Outer Colony

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Interview With Samuel Ruggieri Creator of Outer Colony

outer colony

There are very few moments in life when you feel as though you are in the presence of a genius. Samuel Ruggieri is one of those people. Sam is developing Outer Colony which is a real time strategy game based in a sci-fi setting with a strong emphasis on artificial intelligence. I can almost hear the ominous sound of the Cylons and you will too as you read on. If that doesn’t scare you then please continue.

The Interview

Hi Samuel and thanks for taking the time to meet with me to discuss your upcoming game, Outer Colony. First though lets talk a bit about yourself. So, no pressure.

So tell me about your background and what lead you to where you are now.

I suppose the path that led me here really started when I was a little kid, watching my dad do all sorts of things on his 386 in the early 90’s. I found computers fascinating back then, I studied computer science in college, and I’ve been working as a software engineer for the last 9 years.

I was very fortunate to get a great job early in my career, working for a company that did research in artificial intelligence. I had an opportunity to work with some amazingly talented people, and I really learned how to design and build software properly in the few years I spent there. I also was exposed to some really interesting software, particularly writing AI behaviors to run entities in a distributed world simulation.

I’d been really interested in the concept of world simulation systems for ages, ever since I played SimEarth as a kid. SimEarth one of those visionary pieces of software that was decades ahead of its time, and the things that Will Wright was doing 30 years ago were incredible. Given how much I loved this sort of stuff, it was fantastic to get to work professionally with modern, cutting edge, experimental world simulations.

Eventually, I concluded that my best course of action was to go out on my own and to implement my ideas, as I saw fit.

There are downsides to working as a grunt-level software engineer within the research establishment, though. I had all sorts of my own ideas about simulation and AI, but I knew that I’d never get anywhere in the realm of government funded research without a PhD. I could write a great deal on the deficiencies of how research is funded and conducted in the United States, but the reality of the situation was that my ideas would never be taken seriously unless I had letters behind my name. I really did not enjoy my undergrad, and the last thing I wanted to do was to spend 5 years in grad school, so I had to come up with another option.

Eventually, I concluded that my best course of action was to go out on my own and to implement my ideas, as I saw fit, within the framework of entertainment software. The computer game industry is a wild, wonderful thing, where money doesn’t come from white papers or PowerPoint presentations, but from fun, working software. I think I can make something great: a game with an unprecedented depth in world simulation and AI that’s never really been done before. And I think it’s going to be amazing fun, and a brand new sort of experience for players.

So, here I am! I want to try to do for games in 2016 what Will Wright did in the late 80s, and Outer Colony is how I’m making it happen.

Was game development something you have always wanted to do? Or did you fall into it by accident and fall in love?

Truth be told, I would’ve never guessed as a kid that I’d wind up in game development. I always liked computers and enjoyed games quite a bit, but I never thought I’d make games professionally. Even now, when people I’ve just met ask what I do, I don’t really say that I’m a game developer. I’m a software engineer! Because truthfully, that’s what I do on a day-to-day level. My days are more a matter of data structures and algorithms than anything.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. I’m certainly passionate about computer games and enjoy them immensely, but I ultimately wound up in the domain for reasons that have little to do with games themselves. If you’d have told my 19 year old self where I am now, he’d have laughed and not believed it. Still, I’m extremely happy to be doing what I’m doing, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do right now than build Outer Colony.

What is the first video game you can ever remember playing and would you play it today? Do we still call it video games or am I showing my age?

Ohhhh, this is a great question! I have these fantastic, visceral memories of being a really little kid, standing next to my brother, huddled around my dad’s 386 as we watched him play the shareware version Wolfenstein 3D. I was too scared to play it, thou
gh! The first game I can definitely remember playing was the original Duke Nukem platformer, although I was playing SimCity at about that time, too.

In those rare instances when I can find time, these are still the games I play. The only new games I enjoy are indie, and I think I’ve only bought one AAA game in the last decade. I really don’t have much time to play games anymore, but DOSBox is my go-to option more often than not. I was on a lengthy flight not too long ago and had a blast playing SimEarth again for some inspiration. Here’s a screenshot of crabs evolving, just because I love it so much:

outer colony crabs evolving

Is Outer Colony the first computer game you have worked on?

