Space Engineers: six years of building and blowing stuff up

by Louis Calvert

Space Engineers: six years of building and blowing stuff up
February 14, 2020 Louis Calvert

Space Engineers (SE) is a game about building things. Six years ago the game hit Early Access on Steam with a lot of potential, a handful of buildable blocks, and a buggy physics engine. It finally left Early Access in February last year. Why is it so great?

The core concept could originally be compared to Lego, giving you building blocks and tools to make whatever you like. Now, that concept has been vastly expanded to include: a nearly-infinite space to play around in, littered with asteroids to mine or build on; a whole solar system of voxel planets; trading stations that offer missions, equipment, and even ships and vehicles for sale; AI-controlled ships and stations to explore, loot, or steal; and a hugely improved physics engine that underpins everything. It is most fun when played with friends, and up to sixteen players can play together in custom worlds. Most importantly, SE supports a huge and vibrant modding community and easy mod-integration (one-click via the in-game mod manager) with full support from the game developers, meaning you can customise your game in any way you like, to play your own story.

“[SE] is a sandbox game about engineering, construction, exploration and survival in space and on planets. Players build space ships, space stations, planetary outposts of various sizes and uses (civil and military), pilot ships and travel through space to explore planets and gather resources to survive. Featuring both creative and survival modes, there is no limit to what can be built, utilized and explored.” Keen Software House

Indie developer Keen Software House (KSH), the team behind Space Engineers, originally built the concept on the bones of their previous game, Miner Wars 2081 — a game that seems heavily inspired by the classic Descent (1995) for PC, Mac and PlayStation. Descent featured the innovative ‘6DF’ system (six degrees of freedom), allowing players to pilot their craft in any direction in a zero-gravity environment. It was a massive departure from the standard first-person, third-person, isometric, or platformer concepts which are generally based around movement along one plane. Miner Wars 2081 featured voxel deformation and destruction, allowing players to reshape the actual game environment. 

Building on this concept, KSH next set out to make a game where players could literally build these environments from raw materials, and build ships to fly around in them. This would also allow the ships and environments to be damaged, destroyed, repaired, modified, and personalised.

“This game is a lot of fun, encourages you to be creative and make the weirdest things.” SimoSpan, Steam review

“Build it, Fly it, Crash it, Love it.” – Walzer, Steam review

This concept became Space Engineers, focusing heavily on mining, construction, and exploration (although rocket launchers and gatling guns have been a staple part of the game from the start). Building in the game is a volumetric cube-based system, similar to the concept used by other survival/crafting/sandbox games like Minecraft and 7 Days to Die

Where Space Engineers really comes into its own is that your creations can move. The whole game is built within a Newtonian physics simulation; if you nudge your creation and there’s nothing to stop it, it will drift away into the void. Space Engineers isn’t only about making spaceships and stations, though. Players have constructed walking machines, 3D printers, trebuchet and catapults, monorails, obstacle courses, racetracks, even models and large-scale replicas of real-world machines and tools, and of course all sorts of crazy contraptions like gravity cannons, uniwheel motorbikes, rocket-powered chairs, and even an elevator from the Earth to the Moon. Playing around in a physics-based sandbox with mechanisms that can move leads to a lot of fun (and many explosions) in itself. A large part of the gameplay revolves around trying not to accidentally crash or blow up whatever it is you’re building — at least before you intend to.

One aspect that makes Space Engineers so compelling for many players is that there’s no point to it at all. Where the majority of games have an in-built story, objectives, and an end-game to work towards, Space Engineers deliberately offers none of that. The premise is loosely that you’re a ‘Space Engineer’ at some point after the second space race of 2077, and the rest is up to you. Some players simply enjoy messing around in a physics-based building environment, while others construct roleplaying game-like backstories and run dedicated servers for friends to play with their own rules and even custom factions. On the Steam Workshop you’ll find thousands of player-made ships and vehicles that you can add to your own game, many of them balanced to fit into player-made campaigns and factions, which are often complete with backstories and manifestos.

Like Minecraft, Space Engineers is hugely enhanced by a strong community of modders (people who create additions to the base, or ‘vanilla’, game). While the vanilla SE experience is good fun, modding makes it amazing, and vastly expands the gameplay possibilities. Since the start, KSH have worked to support the modding community, adding in many features to make modding easier and more accessible and even opening the game code up to allow modders more freedom. KSH themselves have created several resources (accessible via their website) that are intended as primers for people interested in learning modding, including several ‘example’ blocks to serve as testing items for players to get the hang of the coding and graphics requirements for successful mods. There are literally tens of thousands of mods available on Steam Workshop at this stage, and through them you can make your game virtually anything you want. Some mods simply slightly adjust one vanilla block to make it easier to use, while other mods massively alter the game by adding new features and mechanics. There are even entire planets created by other players that you can load into your own game. 

In addition to encouraging modders to add building blocks to the catalogue and change elements of the core game, KSH included a ‘Programmable Block’ as an in-game coding environment that allows players to write scripts (or, in my case, load in code from smarter people) to further control elements of the ship or vehicle you’ve constructed. This in-game scripting is how KSH make their AI drones work, too, which of course means players can also command their own armies of drones using similar code! In-game scripting allows a stunning range of modifications to the simple function of the vanilla game without installing any mods at all. 

Pivotally, KSH have also included the ability to ‘blueprint’ your creations in-game. This saves your construction to your computer, allowing you to upload it to the Steam Workshop, paste it into another scenario, or rebuild it in your current game. A ‘projector’ block in-game can be used to project a real-sized hologram of any blueprint — yours or anything you’ve downloaded from the Workshop — and from there, you can build it. The projector blocks also provide a way to repair your ships after accidents or combat damage; just make sure you take a blueprint of them before they get destroyed! 

