I think it was the moment Planetoid Pioneers’ business manager, Vlad Micu, disintegrated in a cloud of acid-spewing bees that the game won me over.
Not the actual person, thankfully. I didn’t have to watch someone melt on the PAX showroom floor, but rather their smiling onscreen doppleganger, in what was one of the countless examples of player-created content possible within Data Realms’ upcoming 2D sandbox sidescroller.
The first few moments in my demo with Pioneers introduced a game—and I apologize for being reductive—that felt strikingly similar to Terraria or Starbound. Playing as a geriatric space explorer, I had crash-landed onto an unknown planet and was tasked with exploring its hostile surface and interior. In order to survive encounters with the inhabitants and find the necessary resources to create a rocket and escape, I would need to find numerous vehicle and weapon blueprints that would help me survive.
All of which is framed in familiar, 2D sandbox style. With the use of a handy assembler/deconstructor it was only a few moments before I began clicking on and ripping apart the local animals, vegetables, and minerals for their base resources, to be spent on the vehicle and weapon blueprints I had available to build.
I was soon riding through a system of caves on a rickety land rover, firing my blaster at the flamethrowing robotic inhabitants in my way, and taking their discarded corpses as resources for my future schematics. All of which was done with a simple point-and-shoot interface, that players of Terraria should feel familiar with.
Though I need to state that Terraria this isn’t, as the terrain itself is neither procedural nor destructible, and there’s no mining to be had. You will find your resources where the designers wanted them to be found. There is also no health bar for players or enemies, rather a sort of model destructibility limit; if my leg was shot off I limped, if my arm was frozen I couldn’t shoot, and if I lost more than a certain percentage of my body or head I was dead.
This is Data Realms’ second release, and it builds directly on their first, 2012’s admittedly poorly received, Cortex Command. The relationship between both titles goes so deep as to share a common storyline, as I was told Cortex Command occurs after the events of Pioneers in their universe’s chronology. However, while Cortex focused more on real-time strategic combat with an overlying metagame, Pioneers has a distinctly different focus.
I could tell you about Pioneers’ hand-drawn 2D visuals, discuss its four-player splitscreen multiplayer, or go into depth about the physics system, but while those features were interesting in their own right that isn’t what’s going to stay in my mind for days to come. What needs discussing is what Pioneers lets you create.
And what it lets you create is anything. Guiding me along was Data Realms’ development director, Daniel Tabár, who in addition to helping me make my way across the demo planet’s surface, gave me a crash course on Pioneers’ all-encompassing content creation tools. Tools, I was told, they had been developing and improving upon since 2009, and will be available for all players to use upon release.
He started simple, taking a robotic enemy (that had just finished brutally tearing me apart), opening up its edit screen, and asking me what I’d like to change. Can we make it bigger or smaller? That’s child's play. We can alter the entire character model, or even specific segments if you want to make one part drastically larger than the other, for that crab-claw chic.
How about replacing the robot’s head entirely? Easy, we just need a PNG image file, and the current head section can be replaced with anything we desire. We chose a rock image as a replacement cranium, and soon had a stone-headed robot lumbering across the landscape.
The creative possibilities weren’t just for changing appearances, either. We had the ability to go into the enemy’s scripting and make whatever additions we desired. We could speed him up, make him run away, even dance at the sight of us.
These possibilities aren’t restricted to certain segments of the game, they’re open to every single aspect of Planetoid Pioneers. From character models to enemies, weapons to vehicles, even entire planets can be built from scratch, modified, and shared. Do you want to create an enemy that’s a tentacled, thirty-headed hydra? How about a thirty-headed hydra that spits cats? How about a thirty-headed hydra that spits catswith the head of your high school math teacher?
Or if you want to get truly weird, you can just make a planet inhabited with characters that all look like your closest friends, force them to race each-other, and then shoot the losers with a gun that fires swarms of acid-spewing bees, as Tabár gleefully showed me when he liquefied Vlad.
Upon finishing the creation of your beloved nightmare creature, steampunk warship, or other crime against nature, you’ll be able to select a ‘Save Blueprint’ option, which will take the data for your work and save it as a PNG file. These PNGs can then be shared and uploaded into anyone else’s game, and players can even take these files and drag-and-drop them onto the game screen, generating the item, creature, or planet while in play.
Planetoid Pioneers’ largest hurdle will be teaching players that the game’s content creation tools are not as daunting as they may seem. To this end Tabár told me Data Realms is hard at work putting together expansive, easy-to-follow tutorials that will teach everything a creator would need to know. Upon first glance at the seemingly endless menus, variable sliders, and outright lines of code, I will admit feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Though the speed and simplicity in which changes to existing models could be made had me confident that with a bit of guidance I could get up to speed in a matter of hours.
Which is exactly what Tabár informed me they believe will happen. Data Realms is so confident on the importance of player-made content that when Planetoid Pioneers hits Steam early access this fall it will only have a handful of hours of out-of-the-box gameplay. Instead, they want to focus their early access time on providing the tools that will cultivate truly interesting player-generated gameplay.