Actually, I’ve been building games for as long as I’ve been writing code, although it’s generally been a peripheral activity for me. The first program I ever wrote was a text adventure on my TI-86 graphing calculator in high school. In college, I wrote an online, multiplayer, persistent world, strategy game called City State. The back end was written in PHP and MySQL, and the front end was plain HTML and Javascript, run in a browser.

I played one significant play-through with about a dozen people, and it was a hilarious experience filled with furious trolling and subterfuge. Then, the 700mhz Pentium 3 in the server I was using to host the game fried, and that was the end of our run. I still have a few screenshots of it, and I’ll include one here, because it’s so comically primitive looking:

text adventure

So, I’ve been writing games for as long as I’ve been programming, but never as seriously as the last few years.

It’s actually a surprisingly global effort, as several team members are contractors who live on other continents!

How big is the team producing your latest game? Or perhaps you are taking on the challenge solo?

Right now, the team consists of 6 people who are contributing major assets to the system. It’s actually a surprisingly global effort, as several team members are contractors who live on other continents!

I write all the code and produce all the software designs. Our concept artist and illustrator is a fantastically talented contractor working in Lubeck, Germany. Our pixel artist lives in the Philippines, and we’ve got a composer and sound effects creator who lives in Western Australia. I’ve also got two friends in the US who come up with gameplay ideas, write lore, and do all sorts of other things to help development along.

Just for full disclosure, from a technical / business perspective, I’m the only full time employee of Voyager Games proper, and the other team members are 1099 contractors. The endeavor is entirely self funded. This is to say that all the money for development comes from my bank account, and that money originally got there from years of saving while I worked as a consultant. So, are we a game studio in the traditional sense? It may be a bit of a stretch to call us that. But we’re scrappy, obsessed maniacs on a mission. Remember that Apple and Microsoft started in garages, too!

You describe Outer Colony on your website as An open ended,  strategy game designed to push the boundaries of simulation and AI.” Tell me more about that. Why the focus on simulation and AI?

If you take a human being, the most intelligent thing we know of, and you place it alone in a completely empty room, it can’t do anything interesting.

The focus on simulation and AI really derives the path that led me to this project. Sometimes, I think software can really be a mode of expression, like an art form. A writer might pen a novel, a sculptor might carve a statue, and a software engineer might code a computer program like Outer Colony. Simulation and AI are salient interests of mine within the greater domain of software, and Outer Colony is the actual implementation of my ideas on the subjects.

Of further note, I think that AI is inexorably linked to simulation. The capabilities of any intelligence are fundamentally limited by the environment in which it operates. If you take a human being, the most intelligent thing we know of, and you place it alone in a completely empty room, it can’t do anything interesting. It can’t express its intelligence in any meaningful way. Human intelligence only yields interesting results because it operates in and manipulates the big, wide, real world!

Without an interesting, complex, deep world to operate in, an intelligence won’t be able to do interesting things. As such, Outer Colony’s simulation mechanics provide the playground in which our human behavior modeling can operate. It’s the depth of simulation that enables the depth of the AI, and you can’t have interesting AI without it.

What was it that inspired you to make Outer Colony?

Outer Colony has been inspired by so many things, but Will Wright’s SimEarth probably planted the original seed in my mind. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible work done in the field by Zach and Tarn Adams in Dwarf Fortress. I loved The Thirteenth Floor, and I suspect that eventually, that’s what future gamers will be playing. Maybe by pushing the boundaries of what simulation and AI are in games, Outer Colony can be a small step in that direction.

Open ended gameplay and no specific winning conditions are two statements that stick out to me on voyagergames.com. You obviously chose these two very important conditions for the game. Why?

This is a keen observation, and it really comes from how Outer Colony is designed. There are no “winning conditions” in the real world, and the human experience is tremendously open ended! Since Outer Colony is fundamentally designed as a simulated world, I wanted it to work in the same way.

