’re surrounded by talent everywhere,” he said of his time in AAA, “It’s really easy to problem-solve, and the challenges are really interesting. I’m actually an Assistant Art Director right now at Ubisoft. The last game I worked on was Assassin’s Creed Unity as an art lead. Well, I can’t say what I actually worked on last at Ubisoft, but prior to that was Splinter Cell, and I also worked on Rainbow Six.”
System Era existed at first as a side project for Adam and his co-founders. Only recently has the team begun to plow full-steam ahead.“There are four of us that are owners of the company,” he explained, “Paul Pepera and I – He’s one of the cofounders as well – and he and I are best friends that we met working in video games. He lives across the country on the West Coast, and I live on the East Coast, and we had wanted to work together for a while on various projects throughout the years… And well, I was working on a personal art project – I made this little space guy – and I was sort of showing it to him, and we started kind of riffing on this, like is there a possibility of a game in here? Long story short, it ended up being an idea that we really liked, and then he approached two friends of his that also worked in games, and the four of us started a company and the rest is history. We’ve been working on Astroneer for about two years now in our spare time, and now we’re all going to be full time on it.”
Working full-time as an independent studio is a new kind of challenge for System Era, and it has bred a special kind of camaraderie. “You don’t report to anyone else, right, so you sort of make your own schedule and come up with your own tasks,” He explained, “When you do work with other people, you’re working with people who are kind of in the same boat—we all have very similar challenges. And in the case of System Era, these are guys that are now my friends, whereas at a big company you’re not going to get a chance to be friends with everybody. These guys aren’t really my partners or my coworkers, they’re my friends.”
It was Adam who created the first spark that would ignite to become Astroneer as we know it today. “It started as an art project that I wanted to do, but it wasn’t low-poly like it is now; it was extremely high-poly and as realistic as I could make it look,” He explained, “I was doing this in my spare time, and I was trying to build this habitat for this idea of a character I had who was sent off on an infinitely distant planet, where they would eventually die there, but they were there for a purpose that would benefit everybody back on earth. This was probably like three years ago now. It was slow-going because of the amount of work that goes into something like that.”
“Just as a break, I participated in a contest over at Polycount.com,” he continued, “where the idea was to do low-poly, cute little dioramas based on games that you really like. I had done a diorama for a mobile game called Cannon Ball, and it had done really well, so it ended up getting featured on some websites like Kotaku, I think maybe Rock Paper Shotgun. And I had done that in just a couple of hours on a weekend one day, and it ended up being the most popular thing I had ever done. So I was like, maybe there’s something to my approach to low-poly that I want to stick with and see it through all the way, and that I could apply to this idea that I had for this character. So I stopped working on the high-poly, and worked on the low-poly version, and showed a couple friends the images, one of them being Paul, and we started riffing on ideas for it, and the rest is history.”
Adam and his friends new they had a good idea, but they never expected their first trailer back in October to be the viral hit that it was. “It’s kind of interesting,” he recounted, “Before we did the trailer release, we were on Twitter a month or two beforehand and it was getting some traction, but not a lot—we had maybe 500 or 300 followers, something like that. But we weren’t doing anything else—it was just tweets that we were sending out. It started getting traction, and then people where asking questions, which was really cool. And then we wanted to announce the game, just so people knew it existed, and just start to build a community around this game, because Astroneer is going into early access, so we kind of wanted a community before that, and people who are interesting in this game and sort of building it with us, collaborating with us, from feedback to ideas and things like that.”
“So we put the trailer out,” he continued, “and we thought it would do pretty well just because aerospace seems to be on a lot of people’s minds right now, and just sort of on the reception that the images got, we thought it might resonate with a few people, but not at all like what it ended up doing. I think we said to ourselves that if it had like 10,000 views at the end of the day, we’d be pretty happy with that, and that would show that people are out there looking at it. I think in the first day it ended up getting 50,000 or 100,000 views or some crazy thing like that, and now it’s over 300,000, which is way beyond our expectations. A lot of people were interested in it, both from the video game world and also the science world and aerospace industry. It’s been awesome.”
