Our Clockwork Empires preview unearthed some clues and concepts lurking in Gaslamp Games' steampunk city sandbox. To illuminate more of the game's insanity (Elder God-summoning; weaponized zeppelins) and intricacy (procedural building technology; emergent character interactions), I've cut an interview based on a two-hour conversation with the developer.
“Interview” might not be accurate, actually. It's more of a 9,000-word lobotomy of Gaslamp Games' three founders, and also one of the most lively and entertaining conversations I've had with a group of game makers.
For easy reading, I've broken the conversation into four segments.
Basic concept, Dwarf Fortress inspiration, multiplayer, making failure fun
Losing conditions, how Clockwork preserves history, accessibility focus, Clockwork's characters and castes
Megaprojects, specialization, volcanoes, electricity, procedural building technology, Clockwork's custom engine
Player goals, zeppelins, indirect control system, minimizing micromanagement, weaponry, what it's like to grow as an indie developer
All photography of Gaslamp Games courtesy of Andrew Ferguson.
PCG: What is Clockwork Empires?
Daniel Jacobsen , CEO: There's a couple of ways you can put it. One is, “somewhere between Dwarf Fortress and SimCity.” Is that the easy one?
David Baumgart , Art Director: That's probably the most succinct way of putting it.
Nicholas Vining , Technical Director: Probably skewing a little more towards Dwarf Fortress.
DJ: Yeah. Or maybe take one of the Anno games and move it more towards characters and scene a bit and make it totally insane.
NV: It's also like Charles Dickens on Acid.
DJ: I think it's Charles Dickens on crack, but...
NV: I think it's more acid at this point.
DB: Charles Dickens with 'Nam flashbacks?
NV: Edwin Drood and the mystery of R'lyeh?
DJ: By 'Nam you mean the Boer War .
NV: Well, whatever. You should know, our interviews are basically useless, good luck trying to make any sense out of this, if your transcriptionist starts babbling in tongues...
DJ: That's normal.
That's entirely my goal.
DB: Anyway. We call it a character-driven city-builder, would that be...?
NV: That would be fairly accurate.
DB: Something like that. And sandbox. That's another word to throw in there. Someone else want to flesh this out?
DJ: Sure. It's basically a game where... You essentially start with a settlement, you start off with a number of people from the Clockwork Empire, and your goal is to tame the land, to take the patch of wilderness that you have been plopped down on and turn it into whatever you want. You're given some vague motivations from the Empire, they want you to make, I dunno, a weapon factory, or they want you to pump out a lot of cheese. Whether or not you choose to do those is, to a large or small extent, up to you. You can totally go off the rails and start doing your own things. There will be ramifications for that, but...
NV: Oh, yes, there will be ramifications.
DJ: But you are essentially given a blank slate. There are going to be all kinds of resources and all kinds of features. You'll be able to play on a map with your friends. There will also be an opportunity to play against AI players that are, again, just small settlements that are competing with you in some ways. You choose what you're going to do with that area.
Is the multiplayer collaborative? What form does it take? Clockwork isn't an RTS, I'm guessing.
NV: It's not StarCraft.
DB: It's not a symmetrical, eSports RTS.
NV: For playing with your friends, it's very much... If you look at Boatmurdered, are we all familiar with Boatmurdered ?
I'm not, shamefully.
NV: Oh! Okay. You need to go read about Boatmurdered. Essentially, the Something Awful forum Goons, who are long-time Gaslight fans. Essentially, they got a hold of Dwarf Fortress and they did a round robin game, where each person would take ahold of the civilization for one year and the resulting Let's Play Dwarf Fortress was called Boatmurdered. It was a grand and hideous failure featuring everybody being rampaged by skeletal elephants and whatever other things were in the 2D version of Dwarf Fortress. It is probably the single funniest Dwarf Fortress campaign ever written about.
DJ: It actually generated fan artwork based on the horrible situations that they put the dwarves in.
DB: There have been songs as well, weren't there?
NV: Oh, yes, yes, there's music. Ballads. Well, that was more Gemclod than Boatmurdered. And huge quantities... An outpouring of great artwork and craftsmanship of dwarves getting destroyed by elephants and demons.
