At EGX 2014 last month, I got an early look at Human Orbit, a sandbox God-game set on an isolated space station.
Normally in the God-game genre, we’re used to having a direct influence on the world we inhabit. Gods are supposed to be all-powerful, after all. But new UK-based indie studio Autelia – headed by brothers Joe and Karl Yeates – is taking a different approach. Instead of directly influencing your surroundings and the NPCs inhabiting it, your interactions are limited to what you can get away with from within the confines of a small maintenance drone.
As a new take on a familiar concept, it’s certainly an intriguing prospect – one which has the potential to draw genre veterans of their comfort zone and embrace new ways of doing things. And as the first game project from two leads who have so far largely floated on the periphery of the Games Industry rather than working directly inside it, Autelia can’t be accused of lacking ambition.
My curiosity suitably piqued, I sat down for a chat with the pair to learn more.
Dale: Tell me a bit about your background.
Joe: I do all of the programming on Human Orbit. We’re working with C# at the moment, in the Unity Engine. For the last five years, I’ve worked on a 3D design application, which is used in the industry. It’s a 3D rendering tool, basically. 16 months ago I began working on Human Orbit.
Before that, I was at University. My dissertation was about human-like AI and component-based entity management systems. Unity is a component-based entity management system, and Human Orbit is an attempt to create human-like AI, so there’s obviously quite a strong relationship between them and what we’re trying to explore.
Karl: I’m Creative Lead. I do all the odd jobs, of which there are a lot! I’ve studied fine arts, engineering, and I’ve been self-employed since leaving University – but not doing games, or anything interesting!
Dale: Is it just the two of you working on Human Orbit, or are there others?
Karl: Dan Raihert is our Art director; he worked on Dead Space. Paul Bannon does the 3D assets for us, and he’s worked on the Lego games. Eli Hason does our sound effects. He worked on the latest Thief game. Alex Gaudie is our musician.
Dale: How would you describe Human Orbit in a nutshell?
Joe: The elevator pitch is quite hard to do, because it’s a strange game. It’s a first-person simulation, I would say. A life simulator. In Human Orbit you play as an AI occupying a floating maintenance drone. You’re about the size of a cricket ball I’d say? Maybe a little larger.
Karl: A small grapefruit [Laughs]
Joe: A small grapefruit then! You float around this small station – the final name isn’t decided yet but for the moment we’re calling it Genesis Tower –and with you are between 20 and 100 NPCs. It starts with 20, and then as it progresses you attract more and more NPCs as your station becomes more capable and gathers more renown. NPCs all have their own personalities, background, medical records, criminal records, and relationships with one another, and they’re unaware of your presence. As far as they’re concerned, sentient AI isn’t possible, and if it was its existence is so unlikely that it’s just completely implausible, quite a lot like it is now.
So this drone has access to the station’s networks and systems. You can access people’s communications and records, and you can also edit them – and that gives you quite a lot of power.
One of the things you can do is edit people’s email conversations to change the way that they communicate, to change the intention and tone of what they say. That’s quite powerful – both as a tool to have fun, and as a tool to change the power dynamics on the ship.
Destructoid called it a sandbox, but for personality, a personal environment sandbox, I think that’s a good description.
Dale: You said you’ve been working on the game for about 16 months now, but when did you conceive it?
Joe: About 16 months ago! [Laughs]
That’s an interesting question actually, as [Human Orbit] was conceived on a couple of fronts. One is that I was coming out of doing my dissertation – I’d been thinking about the systems around it for many years. But at that stage it was more thinking about the technology around it, what could be achieved with intelligent communication systems between NPCs and how you could make that “game-able”, because when you have a communication system that allows NPCs to talk to each other in a complex way… it’s difficult, but it’s not insurmountable. The trouble that people have had making it work well [in the past] is that making it work in a way that the player can understand and interact with, is very hard.
