Making it in Unreal: fill an alien skyline in city builder Aven Colony

Aven Colony first look

Picture the three of them together: SimCity, Cities: Skylines and Aven Colony, all kicking back, chewing the fat about age-old mayoral problems. Housing shortages. Electricity supply. Air quality. Toxic gas eruptions. Creeping spores. Showers of frozen methane shards.

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As Aven goes on, SimCity and Skylines exchange nervous glances. It’s clear we’re not in the Californian school of urban planning anymore. This is extrasolar colonisation, and it requires a whole different set of problem-solving skills from a governor.

“We’ve got huge lightning storms in the middle of winter that can suddenly take out a tunnel that connects the two parts of your colony,” says Mothership Entertainment founder Paul Tozour, as if counting disasters on his fingers. “We’ve got dust devils that can damage your buildings. We’re working on implementing a plague spore that will get sucked in through your air intake and make a bunch of your colonists sick. We’ve got a giant sand-worm, of course. What sci-fi game is complete without a giant sand-worm?”

Welcome to Aven Prime – a new home for humanity fitted with Icelandic-style geothermal vents, a variety of exciting biomes and days so long they have their own seasons. The atmosphere’s a little low on oxygen, granted, and those worms might be attacking colonies by the time Mothership make it out of beta. But Aven Colony is more than its disasters.

In Sim City 4 a tornado or alien invasion was something you might have unleashed on yourself once you were bored of building, fulfilling the dual human instincts for creation and destruction. Aven Colony draws instead on human resourcefulness; the instinct to survive the spanners a harsh environment inevitably throws in the works – or up the air intake.

SimCity is really this very sandboxy sort of thing, and we’ve got a sandbox mode as well,” explains Tozour. “But given that we have a structured campaign, we wanted to give people challenges. If you design your colony the right way and if you respond to it properly it’s usually not going to murder you.”

Aven Colony hands on

It won’t be easy. Aven Colony is built on a sophisticated simulation – put together in Unreal 4 thanks to the access the engine allows to C++. And mastering that simulation as a player takes time.

As you progress through the ten-mission campaign – of which five are currently implemented in beta – direction and storytelling is delivered via, uh, ‘Shype’ calls: correspondence from your social advisor, trade coordinator and expedition leader. But in later scenarios they’ll stop calling so much, leaving you to guide your colony towards broader objectives.

By that stage, you’ll begin to know which Earth crops grow well in what biomes, and which alien plants can be eaten after processing. You’ll have grasped that Aven Prime is a moon circling a gas giant, and that night time in this orbit is a cold winter worth stockpiling food for.

Aven Colony preview

Where Cities: Skylines can teach you something about the mechanics of the real world – why our cities are built the way they are – Prime’s alien environment introduces new rules that even seasoned city builders need time to get to grips with.

Of course, one thing stays the same: people. Morale is a huge concern in Aven Colony. While your early frontiersmen and women may be willing to live a spartan existence in the name of the greater good, they’ll soon get grumpy if their hermetically sealed new home isn’t equipped to entertain, keep them healthy and provide them with direction.

“They’re basically going to become very entitled,” Tozour warns. “They’re going to be a lot less like the rugged pioneers that crossed the rocky mountains and a lot more like modern day citizens who get upset about any little thing.”

If you’re not willing to build a bar and grill or stump up for VR facilities, however, there are more morally dubious ways to make sure you make it through the next colony referendum.

Aven Colony interview

“You can essentially say, ‘OK, let me grow some of those alien plants like mind mould, or xenosage, and use those to manufacture enhancers and make my colonists happy,’” suggests Tozour. “There is a downside to that, of course, because once you run out it has the opposite effect and now your citizens are going to be very unhappy. It’s like trying to quit smoking.”

As your colony increases in size, so too do its social problems. If it’s not crowding, it’s crime – tackled with tiny patrolling surveillance drones, or in extreme cases, martial law. The point is, a head for infrastructure will only get you so far. You can’t go too far wrong, though, so long as your colonists have a sense of purpose to see them through the hard times. It’s been much the same for Mothership.

“We’ve had a huge number of challenges in development and there’s been a couple of times where we’ve been facing bad news,” says Tozour. “But what’s really kept us going has been the game itself. The soul of the game really shined through.”

Aven Colony is already available in beta, andUnreal Engine 4 is now free.

In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Mothership Entertainment.