Astroneer has been compared a whole lot to Minecraft, due to both its simple design and its blend of exploration, survival, and building gameplay. For Adam, this is a welcome comparison, but he wants to make sure that Astroneer has an identity distinctly its own.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but I myself am a huge Minecraft fan,” he told us, “I think I was one of the first 2,000 people to buy it. So I’ve been playing for a very long time. It’s kind of why Astroneer is the way it is, because we didn’t want to build something that looked like that. There are enough games that do that already. When you’re tied into that blocky motif, it ends up driving a lot of the art direction for the game, where everything becomes blocky. Whereas when we decided to have this sort of curved geometric, sort of broad vibrant color approach, it meant that the art we put into it could be those things as well, just not on the same scale as the world. So we could go a little bit finer, smaller triangles and things like that. It ended up being a really good choice for us.”
“We just wanted something accessible, something people could kind of understand what it was. But what we really wanted to go after was this idea of like a pioneer in space…”
The art direction also plays a very important role in making the game extremely adaptable. “It has all of the benefits that we need as indie developers working with a limited amount of time,” Adam explained, “What I mean by that is, when you’re making a video game, the slowest part of the process can be the technical stuff, things like unwrapping the 3D assets so you can start doing textures for them, and the texturing process alone consumes a lot of time. The fact that we’re very low-poly instead of high-poly means that, without the unwrapping stage—and we don’t have any textures in the game, it’s all flat color—that means that we can crank out artwork really quickly. So, when we’re in a call together, and ‘Hey wouldn’t this be a really interesting idea,’ we can turn that around in a matter of sometimes minutes, and it takes an additional hour to make it final. Let’s say we had chosen another art style that maybe was still low-poly but had textures—we would immediately be working at something like half the speed that we’re going at now. So that art direction was a very deliberate choice in how we would be working on the game.”
Fortunately, System Era really hit the nail on the head when they picked a name for their project, and now the charm and spirit of Astroneer has really spoken for itself.
“There was sort of an epiphany we had a couple days ago,” he recounted, “Where whenever we ask people what they think Astroneer is about, sometimes they’ll say it kind of sounds like an astronaut-pioneer, sometimes it sounds like astronaut-engineer, and the thing is that neither of those answers are wrong. Both of them speak to the styling of the game. And the original title like way back when before we got trademarked and stuff was just ‘Astro.’ We just wanted something accessible, something people could kind of understand what it was. But what we really wanted to go after was this idea of like a pioneer in space, and so Astroneer fell to us really quickly, and we think the name alone resonates with a lot of people. They automatically understand what the game is about. So it was kind of like an easy win for us in that regard, and it has done really well for us so far.”
Yup, you can go to that moon in the distance if you so choose.
Astroneer is best defined by a handful of features that can generally be described as whimsical pseudo-science. Perhaps the most anticipated of these is the airbrush-like “Deformation Tool.”
“Every planet from the ground up is completely deformable,” Adam explained, “And also completely spherical, so you can travel all the way around them and have spherical gravity just like a planet would. They are procedural, so they’re generated as you visit them. They’re not necessarily hand-crafted from Paul or I. And they’re deformable, so you have this thing that we call an excavation tool, and it allows you to add and subtract terrain from the world within certain gameplay limitations.”
“While we are trying to be a game that’s based in aerospace,” he added, “that excavation tool is one of those science-fiction liberties that we ended up taking, just because if a player feels like they’re digging on a planet, that’s more important to us than if they’re actually using a jackhammer, which is a little bit slower, or if they’re using this deformation tool which allows for creativity and practicality—maybe they build like a giant ball, or a tower or something like that, or something silly like I built a Christmas tree for the holidays, or maybe they need to build a bridge to get across, or they need to lower some terrain for geothermal modules.”
You might have to build things a bit bigger than you might intend to get really precise with the deformer, but Adam assures us that you can get pretty creative with it. “We’re using the Unreal Engine, but for the terrain system, it is boxel based so we’re limited to the size of the boxels. I think they’re about a square meter right now. So if you want to build something as precise as a statue, you would just build it maybe a little bigger than you would expect. So yea, you can get fairly precise with it, and when we’re in creative mode you can choose from any color that you want to put down, you can change your brush size… For early access we’re looking at different brushes themselves, not just add and subtract, but things like flatten and smooth. And then in the context of survival, it’s a tool that will be used for exploration, excavation, mining—things like surviving form a sandstorm that might come up and blow you away, where the best thing would be like to dig underground to give yourself a little cave that you could survive though. So we’re pretty proud of that.”