Over the past couple of years KSH have added AI controlled non-player character (NPC) ships and installations to the game, adding more opportunities for interactions. With the addition of mods made by the community NPCs can be further tuned to your specific needs. By default the NPCs don’t tend to bother you unless you attack them, or (in the case of space pirates) get too close. If you want a real challenge to test your combat engineering abilities, you can use mods create an extremely hostile scenario with NPC ships that actively hunt you down — even escalating attacks if you manage to beat them back. Imagine the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica chasing the fleet and you’re not far off. On the ‘Alien Planet’ (one of the vanilla planets you can explore) there are even giant spider-like aliens that burst from the ground. They have a taste for Engineer flesh, so building adequate defences is essential if you plan to explore that strange world.

“Love this game great for RP or strapping warhead to things to watch them go boom” – bonekraka, Steam review

“One of the best games I’ve ever played. The visual style is really good, playing with friends and other people makes it way better” – Larry The Fairy, Steam review

The community around Space Engineers includes many YouTubers who have been streaming the game for years, which no doubt helped the game gain and maintain a dedicated following. It turns out that watching people spend hours making ships and then blowing them up (not always deliberately) is very engaging! American YouTuber Captain Shack has been running a hugely entertaining ‘Sunday Survival’ series for several years, usually accompanied by his friend Tex and sometimes by other YouTubers and friends. Shack tends to create a loose story as a framework to theme the game, and then they just see what happens. At the time of writing Shack, Tex and W4sted are on an Earth-like world with the intention of working for one of the new NPC faction stations, earning money to buy tools, materials and vehicles. To add difficulty they’ve set themselves the rule that they can only apply thrust in one direction in any creation they make. This simple rule creates all kinds of havoc and entertainment as they try to figure out how to make aeroplanes to transport themselves around the planet. Shack often runs themed community events in Space Engineers, like using player-made versions of Star Wars ships or large-scale buggy races across custom-made racetracks. His first Sunday Survival series ran for two years, mostly featuring Shack and Tex “aggressively salvaging” their way across the solar system, showing just how long you can play the same scenario if you’re having fun.

British YouTuber W4stedspace has most recently been running a Space Engineers game that’s a mash-up between Kerbal Space Program (KSP) and SE. His team started on a replica of the Kerbal launching facility, with the goal of making Kerbal-style creations to reach the moon and beyond. Using a combination of mods to bring SE closer to the look and feel of KSP, his team have (at the time of writing) finally reached Mars and established a base there — not without many, many mishaps and amusing experiments along the way. W4sted has a detailed knowledge of SE and tends towards complex, over-engineered creations that are brilliantly innovative, but often so complex that only he can operate them effectively. 

Australian YouTuber Splitsie is known for his eccentric creations and off-the-wall experiments. Notably, after crashing a small ship he rebuilt the wreckage into a flying chair, and in a similar incident later managed to construct a jumping unicycle-like contraption that’s still talked about in the community. He’s also a fan of using unconventional weapons — constructing his own catapults and devices to augment vanilla weapons, often falling foul of the physics engine in the process, with hilarious consequences.

More than anything, Space Engineers is about stories; specifically, the stories players create accidentally because things didn’t go to plan (and they never go to plan). Any Space Engineer can tell you many stories about their own games, and it’s key to remember that these aren’t scripted by developers as part of a story mode — they are organically-occurring things that just happen. For many, watching other people play Space Engineers can be a great way to get a feel for the game.

Since Space Engineers gives you no objectives, it’s a game that includes as much or as little complexity as you want. I’ve played it for well over 3,000 hours over the past six years; I’ve played solo, with friends, and I’ve even run a few servers. I can’t think of any other game that I’ve played for so long and in so many different ways. The longevity of the game for me is partially due to the dedication of KSH, who have continually improved it and expanded the scope of gameplay; partially the amazing modding community that add so much to the potential of the game; and partially the community of YouTubers, who continually inspire me to try new things and have fun. 

However, several of my friends have tried to play it over the years and only one of them continues to play it on-and-off. The others found that not being given objectives and goals meant that, once they’d met the basic survival needs of their Engineer, they struggled to find reasons to keep playing. The ability to tailor your game to your playstyle and create your own stories can’t be overstated, but Space Engineers isn’t flawless, and isn’t for everyone. It’s very much a game that reflects what you put into it, for better and for worse.

It’s unclear where Space Engineers will go next. It’s technically ‘done’ now, barring bugfixing and tweaking — but the team at KSH show no signs of ending development. Over the years there have been dark times, as with most in-development games. The community have been exasperated by significant and game-breaking bugs and errors. For many years multiplayer barely worked. There have been so many physics-based bugs that the community have rather affectionately brought into being a pseudo-god known as Klang; it’s well known that stringing many pistons or rotors together tends to anger Klang, amongst other things. 

Despite all the issues and bugs, KSH kept fixing and improving the game. Space Engineers currently has a rating of ‘Very Positive’ out of 57,549 reviews, ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ in the most recent 3,384 reviews on Steam, and over 3.5 million copies have been sold as of 2019. The developers have always maintained close relations with the community: features like planets, the economy, and NPC-controlled stations and factions exist entirely because players wanted these features, and were never part of the original plan. Similarly, KSH have integrated some player-made mods into the vanilla game where a mod fitted the vanilla aesthetics and added functionality or style. 

For an indie game made by a small team, Space Engineers has exceeded even the wildest expectations of the playerbase. For a game that only costs £15.50 (and less in a sale) it’s completely astounding.

Space Engineers bring you back to your childhood when you were fighting with your LEGO ships.” – 9/10, SCORE