So what will players be doing in the game? How open ended is open ended?

To me, open ended means as much freedom of action as practically possible. What do we do as people in the real world? We undertake actions to manipulate the world around us. We understand the results of those actions as achieving abstract states. I hit a bunch of keys on the keyboard, which manipulated magnetic material in my hard drive, which made this text appear on my screen, which satisfied the “completed interview” state in my mind.

On some level, this is how you can describe gameplay in Outer Colony. We’ve got a simulated world, with 3 dimensional space, materials, items, properties, time, temperatures, and all sorts of other fundamental elements. Playing Outer Colony is all about manipulating the world’s various contents to achieve desired states, whatever those may be!

Other motivators are more subtle, like needing socialization to stave off loneliness, or romantic companionship to fulfil their biological imperative.

The gameplay itself involves commanding a group of NPCs that populate your colony. As a player, you act as a sort of unseen leader, issuing orders that describe states in the world that you want achieved. A state may be having planted a crop at a certain location, or having dug out a volume of rock somewhere. Your NPCs understand these states and determine plans, or series of actions, that they undertake to satisfy those states – if they feel like it. (See our general article on our AI, goal selection, and planning for more details).

While your NPCs are usually inclined to listen to you and work to comply with your directives, this isn’t always the case. They’re modeled like real people, to the greatest extent possible. They all have their own needs and desires, all expressed as states that they personally want to achieve. Some of these are obvious, like needing food and sleep to survive. Other motivators are more subtle, like needing socialization to stave off loneliness, or romantic companionship to fulfil their biological imperative. So leading your NPCs is a bit more like being a leader in real life. You’ve got to massage egos, resolve disputes in your colony’s social network, and make sure your people are happy by enabling them to achieve their own personal goals, in addition to yours.

As far as what can actually be done to manipulate the world, I could write 50 pages about it, but I’ll direct readers to the game overview page:

Some highlights include:

  • Like the real human experience, conflict and warfare are fundamental elements of OC. Combat in OC has much more in common with a US Army field manual than a game with special moves and hit points.It’s simplified physics, materials, bodies, communication protocols, infantry tactics, psychology, training. Command is much more like being a CGO in the real world than traditional RTS games, as you issue high level directives, while execution is left in the hands of your squads and fire teams. It doesn’t play like a traditional RTS, but it’s a ton of fun. Check out the combat articles on the web page for more details and demonstrations.
  • Building is 100% open ended. The fundamental volume unit in Outer Colony is a 3-dimensional tile space, and you can manipulate these volumes to build almost any sort of structure you can think of. It’s a bit like MineCraft in this way.
  • Your NPCs can work all kinds of jobs. Primary industries include agriculture, mining, logging, hunting, fishing, power generation, water processing and more. Manufacturing is an important part of the game, as are service-related jobs, like the medical professions and child care.
  • All kinds of events happen in the world to challenge your colony. Rabid animals might attack your people, barbarian raids appear from off-world, other unfriendly settlements may attack you, migrants can bring infectious diseases, like the plague to your lands, crop blight can devastate your food supply – the list goes on and on, but there are a great many challenges you’ve got to overcome to simply sustain your colony in the long term.
  • OC features an intricate manufacturing system for building items. All items derive their properties from the materials of their constituent components, and these are based on corresponding materials in the real world. For example, nickel has a density of 8.908 g/cm3 in both Outer Colony and the real world, and this density is used to determine weights of items built with nickel. (See this article for more details).
  • Much of Outer Colony’s gameplay is in effectively exerting influence over your population. Our model for culture is a huge part of our overarching approach to human behavior modeling, and defining a local culture by way of propaganda and media production makes the difference between a disciplined population that values hard work and a degenerate rabble of idiotic slugs. Tweaking culture policy, education policy, rehabilitation policy for prisoners, and all sorts of other variables can produce widely varying results.Media is a fundamental expression of culture, and human NPCs will even produce actual writings in-game, based on their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.Sometimes they write inane drivel about current events. Sometimes they write vitriolic sonnets about cultures they think are barbaric. Sometimes they write bizarre, allegorical children’s books about friendly animals. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this feature, but I kinda’ like it. Again, check out the website for more information! The culture and metrics articles are good places to start, and a specific article about media will be coming soon.