DB: Or just getting stuck in the mechanisms, holding the doors as undead elephants pour in.
NV: Yeah. At some point a goblin corpse got jammed in a gear in just the right way that suddenly the base was invaded by 40 rampaging elephants. They thought everybody was safe. And they decided to deal with it by flooding the base with lava, because that's what you do. It's Dwarf Fortress.
NV: Of course. So having the ability to have...collective and emergent adventures, I guess, is the right term? It's one of the big party goals here. You can go off and have a round robin game or a forum game where you can build a civilization or an outpost of the Clockwork Empire with your friends and watch as it all goes to s%*&.
DJ: It can fail in ways that you're expecting it to fail, or it can fail in new and surprising ways.
NV: And then, in concordance with the law of politics, you'll get prizes at the end. The glory of your failure has resulted in a subsequent promotion and the number of OBEs you get.
DB: It's like the Dredmor, "Congratulations, you're dead."
Okay, so you're touching on this concept of a shared narrative, are you literally saying the save file will be passed around? Is there asynchronous play? How will that take form, technically?
NV: You can pass the save file around, or we have a minimum of four-player networking. We'd like to do more, we're going to see what actually happens when things are more fleshed out. I'd like to get it up to eight, but I think four is realistic.
Four is the maximum, is that right?
NV: Yeah. We think four is the maximum.
Back to the concept of player failure: why make failure fun?
DB: We want failure to be interesting. That's so much of the appeal of Dwarf Fortress. You have the spiraling badness cycle, people start jumping off cliffs...
NV: Yeah, it's not just a question of failure, it's a question of, “I cannot look away from the trainwreck.”
DB: It should be a sort of narrative succes.
NV: Yeah. A narrative success, but maybe a triumphant failure. I like that, narrative success...
DJ: We were talking about this a little bit, probably about a month ago. One of my points when we were discussing this failure thing was that... There are other games that do this, but I don't think any other games that do it quite as successfully within the genre as Dwarf Fortress does. I mentioned SimCity, the classic SimCities, 2000 and 3 or whatever, where you build the successful city, and you've got the occasional fire or the occasional earthquake, but you put your fire stations down and it's mildly interesting. You watch the firefighters go put out the fire. But it's not actually a problem. And so you end up with this metropolis that's the perfect city, and you sit there and stare at it for probably a couple of hours because you've been working on it for so long, and then you say, how do I make this more interesting? Okay, I'm going to drop a Godzilla or some UFOs on it.
When you were a kid and you built with Legos, eventually you build something up and you knock it down because there's nothing else to do. Dwarf Fortress approached that in a really sophisticated way: it constantly is sort of knocking down your Legos, and you are constantly having to try and one-up your design to make it a little bit better, a little more robust. Those battles are what's interesting, between the destructiveness and the creation. Balancing those two things is really important for us.
DB: You should also add, when your things are being destroyed, it's creating a history that we can take. You make your next city, but there will be references to the lost colony of this or that.
What do you mean by creating history? How does Clockwork represent that?
DJ: Maybe the colony failed, but the world got a little more interesting—you will hear mention of the lost colony pop up in incidental fiction, like the SimCity newspaper, and be able to say “that's my fault!” You can build a bronze monument in the next game to the noble sacrifice made in the last. Maybe the Queen will give the player an extra detachment of Steam Troopers to make sure the next colony succeeds, because clearly this new continent is extremely dangerous and Measures Must Be Taken. This can all be given narrative dressing to make the experience much more than “Lol noob gg”—It can give depth to the game's fiction, it can contextualize the failure as a valiant effort, and best of all it allows opportunity for some dark humour built on the absurdity of the whole imperial project.
Can you walk me through a more precise example of that?
DJ: Sure. So, say the player's previous colony produced aluminium airship parts and this fact (as well as an insinuation that they were faulty) was worked into the backstory of an immigrant aristocrat. These details can be subtle, just a line or two in a character's description and passing mention in the newspaper, but they work to build a connected world in the background.
There will also be physical monuments of various forms and sizes. Imagine Nelson's Column, the Brandenburg Gate, any number of equestrian statues, obelisks, and plaques. A player doesn't just build these for no reason—they need to correspond to an actual event that the player “earned,” which can be anything from a battle (won or lost) to a discovery, a founding, or a death. These monuments are not simply decorative but enhance both a player's prestige as well as the mood and pride of the population.
