Clockwork Empires

Clockwork Empires: a preview of Gaslamp Games' Lovecraft-laden steampunk city-builder

Evan Lahti at

Take SimCity and stuff it with steampunk. Take Dwarf Fortress and make it modern. Take Anno and dump H.P. Lovecraft into its oceans.

Consider yourself mildly acquainted with Clockwork Empires, the next project of Gaslamp Games. The indies behind of Dungeons of Dredmor are creating a 3D, sandboxy city-builder teeming with 19th century imperialism. It’ll be populated by street urchins, aristocrats, volcanoes, sea serpents, war zeppelins, mad scientists, and at least one foodstuff that doubles as a building material. It’ll be irreverent, and PC-exclusive. It’ll have multiplayer. It’ll be moddable. Most of all, I think it has a chance to set a new standard for player-driven story generation in the genre.

Come read our Clockwork Empires interview, too.

An idyllic steampunk paradise. Nothing could ever disrupt this oasis, especially the ethically-questionable Tesla coil research happening in the laboratory.

SimVictoriana

Clockwork Empires casts you into the isometric eyes of an outpost founder and overseer in foreign lands. You build factories, laboratories, residences, cathedrals, barracks, pubs, and Civilization-style Megaprojects. You use 19th century technology: pipes, gears, steam, pickling, Tesla coils. And you populate the colony with upper-, middle- and lower-class citizens: clerks, poets, scientists, factory workers, soldiers, and the burdensome rich.

With these goals, citizens, and resources, you’re thrust into a frontier world—albeit one exponentially more exotic and dangerous than what Victorian England actually explored. “You know those old globes that have everything poorly drawn and had monsters all over them? That's what the Clockwork Empire is like,” says Gaslamp CEO Daniel Jacobsen. Art Director David Baumgart continues: “There was this notion of the center of the Empire being a sort of metaphysical source of order, and the further you get out, there's more chaos and strange things and magics.”

This is Gaslamp’s big, Lovecraftian twist on the genre: making you a colony-builder amid the grand idealism of Victorian discovery and cuddling you up with horrors, madness, wild species, and volatile science. “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,” says Jacobsen.

A more mundane example: like any good city builder, you might have fishermen on your colony. They’ll work docks and shoreline on their own, collecting things from the sea for your colony to eat, or hunting whales (“for their delicious, clean-burning oil,” as Baumgart puts it) with a steam-driven harpoon cannon. Off-coast, though, they might have to tangle with beasts like cuttlefish-people, wandering Kraken, and predators like sea serpents as they do their job.

No dock is safe: sea serpents may be able to harm or harass people on shore.

Freedom to fail

If you’ve ever played Poseidon by throwing hurricanes at your metropolis in SimCity, Cthulhu's shadow over Clockwork should tingle your imagination. The thought of inescapable danger and fantastic accidents being commingled with 19th century colonialism is hilarious. More fundamentally, it folds into Clockwork’s continuation of a key concept from Dungeons of Dredmor: making failure fun. As a sandbox game, Clockwork won’t have a true victory condition. Instead, it’ll be more about prospering (scientifically, economically, or whatever goal rings true to you) as your civilization is beset by a long list of things that can kill it: disease, mining accidents, berzerk factory workers, laboratory explosions, an angry Elder God summoned by one of your citizens, or foolishly exploring a lost temple that you should’ve skipped, for example. Death can come in conventional and absurd forms. “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,” says Jacobsen.

Gaslamp values loss as a way of creating interesting stories for players. When you fail, “It should be a sort of narrative success,” says Baumgart. And although it’ll be implemented differently, Dwarf Fortress is a model for their approach. “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,” says Jacobsen. “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.”

Failure will also leave its marks on the game world, even when you wipe a colony completely. This originates from a small element of persistency: when you generate a game world, you’ll play several successive campaigns on that map. Traces of your defeat might seep into the next colony. ““Individual play sessions should create events or factoids that carry on into the fiction of the campaign,” says Jacobsen. “For example, a player's previous colony might have 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.”

User-friendly Fortress

All of this focus on intricate, narrative-driven sandbox city-building wouldn’t mean much if Gaslamp wasn’t putting emphasis on playability, which it mercifully is. They have some direct experience in this—Dredmor managed to domesticate the roguelike—a famously cryptic, literally-hard-to-decrypt style of game—with smart, flexible interface, cozy controls, and reference-laden tooltips. It was a cinch to play, but it retained the hardness and spirit of its ancestor game. Gaslamp wants to achieve this again with Clockwork. ‘We're trying very hard not to outwardly or ostensibly label it as ‘Dwarf Fortress For Everybody.’ But that's sort of our goal at heart, to try and take that experience and make it accessible,” says Jacobsen. “Two of the reasons why Dwarf Fortress isn't for everyone right now are the graphics and the user interface. So we're doing things that will allow us to try to get a lot of the functionality through while making it easy enough for people to pick it up.”

Exploration and scientific discovery are major themes. Inevitably, both can come with consequences.

The final technical cog in all of this is highly-ambitious procedural 3D building technology. In short, Clockwork will let you generously customize the structures you plop onto your colony. Prior to construction, you’ll tweak fundamentals like building material and area or add incidentals like pub signs, gargoyles and “unattractive weather vanes.”

The system is being cooked up by Gaslamp’s Technical Director, Nicholas Vining, who dedicated some of his master’s thesis work to the topic. Vining explains how the system will operate: “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? 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.” Vining says he wants to avoid the situation posed by the earlier SimCity games, where all your factories were carbon (-producing?) copies of one another. “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.”

There’s a heap more to share, more than I can carve into a single article. I haven’t touched on Clockwork’s volatile inversion of Civ-style Wonders: “inherently dangerous” Megaprojects. I haven’t talked about how booze and opium products can help fend off madness in your citizens. I haven’t mentioned the significance of volcanoes as power sources, meddling rich people, badger attacks, or aetheric ray guns.

Thankfully, we’ll have more on Clockwork in a huge interview tomorrow. Atop that, there’s a ton more in our Clockwork Empires feature story in issue #232 of PC Gamer US, or #244 of PC Gamer UK, both of which subscribers should be receiving now or soon. In the meantime, Gaslamp has an official announcement on their website.