I could keep writing and writing and writing about features, but the website is the best resource for more information until the demo comes out.

Originally Outer Colony was an MMORPG and you switched gears to an RTS. When and why did you make this switch?

This is a hard one to answer, and it was a difficult, sad process that led us to the change. I originally envisioned building OC as an MMORPG, and this was primarily motivated by my love of the genre, specifically the first incarnation of SWG. However, after over a year of development, a failed Kickstarter campaign, and the lack of support we were able to muster, we realized that the change was necessary.

In short, the MMORPG genre wasn’t the right place to demonstrate the core concepts of Outer Colony. It was apparent in talking to people that I wasn’t getting the point across as well as I needed to. Additionally, we really needed a custom game engine, built entirely from scratch, to handle some of OC’s more extreme processing requirements. We went back to the drawing board and came up with what we have today.

For a more comprehensive answer, check out the open letter I wrote to backers from our failed 2014 Kickstarter campaign.

Do you currently have a kickstarter campaign live or plan to start one?

We don’t have one live now, but it’s very likely that we’ll run one in the future. Keep your eyes open for more updates!

What game engine is Outer Colony built on and why did you chose this engine over others?

We needed a custom game engine for the reasons described above, and building a full 3D engine was simply outside the realm of possibility.

Outer Colony is built on a custom, in-house game engine, designed specifically to support the game’s massive processing requirements. It’s fundamentally multi-threaded, which is funky for a game engine, but we need it to accommodate the countless things that are constantly happening in the world, from leaves falling off trees to humans finding their way out of mine tunnels. Outer Colony has radically different processing requirements from most games.

While many modern games are focused on rendering huge numbers of shapes in photorealistic 3D graphics, their gameplay is comparatively simple and doesn’t demand all that much power from the CPU. Outer Colony is a bit of the opposite, in that our game world and AI are constantly performing huge numbers of computations, and we need every bit of horsepower that we can squeeze out of every core you’ve got! So we had to take a really different approach to engine design, and we built Outer Colony much more like an experimental, hi-fi world simulator than a traditional game.

I’m actually very proud of our engine, as it’s one of the system’s most unique features and biggest technical achievements. If you want to read more about it and find out how it works, check out this article on our website.

What steps did you go through to make the final choice on the overall art style chosen?

This was another really challenging process for us to work through. We needed a custom game engine for the reasons described above, and building a full 3D engine was simply outside the realm of possibility. I just don’t have the expertise or funding required to realistically make that happen.

Additionally, I am a terrible artist – really, one of the worst you’ll ever meet, and I have no ability to make game assets. I had access to an incredible pixel artist, though, and the visual scheme you see today for Outer Colony was chosen for its simplicity and good looks. It really facilitates the gameplay and is fun to look at, and that’s what we ultimately needed.

Has any sounds or music been created at this point? What feel are you going for?

We have tons of sound effects and music already built for Outer Colony. Brian Fairbanks is the team’s composer, and he’s been writing tracks for the project for almost two years. We’ve already got over 40 minutes of OST, and you can listen to and download our seasonal themes here:

Original Soundtrack Audio.

(Sometimes the page itself is a bit wonky about showing the audio in some browsers. Direct links are provided here:

Spring Soundtrack.

Summer Soundtrack.

Autumn Soundtrack.

Winter Soundtrack.

These are seasonal tracks that play at the beginning of spring, summer, autumn, and winter each year, to set the mood for the coming time. We’ve got a ton of other tracks, though, that I’ll be pushing to the website soon.

We’re definitely going for an epic, awe-inspiring sort of sound to compliment the gameplay. We want to create a sense of wonder that aids in immersion to help people really feel the worlds, and I think Brian has done a tremendous job in that regard.

Outer Colony is playable online. Tell me the plans here and is it possible to play in solo mode?