Got it. Knowing that, what are some situations where you would fail?
NV: Everybody is dead.
DJ: Everybody has died...
NV: EVERYBODY IS DEAD!
And what types of things could kill your colony?
NV: I have a list of Megaprojects here, including the Radiation Spa, that seems like a good one.
DJ: Everyone could die of radiation poisoning. Everyone could die if you accidentally create some super version of a bull and it, like, stampedes and kills everyone, because it was highly unstable.
NV: Everybody could die at the hands of killing each other, everybody could die at the hands of the resurrection of the Elder Things.
DB: Dig too deep, you explore the lost temple you really shouldn't have...
DJ: Maybe you were working on some kind of technology and the technology workshop explodes, killing everyone inside and maybe everyone in a block radius. So you don't want to build one of those nearby a lot of people or too early on.
NV: Mining accidents, explosion at the Crimble plant, orphans go berserk...
DJ: Not orphans, urchins go berserk.
NV: Right, we're calling them urchins. Yes, yes, yes.
DB: Urchins go berserk.
Morbid! So, on the opposite end of the spectrum, do victory conditions really exist in Clockwork Empires? Or, like Dwarf Fortress, is it just a matter of you're trying to spin that plate as long as possible?
NV: It's plate-spinning. I think we're going to pack in some campaigns...
DJ: There will be a couple of mission modes that actually do have victory conditions. But our interpretation of it is that the sandbox mode, the keep the plate spinning mode, is really where everything is going to happen.
DB: We're considering the missions more suggestions than hard, game-ending things.
And that stems from part of your goal—like Dwarf Fortress—being to create a game where goals and stories feel owned by the player, rather than handed down by the game.
NV: Very much.
DB: Most RTSes, they give you this scripted campaign. We want to give you that range, but have it be procedurally generated.
NV: There is writing. We are a writing studio, we write. So there is definitely... There's more of a background than, say, Minecraft, where you're a guy named Steve, or Dwarf Fortress, you're a bunch of dwarves named Steve. The Empire is well-established.
DJ: There will be a world, there will be figures within it...
NV: There is a queen, there is a prime minister, there are... What is it, “Her Majesty's Anti-Paranormal Intrusion Invigilators,” or something? You remember what it is, David, it's in the documents.
DB: It's written down somewhere.
DJ: We do have a really heavy Lovecraftian-style influence on the horrible things that can happen, so if you've got a whole bunch of people researching in a building and you just sort of leave them to it and you don't keep tabs on them, there's a high probability that they can start doing evil things and summoning demons or something.
NV: Essentially there is a transitive madness throughout things. One of the problems you run into is that your civilization is going gently mad. Which can be held at bay with laudanum or other opiates...
DB: Or booze.
NV: Or just booze. Laudanum is slightly more effective than booze. The problem, of course, is that you don't actually want everybody turning into cultists. That tends to result in trouble and the summoning of the Elder Things and the invisible geometers and all the rest of that.
DB: Even worse, it looks bad.
NV: It reflects very badly with the prime minister, he wants you to know he's very upset. So at various points, there are tools for getting the madness under control, but if you walk into a mad factory built by a mad architect, you get a little more mad as a result, and that negatively continues to affect your day.
DJ: There's all kinds of this underpinning of Lovecraftian madness, that translating into causing a bunch of problems if you mismanage.
NV: Of actual Lovecraftian madness.
You mentioned to me via email that you want to do what Dredmor did for roguelikes, which is take the core of Dwarf Fortress and make it more accessible. How are you going to make it more accessible?
Can you tell me more about the society, the people that make up this civilization? You mentioned urchins, which are different from orphans how, would you say?
DJ: They're more politically correct.
NV: Yeah, pretty much. David, do you want to do this?
DB: Okay. Basically, take your 19th-century British colonies and mix it up in a very strange way. Give it a sort of steampunk feel.
NV: The Victorians were pretty stupid, all in all. Let's face it.
DJ: I would say ignorant, not stupid.