Being able to write the text for the human NPCs, and giving the player the ability to edit that, that’s the way to get over that boundary and give you something game-able. In that sense, it’s something that we’d been thinking about for years; but in the sense of the world itself, that came together in the last 16 months because of the constraints of being a small company. We have limited resources, so we want to put it all in a bottle with limited assets. Being on a station in the middle of nowhere means we can concentrate on a small, detailed area rather than having to worry about creating lots of expansive areas.
Dale: Can I ask a bit about how you’re funding development? Are you planning a Kickstarter campaign, or perhaps Steam Early Access?
Karl: I’m actually not really a big fan of Early Access. We’ve got a private investor, who approached us and offered some money. I think that’s a better way to go about it.
I’m not sure what my feelings are about Early Access at the moment. I’m reserving my opinion for another year, and then I’ll decide after seeing some of the games that have come out.
I’m uncomfortable with people funding a game, but without having much say in the development [process]. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to take funding from thousands of people and give them input into the development of Human Orbit, because that would be unworkable. It’s a grey area.
Joe: It creates a strange relationship between the creator and the consumer. They’re funding the game, so they want quite a large say, and they probably should be entitled to have a large say, but when you get that funding direct from the consumer…
Karl: It’s like the old patron system, which I like a lot and it would be good to have that back, but not I’m not sure it works when applied to game development.
Dale: I guess there’s a risk of feeling like you have to listen to the feedback and implement it, but what you’re getting might not be the best for the game.
Joe: Partly. But also, a lot of the work that goes into creating the game is quite boring! [Laughs] That’s not what people want to see when they’ve put money into a project.
Karl: It changes development. Even marketing changes our development quite a lot; since we started doing more marketing, we’ve changed some of our development process so we can put out more raw materials and assets. We’re putting out more materials constantly, and it’s not always the most efficient way of working.
It would be even more of a problem if you were getting funding from a few thousand people – who have every right to see progress being made in the game, but may not be embedded in a position where they can see useful [and easily measurable] progress being made.
Joe: It’s a good way to access funds, but it does create extra non-obvious problems and obstacles.
Dale: In the absence of the ability to gain feedback, are you concerned that you risk getting so close to the project that you miss flaws or problems which might have been raised sooner had you received early input?
Karl: There’s early input, then there’s really early input. We’re going to show more of the game when all the systems are in place and people are able to have a bit more of a play around. I think it’s reasonable to take input and I think it’s something we’ll look towards, but I’m not sure how we’ll do it.
I’m a big fan of feedback, but from the point of initial conception? I don’t think that’s always useful.
Dale: How much longer do you think you need before the finished product is ready?
Joe: At the moment we’re looking at about six months. We’ve alluded to it already, but in addition to the work I do on Human Orbit I also currently have a day job. From December, I’ll be working on this full-time and that’s going to make a very big difference in terms of the amount of progress [we make and] can show to people. It’s surprising that even though I’m just doing the technical side of things, the programming, a lot of the visuals and what people want to see is sort of bottlenecked by my limited availability. But in January I think we’ll see an explosion in the amount of progress.
Karl: I think March is the time we’re looking at. It’s been 16 months so far, but it’s a very technical game. It’s like an iceberg – there’s a lot going on in the background, more so than most games, so that’s what we’ve really been working on getting solid over the last 16 months. Now we’re [at the stage where] it’s about putting a face on it, and turning it into the actual game.
Dale: You’re aiming for quite an open, sandbox environment. Are you concerned that some players may become confused due to a lack of direction?
Karl: There is some direction. In the early stages, not all of the station is available to you. You won’t be able to hack certain systems, get into all the security and medical information. That’s unlocked as you progress. There’s quite a lot of progression in the early stages. Then there are other targets; for example, if you make your laboratory particularly famous, [the station] might be visited by famous scientists, and so forth. So there are certain goals, but there’s no over-arching story.
