Engineering the engineering-based gameplay of Scrap Mechanic

'We wanted to make you feel like a real mechanic when you put things together, so we have no editor view,' says Pontus Holmbom of Axolot Games.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out what is wrong with my motorcycle. The gas engine is attached to both wheels. The whole thing runs--boy does it run--but it also tends to tilt over, when it isn’t flipping completely out of control. I think it’s some issue with the frame, some imperceptible asymmetry invisible to my stupid social-studies-class-brain.

All this is proving something I’ve known for a long time: I shouldn’t go into the engineering field. But Scrap Mechanic let me at least build something that growls to life with a directed injection of fuel.

Scrap Mechanic is a game about building amazing things. For a quick taste of those things can be, just look at the growing list of YouTube videos showing off user-made creations.

My experience, unfortunately, has been one of building things that almost work, or that work in kooky ways I wouldn’t have anticipated. But this, as much as the wonders of machinery, is the point. So says Pontus Holmbom, one half of Axolot Games: “You connect stuff, it doesn’t work, things start spinning out--you build it in real-time, and unexpected things happen.”

"We wanted to make you feel like a real mechanic when you put things together, so we have no editor view"

Scrap Mechanic certainly isn’t the only physics-based building game on the Steam Marketplace, but it’s one of very few that has you build in real-time, within the game world.

“Seeing the progress as you work on your creations is something you don’t get in Besiege,” said Pontus Holmbom.

His partner, Kacper Antonius, added that “We wanted to make you feel like a real mechanic when you put things together, so we have no editor view--we always just wanted the player to just be a character.” 

This hands-on approach to constructing stuff certainly isn’t without precedent--it’s one of the things which made such an industry-changing success out of Minecraft, and the easy comparison between the two is no accident. According to Axolot games, Scrap Mechanic’s origin is bound up in Mojang’s indie blockbuster.

“It started out with us pitching a prototype of Minecraft for Mojang,” said Antonius. This was in 2011, before Mojang had developed a version of the game for Xbox. While the deal with Mojang ultimately fell through, Antonius and Holmbom continued work on their prototype. “We thought that the genre of building and survival had more potential, and we wanted to explore it more,” explained Antonius. And so Scrap Mechanic was born.

Axolot Games even used a similar strategy to Minecraft in developing and supporting a fanbase for Scrap Mechanic: they went to YouTube. “When you create something in a game, more people want to share it,” said Antonius. “That was our strategy from the beginning: make a game that people would want to share on YouTube. That way, Youtube does all of the marketing for you.”

Take a tour of "Scrap Mechanic"  search results on YouTube, and it’s easy to find better engineers than me who can construct everything from helicopters to functioning hockey stadiums.

The options available to a player in Scrap Mechanic are a lot more expansive than Minecraft, though. For evidence of that, look no farther than the Controller. One of the most important tools for the prospective mechanic, the Controller is essentially a programmable way to rotate things in sequence.

This may not sound particularly exciting, but for the dedicated constructor, it makes possible transformation sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon. You can see a few examples in this video below:

Scrap Mechanic has been in development for five years now, and is still in Early Access. While Axolot Games intends to include a Survival Mode akin to Minecraft’s in the near future, the free-building playground of Creative Mode is all that’s available right now. That can make the zany creations of Scrap Mechanic feel devoid of context for those who aren’t motivated by crafting alone. There are also still aspects of the building system that the team is still implementing.

Even gaps in the system, though, are already being worked around by innovative players. “You can only connect one button to an interactive part, but people have gone around that,” said Antonius. “They’ve found ways to attach buttons to both sides of a door, for instance.”

Scrap Mechanic may not be quite as accessible as the block-based building system of Minecraft, but Axolot has a surprisingly simple way to familiarize players with the mechanics. With only the bare-bones of tutorial, they let the player’s curiosity drive most of their learning.  “We show them how to do the simple stuff,” said Holmbom, referring to things like the automated door in the video above. “And then let people try, themselves, to see what’s possible.” 

And what their players have created surprised even the developers themselves. “People have been building things we didn’t know were possible,” said Antonius. "People make their own gyroscopes. One guy made a digital display, which blew our minds--we didn’t know that was even possible. It’s quite impressive, how creative people are.”

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