NV: They were very special. They were very special. So if you give the Victorians a whole bunch of slightly unstable steampunk technology and you stick gears in everything and you send them off to colonize the rest of the world which is full of Lovecraftian horrors, that's basically the society you get. You have clerks and incompetent bureaucrats. You have the dangers of art. You have mad scientists. You have naturalists.
DJ: So it's like the Swiss Family Robinson, if instead of being attacked by pirates, they were attacked by crab people.
DB: Or Charles Dickens on crack.
NV: Or obeliskian monoploids.
DJ: There are also a few characters who we've basically been...sort of stream-of-consciousness fleshing out, including the prime minister, who is attempting to pretend that all of this...
NV: Everything is fine!
DJ: All of the badness that exists doesn't exist. And the queen, who is probably under the influence of some elder horror, but it's not directly referenced until...
NV: She actually attacks. [laughter] Which, I mean, if you picture Queen Victoria with tentacles coming out of every conceivable part of that enormous dress that she wears in all the photos... It's sort of Terry Gilliam. And on top of that you have a number of highly dubious innovations. They're very big on pickling.
DB: They've suddenly discovered that they can put food in cans.
NV: Pickling, pickling is huge. The application of leeches, laudanum, mercury tinctures...
DB: It's a new wave of science, but it's not particularly well-developed or especially safe. We're also, speaking of characters, doing a lot of vague riffs on historical figures and situations from the 19th century. We'll have the equivalent of Queen Victoria, and who's the prime minister, Nicholas?
NV: He's just the prime minister. He's basically D'Israeli , but now he's a very panicked D'Israeli, because he's desperately trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air. “If we could only just start one more colony, if we keep the stiff upper lip and smile, show enough teeth, we'll get more gold money, what, aetheric crystals or phlogiston, maybe, just maybe, we'll last to the end of the month, but we must stick to the Empire, gentlemen, mustn't we? Very good! As you were.”
We also have Lord Palmerstoke. So in the late Victorian era, there was a Lord Kelvin . Lord Kelvin was the great scientific man of his age. Lord Kelvin got absolutely everything wrong in every conceivable way when making predictions about science and history. Man will never fly, the X-ray is a fake. Lord Palmerstoke is the great scientific thinker of his time, whose opinions are widely valued because he's basically wrong about everything.
DJ: But he's very opinionated, and that's how you rise to power.
DB: And well-connected.
NV: We have the Empire Times, the great newspaper. We have the Church of the Holy Cog. “Blessed are the many revolutions of the Holy Cog, for it keeps the clockwork of the indefatigable movement of the celestial heavens in motion.” We have the Cog Pope, who is pretty problematic. So you do have all these people, but we don't plot out having you meet these people. They are largely there, fleshed out, for background filler.
DJ: It's also sort of like Alpha Centauri, where you know that these people exist by the quotes that you get when you research things or something like that.
DB: There's an immense amount of characterization there when you read their little bios. But it's not, you know, a linear story...
How about the characters you do interact with, the ones who make up your colony? What's the average lifespan for one of these characters look like?
NV: Nasty, brutish, and short.
And what are their personalities? What do they do, what are their needs, how do they express themselves within the world?
DJ: It really depends on the character. They're all humans, they have human needs, they need to sleep somewhere, they need to eat food, they need to get drunk if they've had a hard day's work or whatever. But what they like to do and what you suggest that they do are not necessarily compatible. We have the naturalists, who go out and try to find resources for you, like medicine and that kind of thing. Or they just generally try to do botanistic sciences, things like that.
NV: Study strange creatures. You have scientists who do actual science science.
DJ: Soldiers that live out of a barracks, patrol your area, get drunk at the pub. That kind of thing. They spend tax dollars.
DB: You have lower classes who toil in the factories and fields, and then you have a sort of professional middle class, which is generally what the player will give orders to directly. Like overseers and scientists and engineers, clerks, that sort of thing.
DJ: But then there's an upper class who will not take orders from you.
NV: And are basically useless twits.
DJ: And you have to keep them happy, because otherwise they'll complain and lower your prestige.
NV: You have aristocrats and you have capitalist robber barons and you have poets, and you also have urchins.
What's a day in the life of a factory worker look like in Clockwork Empires?
