How a former designer on 'BioShock Infinite' worked alone to build one of the top selling games on Steam
How a former designer on 'BioShock Infinite' worked alone to build one of the top selling games on Steam
Since its earliest public release on Steam Early Access in July, RimWorld – a sci-fi space colony sim – has amassed more than 600,000 players, and it's not even a finished project. The deceptively simple-looking game tasks you with managing a community of unfortunate spacefarers that have crash landed on a random planet – a setup the game mines endlessly to generate entertaining stories. It's an approach that's drawn comparisons to the huge (and hugely influential), open-ended fantasy game Dwarf Fortress, but where Dwarf Fortress is about building big communities that survive across generations, RimWorld zeroes in on the survival struggles of a handful of people, so that players get to know them as individuals. Think Lost, in space.
Creating that connection between the colonists and the players is the special sauce of RimWorld’s appeal. Your affections are constantly strained by the game’s tricky AI, which is designed to analyze each colony’s situation and generate events that create instability: pirate raids, erupting volcanoes, traitorous colonists. The comedy and tragedy you experience as your colonists are repeatedly put through the grinder – and the deep discussions that emerge in the aftermath – keep the game buzzing around your head long after you've left your keyboard. Go to the RimWorld forums and you'll encounter debates about the ethics of organ harvesting, threads about out how to deal with arsonists, and the advantages of installing bionic legs.
That’s a lot going on inside a game that was made mostly by one guy. 31-year-old Tynan Sylvester builds RimWorld from his home in Montreal, and for the past five years, he's been steadily evolving the systems-driven storytelling that is the foundation of his vast – and now lucrative – creation.
Sylvester started making RimWorld after he quit his job at Irrational Games in February 2012 where he'd spent the majority of his time working on BioShock Infinite – the third game in Ken Levine's dark, smart first-person shooter series. Infinite, which launched in 2013, was a huge commercial and critical success, but was almost immediately engulfed in equally huge controversies. The biggest: its depiction of the floating city of Columbia, a twisted utopia that was built, in Infinite's alternate history, on the principles of American imperialism, religious extremism, and white supremacy. The game, like its predecessors, wasn’t aiming to promote those ideas so much as have players consider the role they undoubtedly played in American history. Even so, for months after the game’s release, there were entire corners of the internet awash with raging discussions around the game's provocative themes.
Sylvester left Irrational before the game launched, so he was spared all that. Not that his contributions would've put him in the crossfire: as a designer his work focused mainly on the nuts and bolts. But he wouldn’t have that luxury in the future. As soon as he founded Ludeon Studios in 2012, it'd be on him to deal directly with any controversy his games might attract – and attract controversy they would.
According to Sylvester, his time at Irrational was marred by the sorts of frustrations common in large teams – like weeks of work suddenly becoming worthless due to decisions way over his head – but it did help him work out what he enjoys doing. He describes it as "facing unstructured problems," like fiddling around with the ins-and-outs of systems, and fixing a thousand tiny issues at once – precisely the sort of work that RimWorld demands.
Sylvester's been fascinated with multifaceted game systems since he was a kid growing up in Richmond Hill, Ontario. When his brother got a copy of the robot combat game MechWarrior for the family’s 486 computer, Sylvester fell in love with the concept of battlemechs and would draw them constantly, focusing on the machine parts that made them tick. "Each one would be a front-facing diagram, with half the mech viewable in a cut-away style so you could see the interior components," he says.
When his mom told him to stop playing the NES and go outside as a kid, he'd take a piece of chalk with him and scrawl game levels on the driveway
That urge to fiddle informed his earliest forays into game design. When his mom told him to stop playing the NES and go outside as a kid, he'd take a piece of chalk with him and scrawl game levels on the driveway. In middle school, he was drawn to try his hand with the Unreal Tournament level editor by the screenshots on the back of the game’s box, but quickly realized he was in over his head. "I remember not knowing how to move the 'brush' in the Unreal Editor, and seriously considering contacting the game's creator Cliff Bleszinski to ask him how," he says. "I was too shy, though."
Sylvester calls this his “phase of self-teaching" – there was no one around to tutor him on Unreal map design, so he taught himself. By November 2003, after just a few years, he entered his self-built level – "DM-Lightfalls" – into the Fragapalooza Design Contest. He took first prize, earning the "0wnage" award from the game's designer Cliff Bleszinski himself. His big takeaway from his years working on mods was that he's essentially self motivated. "I work steadily, I work without encouragement, and I work well alone," he says.
After leaving Irrational, Sylvester started experimenting with game prototypes, all of which he fully expected to scrap. "That's one of the big mental jumps that I think really helped me," he says. "I knew I'd get it wrong multiple times, which is what allowed me to throw things out that weren't working and try new things until I got to RimWorld." His method has always been to teach himself a skill the hard way, embrace failure, and learn from it. He commits to steady iteration, starting with an idea, analyzing its first implementation, removing what doesn’t work, and moving forward with what’s left.