There’s also a more engineering-oriented “3D-Printing” system, with which you can build vehicles, larger tools, and more relatively complex machinery to help you explore, gather resources, and survive. “Let’s say you’re building or mining something and you need more storage,” Adam explained, “You’re not going to 3D print a storage container that’s just going to sort of fly in from space. You’re going to print the chassis for it, the storage component for it, and the power sources for it, and you’re actually going to snap those things together in the game and as the player you can define it however you want. And the next player can come along and pick a different chassis or a different storage component or a different source of power, and put those things together, and now they’ve got their own version. And we’re really proud about that, and that is a system that’s across the board throughout the entire game. As an example, the excavation tool that the player can use, that can actually be snapped to something else, so you could snap it to the front of a vehicle, and drive that vehicle forward, and now you’ve got a vehicle that will excavate the terrain in front of it.”
All of this is being designed in Unreal 4 Engine, which the team has a great deal of experience in already, and it has lent itself to just about every aspect of the project. “From an art side, Paul and I have been using it for years,” he told us, “I’ve used it professionally for the last like seven years, off and on, and Paul and myself, we use it in our spare time. With the programmers, Brendan and Jacob, it’s just a matter of knowing the programming language that it’s in, which they do, and whether it allows somebody else on the team who doesn’t necessarily know programming to put scripts together to prototype gameplay with, and the answer to that is yes as well.
“So Paul and I, if we have an idea we want to test, we don’t have to necessarily need a programmer to implement it for us. We can use a system that’s inside of Unreal called Blueprint, which is a visual system for scripting, so we can make these live actors that will do some cool things and not have to lean on the programmers for the support of that, whereas in some other engines, in our experience, you pretty much exclusively have to lean on programmers for that. So it ended up, in a team of four people, the more chances we had to divvy up the workload, especially on the coding and implementation side, the better. So Unreal was a no-brainer for us.”
The project didn’t actually start out in Unreal 4, but switching over has demonstrably improved the development time and process. “We actually used Unity for our first year of development of Astroneer. In 2015, after going to GDC and learning a bit more about Unreal and the Blueprint system, we ended up porting over the planet technology from Unity into Unreal, and then we built everything else from the ground up again using the new Blueprint system and since we did that, the game has been infinitely better for it.”
Right now, the game doesn’t have a lot in the way of persistent interface and while that’s likely to change, it’s also somewhat intentional. “So far in development we haven’t actually needed [a user interface],” he explained, “I think you’ll eventually see some 2D elements in some of our screenshots, especially when we have to start dealing with the front end, and the options, and the menus and stuff, but we’ve actually really intentionally embraced a sort of diegetic interface where you’re interfacing directly into the game in 3D space. It’s not a first-person game, but we really want the experience to be personal, and when you’re starting to actually physically grab these things and move them around, you feel like you are actually doing that even though you’re witnessing it in the third-person perspective. So by embracing that, and tweaking it slightly away from realism to support that interface, it’s working really well.”
“The example which you may have seen in one of our Tweets before is that your inventory is your backpack,” he continued, “And your tools are a part of your backpack. You don’t press a button to bring up a full-screen menu as your inventory, you just actually click on your backpack and it will scale to become larger on your screen so you can see and interact with it. It might look a little silly to see this backpack go flying off of your guy and expand, but in the player’s mind, and at least for us, we find that you kind of disconnect from that a little bit in that you don’t care that it’s breaking realism. You care that you’re interacting with your backpack. It’s really part of that fantasy, and a lot of this is based on that. Like, we don’t care that it’s skewing realism if it supports the fantasy of what we’re trying to build, and it seems to be doing that well.”
One of the ultimate goals for Astroneer is widespread platform accessibility, and Adam doesn’t foresee any obstacles in the way of that goal. “I can’t see Astroneer requiring a top-of-the-line machine to run it,” he remarked, “Our goal is to make Astroneer as accessible to as many people as possible. So, if that means taking shortcuts for the low-end spec stuff, that’s fine. We haven’t done the testing, but we’re not putting anything in the game that should be too demanding of anyone’s computer right now, so I would be surprised if low- to mid-spec range is not ok.”
