Regardless of your thoughts on the game itself, it is very difficult to deny the effect that Minecraft has had on the industry. It spawned a new genre that has been taken up by many other titles. It pioneered a new revenue model that even a behemoth like Steam took up and was renamed Early Access. It was the subject of numerous “Let’s Play” videos, involved and promoted the community, and probably most importantly provided people who could not normally build anything in the video game world a toolbox and free reign to let their imagination run wild.
Prague based developer Keen Software House have been using all these tools to develop their latest title, Space Engineers. We got a chance to ask CEO and Founder of Keen Software House, Marek Rosa, a few questions about the development of Space Engineers, their inspiration, and how Steam’s Early Access programme has treated them.
Keen Software House was founded in 2010 with the concept for their first title, a Decent style 6DOF shooter in a fully destructible environment named Miner Wars 2081. “The first thing that we did was to test the idea of Miner Wars 2081 and since there was an interest on this, we invested some money into it.” Rosa told us, adding that “The biggest challenge was to hire the right team – compatible, hard working and skilled developers” For Keen Software’s next idea, it turns out that their inspiration came from the same place that many of us found inspiration in our younger years.
“The main idea of Space Engineers was inspired by the popular construction toys of LEGO and LEGO TECHNIC” Rosa explains, and looking at Space Engineers, the parallels are obvious. In it’s current iteration, with infinite space and infinite resources, Space Engineers is focused purely on the construction of your own spaceship. Primitive shapes combine with component parts such as thrusters and power units to form the craft we always wanted to fly when we were kids. Then to top it all off, give people the ability to attach weapons to their creations, jump in the pilot seat and fly off into the sunset makes for an exceptionally interesting cocktail of ideas.
One of the big features that has been the subject of many a YouTube video is the destruction physics in Space Engineers. As your ship is constructed from independent blocks, so too can they be blown away by an errant laser shot or a passing asteroid. This was not always part of the original design though. “We started to consider adding the destruction physics two to three months after the development begun, when we realized that the volumetric engine allows a simple and straightforward implementation. We could also say that destructive physics is a side effect of the volumetric engine design.” While the concept of epic combat with missiles blowing off chunks of other ships makes us tingly in special places, Rosa is currently apprehensive about talking about the combat aspects of the game. “This is something that we can’t reveal many details at the moment. Briefly the idea is that in the beginning it will be simpler and then it will become a bit more complex as the development of the game will be progressing.” The place-holders in the game currently are very positive sounding however, with Gatling Guns for your ships, and assault rifles for yourself. Despite the advantage of having an engine that could support such an awesome feature, it was by no means a trivial implementation. “The biggest challenge was to make sure that every calculation in the game will run in real-time and without any lags (in reasonable scenes)”, Rosa says.
Steam Early access has started to attract some controversy in the past few months, with the sheer volume of titles starting to appear on Steam, with varying degrees of completeness or even base functionality. The programme seems to be working particularly well for Keen Software House right now however, building on top of the relationship formed during the release of their last game. “Our relationship and cooperation with Steam is excellent.” says Rosa, “We also cooperated with them during the past year for the release of Miner Wars 2081 and we never felt that we are treated not equally as it would be with other bigger developers.”
One of the big reasons cited by many development studios in choosing Early Access has always been the ability to shape the game around community response, and Space Engineers is no different. “One of the reasons that we decided to release Space Engineers in Alpha so we can get feedback from players to help us improve the game”, explains Rosa. “The reception from the community is more than great for us. Every day we see something new and different. From the developers’ side, this is what makes us really happy”. Making a tool such as Space Engineers available to people who are willing to dive in early usually results in those players producing some pretty spectacular creations. Rosa’s favourite? “It’s very hard to choose, there are hundreds of amazing creations, such as the Enterprise from Star Trek, the Battleship from Warhammer 40k or the Titanic.” Of course there are always going to be those who try to be as unconventional as possible. “A player who created a house with trees was something different than what we have seen.” I would agree.
Sandbox games are designed in a way that encourages creativity. So yes, why not see them in classrooms sometime in the future?
Marek Rosa, CEO Keen Software House
With the rise of “sandbox” style games in the past few years and the creativity that they have shown to be possible in the hands of those with an appropriate spark, so to has the experiments with such games in the classroom. There have been numerous stories written about open minded teachers bringing such titles into their classes, either to assist with the teaching of subjects such as computer science and math, to just providing a way to allow kids to explore their own imaginations in a way that doesn’t involve massive outlays of materials or tedious clean-ups afterwards. Keen Software House proudly claims that they “want players to learn new stuff while playing our games”, so how do they feel about the move of creative sandbox games starting to be used in classrooms? “Gaming in general can be used also for educational purposes. There are many programs and games which are developed to do this” Rosa explains, “Sandbox games are designed in a way that encourages creativity. So yes, why not see them in classrooms sometime in the future? I believe that it will be very beneficial for education.”
So where does Space Engineers go from here? With the number of updates that Keen Software House have been making to the alpha so far, it’s a very different experience now from even when I played it just after it appeared on Early Access at the end of last year. “One of the main features that will be added is Multiplayer.” Rosa explains, “This is the number one priority for us now and the number one request by the community.” I would agree, as personally the concept of myself and Calum designing and piloting a ship sounds like it could be the funniest disaster since the last time we tried to build a cooperative shelter in Minecraft and blew up spectacularly. (Editors Note – At time of writing, the first version of multiplayer was just added to the alpha. We have yet to try it as a team, but third party comments are positive and hilarious.) Rosa and the team are definitely looking to the community for inspiration. “We are gathering all the suggestions made by the community and we will keep adding features frequently not only the ones that we have already planned to do but also features that the players have suggested. As we state on our website, we need to see how people play our game and what do they want us to focus on. Community feedback is expected and will direct our future decisions.” For what exactly those features are though, we will all have to wait and see. “There are also many other features that will be added later on but we can’t reveal them at the moment.”
Personally I can’t wait.
Space Engineers is available on Steam Early Access right now for £11.99 (at time of writing), with multiplayer recently added, and Steam Workshop support for sharing your creations.