In 2011, an indie roguelike called Dungeons of Dredmor impressed game critics and players with its wit, accessibility, and hilarious pop-culture jokes. Dredmor’s developer, Canadian indie studio Gaslamp Games, is hoping to build on the success with its next game, Clockwork Empires. The colony-building game is set in a steampunk Victorian society where players, as Junior Bureaucrats, must create a thriving settlement or destroy it in glorious fashion.
Players are tasked with building a colony in a procedurally generated world. They can choose to settle in different biomes, such as forests, jungles, deserts, and grasslands, which are all filled with strange creatures and unknown dangers. Clockwork Empires takes inspiration from Dwarf Fortress, Settlers, and Tropico, but does not exactly fit a defined genre.
Unlike other colony builders, Clockwork Empires puts heavy gameplay emphasis on the colony’s inhabitants. Players must tend to their needs, likes, and dislikes in order for them to perform necessary tasks.
“They will do what you want them to if they’re happy, and if they’re not happy, they’ll try to make it evident to you that they’re unhappy,” says Gaslamp CEO Daniel Jacobsen. “You basically are corralling them to fulfill certain goals.”
These characters are necessary to build and run buildings like farms, pubs, mines, metalsmithing shops, armories, and more. Each building is led by a middle-class member, who is assigned lower-class workers. The qualities of the managers affect the laborers, so that lazy managers will have inefficient workers and harsh ones will have unhappy helpers. Military squads work the same way.
Players also need to mind bandits, air pirates, and foreign empires looking to exploit rich, poorly defended settlements. The combat in Clockwork Empires is slow and strategic, because armies are small and each soldier is worth a lot. But not all opposing forces are physical; some are more unearthly.
Major themes explored are the battle between civilized society and the primitive wild and between science and the irrational. Many obstacles that stand in the player’s way come from supernatural sources. For example, characters in the colony can discover ancient artifacts through excavation or exploration and can be mentally affected by these mysterious objects.
“It’ll potentially slowly start to drive them mad, and the longer that they have it, the more of an effect that it has on them,” Jacobsen says.
Characters that become mad might do odd things and become hard to control. If ignored, they can spread the madness to others, summon massive monsters, and eventually bring down the entire colony. However, destroyed settlements will not be forgotten when players create a new colony.
“Things that happen in one colony may carry over to the next,” says Nicholas Vining, technical director for Gaslamp. “If your previous colony was destroyed by fish people, you might want to check any immigrants who claim to be from that colony very thoroughly for gills.”
Losing in Clockwork Empires is not all bad though. As a jab at inefficient government in the real world and motivation to create as much mayhem as possible, the game commends players for disastrous results.
“The bigger the epic failure, of course, the higher you will rise in government,” Vining says.
Winning, however, is defined by the player rather than the game. Like many sandbox games, such as SimCity and Minecraft, there are no victory conditions. Players can continue playing until they feel as if they’ve accomplished what they wanted.
“It’s more about enjoying the sandbox,” says art director David Baumgart. “It’s about setting goals for yourself.”
Baumgart is in charge of the art style of the steampunk game, which is inspired by the visions of future people living during the 1800s rather than modern interpretations of steampunk.
“We don’t want to just stick cogs on it and call it steampunk,” Baumgart says. Instead, his team looked at historical materials from 19th century and borrowed “their ideas of how society would progress, what machines would be built in the future.”
Gaslamp Games knows the success of Dungeons of Dredmor has raised the bar for Clockwork Empires. Nicholas Vining acknowledges that although the responsibility is scary, the young studio is determined live up to expectations.
“There are a lot of people who strangely support us, and there’s an obligation to make sure we do our damnedest as a studio and as individual developers to try to do right by them,” Vining says.