DJ: If they've got a job at the factory, they'll go work the job at the factory, they'll go the pub to drink some cheap booze to make them feel happy, and then they'll go to sleep. And they'll have interactions throughout the day with other factory workers.
I'm curious about those interactions—this is something you mentioned to me over email: about Clockwork creating a system that facilitates characters and the world colliding to produce these kind of small, intimate interactions and quirks in characters. You mentioned a soldier might not want to go to war again. Or a commoner developing a fear of badgers... How are you expressing that stuff?
DJ: I think it really just comes down to... If you are the player and you really want to examine a specific person's life... There will be these kinds of decisions, or these kinds of impacts, on everybody. The breadth and quantity of unique things that can happen to you is somewhat dependent on your station. So the urchins, they'll be able to have an interesting interaction, they'll be able to generate an interesting situation where they'll have a phobia or a distinct liking or something. If you really want to find out about that specific person, there will be some way for you to get that brief bit of knowledge. But if a naturalist goes out, because they play a bigger role than just a typical factory worker, they'll be able to have more of a quantity of these interactions. Which will basically allow them to develop a more interesting AI routine for choosing what they do.
What form are those phobias or likes or dislikes going to take?
DJ: One of the new, more prevalent ways of generating AI in an interesting way is a goal-based AI. And a happiness-based AI. All of our people will have the belief that they want to be happy, and that in order to be happy they have to do certain things. Through interactions with any object... If for whatever reason we decide, based on a number of factors, that that interaction is really important... If the character is highly traumatized by... Maybe they got seriously wounded by something. Or maybe their mate, their husband or wife, just died. Or maybe they just got married or something. Maybe something really good happened to them. Then they have the possibility of reaching out and creating an association with something that is involved in that interaction. A particular place... Maybe the soldier's gun, maybe he develops a really close attachment to it.
NV: ”My lucky gun!”
DJ: Yeah! Or maybe by getting married in a certain place, somebody becomes deathly afraid of that place for the rest of their lives. These things have an ability to just create really strange ways that the AIs can interact, or the citizens can interact, with the environment. They'll do things and you'll think, “Wait, why did he just avoid that building? I thought he really liked that one.”
DB: It could be something as simple as a favorite food.
DJ: Yeah. Or maybe if they see a badger, because a badger wounded them while they were... The naturalist got attacked by a badger. Maybe it causes them to fly into a rage and attack it, just go berserk. Maybe it causes them to run. Maybe they start collecting anything that has the picture of a badger on it.
NV: Yeah, that's the madness. When you're collecting pieces of dead badgers...
DB: The characters should, through interactions with the world, build relationships with game objects or even categories of game objects.
DJ: Yeah. With places or with objects or with other people.
NV: It may be that this is not always an obvious, glaring thing. It is a subtle thing, to be sure. It's part of this experience of trying to build a game that tells stories, and that encourages you to tell stories. God, I sound like Peter Molyneux.
No, I totally get that distinction. Not everything is represented as some status effect. It's qualitative more than quantitative, and it has some behavior associated with it.
DJ: Yes. A soldier has lost an arm, so he can't use a two-handed weapon.
NV: Attention to detail in video games is something that we're very fond of.
Touching on the upper class' role in Clockwork: is there an incentive for having those guys in your town? Do they arrive independently?
NV: They come on their own.
DJ: They just show up once you've been doing well. They impose interesting restrictions on you that probably aren't very useful to you, and generally get in the way in interesting ways.
DB: They are wealthy and prestigious, so... they'll demand fine brandy and...
NV: Lots of boozes and things.
DB: Seedy novels.
So you have to build facilities or bring in goods that appease them, is that the right way of thinking about it?
DB: Sure, yeah.
NV: Erotic daguerreotypes , you know.
What happens when I click on one of these characters? What information do you expect players to see?
DJ: Essentially it'll give you a description of them. How they're feeling, what they've been up to lately, what they're working on currently. Maybe what they want or need. You won't be able to directly control most of the characters. Most of the interaction is going to be through the buildings. Again, this a user interface decision that we really don't have nailed down until we actually try it, because a lot of this is... A lot of the gameplay has been protoyped, but not actually implemented yet.