The path to RimWorld began with a prototype called Starship Architect. The idea was for players to build a starship, travel through space, and fight enemy ships. But Sylvester thought it lacked focus as the two different gameplay types – flying the ship around and managing its interior – didn't quite fit together. Instead of throwing Starship Architect out entirely, Sylvester removed the starship and had the action play out on the ground, which immediately solved one of its trickier problems – figuring the AI to allow characters to crawl through airlocks. He called this new prototype Eclipse Colony, and it was about managing a colony on a randomly generated planet. Sylvester remembers when he first realized he had something special on his hands. He had some friends over for a quick test of the game one night, and two of them became engrossed that they couldn't force themselves to leave until 2am. "People were falling asleep but they still wanted to play," he says. "And that was back when the game had absolutely minimal graphics – characters were just yellow dots sliding around the screen." After that he knew there was something in that game idea that just worked – he just had to figure out exactly what it was and how to amplify it without breaking it.
It took another few months of prototyping to evolve Eclipse Colony and arrive at the foundations of what would eventually become RimWorld. This was February 2013, a month before BioShock Infinite was due to come out, at which point Sylvester's former boss would come under heavy fire. As the creative director and public face of BioShock Infinite, people assumed that the politics in the game reflected Ken Levine's own beliefs. Levine was demonized from unexpected directions: relatives accused him of attacking the Tea Party, devout Christians were offended by the game's depiction of their religion. A white supremacist website broadcast the message, "The Jew Ken Levine is making a white-person-killing simulator." But Levine didn't seem surprised by the reaction. In interviews, Levine said that to not have included the depictions of nationalism and racism in BioShock Infinite would have been "dishonest" to the time period it was set in.
Years later, Sylvester would find himself in the crosshairs. Gaming news site Rock, Paper, Shotgun published a piece that dived into RimWorld's decompiled code and revealed that RimWorld was designed with varying degrees of prejudice built into the character's interactions with one another. Before the article was published, cases were found where players in the Steam forums would discuss how to best deal with colonists in the game who were homosexual or had a mental health issues: execution or isolation? It was discovered that what encouraged this shocking treatment of those types of colonists is that in early builds of the game they're harder to keep happy and productive than others, and so they're undesirable to have around.
It got worse. Since the discovery of that thread, the author of the article, Claudia Lo, claimed to have found other issues with the game's code, including disabled people being made less attractive to others, bisexual men not existing at all, and women only being bisexual or homosexual. Lo did acknowledge that RimWorld isn't finished and so the systems that determined gender and attraction were subject to change. But she also added, "we are not analyzing RimWorld on the basis of what it might be in the future. The question we're asking is, 'What are the stories that RimWorld is already telling?"
Thanks to an oversight in the code, for example, Sylvester found himself accused of believing that bisexual men simply didn't exist
In response, Slyvester took to Reddit to explain how the myriad criticisms coming his way were incorrect or were issues he was aware of and would be fixing in future builds of the game. Being a solo developer, he said, meant some systems were hastily put together in a single night and hadn't had the attention they needed to work better yet. As with Bioshock Infinite, many people assumed that the views on display in RimWorld's code reflected the personal beliefs of its creator. Thanks to an oversight in the code, for example, Sylvester found himself accused of believing that bisexual men simply didn't exist. "It's true there's an issue in the game where this behavior won't appear. It'll be fixed in the next release," he said in the Reddit thread. As for the rest, he handled it pretty much as Levine did.
"RimWorld's depiction of humanity is not meant to represent an ideal society, or characters who should act as role models," he wrote. "The characters are very flawed because flaws drive drama, and drama is the heart of RimWorld. Depicting all the RimWorld colonists as idealized, perfectly-adjusted, bias-free people would make for a rather boring social simulation, in my opinion. So, please don't criticize how the game models humans as though it's my personal ideal of optimal human behavior. It's not."
While the scale of the controversies may have been unpredictable, Sylvester says he was anticipating headwinds, due to the difficult topics the game touches on. "RimWorld is a simulation of people surviving very hard times, so it necessarily makes contact with a lot of issues that various groups have strong and mutually-exclusive opinions about," he says. "So controversy seems unavoidable. I anticipate more in the future."
Sylvester is pleased that RimWorld has ignited discussion, even if it's heated. He always intended RimWorld to be a game that generates stories by forcing you to engage with the complex questions that affect our lives. There are some big ones: "What is the value of holding onto your humanity versus doing what's needed to survive? What responsibility does a group of people under stress have to outsiders? Should social morality change as a society goes through different hardships? How do we morally evaluate someone who does both great good and evil at different times – how do those interact? Is there such a thing as an acceptable loss of human life, and when is that?"
Sylvester continues to iterate on RimWorld, shuffling the smaller bits of code around to subtly change the shape of its systems and the stories it generates. He sees it as a capsule that holds ideas for people to interact with: he only needs to add a mechanic around belief systems and suddenly it's able to explore how they interact and form communities. It’s because of this potential to express and probe ideas – whether political, social, or anything else – that he reckons he won't ever get bored of RimWorld. "It is an endlessly expandable project by nature, and it's still selling well, so I don't see any reason to stop development entirely," he says. "Of course, the game will move out of alpha at some point and then we'll look at doing some combination of free updates and expansion packs. But stopping entirely? I don't see it happening soon."