If you’ve ever been on a small boat in rough waters, you'll know how quickly things can get scary and unsafe. Water crashing up against the sides of the hull, the floor swaying from side to side, the entire boat lunging up and down as you bump over waves. The ocean is unforgiving, and seafaring vehicles have to be able to adapt.
This is even more true when you’re talking about those vessels designed for rescue: the ones that have to knowingly head into bad waters, aiming to save those who got caught out.
This is part of the concept behind Stormworks, a game about coastguard and rescue missions that’s currently in early access on Steam. The idea is that players use a wide variety of tools and components to build ships to complete missions out at sea. IT takes inspiration from the likes of Kerbal Space Program, but focuses on making every in-game component functional to a deep degree rather than just having surface-level effects. It's all about using the tools in unexpected but logically consistent ways.
Last week I sat down with Dan Walters from Sunfire Studios, a four-person team working underneath a railway bridge in a space that could almost be the interior of a small aircraft hangar. The team has a small bank of desks at the back of this co-working space in Leamington Spa, multiple monitors with big gaming chairs, and all diligently beaver away, stopping every so often to glide over to a colleague.
“I think Stormworks originally was originally going to be a top-down naval strategy game, kind of like an Eve Online-style game structure,” says Walters. “You’ve got your hull and you rig it out with all sorts of parts, creating the shape and the strategies of what you’re going to do in-game. I wanted to do something like that but in 2D, with a lot more depth to the vehicle design. It was going to be all about building ships from these modules, focused on this modular ship design concept.”
While games like Kerbal Space Program were an early inspiration for Walters, he eventually found it wasn’t going far enough, for his taste, into the complexities of component parts.
“Due to my architectural background, I’d been frustrated that you couldn’t really go inside the ships in that game,” Walters chuckles. “You could be the ship, or a person outside the ship, but you couldn’t really explore inside your creations. There was no exploring and inhabiting your creation and thinking about how it works from an interior space point of view.”
“For me, the fact that these components were essentially solid, with no interior space, sort of breaks the immersion, because you can tell that the whole simulation isn’t there, they’ve just really simplified it down to just the outside shell, what the behaviour would look like from the outside.”
Walters wanted to make a game that did go to this degree of depth, but also one that that would challenge players with tough, ever-changing environments. Soon enough, the coastguard concept emerged. “It offered options for challenging environments which would test the integrity of your creations, and it offered a driving force: you had to get out there and get doing things because there is a job that needs to be done or there are consequences. You’re building vehicles to solve particular problems.”
Perhaps surprisingly, when beginning the development of Stormworks, Walters didn’t actually know much about the subject, beyond the fact it seemed to fit his desired mechanics.
“I didn’t have much interest in the world of maritime issues or search-and-rescue,” says Walters. “But once you start researching and getting into that world, there’s so many different types of varied tasks that are all very equipment-oriented, so many different types of ships for specific jobs which are good at only one specific type of thing. There’s just so much specificity of design to play around with.”
The team soon found that learning about the topic was its own reward, and simply making a game about it had attracted some helpful experts.
“Learning about that whole world is a continuous process, and we’ve learned a lot from our players. As soon as we launched the alpha, there were specific players, some from the coastguard, emailing us all really interested in the game and its specifics.”
“We had one player in particular who kept coming into the Discord and chatting. He was an offshore oil worker, and he was talking to us about all this stuff we could potentially add, putting it in the context of how they used it and why it worked really well. All day in the Discord there’s pictures and videos of different maritime vessels doing different functions, and that community engagement has really helped us to learn and understand the world we are working within.”
While community feedback has been vital to the game’s development, Walters says he doesn’t feel an obligation to try and please every player. He mentioned one community member who creates highly detailed World War Two fighter planes, using this toolset designed for creating coastguard ships, who will sometimes request specific components that have no ‘search-and-rescue’ value that would enhance the main experience. That’s the kind of thing he doesn’t have a problem turning down.
With that said, Walters goes on to emphasise that the most interesting part of working on Stormworks has been the unexpected ways people have used these tools.
“Someone in our community created a working Pong game using this rescue vehicles toolset. That was crazy… it was fully functional,” says Walters, with an unmistakeable hint of awe in his voice. “The logic in our game was so basic at the time; it was unbelievable how it was functioning. This was before [we added] logic microprocessors in an update, so the fact this guy was able to do it was shocking. It was six months ago now and I still don’t know how it was done. After weeks of thinking about it, I’ve had ideas about how maybe certain parts of it function, but yeah: it supports two players and it keeps score. Pretty amazing.”
While much of Stormworks' community is highly invested in the minutiae of ship design, Walters explains that the community is for the most part very respectful of the design choices the development team have made, regarding when or when not to implement new features of content into the experience.
“We haven’t really had a lot of experiences where we have been criticised or attacked really, our community is really just super super nice, particularly for Steam. Every now and then people in the community do bring accuracy issues into the discussion, but it’s always with this understanding that there’s usually gameplay reasons underpinning the choices we make. We’ve got our issues tracker website, and that’s got maybe 6,000 to 7,000 issues, a mix of suggestions and bugs, but a lot of that is suggestions. A lot of it is stuff like 'look at this type of boat' or 'look at this type of boat propeller', 'you’ve given us this type of component, but we want this one that does this specific niche thing'.”
While Stormworks is currently still in early access on Steam, Walters feels that the distinction between that and 'full release' is these days almost a matter of semantics.
"Being a bit honest, the thing for me with leaving early access is that we are already a complete game," Walters explains. "We have people who have played 2,000 hours so there is plenty of game in there for people already. We’re always trying to improve quality, but when you look at games like ours, like Kerbal Space Program, when they leave early access, nothing really changes. The games still get continual content and polish changes, it's still the same structure."
Walters goes on to suggest that the difference between early access and a full release isn’t about the overall quality of the game, but the game making a big enough quality leap at once to justify the status change. Stormworks is already stable, full of content, and loved by its community, but the expectation is that when the game fully releases, it needs to happen with the arrival of some big new feature that feels like an event for those already invested.
It's clear that the Stormworks team has been unusually fortunate in the community this game has attracted. Walters mentions their contributions and general 'niceness' countless times during our chat, and is full of respect for what they contribute – even if he does know where to draw the line. There's a vision for the game's future, but one that's open to what its players want and committed to letting them take the experience in their own direction.
Even though Walters began development with little knowledge of his subject matter, you could say Stormworks has come to embody certain qualities of what it re-creates. It's a well-built machine. It has more niche elements and tools than you'd believe. And when the currents lead to unforeseen changes, it manages to adapt.