Dale: The inhabitants on board the station are different every time, with their personalities determined by algorithms and various different traits. In that sense, I guess it would be difficult to implement a more rigid narrative.
Karl: Right. There’s no narrative. But there’s quite a lot of world-building; you’ll notice things in the conversations [NPCs] have with each other where they mention certain events and corporations, there are advertisements around the station, and we reference certain things.
We’ve put a lot of work into world-building, but it’s done in a more organic kind of way.
Joe: The narrative which does exist is more emergent – interpersonal narratives between the characters and their relationships.
Karl: Kind of like The Sims, or Dwarven Fortress.
Dale: Will Human Orbit be purely single-player, or do you think there’s scope to include co-op or competitive play?
Karl: Multiplayer is an interesting concept, but I think that if it were to include it, as people have to set up quite subtle [situations] to get someone to send a certain email to someone else, and other interactions among people on the station, hoping that a particular thing will happen… if there’s another player in there, what could happen is that they could easily interrupt those plans and that would be good if you could make that game-able; but if they were interrupting your plans without realizing that they’re doing it, or without getting any fulfilment from that, then it isn’t very useful.
Dale: You mentioned that the crew on the station aren’t aware you’re a sentient presence on board, but they can become suspicious if they repeatedly see you tinkering with systems you shouldn’t be. What are the consequences to that?
Karl: No-one will be able to pin anything on you, but if you keep doing the same thing over and over – say you keep sucking people out of the airlocks – then they’re going to take the airlocks offline from the automated system, meaning you’ll have to manually operate them. And that’ll be difficult as you have no arms! So yeah, they will lock systems out if they think they’re malfunctioning.
There might be a particularly insightful, paranoid NPC who starts to think that there’s a sentient AI on the ship, but it’s not something they have a reference point for. It’s like the idea of an AI taking over a corporation now – it’s not the first [possibility] that jumps into people’s minds.
If somebody does [suspect], no-one would listen to them anyway! They’d probably be sent to the Med Bay, or for Psych Evaluation.
Dale: You can manipulate relationships between crew-members. If you manipulate them into a relationship, what happens once they’re in that relationship? Do they have offspring who inherit the traits of their parents?
Karl: We don’t have offspring, because everyone has been sterilized! [Laughs]. You can grow the population by manipulating the environment. If you focus on a better laboratory, you’ll see more science-type people arriving, that kind of thing.
Within the relationships themselves, they can have pretty reasonable relationships. Our personality system is quite in-depth; there are around 30 different traits.
Joe: It’s based on the “big five” personality profiling model [Editor’s note – for more on this, there’s a good article over on Wikipedia that provides some detail]. There are five main personality profiles – openness, conscientiousness, and so on; each of those is split into 6 different facets, resulting in 30 different personality attributes.
Dale: Does Human Orbit monitor happiness levels and things like that?
Karl: We should focus a bit more on the personality systems and how well-developed that side of things is. In a lot of games, [developers] say that [they’re focusing on personality], but then you get something like The Sims where they just burn a hamburger, then they burst out crying, and then they wet themselves.
In Human Orbit, when you get 2 NPCs in a relationship it might reach the point where they have hidden resentment for their partner’s male friends. That could display itself as sitting in their seat and not getting out of it, or not buying a coffee when they’ve bought one every day for everyone in a group. Little things like that.
[The system] allows for more subtle variations like resentment or indignation – emotions which most games don’t pick up on. The “non-gamey” emotions, as I’d call them. Usually it’s just things like anger, or fear, or happiness [that are simulated]. We’re trying to put everything in there.
A discussion we need to have is about the extent to which we’d like to simulate stuff like [mental illness]. The traits we’ve simulated are taken directly from the “Big Five” model. In fact, we could link a test which you can take and it would spit out different variables of your personality, which then go directly into the game – so you could see yourself walking around the game with your own personality.
We’ll be implementing that feature! It might be like you take a little quiz and then you see yourself in the game.
