While the term "city-builder" is likely to conjure images of a 21st-century metropolis with bustling streets and steel skyscrapers, Aven Colony puts you in the role of a pioneer, venturing into the cosmos to establish humankind's first settlement on an extrasolar planet.
As the leader, it's up to you to create the infrastructure your people need to not only survive, but prosper. Of course, that's easier said than done when living on an alien planet where days and nights stretch into mini-seasons, where toxic gas vents from the ground, and the infectious growth of The Creep will consume everything if left unchecked.
On top of this, you’ll face the greatest challenge of all — keeping your people happy. How will you feed your people? Will you be able to provide them with enough jobs, entertainment, retail outlets, and other services? What social policies will you enact to influence them? The future of the colony rests on your decisions.
Given the scale of Aven Colony, what might surprise people most is that Mothership Entertainment is only a small team of four people. We talked to Designer and General Manager Paul Tozour about the features driving Aven Colony, how the team manages scope, and why they chose Unreal Engine 4.
The city-building genre has had a noticeable resurgence in popularity lately, and even some older titles are suddenly attracting new fans. Why do you think this is happening now?
PT: I think there was a long stretch when nobody wanted to compete with SimCity. But, I think a big part of that was just a cognitive bias, an obsessively narrow focus on the idea that "city" meant a modern city with similar game mechanics, which implied direct competition with the 800-pound gorilla.
But, as PC gaming has grown, we've seen that there are a lot of different opportunities in the genre. It doesn't have to be set in a modern context; there are lots of options for medieval and sci-fi city-builders and other alternative settings. And there's a whole spectrum of gameplay in-between the large scale of a game like SimCity or Cities: Skylines and smaller-scale sim games like RimWorld, Banished, or Planetbase, that are more oriented toward some combination of survival and micromanagement.
Aven Colony has players creating the first settlement on an extrasolar planet. What sort of alien obstacles will players face when colonizing this new environment?
PT: The world you're colonizing (called Aven Prime) has a low-oxygen atmosphere, which means you're keeping the colony hermetically sealed at all times for the survival of your colonists. On top of that, there are extreme electrical storms, shard storms, dust devils, and deadly toxic gas eruptions from some of Aven Prime's many geothermal vents.
Also, because it's technically a moon around an alien gas giant, the day and night cycle on this world is so long that days have their own seasons, and the winter of night makes growing food difficult and reduces the electricity your solar panels provide.
On top of that, there are giant sandworms, deadly plague spores, and a vicious xeno-fungus known as The Creep, which works similarly to the fire mechanic in a typical city-builder as it spreads to infect your buildings. If you're not careful, pretty soon all your buildings will have huge, nasty tentacles poking out. That tends to put the brakes on a colony's productivity in a hurry.
Tell us about some of the choices that players will have to make, and the tools available to manage the colonists.
PT: A lot of sci-fi games are about being alone and surviving on an alien world. To a certain extent, Aven Colony does that as well, but we also wanted to give players the rush of emotion when building that little colony into a big and glorious city and a making solid foothold for human civilization in space. That meant that we had to make a game that could scale up from a tiny colony to a huge futuristic city.
As a result, we've tried to avoid forcing the player to do a lot of cumbersome micromanagement that wouldn't scale to a big city, and let colonists make their own day-to-day choices. Instead, a large part of the game is deciding which types of structures to build to fulfill certain needs, when to upgrade, how quickly to expand, when to repair buildings that start to break down, and how many colonists to accept from the orbiting colony ship.
On top of that, you're making decisions about which trade contracts to accept, which jobs to open or close, which technologies to research, what types of crops to cultivate, what foods and beverages and other goods to manufacture, what social policies to enact to influence your colonists, and even what types of food and “enhancers” your colonists are allowed to consume.
If your colonists are unhappy, they'll tell you! They have over a dozen different morale factors, so if low food supplies, bad air quality, joblessness or anything else is on their minds, they'll tell you directly if you click on them. As your colony grows and expands, survival against the environment becomes easier, but just as with a real city, it becomes harder and harder to keep your people happy.
And if they really get unhappy, you'll see them standing all around your colony, waving holographic protest signs and chanting at you:
"WHAT DO WE WANT?"
"WHEN DO WE WANT IT?"
Watching a colony go to hell and your colonists get furious at you is one of the surprisingly enjoyable aspects of Aven Colony.
Aside from the alien elements, are there any other key features that make Aven Colony stand out from other city-building and management sims?
PT: A large part of it is the way we present the vision for a futuristic colony, with all the buildings made out of metallic nano-cubes, called "nanites," and built by flying construction drones. You'll also use different types of drones to police your city and maintain order, as well as to protect it from The Creep.
That, combined with the need to keep your colony hermetically sealed and manage air quality, and to handle electricity supply and demand and propagation around your colony, along with all the other aspects of managing the challenges of the alien environment and your own colonists, gives the game a very unique feel.
This is a very different experience from any other city-builder out there, and anyone who comes at this thinking they can play it the same way as SimCity or Cities: Skylines is going to end up with a lot of dead colonists very quickly.
Aven Colony obviously has a lot of complex interactions encompassing everything from city structures to the environment and even choices of food types for your citizens. How does this complexity impact the process for prototyping and implementing new ideas?
