Clockwork Empires

Interview: Gaslamp Games' mad, incredible vision for Clockwork Empires

Evan Lahti at

Daniel Jacobsen, CEO. Incidentally, Jacobsen has a physics degree from the University of Victoria.

Can you give me a sense of how much specializing I'll be able to do within Clockwork? In Civ, for example, you can focus on religion. You can focus on science. You can build a great military. What do you see as those variations?

DB: I believe we have a list here...

DJ: We do have a list!

NV: A list?!

DB: We went through the types of players, people who like to explore, people who like to fight, people who like to build, people who like to optimize systems...

NV: God help me, the people who like to optimize systems.

DB: Or optimize logistics, like in German strategy games. Germans love logistics.

NV: You're the only one in the entire company playing Dominions 3, David. Let he who is without sin cast the first spell.

DJ: One of the things that really want to make sure that we reward is exploring the maps. There will be a lot of hidden resources and things that... If you find an active volcano or something like that on the map, it's a way that you can say, oh, well, I've got an easy access to magma, what does that do for me? So you reward exploration by giving people interesting things to find. Similarly, there will be a population of plants, animals, and definitely sentient creatures on the map. You can try and conquer them. That's a way of playing the game, to build a military and just tell your military that, hey, you want those guys eliminated. Just make sure that you build the right people and build the right weapons and stuff like that. And your guys will go up and fight the good fight.

"There will be a population of plants, animals, and definitely sentient creatures on the map. You can try and conquer them."

NV: Some people like to build enormous structures. We have something for them. We have this procedural building technology and we have some other sorts of very traditional sandbox-type elements.

DB: Build the biggest city, build the fearsome aetherscope and look into the celestial spheres and they will look back into you... [laughter]

DJ: Megaprojects are a big thing that we want to be able to provide.

DB: They're like Civilization’s Wonders, to some degree, although perhaps a little more...

NV: Inherently dangerous and poor ideas.

DB: But they'll still be a grand experiment! Maybe you just love building a very stable colony and making lots of wealth, having aristocrats. Plunk down the colony, build the next one, just do the strategic meta-game of expanding the Clockwork Empire. Or maybe you treat your personal character, whatever meta-rewards we have there... Collect a knighthood?

NV: Maybe you're just one of those people who likes to watch the world burn? [laughter]

Am I ever.

NV: And you can do that too. Yes.

Terrific. Back to that mention of a volcano you made—what would be the process of exploiting that? You would send people in, and some of them might die, to build a structure that takes magma out?

DB: Well, it's obviously also quite dangerous.

DJ: You're going to dig down in the lava, we know that's what people like.

NV: Sure. We're very big on pumps and pipes and gears.

DB: I'm sure you'd send naturalists in first, see if there's minerals and any natives and what they might think of this whole situation.

DJ: And then you'll ignore their advice and build a giant tube that takes all their magma and puts it directly in the middle of your town because that's the safest thing to do. You could probably also do it in much safer ways.

NV: But you'll do that.

DJ: You'll probably end up piping it straight into your factories.

DB: It's that appeal of... Like in Minecraft, just shaping the world. That's another one of those player goals.

NV: Yeah, we give you a lot of options for that kind of thing. At some point it all goes horribly wrong and lava floods the place.

DJ: Yeah. A more practical application of a volcano would be using it to build some sort of factory at the volcano, which would generate steam power, and you'd be able to either send the steam power off directly, or turn it into electrical energy and send that down, which is inherently dangerous and difficult...

NV: We don't use wires. We use giant Tesla coils to move the electricity.


DB: Yeah, Tesla won. Edison is but a myth. We're very big on things like Leyden jars and Wimshurst machines and all of the very bad ideas of, again, the Victorian era.

DJ: So you could actually just store all of the electricity in some Jeyden jars, and then have somebody with a wagon cart them back down to the settlement.

NV: That's safe!

DB: And they could sell them on the market for great wealth.

DJ: Or you could interface them with one of your factories that needs power, because maybe your civilization is not near a river, which is an accessible source of power by use of water wheels and stuff like that.

NV: Or you could harness them to your exciting defensive Tesla coils.

DJ: Yeah, yeah. You could probably just even... Maybe the soldiers could throw them at people.

Oh my goodness.

NV: They're not that kind of jar.

DJ: I don't know what would happen. It would discharge...

NV: Would it?!

DJ: It totally would. Because they're made out of glass, and they've just got two suspended plates in them. I don't know if it would actually hurt anybody, though.

DB: Let's assume it would.

DJ: Yeah, let's assume that it would be terrible.

Joseph Nejat, a character artist at Gaslamp. In the background: some sort of constable with a bird mask. Oh dear.

Terrific. Thanks for walking me through that. Let's talk about your building technology.

NV: Okay! Hmm.

I'll just let you jump into it.

