Maia: destroying a colony near you

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Roth continues to exceed expectations

Welcome to Maia

Imagine winning a one way ticket to found an extrasolar colony. Your destination is a primordial planet 12 light years away from Earth in the Tau Ceti system. Luscious and rich in resources, but hostile and brutally unforgiving. First job: generate air, water and power.

The planet is newly formed. Her magnetosphere underdeveloped, meteors and solar flares dance in her atmosphere. The ecosystem has recently reached equilibrium, but don’t go clearing too much of the flora and fauna, you might just find herbivores invading the base. Or they could die out, leaving predators hungry and picking off one or two of your colony members.

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Speaking of colony members, they must eat, sleep and retain sanity. They might die of fatigue, or perhaps they’ll asphyxiate if you neglect the air supply. Maybe they’ll get trapped on the planet’s surface and expire from exposure. Better make sure you manage the lighting correctly to control the moods of your staff before someone loses it.

This is Maia, the hard sci-fi space colony management simulator where everything is procedurally generated, and you should leave nothing to chance. Especially when there are so many ways to die.

Power to the people

The mastermind behind Maia, Simon Roth, began his journey towards the undiscovered planet by teaching himself computer animation for which he earned a degree. He then got bored and taught himself to code game engines (as one does when bored). After a few years at some notable establishments, and an attempt at a doctorate, Roth decided enough was enough. It was time the 2 year-old pet project got some hands on attention.  By the time the Kickstarter launched, Roth had many of the fine details plumbed out, which he attributes to the success the campaign garnered.

Any question someone had, I had the exact answer on how that thing would work in the game. Now that I’m making it, half those assumptions are wrong, but it helped raised the funds at least.

One of the most interesting dimensions of crowd-funded projects is how developers respond to feedback. Despite Roth’s preconceptions about Maia, his supporting community well and truly contribute. Rather than unchallenged commands arriving from on high, Roth justifies his decisions to the people who, ultimately, have paid and will play. He humbly describes the relationship as ‘really healthy’, preventing bad decisions from propagating into bad games.  When 50,000 people ask ‘why?’, Roth responds. The process continues until both parties agree something should or shouldn’t be added.

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Roth’s attitude to his community is astounding. His gracious and unassuming nature relentlessly shines through. Even in the light of some terribly broken Early Access updates, Roth is the first to admit he has made a mistake, but is equally quick to learn from it. There’s little drama here though. It’s clear that the mutual respect is based on honesty, allowing Roth to take some risks, harvest quickly proffered feedback and make changes for the better. Rinse and repeat until he has honed his once undeveloped pet project into a beautiful, flourishing extraterrestrial adventure.

If I make a mistake, I go ‘I made a mistake’ and everyone goes ‘cool’. It’s a video game, I’m not building software for nuclear power generators. Although, I am simulating them!

Based on real science

My first thought about Maia was a way to model what would happen if we sent people to Mars. But Roth quite rightly corrected me; Mars is a dead planet, and dead planets don’t make for good entertainment. Maia is very much animate and nurturing new life, like the related ‘mother’ an honorific namesake derived from Greek mythology.

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Although we might speculate procedural generation means unique, Roth has gone one step further by adding layers of complexity that follow known scientific assumptions and principles. Generators create oxygen for the atmosphere by splitting water molecules. The amount of rain or sun that falls on a blade of grass determines its growth rate. Even the lighting engine is hooked into the simulation- solar panels can generate power from lamps which can be used to create rudimentary battery systems, if incredibly inefficient.

We can’t have laser guns in the game, they’re inefficient. It’s much better to have a bit of hot lead fly towards someone because that will take them down a lot quicker than a laser that might give them third degree burns

Every iteration varies: common sets of flora and fauna will appear but that depends on elevation. Some will be jungle-like at low altitudes or perhaps higher and semi-Arctic. Snow settles on top of objects and melts in real time. The surface isn’t the only place to explore, digging downward in heavy rain could cause the water table to rise and interact with your newly tapped lava reserve, generating steam and scorching your colonists. If you can’t see something you can hear it; your wind turbines might be damaged, you might hear them creaking a bit before they get badly ruined.

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It’s not all doom and gloom on Maia; a little dark British humour invades, which Roth describes as somewhere between Douglas Adams and Theme Hospital. The colonists write emails to one another (again, procedurally generated), with one complaining he thinks he’s left the oven on back home on Earth.

Roth continues with his pledge to work in partnership with his community, the discussion forum on Steam attests just that. Patch 0.43 brought with it the Megacephalalgia- ‘a gigantic protomammal that is as dangerous as it is fluffy’, weather and seismic research stations to forecast incoming weather and earthquakes, and of course toilets amongst other equally important items. Roth assured us that big things are set for build 1.0 in the summer, with the interim 0.5 being an important milestone. Although I’m not overly keen on sims, particularly the micromanagement aspects, Roth has convinced me, if anything it’s worth seeing how many ways there are to die.

 

Maia is available as an Early Access title via Steam for $24.99/£17.98 on PC, Mac and Linux.