Build it and they will come: designer Dan Walters on the future of Stormworks

Game: Stormworks: Build And Rescue
Genre: Sandbox / Sim
Format: PC
Developer: Sunfire Software
Publisher: Green Man Gaming
Price £10.99
Release: On Steam Early Access now

What’s wonderful about creativity is that it creates a positive feedback loop, where one clever thing lights sparks in other people’s heads, resulting in lots of other clever things. Take Kerbal Space Program, for example: as well as being a wonderful space sim in its own right (seriously, download it now), it also provided a jolt of inspiration to British game designer, Dan Walters. “I’d never played a game like that before,” Walters enthuses over Skype, “and like many people, I loved it. At three in the morning, I was still playing. An unhealthy gaming habit.”

Before Kerbal Space Program, the games Walters had made were, to use his own term, story-based: “Our previous game was Peregrine, which was a narrative game – you start at A and go through each scene in order until the end.” Kerbal Space Program, on the other hand, offered a virtual toolbox of modular parts where players could build their own rockets and blast off into space – or, more likely at first, explode on the launch pad. It was an experience that ultimately led Walters to start making Stormworks, a sandbox sim where, cast as a coastguard, you build vehicles and embark on rescue missions.

“Really, the coastguard theme was born purely from the idea of creating a non-combat, mission-based narrative for a sandbox game,” Walters says. “It’s just been a journey, really. As we’ve gone through and created a game mechanic, it’s grown and grown.”

Going down a storm

Since its launch on Steam Early Access in February 2018, Stormworks has garnered an enthusiastic community, making it the most successful game to emerge from Walters’ indie studio, Sunfire Software. In the months since its release, the game’s online workshop has steadily filled up with increasingly large and complex vehicles that players have built using Stormworks’ construction system. That Stormworks is the product of a tiny studio – aside from Walters, Sunfire comprises another programmer and an artist – makes the scale of what they’ve created all the more impressive.

“The community’s grown in a big way, not just in terms of size but ability,” Walters says. “We still look at some of the older vehicles in the workshop and say, ‘Remember when we thought this vehicle was the best ever?’ At that point we were thinking, ‘We’re not the best at the game anymore’.”

There’s a real thrill when a craft you’ve designed successfully takes to the sky

Some impressive user-generated creations include a gigantic flying aircraft carrier akin to the one in Marvel’s The Avengers, a working submarine, and a replica of Thunderbird 2. Walters says that some players have managed to make vehicles so large that they can’t even be spawned onto the main world in one piece; they have to be added one section at a time, and then joined together with magnets. Other players have gone for things that are small and complex, such as a functioning calculator or even a fully working adaptation of an antique arcade game.

Players are using Stormworks’ logic system in ways its creators could never have imagined. Working Pong game, anyone?

“Someone made Pong in the game as well,” Walters says. “We can’t understand it. We don’t know how you can do that. Some players have put in 1,000 hours or 2,000 hours. They’re coming up with uses for parts that we’d never even thought of – like, people making flushing toilets, showers, kitchens, just using these basic blocks.”

Stormworks is also something of a sandbox for its creators. Back when the concept was still fresh in Walters’ mind, he hadn’t even reckoned on the game featuring a proper simulated ocean, with waves tossing players’ vessels around and possibly even damaging them. Since then, Sunfire have worked on a string of major updates, each one improving things like fluid mechanics and the construction interface. One update added the option of death – something Walters says has only increased players’ affection for Stormworks.

“Player engagement has jumped up massively – they absolutely love that things can go wrong. Bringing it straight back to Kerbal again, if the rockets don’t blow up, it wouldn’t be as much fun. Add the mechanic of failure to the game, and you end up in this very rewarding loop of trying something, and failing, and trying again.”

According to Walters, the additions that his team have planned could take 18 months or more to implement. These range from additional biomes (the game’s currently set in a simulated version of the Hebrides) to more vehicles and in-game items. One of the more controversial things Walters is toying with, though, is the addition of weapons.

“It’s probably about 50-50 among players who really want weapons and players who feel very strongly that it should remain weapon-free,” Walters tells us. “I really want to see players making machines that are capable of warfare; naval battles; collaborating with other players; manning submarines, reconnaissance; flying fighter jets off aircraft carriers…”

Here, Walters seems to go just a little misty-eyed at all the possibilities that Steamworks opens up. For the game’s hardcore following, busily making everything from working toilets to flying aircraft carriers, Stormworks is a true sandbox. It’s clear, though, that its creator also loves the positive feedback loop he’s set in motion.

“It’s exciting to be involved with a game that people are really enjoying,” he says. “I’m constantly in the workshop looking at what people have made and watching all the YouTube videos. It’s a little bit of luck, but it’s not lost its magic yet.”

Sandbox Revolution

Ever since Minecraft exploded in popularity, the sandbox sim has become a hugely important genre; even shooter phenomenon Fortnite has construction at the heart of it. So why does Walters think making things is so big in gaming right now? “A lot of these games gamify the process of design to the point where it’s very lightweight and easy to try new things and experiment,” Walters says. “It’s taking us into a playground of art. It’s less like a traditional video game and more like physical play, I think. It’s called a sandbox, and that’s what it is – a children’s sandpit where you can play with your imagination as much as anything else. Making these games in a low-poly style isn’t a mistake; it’s about promoting that context of projecting your own ideas onto the game. Whether you’re an adult or a child,
I don’t think it matters.”

Stormworks: Build and Rescue is available on Steam Early Access now.

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