Spacebase DF-9 Preview

In Spacebase DF-9, you get to build a home in deep space for a growing number of would-be colonists. It’s trying to capture the imagination of players in the same way that The Sims, or Dwarf Fortress does. It’s still in development, meaning things are still to be added or changed before release, but it’s also ready to play through Steam’s Early Access programme, so the developers are (in theory at least) also open to feedback from the community. It’s made by the comedians slash game-makers at Double Fine, and it has derelict spacecraft, mining, a social network, and space chickens.

The thing that really startled me was how polished it is. The interface is a joy to use, feels completely designed in terms of both aesthetics and function, in the same way that Apple hardware does. Everything feels right, aside perhaps from a lack of tooltips telling you what each thing does, and maybe the classification of certain items (for instance “doors” are found under “objects”, which just seemed wrong to me). But to nitpick a game versioned “alpha 1a” seems like I’m missing the point, but that’s just how complete the game feels that minor things like that stand out.

You start by picking a location to set up your base on a large starmap, where hovering the mouse gives you information in terms of proximity to danger, abundance of minerals, and how likely you can expect visitors. Then you’re in deep space with three random colonists, and have 8 minutes of oxygen with which to construct a base.

The process of base building is just right- drag out a room blueprint in space, and any designated builders go to work, using a stockpile of “matter” to make it a reality. To begin with, you need to at least create a functioning airlock (once a room is built, you click on the floor to set which type of room it is, and then additionally construct furniture for that room if you want) and life-support. There are other room types to build, including pubs for socialising, residence for sleep, and reactors, which don’t serve any purpose in the current version. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll also want a refinery, as this allows you to mine nearby asteroids for matter, without which you’ll only be able to destroy existing items to replenish your matter stockpile.

It probably won’t be long before other space travellers contact you in order to join your colony. How many colonists you can comfortably house is determined by the number of oxygen recyclers you have, but it shouldn’t take long to comfortably fit a dozen or so, and which point the problems start. Each member of you base can be assigned to a role: builder, technician, miner, security or bartender. Each will have an innate rating at each of these roles (and these can improve over time), but luck of the draw means you’ll almost certainly have to assign people who are just completely useless at everything. Because you can never have enough technicians (whose job it is to maintain absolutely everything in the base), you’ll end up with some that just aren’t very good. And that my friend, is how fires get started.

As well as starting fires, colonists will also socialise with each other rather a lot. You’ll often see them just standing around talking to each other (with The Sims-like speech bubbles) as well as doing push-ups or playing handheld games. Anyone can be clicked on to bring up information such as their personality profile, as well as their social network feed, which has entries about what they’ve been doing and how they’ve been feeling about things. The writing here (as it is with the periodic event popups) is just superb, and the entries are fun to read.

In addition to causing problems for themselves, the Spacebase residents are also at risk from alien parasites and raiders. I’d had an event where a derelict vessel had warped in nearby the base, so sent a security team to check it out. Inside was a number of those rarest of commodities, beds, as well as life support and a hostile person who was quickly pacified (in truth, I’m not quite sure how) and later became a useful member of the colony. But now I had some useful rooms out in space. I could have just destroyed it all and claimed the matter, but I figured it would be far more practical to build a long corridor, joining it to my main base, so that’s what I did.

This worked well right until the point where I received an event that some unfriendly people had docked with my base. They had docked, as in, literally joined onto, the edge of the former derelict, and were making their way into the base. So of course the stand-off was to be in the ridiculously long corridor. I figured they wouldn’t last long, what with my superior numbers. Oh, but it turns out that firing lasers inside is not a good idea, because shots striking the walls will burn holes in them it. My proud resistance, fighting for their home, were summarily sucked into space in a matter of seconds. In the course of one firefight, my former colony of 30 now numbered 6, and those remaining were not happy at all.

Stories like that are the reason to play games like Spacebase. After my few hours spent with the game, the main problem I find with it is that there’s simply not enough content. This is the problem, though– there’s already loads of content. But playing the game made me feel greedy. I wanted more room types, more options, more things to do. There will be more, I’m positive, by the time the game’s done, but I do wonder if there’s an underlying problem of having it set in deep space– there’s simply nothing out there. Events happen, things come to you, but, aside from mining asteroids, there’s just literal, empty space. To make a (perhaps unfair) comparison to Dwarf Fortress, there’s no underworld to explore, no deeps to delve. Maybe this is something that can be added later somehow, or maybe there’ll be enough other distractions to divert your attention more inwardly, but as it is now, I grew tired of the game after a certain point.

That said, I’m excited by the possibilities. The game gives you a stronger connection to the people who inhabit the base, than say Towns did. The social networking aspect of it probably needs more fleshing out in order to make this connection even stronger, to take the emphasis off the base as a whole, and more on the individuals that lives there, but given time and the same level of care and attention that got it where it currently is, I think this is a game to keep a close eye on. The fact that it’s already so polished and user-friendly is definitely a good sign of things to come. If nothing else, this could be an accessible, fun little space-themed city-builder, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Spacebase DF-9 is currently in alpha, which you can play through Steam’s Early Access. No release date has been set.