The Universim, Crytivo Games’ first project, is ambitious to say the least. Coming from a studio dispersed across the globe, all working individually but collaboratively, this planetary management god-game simulator sounds complex. And fascinating. We spoke to Crytivo’s Kyle Lautenbach about the ins-and-outs of running a universe, and found out why the team took to Kickstarter to keep The Universim indie.
Being a god game simulator, The Universim is a member of a rarefied genre. The idea for The Universim came from a simple source – “a general lack of good god games lately”. The Crytivo team are fans of the genre, and that drove their passion and interest with The Universim. “We were definitely inspired by some of the greats,” Lautenbach said, “but we are also trying to differentiate ourselves quite a bit and shift the god game genre into the ‘next generation’”.
And the Crytivo team are doing a lot of unique things with The Universim to differentiate them from others within the genre.
“Everything in the game revolves around dynamic gameplay, from planetary events to the civilization AI itself.” Lautenbach told us. “The main idea was to do away with the typical static world that you have probably grown accustomed to and instead aim for a simulated, living world.”
Crytivo have created their own engine extension for their advanced simulation requirements. Dubbed Prometheus, the Unity plugin carries much of the weight of simulation and procedural generation, even simulating seasonal change on the various planets you’ll encounter.
What’s actually being simulated is extensive, exhaustive, and incredibly intricate. All civilisations in the universe are controlled by AI – the player has no ability to directly control anyone. “Workers and the AI will not wait for an order,” Lautenbach told us, “they will immediately spread out and start working on ways to improve the civilization. The AI will make many of its own decisions. Some will be highly beneficial, and others not so much. You are there to try and keep them on the path you want. However, you cannot take direct control of different units which is another element that compliments the dynamism of the AI. You are always looking at the bigger picture.”
“We came up with a concept called ‘Organic Gameplay’ which is mentioned in our trailer. This pertains mostly to the dynamism of the AI, but can also be extended to the way the entire world works. Seasonal change, disasters, random events, and so on are all related to the concept as well. It always makes for a very ‘organic’ feeling in all aspects because of how differently a simulation operates when compared to the norms.”
The Universim does demand some micromanagement skills from the player, placing civilisations’ research and expansion in your hands, letting you shape the way a civilisation progresses. “We just recently announced the Object Editor as well which allows players to change everything about how their buildings, vehicles, and even certain technologies function and look.” Lautenbach added. “Of course, there are godly powers involved in the game as well.”
The Universim’s god powers take the form of the “Creator Abilities” system. You are given control of natural elements of a given planet, such as “dragging a raincloud over a building that is on fire in your civilization can actually help extinguish it.” If you’re feeling particularly pernicious, you can even send natural disasters to trouble your planets’ populations. Creator Abilities use your reserves of power, which can be raised or lowered by doing “various tasks” in the universe.
Story-wise, The Universim is relying on its procedurally generated nature to create emergent narratives. “[W]e are effectively allowing players to make their own story.” Lautenbach told us. “There isn’t a predefined one to follow. You are writing history as you play. However, there will be a lot of smaller stories packed into the game. Many emergent narratives will spring up and make a comment on different aspects of life. Others may even come from the dynamic news system where most stories will be very humorous and possibly even span multiple eras as somewhat of a running gag. We have other stuff planned that can add a lot to your story, but we haven’t announced anything yet.”
The Universim’s universe will be a huge place. Lautenbach is promising a game that is “[a]bsolutely massive”. New worlds and colonies offer different challenges and opportunities, which the player must manage. “[A]ll of our dynamic systems actually work wonderfully together towards the end-game.” Lautenbach said. “Gameplay will constantly change based on the different planets you encounter.”
Planet discovery and colonisation is a core part of expanding The Universim’s vastness. Every time you discover a new planet, it is randomly generated based on a pool of possible characteristics. “Each will have different challenges to overcome, new resources to discover, strange new plant and wildlife, and a few other mysterious qualities. New planets will often have some or other quality that requires you to properly prepare for colonization. For example: it may have no oxygen, requiring atmosphere generators to create a habitable environment. It could even be covered in molten lava requiring the usage of thermal regulators to change the conditions.”
“There will be a lot of variety and many different challenges to work through, but the rewards are often worth it! Especially when you come across a volatile planet/solar system. Such occasions will see a timer appear onscreen, showing when the planet or its sun is going to explode. The planet will often have very valuable resources that will soon be lost. It is your choice to see if you can suck the resources dry before time runs out. However, the same colonization challenges apply. You will need to make the planet surface safe before attempting to harvest resources. It is going to be heart-pounding, but very rewarding. Unless everyone dies…”
Planetary hazards aren’t relegated to those in place during initial generation, either. As seasons change on the ground, civilisations must face challenges and adapting conditions. Winter, for example, is the most brutal season – depending on what kind of biome your civilisation is in. “Some winters will last very long, but will not be so severe. Others will unleash a freezing hell on your civilization, but may only last a few short months. Then there is a chance to have the most brutal winter of all come along which will require the utmost preparation to survive. It can last for many months and utterly ravage your civilization.”
Natural disasters can bring destruction to a civilisation too. Meteor strikes, earthquakes, tornadoes are some of the death-bringing events that happen dynamically. Some not-so-natural disasters can befall a civilisation, too. “Alien visitors, and possibly even invaders, are among the dynamic events that can occur on your planet.” Lautenbach and the Crytivo team are keeping some surprises in store for players, though, so you can bet there’ll be more nasty disasters to ravage your hapless colonies.
