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Q&A: Defining the detail-driven gameplay of Dyson Sphere Program

July 28, 2021 | By John Harris

July 28, 2021 | By John Harris
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video

Dyson Sphere Program tasks players with building an impossibly massive power source capable of saving all of humanity. The game, created by a team of five at Youthcat Studio, centers around building the vast power arrays needed to bring a Dyson Sphere online. However, creating a management game of that scale was no easy task. Here, Youthcat Studios sits down with Gamasutra to explore how a group of sci-fi-loving developers took that initial concept of a Dyson Sphere and built out the systems, skill trees, and gameplay that brought their project to life.

First off, who are you, and what is Dyson Sphere Program?

Hi there! We are Youthcat Studio, an indie game development team based in Chongqing, China. I’m one of the producers of the game, Kat. All of our team members are the ones who always kept indie game dreams deep in our hearts, and all of us have met various problems and difficulties, even almost giving up while chasing the dream. But we believe that if we don’t try and make effort to make the dream come true we’ll always regret it throughout our lives.

Our mission and vision is to create pure and fun indie games, and always keep the faith in mind that "we are both game developers and game players," and not to lose the perspective of a game player. Dyson Sphere Program’s game concept was designed with the principles above.

Dyson Sphere Program is a sci-fi simulation game with space, adventure, exploration, and factory automation elements where you can build your own galactic industrial empire from scratch. In the distant future, the power of science and technology has ushered in a new age for the human race. Space and time have become irrelevant thanks to virtual reality. A new kind of supercomputer has been developed – a machine whose superior artificial intelligence and computing capability will push humanity even further. There is only one problem: there isn’t enough energy in the whole planet to feed this machine.

The player is a space engineer in charge of a project launched by the space alliance COSMO, tasked with a massive undertaking: constructing a Dyson Sphere--a megastructure that would orbit around a star, harnessing all its power and energy--to produce the energy that humanity needs. Actually, the ‘CentreBrain’ needs to keep the ‘human being’s life’ running.

The road approach to Dyson Sphere will encounter various difficulties. Space is so big and boundless that anything may happen. As an engineer, the player’s creativity and imagination are the keys to meeting the goal. The progress of humanity’s civilization is in the player’s hands!

It's certainly a unique concept for a game! It's almost forbidding in scope. How did your team arrive at this rather awe-inspiring idea?

Our core members are sci-fi enthusiasts, and we wanted to make a sci-fi indie game since a long time ago, but we were not able to find a suitable theme for a long while. However, another Dyson Sphere Program producer, Zhou Xun, and I talked about the development of human civilization. We discussed Type II civilizations on the Kardashev scale and the concept of Dyson Spheres, which can collect the energy of the whole planetary system and are the symbol of a Type II civilization.

We were lit up and the inspiration flowed out of our minds. What a cool concept! As hardcore sci-fi fans, we can’t hold back its attraction to us. We believed that Dyson Spheres are cool, the idea of building a Dyson Sphere is cool, so the game standing on this cool idea will be a really COOL game for sure – that was our starting point.

We already had the idea of a Dyson Sphere as a good start, but how can we make it into a video game? Dyson Sphere is a megastructure, so what kind of gameplay can lead out this space giant? A Dyson Sphere is already a well-known concept among sci-fi lovers, but rarely does it appear in video games. So we wanted to present the gameplay in our unique way, making the game fresh and interesting. Since a Dyson Sphere is a symbol of a Type II civilization, the construction process of the Dyson Sphere itself is the history of the development of human civilization. Because of that we can start from the point of view of a worker in "micro-perspective", with players controlling a single mecha.

This concept starts with one conveyor belt, then on to designing automation systems, and, finally, reaching the macro-structure of the Dyson Sphere. This process is just like the development of human civilization. Although there are hardships and setbacks, human beings that have brave and persistent spirits and the willingness to explore will finally overcome these difficulties. We hope that the players can feel this enthusiasm during playing the game. After we decided on all of the above concepts, we did technology verification on the core gameplay system and the development concept to make sure that Dyson Sphere Program will be developed on a solid foundation.

Building a Dyson Sphere is the kind of grand-scale activity that one might almost assume would be the focus of a clicker game, However, Dyson Sphere Program focuses on process and efficiency rather than just increasing values. I like how it expands the game systems so you have to worry about how resources are transported, rather than existing in a big invisible bag of resources. How did you decide to make it work that way?

The core gameplay concept is the key to express the true innovation and idea of a game. In terms of Dyson Sphere Program’s system design, first of all, it is impossible to build one manually. The only way to approach it is through automation, so that is how we made the basic gameplay of Dyson Sphere Program.