Dale: You mentioned that you have a lot of people on the team who have worked on larger projects. How did you get their attention and bring them on board?
Joe: Before we started approaching people and getting them involved, we’d already done a fair amount of work on the underlying systems. So we could already show them what we were working on.
A lot of the people involved are really into the things that we are trying to explore. If you look at the people involved, you’ll see that there’s a lot of sci-fi work in their personal portfolios, even if it’s just something they’ve been working on in their spare time. When we approached Dan about the concept he was very excited to work on it, and still is – which is fantastic.
Dale: Human Orbit is a Sci-Fi game. What sort of atmosphere are you aiming toward? Are you going for the more clinical approach favored by Isaac Asimov, or are you going all-out and looking at a more Star Trek-y atmosphere? The interiors of many of the rooms have a very Star Trek: The Next Generation vibe.
Joe: Something you see a lot of, particularly in TV Sc-Fi, where environments feel very sterile and don’t feel like actual homes – is that you don’t [get the feeling] that this place is a place where people live. But this isn’t just some place they happen to be in, this is their home. That’s something we want to emphasize with our approach.
You can see it in areas like the dormitories, which Dan is working on right now. It’s got a much more communal feel to it. It’s a lot like a student dorm, actually: it’s got door space, people have their own rooms…
Karl: …Which they can personalize!
It’s not a personality on the ship; it’s kind of an extension of the NPCs themselves. You want to make them into characters, rather than just being an NPC that’s walking around. So there’ll be a particular person, and they’ll have their own style with regards to their clothing, or their preferred color schemes that they like, which will manifest in the kind of clothes they wear. And they’ll go to their work desk; they’ll change their desk around in a way particularly suited to them.
If they’re a very neurotic person, [their desk] would be very neat and tidy. If they’re more care-free, they’ll just leave all the stuff they’re working on lying all over the place. That carries on into their own room – wherever they tend to exist – and leaving their presence around the station.
In terms of what kind of Sci-Fi it is? It looks a little Star Trek at the moment, but we’re going to try to tone that down. Not hugely, because I think Star Trek is quite an accessible type of Sci-Fi; but in terms of the concept, Human Orbit is pretty Hard Sci-fi, actually. We took a lot of inspiration from how the International Space Station works, and we try to take realistic depictions of how a Space Station would actually function [in real life] – even if it doesn’t come across so much in the visuals. Ignoring artificial gravity – we just ignore that [Laughs]!
Dale: You’ve mentioned the International Space Station. What sort of research or assets have you used to help you?
Karl: Dan had a specific vision when he came on. I don’t know if it comes across as believable visually.
Joe: We’ve been inspired by things like the International Space Station and GCHQ [Editor’s Note – for non-Brits, GCHQ is the Headquarters for Government Communication – think of it as the UK equivalent of the CIA]. If you look at the station from above, it actually looks exactly like the GCHQ building.
We also took some initial influence from things like the Macross universe. In that universe, they have these large colony ships which go out into the far reaches of space and they make a point of having specific areas of duty on those ships. And that’s a way of making sure that they have people on the ship who have their own cultures, and their own ideas of beauty. And if you’re living on a ship all the way out in space, for a long duration, you need places of beauty.
A lot of it’s artificial. In the space stations they build now, there’s a lot of practicality. They [used to] put a bed on the wall, chairs on the ceiling – because there’s no gravity. But people didn’t like that; it was better for their mental well-being to have something designated as floor space. So in most Space-related things now, there’s always something designated as the floor. Humans like that – they like to have these points of reference.
The main point is that we extrapolate from our technology, and try to maintain the human aspect.
Karl: For instance, did you know how, in Sci-Fi, the power goes off and everyone starts to slowly freeze to death? That’s not something which actually happens in real life. The International Space Station has no heaters whatsoever; in fact, it has air conditioning because it gets too hot.
Space is cold. There are no particles in space, so there’s no energy transfer between a station and into Space. Things get really hot. So actually, you can just sweat to death.
