I first saw Stormworks last year, and immediately it brought to mind two games – Banjo Kazooie: Nuts ‘n Bolts and Kerbal Space Program. Rare’s last and ill-fated attempt to bring Banjo into the modern age was a game with so many wonderful elements and, even if it never quite hung together, the core idea of building vehicles was brilliantly realised. KSP somehow made building rockets into a laugh. And as soon as I’m in Stormworks, looking at a 3D grid where developer Dan Walters is slamming together building blocks to create a rescue boat, it all comes flooding back.
Stormworks, available now on Steam early access, is a game about rescuing people at sea – using vehicles, and not just boats, that you’ve constructed at your home island. It can be played solo, or with up to four players, and takes advantage of Steam features such as the workshop – which allows players to share creations – in order to push its construction element beyond the basic level of smooshing parts together. This is a pretty hardcore building sim with elements like logic circuits that, for the sake of accessibility, many developers avoid.
“I think we’re looking to build this experience which the player authors so you don’t necessarily have to go and build your vehicles,” says Walters. “There’s going to be loads of stuff on the Steam Workshop, it’s linked through the Editor and stuff. So you won’t necessarily have to engage with the vehicle editing aspect if you don’t want to – there’ll also be pre-made vehicles in your boatyard area that you can put into the water and use if you want.
But for me, it’s also about saying – well, there’s also this part of the sandbox, block-building vehicle system, which goes deeper than other sandbox games possibly have where you can create things that are really incredible and are really amazing.”
Speaking of which, one of the things Walters is showing off to me is, well, it’s basically a chinook helicopter. “I call it the ‘Heavy Lift’ because it’s got room to drive another vehicle into!” He spawns this thing and takes off, and all of a sudden we’ve shifted from sea rescue to air rescue – with the tantalising prospect that you could conceivably fly out to a rescue situation, then airdrop a boat into the water.
The world is of course not short of games with building and construction elements to them. What sets Stormworks apart? “For me the innovation is in two parts,” says Walters. “You can do more with the vehicles, you’ve got a huge amount of control – those logic nodes, they don’t just turn lights on and off, they also operate motors which do visible things or they’ll open doors or they’ll lower or retract winches and stuff like that, so you’ve got a lot of openness of stuff you can create there.
“But on the other side of it we’re introducing narrative to this kind of sandbox genre which is quite unusual. I’ve played a lot of sandbox games, if you’ve played a game like Kerbal Space Program, for example, which is a big inspiration for us, you find that the experiences authored by the player themselves and the fact that you are building the vehicle gives you the sense of ownership. But then also, as you go through the game, you set your own objectives, the game isn’t saying ‘OK, you’ve got to get a spacecraft to this planet by this date’ – you’re deciding that yourself and saying ‘OK, I’m going to land on the moon’ or whatever.”
Stormworks leaves players free to pursue their own goals, but also adds various missions, which have their own little stories, to keep things from feeling too aimless. “And I think that’s really, really powerful – a really powerful, engaging way of hooking someone with the game but it’s also got this other side of if you can beat your own objective you feel like ‘What now?’ and so we’re kind of trying to hold on to that: allowing players to build their own objectives and author their own experience, but then also making the world feel a bit more alive and putting this narrative and context in the background.”
Rescue missions at sea is such a neat idea for a game that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. “Gary linked me one from the eighties,” says Walters. “And there is Coastguard Simulator, full disclosure. But it’s like a simulator, it’s not a sandbox game, you know? It’s just... it didn’t do very well, and it was badly reviewed as well.
Dan Walters will have been working with this idea for just under four years now – and the game reflects the broad mix of ideas he’s had about it over that time, not least in the way it blends the replayability of procedural maps with the polished quality of authored islands.
“Yeah we’ve authored the islands which are 1km x 1km grid squares,” says Walters. “Then we arrange these grids using a procedural algorithm so when you start the game – you saw there was like a world seed number, so that’s just the random seed generation number, and that decides where the islands get placed which just randomly places islands within the ocean.”
This might not sound like much except, of course, the sea is the whole point of the game. It’s all very well tootling about on islands with your craft but, at some point, you’ve got to get out there – and the fact that the deep blue will have different bases for you every time seems like it could significantly alter a playthrough’s difficulty.
“There are places on the islands though where you can make static vehicles,” says Walters, “which are vehicles that attach to the floor, so that could turn into a crane or some kind of vehicle loader or whatever you want so long as it’s…”
I’m sorry, why would you want to do that?
“So for example a crane – on the oil rig I think we’re going to use that system to author one of the islands to build a working crane on the oil rig that you can lift things out of the water onto the rig with, for example.”
OK Dan. Buddy. I’ve got an idea. Let’s forget about boats and choppers, and take this to the next level. Can I build an island that holds a ginormous crane and, when I get a mission, just whiz the crane round and pluck folk out the water? Surely the ULTIMATE COASTGUARD ACTION is never leaving your island? It’s a must-have feature!
“There’s probably going to be a limit on the size of the crane, unfortunately,” says Walters, to my internal chorus of boos. But he offers a consolation prize. “If you were close enough to the water’s edge, then why not?”