Tynan Sylvester is the founder of Ludeon Studios, the independent game developer behind RimWorld. Before Ludeon Studios he’d previously worked on the AAA behemoth that was Bioshock: Infinite. He’s author of the book Designing Games, which (as you might expect) “is a book of game design concepts written to help practitioners make better games”, to quote Sylvester’s overview. RimWorld has proven a serious indie hit, with a fan following that produces plenty of art, fan theories, and an extensive list of mods.
RimWorld is a hardcore survival and management sim. It is a game of psychopaths, cannibals, cowboys, and nudists coming together to fend off raiders, death machines, and the ever looming threat of insanity. One’s colony can grow in a variety of ways, the easiest in my experience of which is to abduct people who attacked you and put them in a cushy prison until everyone makes nice (while trying not to forget to keep the prison temperature controlled so they don’t all die of hypothermia or heat stroke).
RimWorld is a game that can be brutal towards the uninitiated but with a level of depth and complexity that gives those who master the game many options and routes to success. It is also a game where failure can come so aggressively or absurdly that it is almost a joy to watch a beautiful colony be obliterated by fire, crazed citizens, or just poor planning. I have been a big fan of the game personally for a long time, so of course I jumped at the chance to interview the mind behind it all, Tynan Sylvester of Ludeon Studios.
What attracted you to game design? I started making maps for Unreal Tournament when I was 15. Before that I used to draw NES-style sidescroller levels on paper, or in chalk on my parents’ driveway for fun. It’s hard to say what attracted me to game design because I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing it. Ideas come automatically, unbidden, and build up a sort of psychic pressure inside. Expressing them as games is a release, and the satisfaction of creating things keeps me sane. I guess you could say I was attracted to game design the same way I’m attracted to breathing. Non-optional.
If I got my facts straight, RimWorld was released in 2013. Five years later, you and your team are still releasing fairly regular updates and the game is doing quite well. Why do you think the game has found the success it has? Despite the volume of games that get released on a daily basis, I think there’s a lot of games nobody’s ever made, but which would work if someone would actually make them. I’m proud of what we did with RimWorld; I think we executed pretty well all-around, but the level of commercial success is beyond what you’d expect from execution alone. I attribute it mostly to the fact that the game hit a design space that isn’t well-explored, but which players are very interested in. There’s huge value in not having much competition.
What are some things that inspired RimWorld’s look and lore? I admit that I often get a Firefly vibe from the Western meets ultra tech aesthetic, is that a coincidence? I think any creative person tends to develop a sort of library of concepts and imagery at a relatively early age and then spend their life expressing those. You can see it in things like James Cameron’s early 1978 short film Xenogenesis – the robots in that movie are the same as the hunter-killers in the Terminator series, and the same forms are even echoed in Avatar.
For me, my main media inspirations would be: Dune, Warhammer 40K, Revelation Space series, Mechwarrior, Firefly, The Dark Tower, Ender’s Game, Starship Troopers (the book), Ringworld. And lots of games: Jagged Alliance 2, Dwarf Fortress, DOOM,
Real life inspires too. When I was young I did many trips into the wilderness in Canada with my family or at camp. Wilderness living and tripping a traditional activity for a lot of Canadians. Some of it’s not that far from things that happen in the game. I have actually foraged for wild berries to eat.
RimWorld allows players to make multiple settlements but the default limit is 1. The original dev logs mention this initial limit is both for performance and balance reasons. Will the game ever be tooled with a default limit in mind higher than 1? Or is that not really a focus/justifiable presently? It’s a question of what game you’re making. There are lots of games about controlling many settlements (Civilization comes to mind). But that’s not what RimWorld is about.
There’s a constant low-level pressure to make the game about this, because it’s such an ingrained expectation due to being the focus of so many games. People always want to collect more, get richer, more people, bigger weapons, more wealth. But if we started moving the game towards large-scale domination it would lose the focus on what it’s actually about: The experiences and feelings and stories of a handful of individuals in a tough situation. If you read a good story about people, it’s usually not about them growing endlessly in power and conquering the world.
So, I’d rather make the best small-scale story generator I can and I plan to put all development effort into that. Not into becoming a mediocre story generator sewn onto a mediocre version of Civilization. Games need focus to work well.
Are you curious about doing anything with either the game or universe of RimWorld that is not currently feasible? If you had infinite time and money, is there anything you’d love to do with it? Too many ideas. I’ve deliberately not made the universe too “specific” just because I want to focus on the specifics of the player’s stories. So there’s a lot that’s not stated about the universe.
There’s no one thing I’m desperate to do with the fiction; I’d do what would work best and figuring out what that is would take research and work – it’s not something I can know off the cuff. Maybe when I’m old I’ll write a novel about it.
I don’t tend to think about having infinite time and money… it’s a kind of boring thing to think about honestly. Game design is about figuring out how to do more with less; if all the restrictions are removed, the challenge becomes boring.
RimWorld’s medical system is pretty robust. I have to ask though, what the heck does it mean when someone gets their waist cut off? I must admit to being genuinely curious. Some players have suggested it is a euphemism for a pawn’s private bits, is that what it is? It’s just a bug. Waist has zero size, so it can’t be hit directly, but we added damage types that can propagate to adjacent parts, so damage hitting the torso can propagate to the waist and destroy it. The waist is there because we needed an attachment point for belts. Anyway, the bug’s fixed.
Why are the mechanoids so mad (or at least coldly murderous)? And always crashing their ships right by my nice colonists? It’s a reasonable question and I’ve chosen not to answer it in the current backstory. I can think of many reasons but it’s not really what the game’s about and I don’t like to complexify the backstory. So it’s not established what their motivation or source is.
I want to hear your thoughts on the fan community behind RimWorld. I’ve seen plenty of screenshots of different bases, fanart, and I know the mod community has been doing a lot with the game too. How does it feel to be connected to a project like that? Is it ever intimidating? I used to be in a community like that for many years when I was a mapper and modder for the Unreal Tournament games. So it’s really just like the old days, actually, from a different perspective. I love the fact that the community exists; the mods for the game are far more varied and interesting that I would have expected. I knew the game had to have mod support because modding has been such a big part of my life in the past and I saw how much value it added for Unreal Tournament but the modding for RimWorld is bigger than I ever anticipated.
I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating. There are some pressures involved with communicating with over a million people at once; it’s not something to do in a casual or self-indulgent way. And people don’t hesitate to let you know when they think something’s wrong. But overall the RimWorld community are really great people and it takes very little effort to keep the quality of interaction high. I’m thankful every day.
Focusing on you, who are your influences? Philosophers, politicians, authors; name anyone you’d like who you think has impacted your work. Well, there are the influences I mentioned earlier – the creators of all those works.
I can’t say I follow one or two personalities; I prefer to synthesize ideas from a wider variety of sources. In game design, I’d say this sort of broad synthesis is non-optional since the work overlaps so many fields. My thinking relevant to game design is influenced by works by: Robert McKee (Story), Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow), Dietrich Dorner (The Logic of Failure), Kim and Mauborgne (Blue Ocean Strategy). And many others.
McKee’s Story, actually, may be the biggest influence on RimWorld in terms of how the game is structured and how it intends to make a compelling experience by focusing on character emotion.
It’s such a wide-ranging question, though – maybe it’d work better in a podcast format where you can follow up.
Do you think humanity will ever colonize outside our solar system? Not as we are now. If we ever do, we’ll either have become something never seen before in the universe, or turned back into something much more like our past.