How the Surviving Mars devs built a city-builder on a barren planet

Lead designer Boian Spasov chats about how Haemimont Games' Surviving Mars breaks with the city-builder genre in key ways to make players feel scared and uncertain while colonizing a barren world.

“Our goal was to create a game that, first and foremost, feels sci-fi. Not just because it is set on another planet, but because it captures the tone, spirit, and optimism of the classics of the genre," says Boian Spasov, lead designer of Surviving Mars, a game of colonizing the red planet. 

"Humanity has dreamed about colonizing Mars for quite a while and we did our best to capture the essence of this dream and to recreate it in our game. After all, Mars might be our next logical giant leap towards taming the final frontier.”

Designing a game about building a fine city is all well and good in Surviving Mars, but the game’s sci-fi setting means have to be concerned with more things than just their build order or whether they're bringing in enough funds for the next thing they want to create. By creating a city builder set on a world hostile to human life, Spasov and the team at Haemimont Games had to add elements of danger and survival for players to navigate, creating a city builder with some challenging, different issues for players to deal with.

Survival doesn't just mean ensuring everyone has food and water, though. With individualized colonists with various strengths and problems, keeping everyone happy is another element key to keeping a colony alive, giving players a very delicate balancing act in surviving their time on this planet.

A lethal home

“People come to a genre with certain expectations, both as developers and as players.” says Spasov. “When we started working, it immediately became obvious that we are not making a typical city-builder. Surviving Mars was initially our internal working title, but survival ended up being so fundamental for the game, that it became the official name.”

"Surviving Mars was initially our internal working title, but survival ended up being so fundamental for the game, that it became the official name."

Mars, to the developers, seemed like a logical step in our space-faring future, but it’s not one that will come easy. As such, while creating the fiction of it within Surviving Mars, all of the things that would make the planet inhospitable right now became major concerns they wanted to convey in the game. 

“We wanted to focus on the real problems that a potential Mars colonization will face. Although there are certain fantastic elements in the mysteries, the core experience focuses on securing the necessities like oxygen, water, power and shelter. After these basic are secured, the focus shifts to building a self-sufficient and functional, perhaps utopian, society in the hostile alien environment,” says Spasov.

In short, having the right buildings to create a self-sustaining city were not the only things the developers thought should be major concerns. Keeping the people of a given settlement alive also needs to be a major concern at first, building from there onto different levels of problems as they moved along, then juggling all of them at the same time.

In the beginning, players must work to build up the materials and structures they need to sustain life in Surviving Mars, which means creating an infrastructure that would support life when it arrived. Using drones, players build an initial settlement which will draw enough water, air, food, and materials to keep things going before people get there. However, players also need to ensure these supplies will not be cut off in any way during a playthrough of the game. The challenge then becomes not just setting up the supply lines for these necessary elements, but also sustaining them at any cost.

A given settlement can fall apart should any one thing be cut off for even a short amount of time. A few dozen colonists can die in a short period should the air supply be affected by something as simple as a broken pipe. This might seem a little unfair in most city-builders – a single error causing complete destruction, especially an error the player has little control of – but Surviving Mars’ frontier themes makes that slightly more tolerable, if only from the angle of the game’s fiction.

“The frontier theme helped us very much to naturally merge these two elements. When you are constructing a human settlement on Mars, disasters and trouble are not just randomly thrown in, they are to be expected," says Spasov.

Players in this setting expect monstrous consequences from something that would be merely annoying on Earth. A broken pipe would be a hindrance on a hospitable planet, but Surviving Mars’ inhospitable environment creates an expectation in the player that such a break will be disastrous -- unless they have multiple backups and contingency plans in place. 

This element did provide some stress for the development team. “Merging the inherently creative aspect of the city builders with some inherently destructive survival threats was an interesting challenge," says Spasov. "It was also a tough balancing act - how much challenge is too much and how much is not enough?” 

Finding the right balance of challenge in a game where things can go randomly wrong in disastrous ways can feel like it runs counter to the slow, methodical play inherent in the city-builder genre, but this is just another way of forcing the player to consider other aspects of the game in their planning. In utilizing Mars as the backdrop, Spasov sets the player up to expect danger from sources as simple as air and water supplies, and adjust their planning to accommodate those things. The consequences of failure, while worrying for the development team, push players to consider their plans in a new light, looking at city-building in a different way through the lens of the hostile planet.

With lethal inhabitants

In keeping with Spasov’s thoughts on what players would need to consider while realistically inhabiting a hostile world, there was also some consideration given to what the people inhabiting that world would need as well. A colony is not just a system of life-support systems, after all, but a place where people must emotionally thrive as well if it is to survive.

Surviving Mars’ colonists feature various backgrounds and personalities, requiring players use the right people in the right places to keep the machines and facilities running, but also having to set up certain facilities to keep them happy as well. If the colonists start to get annoyed or have no means to relax in the manner of their choosing, they start to lose effectiveness, or will develop quirks that can make life difficult in the colony. Like a broken pipe, a single broken person can also create disaster in an otherwise-functional city.

This not only added further challenge to the game and more to consider while thinking on survival, but it also gave its characters a personality that would make each city feel like a unique place.

“Besides additional mechanical depth, I think they grant a lot of personality and soul to the game. A generic random colonist is much less interesting than the colony's sexy alcoholic nerd," says Spasov. "After all, the goal of any game is to engage the players, and personalized colonists tend to be much more interesting than generic ones.”

This personality bleeds into the game world as well. Rather than have a single utopian city with facilities for all, players must consider the unique needs of their people when creating their city. They have to look at what most of them want and build to cater to that, imposing a need to interact with the city’s peoples with the way things are constructed. In this way, each city would be different on each playthrough, creating a shifting goal for what would help players survive in a given run at the game.

This personality aspect, while making a city feel vibrant and unique, would also impose new rules on each run through the game, tasking players with working towards new goals each time. This is compounded by the tech discovery system, which gives players new discoveries in unpredictable ways.

“We are very happy with the way the randomized tech tree turned out. It works very well both thematically - futuristic science should be anything but predictable; and mechanically - makes every playthrough unique and creates a different experience when replaying,"  says Spasov. "Getting certain key technologies early or late may change the course of your game and discovering a breakthrough technology that is unavailable otherwise is bound to make a session particularly memorable. It's all about replayability - we want to surprise the players and freshen up their experience every time they return to the red planet.”

Players can't rely on any single discovery for safety while playing through Surviving Mars. Like true survival, elements can be fickle, appearing or not due to simple, rotten luck.

Like the unexpected accidents and unpredictable people, unreliable science means that players have to plan for many different potential problems without coming up with a single, perfect method for making the perfect colony. The player always needs to be on their toes, looking out for the next problem and trying to anticipate it.

The shift from surviving to thriving is therefore intended to always be a challenging, difficult move, as it requires players to juggle the various needs of their colony and its people. They need to constantly keep an eye on their base physical needs and how they would be stored and cared for in a hostile environment, but also keep their people happy to prevent them from ruining everything in their own unexpected ways.

By blending unstable personalities with uncertain and hostile environments, Spasov and his team seem to have created a survival loop that demands constant vigilance from Surviving Mars players, in ways that feel true to the dream of colonizing Mars.

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