NV: So basically... There is a certain element of the world that really likes building things. Which we've seen. It's one of the things behind the success of Minecraft or whatever, and their second-generation imitators. It’s also true of Dwarf Fortress, except you're sort of digging, so your building is subtractive... So we wanted to put something in. But we didn't want it to be through mining, because you're not dwarves, you're Victorians. So what we came up with is a procedural building generator.

It's part of what forms some of my master's thesis work. What you do is this. You specify a floor plan, and you specify some vague stylistic goals, like what you would want, say, the profile of the walls to look like. Are you a guy who likes flat walls, or gabled roofs, or non-gabled roofs, or whatever. It extrudes that for you and you get a building. It's not just restricted to square buildings. You can have fairly complicated structures, you can build palaces, or large depressing mega-factories, or tiny shanties or whatever. And the game just extrudes it for you.

What would be an example of some variations on that factory? What would that look like?

NV: Material, roof shape, dimensions, size, decor, doors...

DB: Some of these things will actually have some gameplay effect, presumably. Where your steam pipe attachment point is...

NV: Yeah, some basic things like that. Some of it is just an excuse to build ridiculous player-driven Megaprojects.

DB: Some people will love decorating all their factories with little lights and signs and smokestacks. Some people won't care, and we can just place it for you in that case.

DJ: It's basically just a way... We wanted to give people a way to personalize their cities. It's important... Personalization makes you closer to the things that you're building. Again, some people don't really care, some people would rather not worry about it and have everything look exactly like our defaults envision it, in which case they'll probably just look like standard brick or stone buildings with kilns on them and steam insertion points and loading docks covered in guns or whatever. Some people will like to be able to say, “I want to make an Asian-inspired theme, a pagoda style of buildings.” And you can do that. Some people will want to say, “I want really industrial-looking flat-roofed sorts of things.”

DB: Metal plates everywhere.

DJ: Yeah.

NV: It will all be highly moddable. One of the things, of course, is if you have... Some of the earlier SimCities, where all the factories look like the same factory, right? When they spawn next to each other. This way, when you build a factory, you say, this is the profile of the factory, and maybe you want to give it a special roof or something to indicate that this is the pickling factory. Or it fits in with your decorative plan. It should really have a giant Arabian Nights-esque turret on it. We'll do that for you. You just specify what you want and we build it.

Is there a differing resource cost? Is there such a thing as a very opulent factory, and it would cost more of something to produce?

DB: I would imagine so.

NV: Yeah.

DB: We still have to figure out what the balance between gameplay and aesthetics is.

NV: But there's definitely... If you're making a brick factory you're going to need bricks. If you're making a metal factory you're going to need metal, and so on and so forth. And the size of the factory presumably increases the material demand.

DJ: And not only that, but it also increases the number of machines that you can put in it. If you're making a brick factory, and you make a huge brick factory, it'll be able to accomodate more brick presses. It'll cost more, but you'll make more bricks with it.

NV: Is a brick factory made out of bricks, or does it make bricks? I'm confused.

DJ: I think it could be both, depending on how many bricks you started with.

NV: My God.

They’re right there, you might as well use them.

DJ: You just build the factory without the walls, and then you buy those later. I'm kidding, that probably wouldn't work.

Can you upgrade or modify structures after they’re built?

NV: Sure.

DJ: You will be able to change them. The game mechanics will allow you to adjust the cost of making the facility bigger to accommodate more production or something like that. So yeah, that'll definitely be something we can do.

You’re talking about this like it’s very straightforward, but this seems really challenging to someone like me, who has a pretty cursory understanding. Are you making your own engine from scratch?

NV: Yeah.

Does that scare you?

NV: It's been an interesting an experience, let's just say. It's satisfying. It helps that I have... The engine for Clockwork Empires is based on a research engine I've been building for about 12 years now. It's something I've been poking away at and poking away at. Now it's more frenetic poking. But we have a bunch of fairly unique needs that don't lend themselves well to off-the-shelf solutions. We have this procedural building stuff. We have deformable terrain with different requirements. We run in an isometric perspective. We have lots of units running around. We need a fairly advanced networking engine. The other thing that is also important to us is that you be able to use as many CPU cores as possible. If you have a machine that has eight CPUs, we will run the simulation on all eight CPUs. No other game is currently actually doing things the way that we're intending to do things. Most games operate on a jobs-based model, where there's a very serial line. You start doing this and then you'll split things off into jobs to try to use some of the CPUs, but it's mainly one process all the way down. We use everything and the kitchen sink.

"No other game is currently actually doing things the way that we’re intending to do things. [...] We use everything and the kitchen sink."

DJ: It's really nice to be able to roll your own solution together. It's occasionally incredibly frustrating, because you don't have a canned solution, but it allows you more freedom. We spend more time on it than somebody who's working with Unity 3D, but at the same time, we can do a lot more cool things.