Each civilisation progresses along a technological path based on research levels. From stone-age technologies to space-faring ships, colonies develop and evolve. Each era has its own specific look and feel, as well as technological opportunities. “[T]here is quite a bit of content in each era.” Lautenbach explained. “The medieval buildings are looking pretty great at the moment, but there is a lot more coming every day. Every era will give you access to new resources, research, and technology. Your civilization will also become more intelligent as time goes on. Starting in the Stone Age, they are pretty dumb. Luckily you are there to help them out. You will see buildings advance, various vehicles become available, new tools (toys) to play around with, and more.” Specific details on how civilisations progress through the ages is being kept under wraps at the moment, but Lautenbach hinted at the importance of research levels, cryptically telling us that “progression definitely comes from actual progression!”
And when war inevitably comes to the colonies, either through alien invasion or more domestic sources, how does that play out? Currently, it’s all handled by the AI, which makes its own decisions and plays out the battles dynamically. Performance during war can be changed by researching weapon or defence technologies. The team currently aren’t looking to implement an RTS-style system of direct player control, but everything’s still ultimately undecided. “This is an area where we will most likely need community feedback.” Lautenbach said. “We think it is fun. But we still need unbiased, honest feedback to make sure we are going down the right road.”
With a little over two days left on its Kickstarter campaign, The Universim is sitting at $336,715 – just over its $320k goal. That’s a massive win for the team, allowing them to continue on with their development while remaining independent. We talked to Lautenbach just before the Kickstarter goal was reached, but even then the team were determined to complete their game – funding be damned. “We never planned on stopping if we don’t reach the goal.” Lautenbach told us then. “But it would be quite a hit to development time.” They were encouraged by the community feedback they had already received about the project. Crytivo have even been approached by publishers interested in the project, but the team turned down those offers. “[W]e turned them down as we want to stay independent.” Lautenbach said. “This is due to how we plan on developing the game alongside the community and make decisions that benefit the community first. With a publisher, that philosophy will probably lower the profit margins and thus be snuffed out. Then we would lose the very soul of our game.”
“We aren’t saying that all publishers are bad, some are fantastic. Especially those that approached us. But we didn’t want to risk losing our game.”
While The Universim is a single player only title right now, there has been some planning for implementing a multiplayer mode. Lautenbach told us that multiplayer is “something that was on the table from the very beginning.” The game’s systems are inherently capable of delivering an engaging multiplayer experience, so that those who wish to can play with friends. At the moment, though, Crytivo is focusing on the single player experience, relegating plans for multiplayer to the future and “quite a bump in finding”, although they “won’t give up on multiplayer any time soon either.”
The Universim is designed to scale well with lower-end systems, while retaining its own personality through its art style. The art style itself is key in this, allowing the Crytivo team to “make a real stunner without relying too heavily on intensive rendering technologies.” Lautenbach wouldn’t reveal all the specific technical tricks the game is utilising, but he did say that they’re “making use of the PC’s strengths”, and that “those who have higher-end systems can expect some nice eye candy.”
Audio tracks to support the gameplay are under construction, with the sole composer of the team having created a number so far. The Crytivo team are considering bringing more musicians on board to help create the soundtrack though, to give the game “a good mix” – although nothing’s set in concrete with those musicians just yet. The Universim’s Kickstarter page has some samples of the music that’s currently out there, for those wanting to get a taste of what’s to come.
Crytivo are building The Universim in Unity – an engine they chose for a few very good reasons. “Unity offered us the best mix of features and freedom when we started working on the project last year.” Lautenbach said. “Its versatility makes it a great tool to work with. Creating an extension such as Prometheus is relatively painless in terms of actual integration. It is particularly great for a ‘non-standard’ game like The Universim where we are aiming for a different look and feel, as well as a different kind of gameplay experience.”
“What I mean by this is that all engines typically have a lot of great starting stuff that assist you in making a standard RPG or FPS really easily. They almost have a preference for those kind of games, making them the best engines to choose when developing for those genres. The Universim is being built pretty much from scratch, and I think Unity offers quite a great suite of features for that sort of thing. It is probably due to its Indie focus from the very beginning.”
The Universim is being contained to PC until the game launches (tentatively) in 2015. Whether it will come to consoles in the future is as of yet unknown, but the team have been considering how they would make the transition. “Unity is great in the fact that it should allow us to essentially remake the game for consoles and take full advantage of them once the PC versions are complete.” Lautenbach told us. “We don’t want to design a particular system with consoles in mind as that could easily limit the potential of the PC version.” Keeping The Universim on PC alone at the moment also allows the team to concentrate their resources on the task at hand – finishing the game. “If we do develop for consoles, we would probably approach it like a new game and redesign a number of things to better suit the specific consoles.” Lautenbach said. “That is the best way to approach multi-platform projects if they are not developed in parallel. Developing games in parallel across multiple platforms is always going to have a negative effect on one or other aspect. We want to do our best to avoid this issue.”
The Universim is ambitious, and it’s still a long way from completion. With news of the project’s Kickstarter success, the project’s sure to remain on track for a while longer. Thanks very much to Kyle Lautenbach and the team at Crytivo for talking with us about The Universim. We’ll be sure to keep track of the project as it winds its way to its potential 2015 PC release.