Envisioning a New Future Review: Aven Colony

My main focus as a game developer is helping people envision positive, achievable futures to counteract the prevailing negativism and dystopian-tinged zeitgeist. Naturally I’m interested in other’s efforts along the same lines.

I scored a free copy of Mothership Game’s Aven Colony at a an excellent recent presentation by their CEO, Paul Tozour, which I covered earlier.

Aven Colony is a city-builder narrating the creation of human kind’s first colony beyond Earth. Starting with less than the basics, the player assumes the roll of governor, managing resources, growth, and human happiness to create a large, bustling city in the face of a hostile environment. Various biological threats blow in on the wind, massive lightning strikes can level buildings, and without careful management the colonists themselves can protest, strike, and cause general chaos. The underlying narrative of first exploration and subsequent discover of ancient and potentially dangerous alien tech is un-original but well executed.

The game does a good job of bringing the player up to speed on how to use the dense interface to create and manage the colony using some initial tutorial levels. They don’t cover everything, but provide enough to get started, with the rest filled in by on-the-job experience made sane by the ability to stop the passage of time.

Though there is a tension at the resource-poor beginning of each level, I found the external threats to be pretty innocuous and easy to keep out of my base, even on the Hard difficulty level I used for most of the game. Rather than dealing with an infestation, I tended to re-load an earlier save and change my strategy. Due to this, it wasn’t until more than half-way through the game that I finally had to deal with spores in my base wrecking havoc. Most of my problems had to do with the more prosaic challenges of growing a city fully of needy colonists who needed to eat, drink, breath, shop, work, and be entertained. Striking a careful balance is the name of the game, and being well-prepared for contingencies before embarking on new projects provides the colony with a high degree of immunity from various threats, both internal and external.

One of the more aspirational aspects of the game didn’t occur to me until I was almost done. Although there are a huge variety of foods, there is no meat. All inputs are either from plants or the ground. I’m not a vegetarian myself, but there seems to have been a deliberate decision to exclude meat from the menu. In the absence of obvious thrift stores, I was a bit disappointed to see that people were still shopping, but while you as the manager buy everything with nanites, the colonists themselves don’t seem to have money. The city building mechanism is very much a top-down proposal — no one can veto your choices, only punish you for making them poorly. What the game models well is the organism-like complexity of managing a large closed system of living creatures in a hostile environment. Various needs must be constantly kept in balance, and sometimes what seemed to be a minor problem, like a small drop in air quality, can suddenly snowball into protests and strikes. It teaches the laudable view that taking the time to things right makes dealing with problems as they come up much easier, but moving too quickly can lead to catastrophe.

Overall I really enjoyed my week-long vacation of playing the game until late into the night. I was engaged with my colonists, who can be viewed and interacted with on a personal level, cared about them and worried about them when they were unhappy. I also admire the game’s Star Trek-like focus on keeping the violence to a minimum, and its cautionary tale about the excesses of lies from high places and out-of-control religious zealotry. Although I missed the raining body parts a bit, it was refreshing to play a game where the aim was consistently to avoid violence instead of pursue it.

The weakest part of the game, which Paul acknowledged in his presentation, is the Expedition mechanism where ships can be equipped to leave the colony and explore beyond. Unlike the main game which runs in some multiple of real-time, the Expedition interface is simply a map with waypoints that can be assigned to each ship. The interface, especially for changing plans to take advantage of a recent discovery, is a bit clunky, and nothing actually happens until the player returns to the colony screen. The action all happens off-stage and is simply reported by status updates, which I found disappointingly disconnected from the flow. All of this could be greatly improved by cleaner real-time interaction and maybe a series of mini games for the various types of mission involved. Instead of stopping the action, the fact that both the main city and the expedition were happening in real-time could add to the tension. One mechanism might be that being present on the mission increases the chances of success, but a default (or upgrade-path) auto-pilot takes over if one has to jump back to the colony to deal with a crisis. This would further re-enforce the overall ethos that taking care of business at home opens up the bandwidth take risks elsewhere. The lack of newness at the end of game was also a little disappointing, with the final action to simply be to survive for one more solar “day” after other actions had occurred.

Overall I really liked the game, and found it hard to believe it was created by a four-person studio. It goes a long way to prove many of the priorities revealed by the Game Outcomes Project, an amazing and in-depth project that sought to determine which elements do and don’t contribute to successful game-making. Aven Colony kept me engaged learning, balancing, and exploring for several days, has a well thought out interface for its complexity, but doesn’t get so bogged down in details to feel overwhelming. And there’s always that Stop Time button.

Wouldn’t it be great to have *that* in real life? 🙂

Even on my wildly-below-minimum-spec Macbook Pro, I really enjoyed the visuals, and would love to see it on a more powerful gaming rig at full detail.

Aven Colony is a well-envisioned and executed space colony builder experience, and I’m happy I spent a few days living on Aven Prime.

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