PROCEDURALLY GENERATED UNIVERSE
The role of an Astroneer is first and foremost that of a selfless humanitarian working for the greater good. “Astroneers sign up on their own will,” Adam explained, “because the human race needs them. They are everywhere from scientists to blue-collar workers to teachers that felt the need to sign up as an Astroneer to try to do better for their planet (or planets) that they live on.”
There will be a narrative in the game, but we’ll have to wait a little longer to hear the details. Instead, we focused on learning about all the things you might encounter on your noble space quest.
Planets in Astroneer are procedurally generated and while there will only be a few in early access, once the game launches the sky is the limit. But first, System Era wants to make sure that the planets themselves each offer a wealth of challenges and rewards.
“For early access, we’re really trying to focus on that single-planetary experience and making sure that is really special,” Adam explained, “So that when you decide to go to another planet, you know that you’re going to get something that’s really special again. There is something that in its own way is special about hopping from planet to planet, but our goals for early access are to ensure that this single-planetary experience, whether it’s you playing on your own or with a friend or several friends, that the planets themselves are offering an ‘infinite’ amount of challenges and things to overcome and emergent sort of goals that you’re going to give yourself. That way, when you do decide to planet-hop, it’s not because the planet is boring—it’s because maybe you need a resource that isn’t on that planet, or that other planet is offering different kinds of challenges that you discovered somehow, whether it was a friend that told you or something else.”
You might encounter other players on your journey, but you’re not very likely to see other kinds of intelligent life any time soon. That said, there is still a measurable amount of danger to be faced. “At least for early access, and probably a little bit beyond that, we’re not really interested in exploring like ‘little grey men’ and little aliens and things that you would have to deal with that way,” Adam explained. “If I wanted to draw the easiest comparison – if Minecraft has ‘Creeps,’ Astroneer has sandstorms. The reason we do that is that we look for environment hazards as our challenges, mostly just to ground the experiences and the challenges you get in reality as much as possible – I know I just said we have an excavation tool that magically lifts dirt out of the ground – but whenever we get the chance to stem our game design choices from reality as much as possible, we would like to do that.”
“…when you decide to go to another planet, you know that you’re going to get something that’s really special again”
“I think what you’ll see first come to Astroneer is more… microscopic alien challenges, like a disease, rather than a giant eight-tentacle monster that’s like a Sarlacc living in the ground type of thing,” he continued, “That doesn’t mean that we won’t go there in the future, but we’re not trying to make a game that’s about that sort of adversarial challenge where when you see an alien, the instinct is going to be that you have to shoot it, and we’re not really looking for challenges like that, and we think a lot of games have done that already. It’s more like, you know, ‘Holy shit, there’s a sandstorm coming here in the next 20 minutes, when am I going to get the chance to batten down the hatches so it doesn’t get blown away, and by the way, am I going to be able to survive this thing?’ Other environmental challenges that we’re looking at right now are things like poisonous geysers, acid rain, local solar flares, turbulent high winds, and things like that. We try to come from reality as much as we can… Unless it’s something awesome like a magic excavation tool.”
This isn’t to say that there is no non-human life in the universe, and some of that life is in fact pretty important. “There is flora in the game, absolutely, and the way that we’re exploring that is as a source of food for the players,” he explained. “The reason you haven’t really seen it yet is because building flora is kind of less of a challenge for us; we’ve kind of done it before and know where that will end up landing. What we’re trying to fry right now are the bigger fishes that we haven’t really faced before, things that, as developers, we haven’t really had to think too much about. But in the early access build and beyond you will see grass and trees and plants and things like that.”
Astroneer has co-operative multiplayer woven directly into the game, but the extent to which you encounter and interact with others is entirely up to you. “For early access, it’s going to be single-player, plus your friends, so you can invite a friend to come to your planet so you can do stuff together,” he described, “And you can save your world and come back to it next chance you get. If we were to look a couple years into the future, it’s completely emergent in that system. So if a player wants to play alone, they can do that. If they want to play with friends, they can do that. If you want to lock your planet down from strangers being able to visit, that can happen as well. But there is something special about seeing another player in the world and not knowing necessarily what their intentions or goals are, and how you can help each other as the Astroneers to make more money and help the human race back on Earth.”
