Making it in Unreal: building atop the survival genre with Eden Star

Eden Star

One of the many satisfying ways to play Minecraft is as a pioneer: planting torches to mark the boundaries of your ever-expanding colony.

Eden Star is a bit like that: a survival game that goes beyond the base business of simply surviving. As a frail mutant genius on a spaceship, remote-controlling a cybernetic super-soldier on the surface of a hostile planet, you’re finding home for the human race. And that turns out to be a really excellent excuse to thwack baddies about the place with an evolved gravity gun.

Eden Star

It’s an odd time to be entering the first-person survival genre on Steam. Still in its honeymoon period and regularly bothering the Top Sellers list with breakout smashes like Rust and The Forest, the field is nonetheless swamped – and even a promising newcomer could drown amid a host of half-finished efforts. It’s something Flix Interactive’s John Tearle was nervous about when launching Eden Star in Early Access two months ago.

“If we’d had the funds to do what we wanted to do originally, we’d have been making this game ages ago – before even some of the big names came onto Steam,” said the lead designer. “We knew that we were going to come late to the party.”

But sales have been steady – probably because Eden Star does things differently to those big names. In other survival games, you tend to have only yourself to worry about. In Flix’s open world, you plant an Eden Kit – a base-cum-granary that, so long as it’s intact and well-stocked with materials, will reconstruct your body. In other words, it’s the only thing standing between you and permadeath.

Eden Star

Once planted, the Eden Kit is static – forever in the back of your mind as you sift the surface of Pharus 7 for minerals to upgrade your base. At any time, the game’s wily AI manager might clock that you’re away from home and send in a swarm to take chunks out of the Kit – prompting warnings on the player’s screen and a swift retreat. Flix are hoping to foster a “sense of protection”.

“The people who have played the game already are saying it just doesn’t feel like a survival game – it feels way more aggressive,” said Tearle. “The idea of going from survival through to dominating your environment is what we want to push.”

While the pioneers themselves are frail beings suspended in stasis, they have incredible minds – capable of throwing their consciousness into the bodies of muscle-bound specimens on Pharus 7 like psychic ventriloquists.

“For us, Pioneers are like the Jedi,” said Tearle. “They’re like the Spartans.”

Eden Star

The vessel the player inhabits has a matter tool strapped to its right forearm – allowing you to create and destroy, and to pick up enemies from a distance and smash them into something hard.

Flix have drawn both inspiration and frustration from Half-Life 2’s gravity gun for their physics-based combat.

“We’ve built upon the notion of What If?,” said Tearle. “When I was playing Half-Life 2, I loved being able to pick things up and throw them. But I was always like, rather than pull [an object] towards me and then push it, why can’t I grab it and then smash it?”

In Eden Star, you can. And there are plans for Bulletstorm-style combos – bouncing an enemy off two or three surfaces, for instance, to enable a ‘kill move’. Tearle is looking to Valve’s example for “game world continuity” too – steering clear of on-screen combos in favour of an uncluttered planet that players feel they can intuitively interact with.

Eden Star

Right now, Flix are reworking their construction tools for a third pass. Eden Star has a bespoke build system, functional in co-op, that’s “a bit clunky” at present but sounds very promising indeed.

Primitive shapes and blocks can be created from different materials. And because Unreal Engine 4 objects have sockets that can snap together, Flix don’t need to rely on an invisible grid like Minecraft’s – players can build dynamic structures that aren’t constrained by direction.

There have been some attendant problems – particularly with AI navigation, which needs to be updated regularly to reflect the appearance of new 90-degree walls in the world. But UE4 has been accommodating, and the team have worked through the issues well enough that enemies are now able to walk on top of player structures. Gulp.

“The challenges are quite immense with destructible and constructable environments,” said Tearle. “What we’re hoping to be able to deliver will be a massive amount more destruction in an open-world environment than you ever really would have been able to before.”

Eden Star

Flix have traded notes with Nvidia in order to get the graphics giant’s Apex destruction system working in harmony with UE4’s open-world streaming tech. The upshot of which is that you’ll be able to fire a rocket from one part of Eden Star’s one-and-a-half km map to another and achieve the desired effect.

“We’re trying to pioneer that,” said Tearle. “We’ve used some of the technologies that Epic have come out with in a clever manner to layer it all together, to keep objects at a distance very interactive but extremely cheap [performance-wise].”

Eden Star’s had a fairly low-key release – Tearle reckons it’s about 30% finished, and doesn’t want to “scream and shout” while Flix are still stuffing it with features. But it’s a game for pioneers, by pioneers. And in a Steam store saturated by overfamiliar survival experiences, they’re going to struggle not to sell it.

Eden Star is available in Steam Early Access.Unreal Engine 4 development 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 Flix Interactive.