DB: It's not like an RTS where you control the units individually. It's more like you put down an order to build a factory here...
NV: Then somebody who can build the factory will build the factory. They'll sort it out amongst themselves who does it.
DB: And about the character information... The paradox is... Like in Crusader Kings 2, they have a great cast of characters with all these qualities, and they use tooltips a lot, more recently... That's a good idea. Crusader Kings 2, it's like this medieval soap opera...
NV: I suppose what you could compare it to is a medieval simulator in the form of a 747 cockpit.
DB: Okay, yeah, a 747 cockpit medieval soap opera simulator. We'd like to be able to pull off something of that sort of... More of a Victorian soap opera, with the character interactions, but... You don't tell them what to do. They are their own people.
NV: All brave and loyal citizens all, except for the mad ones.
DJ: Sort of similar to The Sims, but with more detailed information. Hopefully they don't die of starvation if the fridge gets in the way.
NV: Get stuck in a corner and wet themselves.
DJ: Hopefully not.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
What are some things that the player can produce that they can be proud of?
DJ: Certainly some interesting Megaproject technologies. Like the ability to... If you have a useful standing military, and if they are actually capable of fighting other nations. Military technology, for that type of player, will be something that they'll be proud of. You could try to build a utopian colony, take care of everyone, make sure that nobody...
DB: Yeah, you could try to make everybody happy. Just building tons and tons of pubs.
NV: It also turns out that putting gears in everybody's brain is a good idea.
Is that something you can do?
DJ: This was one of your Megaproject ideas...
NV: The Wetware Initiative.
DB: I think some way of nerve-stapling your people, whether it involves gears or Leyden jars or whatever... To turn them into less... They have less of a tendency to go insane.
NV: I hadn't thought about electroshock therapy. Thank you! I'm going to put that down...
I do like the idea of augmenting your citizens Deus Ex-style, and they all walk around complaining, "I didn't ask for this!" [laughter]
DJ: Oh, they won't ask for it.
NV: One thing that is an unspoken goal with Clockwork Empires versus Dredmor... Dredmor was very referential. We're trying to be a little bit tighter with the writing.
Some of your concept art, and I think in the e-mails you also mentioned zeppelins and air power. Are air vehicles something you produce? Or are they sort of ambient things owned by the Empire?
NV: You produce them.
DJ: One of the conceits that we're operating under as just a general UI decision is that, generally speaking, the units will not be directly controlled by you. And so, you might be able to produce a zeppelin, but you can't control them independently in the air, make them land on whatever. It's just a way of increasing the ability to either transport goods or to scout areas or something like that. But they're not directly controllable in the same way as in Warcraft II you had the goblin zeppelins just wandering around. Again, it's just a design decision. Most of the control for the game is going to be through the buildings and not through the units, because otherwise it would just get... It would have a tendency to become not only more like a competitive StarCraft-like game, but also, that just gets quite confusing.
Sure. In terms of their purpose, though, are they a trade asset, a war asset, or scouting asset? When I build one, what is it going to do? Is it just going to make its own decisions based on my needs?
NV: Well, is it a military zeppelin or is it a trade zeppelin?
DB: There's one way of putting it, which is this idea of setting policy rather than giving individual orders. Perhaps something like that. So you wouldn't have to micromanage.
NV: The big goal is really to avoid micromanagement.
DJ: In our current design, control of military units is done through barracks or military buildings. And from those you designate node points or... A patrol area if you want your people patrolling, or if you want to send them off to investigate something, you put a node point somewhere else. If you had a military zeppelin, you could create a sort of patrol grid, and it would automatically assume that it was going to be a scout and it would wander around that patrol grid. Similarly, if you had a zeppelin that was connected to your trade network, it would just assume that its goal was to take a look at what resources you wanted where, look for ways that it could pick up as many resources as it could carry, and be more efficient than just one guy picking up a crate and carrying it to one side of the map. A lot of these decisions are basically just going to be made by the AI. It's going to look at what the optimal choice that it can think of quickly is, and then try to do that.
Do you think part of the value in having that approach is, unlike StarCraft, you'll get to watch what you're doing? Meaning, you'll get to actually admire the world in motion and really take it in.