Next, we started to think "how should we upgrade the automation system?" It depends on our targeted features. The game target is to construct a space giant, so it doesn’t make sense if we always stay on one planet and gather that single planet’s resources. The process must be done in space! So we put the strategy stage in space. The player starts from one planet, and flies into space to find necessary resources for upgrading, building a logistics system to connect the single planet factories, and finally, construct an empire of automated industry. Along the way, space exploration and interstellar logistics are necessary, so they were also designed.

The Dyson Sphere building is the main route on the tech tree. The branch route is the technologies that humanity may meet on their way there. In order to realize the main route technologies, some derivative technologies were also be designed.

We designed the game with a focus on a player’s flow and pace. The players will be busy in one period, and may be relaxed in the next period. The way for us to stay on track is to play the game by ourselves again and again to catch every single feeling when playing the game, so we can polish and optimize based on the player’s feelings and find out the best gameplay pace for Dyson Sphere Program.

Your team is very small, at only five members, isn't it? I'm sure that presents certain challenges. How do you manage to make the most of your efforts?

Making the most of our efforts is about efficient workflow and effective communication. First of all, we have established a standard procedure to reduce communication costs. The purpose of the standard procedure is to let each of our team members clarify their job responsibilities and scope, know how to communicate with colleagues, clarify the handover process and what to provide for the handover process, etc. It has greatly improved our game development efficiency. It is worth mentioning that a good method of communication is very important for a team. It can not only improve efficiency but also helps to avoid unnecessary conflicts caused by misunderstandings.

On the same theme, one of the most effort-intensive aspects of game development is the production of graphic resources, models and textures, yet Dyson Sphere Program has rather a lot of detail in it, with many different varied planet types and buildings, and an epic-sized tech tree to match the epic theme. How do you produce so much with such a small team?

An idea is not something that can be understood and realized when it is put forward, it needs a set of logic to make it come true. The designer of the idea needs to rehearse this set of logic: only if the whole logic is clear and feasible, can the idea be realized. Therefore, we spent several months verifying the core gameplay and technology before our project was established. After passing the verification, we made a detailed plan and scheduled for the content that needed to be developed, including procedures, planning, and art, etc. After that, our entire development process revolved around this development plan and realizing the game contents step by step.

In conclusion, we had a detailed development schedule plan, a standard workflow, and effective team communication, then our team gave birth to Dyson Sphere Program.

Let's talk about an implementation detail that might be useful to less experienced developers. Dyson Sphere Program involves the development of multiple planets, which means that the game has to map the 2D structures that the player interacts with around the 3D worlds of the game. Did this prove challenging or just another day in the life for you? What were some of the greater challenges you experienced in developing such an epic-scale game?

Dyson Sphere Program was planned to be a 3D game from the beginning, which means a large workload and high difficulty. What’s more, we decided to make the construction system on spherical planets, with hundreds of thousands of items in the scene being rendered, so it is a great challenge to deal with the rendering efficiency. There were many difficulties on our way to implementing the gameplay and technology ideas, and that’s the reason we spent several months before we formally established the Dyson Sphere Program project.

One of the difficulties was constructing on spherical planets. Many management simulation game players love the sense of seeing a large number of buildings are neatly arranged magnificently, but that is hard to realize on a spherical model. Because a neat arrangement is usually based on grid map planning, it is extremely hard to find a ready-made grid map plan which can be implemented on a sphere, let alone with good operation experience and aesthetics.

Another difficulty is the logic of building a Dyson Sphere. Players can use nodes to shape and preview its final look. However, we can’t predict what shape will the players make, and we don’t want to restrict the player in Dyson Sphere shape designing.

Furthermore, it is possible that the system can’t recognize some kinds of spherical concave polygons, and it may result in an error in Dyson Sphere preview. We couldn’t find similar cases for reference, so we had no way but to look for academic papers and theses, do research, and design our own solutions to realize this complicated system little by little.

We met many, many technology challenges while developing Dyson Sphere Program, but we finally overcame them all. It was a great and irreplaceable experience for us. 

Your team is based in China, but produces games for other markets. Has this been challenging for you? Do you have any useful advice for other teams producing work that will be sold in markets other than their home?

Sci-fi is a romance for all mankind, and so are video games. We believe that there’s no border for video games, a good game can connect players all over the world. We planned to bring Dyson Sphere Program to players all over the world, and we prepared a lot. We care about all the players no matter where they come from. I believe that if we make this game whole-heartedly, understand the needs of the players, and constantly polish and optimize the game, the players will see the enthusiasm and love from the game creators, and come to support it.

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