In the seminal Dwarf Fortress, failure was baked into the design: your settlement of little characters was doomed to fall apart eventually, but there was a certain thrill in seeing just how long you could stave off the inevitable.
The same life-and-death tension runs through Starmancer, Ominux Games’ upcoming sci-fi management sim: playing the role of an artificially intelligent, organic computer aboard a space station, your task is to look after your huddle of vulnerable human colonists. They’ll need all the obvious stuff to survive – food, water, air, that kind of thing – but they’ll need comfortable surroundings, too, which means a fair chunk of the game is devoted to constructing a safe and pleasant environment.
You can go for the cold industrial look if you want – all steel grilles and angular piping – but you’ll probably find that carpeted living quarters and a few decorative items dotted about the place will really lift your inhabitants’ mood.
You’ll need to keep a close eye on your colonists’ morale, too: if a colonist is unhappy about their living conditions, they might spread that dissatisfaction to other humans. If things really get out of hand, you could end up having to deal with a full-on mutiny. Or worse, your entire space station could become overrun by pirates, or ravaged by a deadly alien slime infection.
Death and failure are everywhere in Starmancer, then – but don’t expect Ominux’s game to be quite as harsh as Dwarf Fortress, says programmer Tyler Millershaski. “Starmancer is much more forgiving,” he tells us. “Your colonists are literally grown in tanks, and you can regrow them when they die – you’ll lose their memories and skills, but not the colony. It’s almost impossible to mess up so bad in Starmancer that it’s game over. This is largely due to our ‘purge’ system. When all your colonists die, you can send out robots to clean up your mess (dead bodies, blood, etc) and then regrow everyone – like nothing ever happened.”
Pixels in space
Compared to the somewhat austere-looking Dwarf Fortress, with its text-based visuals, Starmancer is also a much more approachable game from a visual standpoint, thanks to the sterling isometric artwork by Victor Wirström. Wirström’s sprite work, reminiscent of classics like Landstalker or Final Fantasy Tactics, not only helps immerse the player in the game’s futuristic setting, but also sells the idea that you’re taking care of a real colony of individual humans, each with their own skills and personalities.
This feeds into one of Ominux’s goals for the game: that the player will feel a distinct pang of guilt when things inevitably go wrong. “You could solve most problems by venting life support and killing your problematic colonist – but we don’t like that,” Millershaski says. “We want the player to feel bad every time a colonist dies. If the player doesn’t care about a colonist, we’ve failed.”
Starmancer has come a long way since it was first shown off publicly around three years ago; a successful 2019 Kickstarter campaign – and the arrival of Chucklefish as publisher – gave the budget and time for Ominux to completely overhaul the game.
“If the Kickstarter didn’t do well,” says Millershaski, “we probably would have released Starmancer within a year – or sooner. The internals of the game were… fine, but they were incredibly limiting. Adding new content would have been a huge pain. I’m still not sure how things like modding would have worked in our old system. So we decided to completely remake Starmancer from the ground up, with an emphasis on flexibility and modding.”
That flexibility means players can experiment with all kinds of approaches through the course of the game, whether it’s crafting new items from scratch, or retrieving and conducting research on the alien artefacts colonists discover on their journey through space; Starmancer is a game designed to encourage experimentation, and Ominux has been careful to balance the game to make it fair rather than frustrating.
“The player should always feel like they’re responsible for their failure,” Millershaski says. “Maybe ordering your engineer to craft rocket fuel has an inherent explosion risk. The player should understand this. They should also understand that a low-level engineer has a much, much higher chance of causing an explosion… Failure should be interesting and understandable – not frustrating. The player should be able to learn from their mistakes. The player should never be discouraged from trying new things or experimenting.”
As for how long Starmancer has left in the development oven – well, its release is “stressfully close”, according to Millershaski. “Most of our time is spent balancing things like how much food a colonist has to eat or how frequently they fight. We have no intentions of releasing a broken game. When you play Starmancer, we don’t want you to feel like you’re wasting your time by playing a rough draft.”
Genre: Construction / Management sim
Format: PC / Mac / Linux
Developer: Ominux Games