Deadnaut Is Jagged Alliance In A Universe Of Procedurally-Generated Mysteries & Space Horrors

Last Tuesday, we gently announced Deadnaut to the world. Well, to friends on Facebook and Twitter followers. It's the first time myself and developer-in-crime David Kidd had really talked or shown the game to anyone beyond a select few. We weren't immediately chasing media attention; more we wanted to show people what two game developers living hermit-like existences can do in the space of six months.

It hasn't been as bad as that, certainly, but when you start making a game you're passionate about, it will eventually encompass almost every thought you have, until you're desperately trying to shut your brain off at two in the morning because you need sleep so you can wake up later the same day and... make a video game.

I've mentioned Zafehouse: Diaries more than a few times during my time as weekend editor of Kotaku Australia. Zafehouse is a game I developed with David over nine months, from December 2011 to September 2012. It wasn't until we hit Steam in September last year — and the success that followed — that we could justify embarking once again on the adventure of crafting a new game... and even then it took time to feel comfortable with that decision.

Deadnaut is that new game. (Surprise!)

So... Deadnaut

Deadnaut borrows a few elements from Zafehouse — mainly the concept of relationships between characters and the focus on psychological horror over cheap scares. The idea behind the game is the humanity has reached the stars, but took its sweet time getting there.

Everyone is dead. The universe is empty, save for us. It's a mystery as to what happened, but sure as heck, us Earthlings are going to find out... even if it ends in a gory death fighting creatures from an alternate dimension. Or genetic experiments gone topsy-turvy. Perhaps supernatural beings are to blame, or Lovecraftian unmentionables determined to suck the life from every soul in the galaxy.

And that's the crux of Deadnaut — each mystery is procedurally-generated from a series of hand-made, yet variable templates, the result being a crazy amount variety in who you fight, what you find and where you do it. So in two separate campaigns you could be sealing an accidental rift between realities, but the monsters you tackle could be flaming demons in the first and mutant zombie rats with 13 eyes in the second.

At the current stage of development, a campaign consists of four missions, each one requiring your deadnauts to board and investigate a derelict space craft. As you travel from room to room, you'll find crew logs (again, dynamically-generated), advanced technology and clues as to what happened to that particular species. You can then trade the knowledge you find with Earth to get better weapons and equipment.

Because the ships are so old, their structural integrity is compromised, so you can't just shoot everything that moves. Deadnaut involves careful, tactical gameplay where hacking a console to kill power to life support can be as effective a weapon as a grenade launcher (and safer).

Under the Hood

Deadnaut uses an complex database to generate not only the player's team, skills and individual back-stories (if you decide not to import pictures of friends and create your own team of miscreants), but the alien species and enemies. There's an important distinction between those last two. The aliens are responsible for their own demise (fools!), while the enemies are the result of whatever they were dabbling with (or unintentionally discovered).

Along with the dangerous horrors lurking on-board, you'll have to deal with the ship's built-in security in the form of virtual "Watchers" and the more physical "Sentinels". Watchers roam network tracks, represented by white lines suspended over rooms, searching for unwanted computer activity. If a deadnaut tries to hack the system to open a door, alter power distribution or take control of a Sentinel, it'll pique the interest of one or more Watchers.

In essence, the AI is doing what it was designed to do — protect the ship from threats — despite the fact the crew is long-dead.

Watchers can't technically hurt your deadnauts, but they will interfere with the signals — audio, video and data — being transmitted between them and you, the player. The amount of interference is shown visually, as screens become distorted and filled with noise. As a stop-gap, the player can use a booster dial to divert more power to one signal, re-establish contact and attempt to rectify the situation.

If extreme circumstances, your view could end up looking like this.

The deadnauts also have a "stability" rating, which determines how well they handle certain situations. One might not like confined spaces, another could have a thing with dead bodies. If you continually toss a deadnaut into conditions they're psychologically unfit for, they'll start to freak out, causing them to work less effectively or even disobey orders.

There's more to Deadnaut than what I've written here, but I'll leave that for another time. For now, this covers the fundamentals.

Moving to Unity

Technical jargon warning! With the exception of SlimDX to access DirectX features such as Direct3D and XAudio 2, Zafehouse was coded entirely from scratch. The core "engine" was written in Visual Basic .NET, while the majority of content was written in C#. For Deadnaut, we wanted a game we could release on multiple platforms and considering out experience with .NET and C#, Unity was the natural choice. We also wanted to spend time building a game, not the underlying technology.