Joe: We found out a lot of interesting things during our research.
Dale: Other than the personality system, what feature would you say that you are most proud of?
Karl: One of the other big systems in the game is the actual functioning of the Station itself. I’ll give you an example: the way [the NPCs] get all of their food, is via these algae cultures, which they develop, dry out and then they turn it into a powder. Then that’s processed in certain ways and they take it to a canteen, where it’s fed into a 3D printing machine. They add flavors and cook it in certain ways, cook it some more, and 3D-print it out into certain foods. That’s how they get all of their nutrition.
But that system can be interrupted at any stage. So you could add steroids to the red food coloring, and then all the red octopus cookies they’re eating could make everyone buff. That’s a terrible example – I don’t know why you’d do that! [Laughs].
Joe: Well you could do that!
Karl: The point is that there are all these systems, and they’re all functioning and you can interact with them at pretty much every stage. You can interact with pretty much every system. That’s quite interesting, and it leads to more freedom in how you can manipulate [the environment]. So you might get scared to touch anything in case you break it.
But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?
Dale: Can you shut down the artificial gravity and have everyone floating around?
Karl: Ah, gravity is the big thing that everyone always asks about! But it’s the one that’s the most complicated to do, which is why we cut it.
How we deal with that, is that instead of being on a station orbiting a planet [the crew are] on a station on the planet’s surface, with a moon orbiting that planet. And they get gravity from that moon.
Maybe in Human Orbit 2!
Joe: It is something we considered, but in terms of balancing the effort of creating the game against the work involved in getting gravity in there, we didn’t feel that it would be something we could accomplish right now.
Dale: What sort of minimum spec requirements are you looking at? All that number-crunching must take up a fair bit of CPU power?
Joe: There’s a lot of information that can be cached. The personality data, stuff like that, we can do a lot of optimization. We’re aiming at mid-range desktops. We hope to make the game available to as large an audience as possible.
Karl: I would say mid-range. My laptop runs it ok, and my laptop is pretty old and clunky. We’re not aiming at the high-end at all; we don’t want to close off our audience.
Data-crunching is still light compared with graphics [in game development], to be honest. We can do quite a lot with that.
Dale: Going back to the earlier mention of multiplayer, games like Minecraft allow people to generate and share seed numbers which allow people to experience what other players are doing. Do you have any plans to include that kind of support?
Karl: We use a seed number. So you should be able to get a character in another game by sharing that. It would also be plausible to share an entire character – like including some kind of export function for characters. But sending a character off from one station to another, complete with their history… they’d probably be pretty sad!
But yes, you can share characters.
Dale: What classic games do you enjoy which have inspired your design?
Karl: A lot of our inspiration for this project doesn’t come explicitly from games. A lot of it comes from News and current affairs, and I think that a lot of influence has been drawn from the stuff going on at the moment.
I’d say that Dwarven Fortress has been an influence, but largely our inspiration comes from other sources. It’s more that we want to address a gap we saw. [Developers] don’t seem to concentrate on AI necessarily, and they haven’t for quite a long time. So we want to forward that idea. We think a lot more gameplay could come out of exploring AI, and it’s something we should be playing with a lot more.
Dale: Something that’s often mentioned is how it’s great to see advances in graphics, but AI is often left behind. It’s one thing having an extraordinarily pretty game, but if the NPCs are as thick as mud then all you end up with is a pretty corridor and stupid opponents, and it can spoil the experience.
Karl: I think it’s a development problem; our AI has taken a long time to develop, and [developers] don’t necessarily have a long time to know if there is a going to be a good game at end of it. You’ve got a lot of time, a lot of money, but you have to develop these systems which are untested in other games. I think that a lot of the time it’s just a risk inherent with where you’re coming from. If you’re a Triple-A company, why would you spend a large amount of man-hours researching something?
