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The survival roguelike design fundamentals that fuel Pacific Drive

Pacific Drive's developers share some basic principles for run-based survival games.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

February 9, 2023

6 Min Read
A screenshot of Pacific Drive's car.

Ironwood Studios' Pacific Drive is revving up for its 2023 release, and the Pacific Northwest-themed driving survival game continues to look like one of the most intriguing games we'll see this year.

In late 2022 we spoke with creative director and studio founder Alex Dracott about the game's creative roots—and last week, we got to hear from more of the Ironwood team about about some of the design fundamentals that have fueled the game's development.

During a 30-minute demo, Ironwood took the time to show press what an individual run out into "The Zone" might look like. Players first gassed up a beat-up old station wagon, then set out to an area to search for scraps and other necessary gear, while dodging and battling with strange anomalies.

What stood out during the run was how Pacific Drive's modular systems made for a number of unique, interesting encounters. Not many games are that concerned with the little interactions you have in your car, and the breadth of unusual anomaly events made for a different kind of survival experience.

Where most survival games would make players worry about food, water, and stamina, Pacific Drive was more concerned with visibility, road slickness, the location of your car, and what parts or loot could be removed by outside elements.

While showing off these systems, the Ironwood team took questions and explained some key design fundamentals of the game that might help other developers with their own survival or roguelike experiences.

Pacific Drive has some modular design logic

Last time we talked to Tracott, he mentioned how Ironwood's push for interconnected design helps the team identify and create unique experiences. So if a designer comes up with an interesting anomaly behavior, its core function can influence how the art and narrative teams justify what kind of "creature" it is.

That process led the team at Ironwood to treat its anomalies and car mechanics as "modular" design pieces that uniquely interact with each other, said lead designer Seth Rosen. In the demo, this manifested in one particularly funny way. Ironwood marketing specialist Blake Dove had hopped out of their car to grab some loot, but forgot to put it in park.

Two "bunnies" (spiky enemies that resemble dust bunnies) flew by them and latched onto the car. They turned to go knock them off—and a wind storm picked up, forcing the car to roll away.

This led to a brief interruption in our demo as 20-or so journalists watched Blake chase after their car, while Dracott dropped a comment implying this hadn't happened in any of the other demos they'd put on to date.

Anomalies like the bunnies target the player's car in different ways—the first two that appeared stuck onto the windshield and roof (which would have impacted visibility and the car's handling while driving), and began doing light damage to the exterior. Another called a "pickpocket" just straight up ripped off the driver side door and ran off with it.

A screenshot from Pacific Drive. The player saws through a car.

While amusing to watch from a distance, it's understanding that some players might feel frustrated by how these otherworldly creatures behave. That frustration might be doubly exacerbated for players unfamiliar with driving games, or driving-focused players who just want a smooth ride.

So in the upgrade tree for the car, Ironwood has put in work to let players beef up their car's capabilities for handling these challenges. "We're happy to let players tweak and make the experience what they want," Dracott explained. It's the kind of self-difficulty tuning that you find in other combat-focused games or in the immersive simulation genre. If a player is having difficulty with a particular game mechanic, you can construct an interactive path to make that mechanic easier.

In Hades, you'd dump points into weapons or upgrades that fit your combat playstyle. In Pacific Drive, you'll dump points into expanding your fuel tank if you're tired out of running out of fuel, or into your car's health if you don't like mid-mission repairs, etc.

How should enemies be designed in roguelikes?

Run-based games like Pacific Drive often walk a fine line between compelling, coincidence-based interactions and repetitiveness that can peek in when content isn't hand-crafted. If two encounter variables fire off at the same time on a fairly regular basis, the player will notice and get bored quickly.

Rosen and Dracott shared some fundamental philosophies for how Ironwood Studios has tackled those problems. Rosen described his general philosophy for designing content in survival games. "Something I learned from working on Don't Starve is that in a survival game, there's only ever two things that [the player] is ever doing."

"One is time management. The other is seeing a new thing and poking it with a stick to see what happens."

He said that Ironwood adopted that philosophy with designing various anomalies—and from what he described, the player toolkit is essentially a giant array of sticks to poke the "new things" with.

A screenshot from Pacific Drive showing a rusted vehicle

Some anomalies will also be useful to the player, even if they have a "negative" purpose. Rosen described goading the Pickpocket anomaly into pulling the Bunny anomalies off the player's car.

In response to a question on whether the anomalies would try to directly damage the player (as opposed to their car), Dracott shared an interesting perspective on designing enemy behaviors. "We want our anomalies to generally change your plans more than we want them to do damage to you," he explained. "That's a more effective dynamic in general."

Doing damage is one way to force players to change their plans, but by making it one of several choices, the possibilities for interesting encounters expand.

By building out a robust physics system that anomalies and the player's car are interacting with, Ironwood Studios has given itself more tools to force players to "change their plan," so to speak.

Both of the mindsets Dracott and Rosen shared absolutely seem applicable to other kinds of run-based game design.

Baby you can drive my car

Heady design thinking is all good and fun, but when you're making a car game—especially one where the player has a more physical relationship with the car—tinkering around with real-world cars can be a great investment in time.

We talked last time with Dracott about his old relationship with a beat-up station wagon is what gave birth to Pacific Drive in the first place. The team at Ironwood leaned into that "beloved car" relationship, even going so far as to jump into Dracott's new old station wagon and messing around with it in the wild.

"We definitely did strap a bunch of boom mics to my old station wagon and drive around recording audio," he said with a laugh. "At one point we were turning quite a few heads in a small town we were driving through."

I'm not saying that having players attach their own microphones to a car for some quest purpose would make for good DLC, but it sure adds to the eerie Pacific Northwest vibes to be out in a small town and see a familiar-looking car so weirdly decked out.

Pacific Drive is due out later this year, and it'll be fascinating to see the final fruits of Ironwood's efforts.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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