Mining deep into Simon Roth’s Maia, the sim with planet-sized ambition

Publisher/developer: Simon Roth Format: PC Origin: UK Release: December 2013 (Early Access)

Dungeon Keeper meets Dwarf Fortress in space is one hell of an elevator pitch. But while it’s common to find such descriptions attached to glimpses of Simon Roth’s Maia, the game is as inimical to easy comparisons as the eponymous planet’s atmosphere is to the hapless colonists attempting to settle on its surface.

Roth happily lists the Bullfrog strategy classic and Tarn Adams’ roguelike among his laundry list of inspirations, but makes it clear that’s as far as it goes. “It’s not either [game], and I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s either when people describe it,” he tells us. “There are obvious nods to those games, because they have inspired it, but I’m being careful not just to take the language of those games or the ideas of those games and plonk them in. Like, I’m inspired by them, so I’m putting in these little jokes…”

Those jokes include IMP worker robots, which mine out cubes of rock for you to then zone off as different rooms, and chickens that will gather in livestock pens to be a handy source of protein for your spacefarers. Perhaps it’s easy to see how people became confused.

So what is Maia? It’s a hard sci-fi simulation game – emphasis on the hard – shot through with a very British sense of humour. Put another way, Maia presents players with a meticulously researched and intricately modelled primordial exoplanet that their colonists must tame lest they perish upon its uncaring surface. The air outside is deadly, the plants are borderline inedible, and some of the not-yet-implemented local fauna will see your clutch of humans as a rare delicacy. So you’ll need to build a fragile base inside a mountain as you strive towards self-sufficiency. In the planned eight-hour campaign mode, you’ll also work towards a technological marvel that promises to make this harsh environment a lot more habitable.

Glow sticks play a bigger role than mere illumination: colonists’ moods and work efficiency are affected by different colours of light. Red makes them work faster but feel more aggressive, while blue light is soothing.

Yet for all its civic-planning trappings, this simulated world draws as much from The Sims as SimCity. Your colonists are far from worker drones, each with their own personality and goals. “The problem with the colonists is they have their own free-will system,” Roth says. “It’s a lot like what they did on The Sims 2, I believe, where they assess everything in the world that they can see and learn what different objects can give them or do for them. I’m kind of taking it to a much higher level, with abstract wants and needs that they try to fulfil, with strange vagaries. They kind of build relationships with objects.” That extends to the chickens and dogs, too, which may decide to fall out with each other, or take an intense dislike to a particular colonist.

It’s just one of a staggering number of complex systems that underpin Roth’s world. Take wind turbines, which you’ll build on the hostile open plains to meet your power needs. Rather than simply topping up an onscreen bar with a block of a generic power resource, on mouseover they reveal a fluctuating output in watts that’s been calculated from the current windspeed and the size of their blades. Elsewhere, foliage grows in realtime; solar panels track the sun; and any research you do is stored on tape decks, meaning your data can be lost if they’re broken. The level of detail is astonishing, but Roth is resisting feature creep. “A lot of the Dwarf Fortress fans are going, ‘You should simulate every tooth in the characters’ mouths.’ But I’m not putting in detail for detail’s sake. It has to either feel like a nice bit of polish, or it has to be something that directly influences the gameplay.”

At this current alpha stage, however, all those raw simulations have yet to coalesce into objectives or any sense of a defined end point. Roth admits that’s due to the nature of what he’s building. “With a simulation game, there’s no concept of a vertical slice. I can’t say, ‘Here’s the little gameplay demo.’”

Flags fly fluidly in the wind, thanks to a dynamic cloth sim, but they’re upside down. This is for a reason: it’s a sign of intense distress.

Not a problem, perhaps, except that the game launched on Steam Early Access early last month. With plenty of Kickstarter funds still in the bank, we wonder why. “This game will suit it,” Roth explains. “It was always going to be an extended alpha kind of game. I think a lot of people [have] failed on the Early Access route because they think that releases should be perfect, and they think that they should happen every milestone, and they have very rigid structures. Having seen Godus, and a few other games, I think people have been very bad at reacting to expectations and managing people’s expectations of what they should have.”

Let’s set those expectations, then: what Maia offers right now is an uncommonly ambitious sandbox full of toys and discoveries to make. It’s an unformed, unstable and buggy landscape dotted with spots of intense polish, but that shouldn’t put off the pioneering spirits at which it is so clearly aimed.

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