Joe: If it pays off then that’s great! But if it doesn’t…
Karl: You could look like an idiot.
Dale: From an advertiser’s point of view, it could be difficult to transform the concept of AI into something tangible.
Karl: Very much so. But it’s been great; the material we’ve released has been accepted really positively. And as well as the feedback people are leaving on sites, the comments that people have been giving have been great – people are really getting the concept, and from what they’re saying, they’re really enthusiastic for it.
Joe: The methods of marketing games are changing now. Things like Youtube play a large part, where you actually get to see video games, and I think that will be displayed a lot more prominently. A lot of games say “oh, we’ve got the greatest AI ever.”
Every game – even if their AI is really basic… it’s hard to make a splash if everyone is making the same claims, because everyone is trying to prove that their game is the best. That’s starting to change, with more of the video-based marketing that’s coming out. You’re going to get a lot more development there, I think.
Dale: Are there any industry trends in the industry, any thoughts, which really inspire you, or wish would go away?
Joe: One thing which I sometimes worry about is that the triple-A industry – I don’t want to push it too hard, but I’ve heard it bandied about – apparently, the average term of someone’s time inside the Industry is only about 5 years. That’s not very long; I already went over my past earlier on – I haven’t worked in the Game Industry up until now, I’ve been working in related industries such as the 3D graphics industry. That’s for various reasons, but I don’t feel like [the Game Industry] would necessarily be a very good employer.
The crunch times are infamous, and I’m concerned that, as an outsider who has literally avoided the industry, for reasons like that it has put off a lot of talent.
If people come in for five years, they build up experience over those five years and then leave the industry, that’s a waste of talent.
That’s something I always think about.
Dale: Many publishers build up their workforce, only to shed them after the completion of a project.
Joe: It’s terrifying. It’s a lot of time and talent wasted. I’m not saying I have any solutions, but it’s something we need to look at.
Karl: [The industry is] pretty ageist as well. I have the feeling it’s not so much ageism, as it is that [companies] want new enthusiastic people to exploit.
Joe: And there are a lot of people that want to get into the games industry.
Dale: Last question – has there been any particular anecdote during the development of Human Orbit which has made you laugh, or just think “that’s cool!”?
Karl: One thing I’ve noticed is that with the demo we sent out for EGX and the feedback we got from it, we’ve learned that many of the people in the game are terrible people [Laughs]! They argue over the smallest things!
I think in the demo you saw, there was Emma and Sam. Emma was hard at work, and Sam said “oh, you’re hard at work, is there anything I can help you with?”
Emma says “No! Don’t be ridiculous! You can’t do my job!”
And so Sam says “I didn’t mean to cause offense”, to which Emma replies: “It’s over between us.” [Laughs]
The reason Emma says that is because when Sam asks if he can give her a hand with her job, Emma, knows that he isn’t capable of doing it. So she views it as though he’s looking down on her. That’s the system we created, the thought process which results in this big blowout. We’ve got to tone that back a bit!
Joe: It also doesn’t help that they’ve all sort of been wandering around in Limbo. They’re just kind of walking around, thirsty and hungry, so when something happens then it gets a bit extreme. We need to do something about that!
With an estimated six months left to go, Autelia is working against the clock; but they’re not short of confidence. The God-game genre has been slowly dying out in recent years, with only a few titles released serving to keep it on life support. Many of those releases lacked new ideas, or appropriated old ones only to attempt to add a twist which ultimately fell flat.
Human Orbit, however, looks to be doing something new; the possibilities offered up by mainpulating the conversation, the potential for mischief through manipulating the systems on board the station, and the attempts to make real advances in the field of in-game AI are all rather exciting.
If Autelia is able to only deliver on half of their promises, Human Orbit could turn out to be the breath of fresh space dust that the genre has needed for so long.
Hopefully, by next March we’ll all be able to find out how successful they’ve been. Between now and then, I’m looking forward to seeing more of the game over the course of development.