If you do choose to go it alone, keep in mind that you really will be all alone in the universe. “Any Astroneer that you see in the game will be player-controlled,” he told us, “As for NPCs in general, there’s no plan for that right now, mostly because the feeling that we’re trying to pursue right now is that you are alone, and therefore you have to make really hard choices while you’re out there on your own. There’s no such thing as going back to Earth and going to bed when you feel sick – there’s none of that. So when you see another player, you’re going to know that they are just as much in the struggle as you are, and the systems that we have are there to benefit cooperative play rather than adversarial play. And just because you signed up as an Astroneer, in our narrative and our context it’s considered a noble job, like you’re there to help the human race, not to blow each other up or start a city type of thing. If you do decide to build a little town, it’s because you and a group of friends decided to get together and do something like that.”
Astroneer has the capacity for so much content with so little legwork that the team at System Era has actually had to curb themselves a little bit, to ensure that the project doesn’t become too unwieldly. “I think the biggest challenge has been making sure that we don’t over-scope ourselves,” Adam admitted, “Because it is that kind of thing where a lot of people have ideas for the game that are always really interesting. We talk about it to our friends, our parents, our kids, and they might say something that’s actually not a bad idea – I mean everybody, or most people have thought about space travel or being an astronaut, especially these days with that kind of weaning its way into pop culture – but there’s a lot of cool stuff that comes out, and because of the rapid prototyping, we can get a lot of these things in really quickly.”
“What you start having is sort of a kitchen sink of development,” he continued, “where a lot of things are in there, and you’re not going to be able to build a game like that. You really need to have the goals in mind: what’s our goal for early access, what’s our goal for one year, or for five years? You have to make sure that all of those items, instead of going in the game, they go on a wall somewhere. As we build the game, and as we face these new challenges from a developer side, we can go back and look at this wall and pull things off the wall and put in things that would either solve the challenge or support another fun mechanic that we have now. So I think being aware of our scope, and being aware that it is easy to over-scope because of our rapid iterations is a big challenge. It hasn’t hurt us so far, but we’re very aware of it, and it’s very easy to get carried away with really exciting ideas. I think out of anybody, I probably do it the most.”
CHARTING THE COURSE
Right now, early access is the biggest priority for System Era, as meaningful early access will pave the way for a clean and thorough product. That product itself may still be a little ways off, however. “You’re probably going to see something from us in early 2016, and the early access version of the game is definitely coming out in 2016,” Adam told us, “What that is and when you see it is subject to change right now, especially because we are all full-time on it, so we want to give it a really solid push now that we’re all available for forty hours a week to bust on this thing. So that might change our schedule a little bit, and while it might not be early 2016, you’ll see it sooner than later, and it will be the best that it can be when it ends up shipping this year.”
Initially, the game is slated for a PC release. However, once that’s accomplished, the team has every intention to branch out further. “The more people that play the game, the better,” he said, “And like I said, making it as accessible as possible is a big deal to us, and while right now it uses a mouse and keyboard, you can pick up a controller and walk around a little bit and do stuff and it feels great, so I think we’re going to support it right out of the gate with controller support. But you know, seeing this game on the consoles or even something a little bit more extravagant like VR would be something interesting for sure.”
It seems likely that Astroneer will be a constantly-evolving product, even after the official launch. “I don’t know if there will ever be a final version of the game, based on how we’re developing it,” Adam said.
Fortunately, early access is looking to be very accessible, so you won’t have to wait too long to get your first taste of the game. Since we spoke with Adam, the Astroneer Blog has since put out a statement that the team has secured additional funding, which means that they’ll be able to give early access players an even more robust product. This puts the current early access launch trajectory at late summer to early fall. But if that’s not soon enough, there will also be private testing that you can sign up for.
If you want to sign up for private testing before early access, you can do that by subscribing to their newsletter on the Astroneer Blog. You can also view the first trailer below:
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