Multiplayer is an integral part of Outer Colony, as I’ve always loved playing games with friends. In fact, OC’s networking protocol is what I’m working on right now, and more multiplayer functionality is being added each day. We’re currently planning on supporting both listen and dedicated servers, although this isn’t set in stone just yet.

Solo mode is definitely a part of OC, too, as I want to support as many play styles as possible. All of OC’s features are originally built and tested in single player mode, and I’ve tried to keep in mind the people who prefer the solo experience.

What platforms are you aiming for on release day?

Most likely, version 1.0 will be officially supported for Windows, although technically, Outer Colony could run on any platform that supports Java. It’s possible that we’ll be able to support Mac and Linux releases, too, but supporting the additional platforms imposes a greater burden for QA, so it might not be feasible right off the bat.

If we get a lot of support and have the time and funds required to support Mac and Linux releases, though, there’s no reason why we couldn’t do so.

Any rough dates for release at this point or is it too early?

It’s a little bit early to say when the version 1.0 release will happen for sure, but we’re planning to release a largely functional demo, for free, to show the world what we’ve got. As we see it, the key to our success is delivering a truly fun, innovative game, and the demo is our way of proving it. Talk is cheap, and results are not! The demo release will have to wait until we’ve had more time to test and work out bugs, but the time frame involved is a matter of months, not years.

What else have you planned for the game? Can you give us any sneak peeks at something you are currently working on?

One sneak peek I’ll mention is that sometimes, NPCs will author “great works” of literature.

Right now, when I’m taking breaks for multiplayer coding, I’m adding more and more polish to the media system. This sort of thing amuses me to no end, and I could work for thousands of hours on it, if I  had the chance.

One sneak peek I’ll mention is that sometimes, NPCs will author “great works” of literature. These are particularly profound, influential, moving works that NPCs with genius level intellect or creativity can produce under certain circumstances. Sometimes, these great works will be in the form of scriptures or religious texts, and the actual content of these texts is often surreal and borderline demented. I laughed for about ten minutes over something one of my NPCs wrote this morning, and if players have a sense of humor as goofy as mine, this should provide ample amusement.

Excluding Outer Colony, what computer game do you like most and why?

If I had to pick only one, I’d still have to say pre-CU Star Wars Galaxies. There are so many great games that have been made, and some might even represent more significant technical achievements than this, but I’d love to go back to 2004 and play some of this again. Raph Koster is one of the most talented game designers and theorists out there, and I highly recommend his book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design, to anyone who’s interested in the subject. His work really shines in classic SWG.

I liked SWG so much for the fun, social mechanics that it facilitated. As MMOs go, it was one of the most innovative in how it enabled players to leave their mark on a world. The game itself was a backdrop for a virtual society in a way that themepark games are not, and some of my best friends today, more than 10 years after we stopped playing, are people I met because of SWG.

Maybe someday we can bring the mechanics of Outer Colony to a massively multiplayer format, maybe via ad-hoc galaxies that allow players to link OC server worlds, or some other mechanism. It’s something I always have in mind as a far future goal, though.

My Thoughts

It is clear that Outer Colony is much much more than a simulation game. The processes involved, the detail and focus on artificial intelligence already make this game stand out in the crowd. Talking to Sam and hearing his thoughts on how we measure intelligence takes a step beyond the game world and into Philosophy.

If Sam and the team can produce a game only half as good as their ambition we would still have a game that in my opinion has the potential to be World changing. Why do I say this? Well it’s like this, Sam is creating an artificial universe that evolves and changes just like our own Universe. This has been tried before but not on a scale like this. Sam is not just creating a universe but asking himself what is true intelligence? This opens up entirely new avenues of conversation and makes me wonder, are we all part of some simulation on a computer hard drive somewhere created by a very clever game programmer?

I am eager to hear your thoughts on the game and what Sam and the team at Voyager Games are trying to create. If you have any questions for Sam you can post them below and I will try to include them on our next catch up.

Founder and Editor in Chief of OrangeBison.com. I created Orange Bison to help promote indie games and small game studios. I feel they don't get the coverage they deserve. When I am not playing games I enjoy trying new things. Anyone up for parachuting from a hot air balloon?

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