I'd toyed around with Unity before, but the straight move from 2D to 3D, from basic image manipulation to vertex and fragment shaders, was a — albeit fun and educational — trial by fire. I remember six months ago staring at shader code like this and making regular deposits in my underdaks:

I also had to take a crash course in 3D maths — vectors, quaternions and the like. The last maths test I ever did in high school I scored a measly two percent. No, that's not a typo. Fortunately, computers do most of the heavily lifting these days, so if you know what you want to accomplish, you can usually achieve it with enough persistence.

Now I'm mostly comfortable with writing shaders from scratch, figuring out the direction of one point in space to another and related 3D tasks. I'll never be amazing at this sort of thing, but that's OK — part of indie development is being the proverbial jack of all trades. Being a generalist isn't just preferred, it's mandatory.

The Understated Announcement

As expected, there wasn't a huge reaction to the announcement, though we did received a few interesting comments regarding the fate of Zafehouse. The tweet below sums it up best:

Zafehouse was definitely rough around the edges when it was released in September 2012 and David and I worked almost non-stop over the next year to bang it into shape. As of the last patch, Zafehouse had three game modes (up from one in the first version), an item editor, extra dilemmas, relationship events and locations, along with improved performance, visuals and other tweaks. Sadly, with the popularity of Early Access, there's the expectation that no indie game is truly "done" and that purchasing a game on Steam means you'll receive free content updates for eternity.

To be fair, this is an impression we unintentionally cultivated by releasing patches for the Zafehouse every three to four weeks. It wasn't until we saw people referring to the game as "Early Access" or "in beta" — words we have never associated with Zafehouse in any capacity — that we realised our mandate of constant updates had given people a false perception of its state.

In the perfect world, we'd continue adding content to Zafehouse forever, but with just two people, we have to pick our battles. With almost two years of our lives dedicated to the game, we made the decision to put our energies into Deadnaut and make it the best game possible.

Deadnaut is scheduled for release in October this year for Windows, Linux and Mac. If you'd like to keep up-to-date, be sure to follow Screwfly Studios on Twitter.


    Feh. Who reads Twitter? This is an announcement I can get behind!
    This game sounds like my kinda jam.

    Time for me to produce a shopping-list of criteria that would 'make me a customer'! (Boooo, to that. Hope you're ready for the request lists!)

    Please tell me the Derelicts will have 'lines from poetry' names like Halo's ships, or at least names that sound like they could be power metal album names! (Like the mission-naming system in XCOM.)

      There's actually some very cool name generation stuff in there, they even have categories -- "Almost Human", for example, which is currently used for generating ship names. But these will be tied into the host species, so there's consistency with the naming of places and characters.

        Alien gibberish words might be a bit wearying, depending on mood, but human'ish/mutants/lost human gone wrong? Hell, there's a whole world of awesome ship names even if you only use the names of famous people by class. Poets, explorers, military leaders...

        At any rate, try telling me coming up with those lists wasn't fun as hell. :)
        Props on the intended date, by the way. Not ridiculous E3'ish "I already know everything about the game and am bored with it now," levels of 12-month advance hype, but also a couple months to get some hype built. Looking forward to seeing some more to make some recommendations.

        How goes the Steam Greenlight submission? Not seeing it up there yet.

          Seeing as Zafehouse was approved and has been on Steam for a while now, we're hoping we can get Deadnaut on there without having to go through Greenlight. Have to see how we go!

    Sounds interesting, I greatly enjoyed the JA games, but man they were hard at the start when you just had a pack of noobs who can't shoot hehe

      Your team actually starts off very capable -- you do all the "levelling" before you go on your first mission. It's more about management after that.

        hmmm OK interesting. What do you gain from missions then? More exp, or skills for unit customisation, or equipment, or money etc, or are the missions there mainly to push the story forward?

          You collect knowledge from reading logs, accessing consoles, examining corpses, etc, which is a resource counted up at the end of each mission. You then spend it like credits with Earth to get schematics for better gear.

          Knowledge also gives you clues as to what gear you'll need -- for example, cold weapons to fight heat-based monsters, or spectral ammo to take on ghosts. Any info you find can always be referenced via the database screen (visible in the last screenshot) -- a bit like the database in XCOM.

            Ahhh OK. Interesting concept using knowledge as a currency.
            Do you have a money thing as well, surely you would somehow need knowledge and money to build new stuff/outfit new equip, or is sort of assumed that you have unlimited money, and only require the knowledge to build the stuff?
            Sounds good anyways, there can never be enough Iso-Strat games ala JA and Xcom IMO :P

              Thanks. :)

              We're trying not to get too bogged down with the fiddly stuff of managing individual bullets/clips and items; the way we're implementing it now is that you can outfit your guys with whatever you have schematics for.

                Coolio, thanks for the extended info Logan, have a rocking day

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