DJ: If the game is about building a settlement and watching people interact, you don't want to be controlling them all the time, because you can't watch them interact if you're forcing the interaction. It enables you to offload the micromanagement, and if you took StarCraft and you took the micromanagement out, all you would have is the macro management. The characters had some interesting things that you had time to look at. That would be more in line with the sort of feel that we want to get across.
Cool. I think that's why I prefer games like Sins, where I can pause the game at any time. It's about the spectacle and really sitting back with a tumbler of wine in your left hand or something and watching it happen.
NV: How erudite.
DB: You get yourself a Poirot mustache and a snifter of brandy and you pretend that you're David Souchet's character from, what was it, The Fifth Element, and you're just watching your torpedoes attack the giant blob.
That's exactly what I had in mind. So continuing this conversation about micromanagement... If a native population presents itself as a threat and I want to destroy them, what are some of the war assets I'm going to have?
NV: It's the various armies of steam-powered bull$*&#. [laughter] I have a note in the document that the Flying Clockwork Battlestation is "Three copies of Big Ben strapped together with gears and enormous steam vents sticking out the underside."
DJ: We have a tendency towards low steampunk. This is a constant source of discussion and argument. There will be steam-powered battle suits. There will be just random militia guys with guns. There will be some military vehicles. Some sort of track-based vehicles are I think on the list.
DB: Oh, I do want the armored train.
DJ: Yes, armored trains.
NV: There's also advanced technology coming to bear. It's generally acknowledged that a number of scientific theories that were conclusively proved wrong are quite right here. So you'll have your aetheric ray guns and all sorts of stuff.
DJ: So maybe you'll have a guy in the early game who's trudging along with a crude musket or something like that. And then in the late game, that same guy is riding some sort of clockwork equivalent of a horse and shooting a laser gun.
NV: Aetheric ray gun!
DJ: Aetheric ray gun, sorry. What are they, tearing holes in the ether or something? Or do they just shoot ether at people?
NV: Lord Palmerstoke notes that the ether is perfectly harmless, it could never kill a man. Apparently it surrounds us at all times like a gentle, nourishing fluid, and someone might as well attempt to kill a man with his own bathwater. So...
DJ: Yes, well... We'll see what happens.
Great. So, before I let you go, we should talk about how Gaslamp has changed. You guys have grown a lot after Dredmor, which was quietly, explosively successful. Your studio has twice as many people. You're leaving that space where you're a small team owning a vision. Emotionally, where are you at in terms of how do you feel about executing an ambitious concept?
NV: Excited, exhausted, and terrified. Also, stuff like time tracking and organization is a nuisance that I am not really all that used to, never mind just trying to deal with having four programmers and stopping everybody from breaking the game at random intervals. It's not my first time at the rodeo on a large team, but it's my first time being the guy in charge of a programming team of any significant size, and it's certainly not without its challenges.
DB: Some days it's a kind of manic triumph to be shooting so high, on others it's fearfully nerve-wracking to be going so far from doing something easy like going right to Dredmor 2. But we didn't get into this business to do safe and easy! From the perspective of taking on the role of art director, I'm going from a place with Dredmor in which I was drawing diggles in a basement somewhere and could theoretically complete every single art task myself to having to put my trust in a team of artists who know how to do things I'm not trained to do, 3D animation in particular. I have to learn a lot to be able to give them meaningful direction and support, to say nothing of reading the Employment Standards Act three times. There are always new challenges and Special Learning Experiences; never a dull moment.
DJ: Honestly, it changes a lot from day to day. Generally speaking, I think, growth for any small studio is difficult, exciting, and uncomfortable, but I think comfort is a bit overrated. I know just before we released Dredmor we all really wanted the company to do well, and we did a decent job of preparing just in case it did, but the difficulties of starting a small business really get compressed into a small timeframe when you need to do so much of it after the fact. We have had to learn to deal with professionals that I don't know if any of us had ever had dealings with like lawyers, accountants, and bookkeepers. We're learning so much it's painful sometimes, but it really does make it exciting to get up in the morning because so much is going on. At the end of the day, we get to take our ideas and turn them into products tons of people enjoy, and that's immensely satisfying.
Revisit our preview of Clockwork Empires . Additional thanks to Andrew Ferguson for photography.