PT: We've had to be extremely aggressive about making sure we stay true to the vision and that we only add features to the game that fit in with the greater whole and add value in context.
It's very easy with this sort of game to sloppily throw out cool-sounding sci-fi ideas without understanding how they work in the context of the game design. "Oh, I just read this cool sci-fi book, and our game is science fiction too, so we should try to clone that!" But, we don't work like that; it doesn't fit with our approach to managing risk. And we really don't have any interest in cloning anyone else's game.
I think a lot of space games make a similar mistake in terms of letting feature creep run wild and not managing scope. They try to embrace the vastness of space with procedural planets or creatures or whatever and they end up spreading too little game design over way too much space. They try to be great science fiction without having a foundation of really solid game mechanics to build on first.
And it would have been very easy for us to build some sort of huge game in that vein, where you're colonizing planets across a whole galaxy. Thankfully, we didn't do that. In a sense, we're actually taking the opposite approach – we're starting small, fanatically managing the game's scope, making it very fun and focused and polished, and building outward from there.
Having said all that, we're just going into public beta now, and there's no question that there's still plenty of room for further tuning, so we're looking forward to refining the game even further and working with the community to see what features they want most before we ship.
Did you have prior experience with Unreal Engine, and why did you choose it for the creation of Aven Colony?
PT: I used an early version of Unreal Engine 3 back on Thief: Deadly Shadows in 2001, but having seen a lot of the source code of both engines, Unreal Engine 4 is a completely different beast, both inside and out.
I've been in the industry a long time now – well over 20 years – and I've learned that there are certain things you have to hold to very high standards of professionalism. As an engineer, I need to have full control over memory allocation, and I also need to know that the language I'm using isn't going to throw any artificial speed barriers at me and that I have the ability to optimize any part of the code all the way down to the metal if I need to.
C++ is really the only language that does all that while also giving you access to world-class debugging, profiling, and static analysis tools.
I'm also pretty firmly opposed to text-based scripting languages. Scripting itself is usually necessary for most games, but I’ve found that the use of text for scripting is usually a mistake, and a lot of teams tend to hamstring themselves by giving designers what essentially amount to programming languages without proper debugging and tools support.
Blueprint's visual system manages to very elegantly combine robust scripting support with type-safety and incredible simplicity, giving you the power of what's essentially a serious programming language but far safer and easier to use. And, it's infinitely extensible from C++.
For me, it's an ideal combination: an incredibly powerful, type-safe, easy-to-use visual scripting language that even has a built-in debugger -- along with full support for C++, and the ability to easily extend Blueprint from C++ and add any new functionality you need.
Blueprint lets you develop code faster than anything else I've used, while C++ lets you write code that runs faster than any other language. So, you can get either the fastest coding, or the fastest code. It's the best of both worlds tied seamlessly together, and I can't speak highly enough about how perfect a combination the C++/Blueprint combination is and how much it's helped us in development.
We could never have made such an incredibly ambitious game with this tiny team without the power of Unreal Engine 4.
Tell us about the architecture of Aven Colony. Were there any dominant sources of inspiration for the futuristic designs?
PT: We had the good luck to meet legendary sci-fi artist Stephan Martiniere when we were starting out in late-2013, and we contracted him to do a lot of initial designs for colony structures that helped set the tone for everything that came after that.
The biggest challenge was creating structures that are recognizable from a modern perspective, while also supporting the notion that you're starting with a small, more rugged-looking colony and gradually building that up to a sleek and sexy colony that's more like a sci-fi city.
We've combined more utilitarian designs with early-game and low-tier structures at the start – such as solar panels, energy batteries, and storage depots – with higher-tier designs that become gradually more fanciful as they become more common in larger colonies – habitats, skyscrapers, hospitals, retail centers, entertainment facilities, and so on.
How many people are a part of the core development team, and how are you using Unreal Engine 4 to aid in their collaboration?
PT: Our team is incredibly tiny – only four developers. City-builders of this scale usually have 20-60 developers. We have one engineer who also does our IT and support, one artist on the buildings, another artist who handles everything from terrain to UI and characters, and then I handle part of the engineering workload along with game design, production, and biz dev.
With such a small team, we have to be extremely judicious about managing scope and we're fairly obsessive about managing risk. Over the past 2.5 years, we've concentrated on building a small, focused, super-polished sim game, starting from a solid foundation and then carefully expanding as we transition from alpha into a public beta.
Unreal Engine 4 has turned out to be incredibly helpful in that regard. Blueprint has allowed us to very rapidly prototype and experiment with new features. The seamless integration with source control (Perforce in our case) has helped us work together seamlessly and quickly track down issues when things go wrong. The built-in profiling tools have been enormously helpful in helping us improve performance. And, although Unreal Motion Graphics (UMG) didn’t exist when we started, we eventually transitioned our entire user interface over to it once it was ready for prime-time, and it was enormously helpful in allowing us to quickly iterate on such an interface-intensive game.
How would you describe your interactions with the Unreal Engine community during development?
PT: It's been terrific to be a part of the Unreal community since 2013 and watch AnswerHub and the forums grow over time. We've had a lot of our development questions answered on the UE4 forums as well as directly on reddit. We also gave an early demo of our game at a local UE4 developer event in Austin earlier in the summer, and we got an incredibly positive reaction from that, which was very encouraging.