I always enjoy game conferences. Typically, not for the big games. That’s a bit backwards from what I think most would expect, and the monster lines in front of the larger titles give some credence to that assumption. For me, it’s the unexpected finds that make it really fun, and those are almost always found among the smaller collective booths of small independent studios.
My normal plan of battle calls for a rapid assault of the major titles during the media hour to get an article or two that I know will make the cut, and then I spend the next three days talking with the smaller teams and looking at new prototypes in a hope to find something of interest. With luck, sometimes I find something cool to write about.
This year I was passing the tinyBuild booth (which normally doesn’t feature games that are my style) and I noticed a small hand-drawn paper tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of the booth. No clue what it was about the paper that caught my interest, or why I bothered to look the game up. Whatever it was that made me go to the website, it put me on my heels when I did.
Outpost Zero, developed by Symmetric and published by tinyBuild, was by a long shot the most interesting thing I’ve found in several years of going to PAX. I immediately setup a conversation with two members of the small dev team to have a look at the game, and that conversation only made me more excited. It’s a fresh take on an over-saturated genre, and I think it might be what a lot of people didn’t know they were looking for.
Nothing about this sign has anything to do with the game. No clue why it got my attention so hard.
Yet Another Survival Game?
Don’t click away just yet. I’m probably like you. I’ve played Ark, Conan Exiles, RUST, H1Z1, and a long list of other survival games. I like the genre, but the lack of polish and constant state of development is wearing old. Outpost Zero takes a few new directions that I think may set it apart, but to get to those things, we need to define some of the more expected and mundane aspects of the game.
Outpost Zero is set on another planet that the developers tell me was initially inspired by Mars. The inspiration is evident in the red-hued rocky soil and chiseled horizons of the world, but flora and fauna take on a wealth of other colors to give the game a lot more depth and interest than found anywhere on the inspiring body. The result is a slightly alien landscape of varied biomes on a fairly sizable 36 square-kilometer map.
The art style of the game borrows a bit from No Man’s Sky, which I kind of like. It’s not for everyone, but I find the color palette seems be attractive and does a good job lending that sense of being alien. I suspect it’s a style that’s a little easier to work with from the developer point of view, and probably allows them to place more cycles into game mechanics and UI development.
There are similarities in what you’ve seen in other survival games, which is to say that you start off in the wild and need to establish an initial base of operations. As you’d expect, you’ll initiate your experience by gathering from local resources to build a few items in an effort to get that first base operational, and then expect to expand your capabilities as access to new tools are built and base modules come online.
The Departure from the Norm
While the bones of Outpost Zero are enough to put it squarely in the survival genre, the game takes a few really intelligent deviations from that typical model. For one, there’s no gathering of food. The player is acting as the artificial intelligence operating a robotic skeleton.
Machines don’t eat or drink, so there’s no micromanagement of those generic resources. Instead, robots just need energy, which is one of the first things onlined in the new base. A small generator produces the energy necessary to recharge, and all the player needs to do is keep it fueled with whatever bio-matter happens to be handy at the time.
Another difference is that there’s no research or arbitrary bottleneck to slow down advancement. There are things you can’t build because you don’t have enough resources or because you need to build other tools first, but there’s no sense of arbitrary limitation like there is in other games you’ve probably played.
And, about those increasing resource demands? That’s one of the more interesting ideas in Outpost Zero. You can build additional robots and task them with collecting resources, constructing base components, repairing damaged base structures, and several other monotonous tasks better outsourced to you manufactured mates. With more resources and more complex machinery, automated mining systems can be brought online to increase resource production even more.
All this automation is intended to support an expanding base and proportionally increased defense systems, because another key mechanic of Outpost Zero is that pirates will periodically attack. Attacks are scaled based on the relative power the player has accumulated, along with modifiers for number of players and whether the game is PvP or in a cooperative mode.
Looking a Little Forward
It’s a little out of scope, but I did want to mention that the devs have some cool ideas for where they’re wanting to take the game into the future. One mentioned was eventually having multiple worlds to choose from when standing up the server, which should make for enough variation to keep the game interesting.
What I think really has me excited is that I can see this being a game I play PvP with my old Army buddies, and then play coop with my horde of nieces and nephews. From what I gather, the game scales the pirate attacks, so there’s no specific win state. Rather, it’s a question of how long you can survive, and that creates a sort of integrated skill slider. It’s the sort of thing that allows the game to be fun no matter who you’re playing with, or how good they are at the game.
Outpost Zero is a project that I’ll be following pretty closely. It’s not often that I get tired of a genre and then have something that pulls me back in this hard. Symmetric has definitely created that sort of game, though. They’ve taken a hard look at what’s fun and not fun in survival games and developed systems to enhance the one while minimizing the other. That’s smart design, and it looks like it might have worked. Fingers crossed that Outpost Zero fulfills its promise as one of the most unexpected gems I’ve found at PAX in the last few years.