From The Depths may be the best Scottish game you’ve never heard of.
Think of it as a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game, where you build your own vehicles before competing in epic battles, across enormous maps, with thousands of units.
It’s jaw-droppingly vast. And already massively popular, with a huge modding community.
And that’s before it’s officially released on November 6 2020.
Starting as a one-man labour of love, created by former defence engineer, Nick Smart, the game started life as a personal project, but grew to pull in fans – and then developers – from around the world.
From The Depths has been in early access on Steam for the last seven years, where it’s generated over 300,000 downloads, and has a 9/10 star rating with ‘Very Positive’ reviews.
Seven years may seem like a protracted development period, but given that Nick was initially working alone, From the Depths is his first game and that the game could be fairly described as ‘staggeringly complex’, the timescale actually sounds pretty reasonable.
So what’s the game all about?
The press release announcing that From the Depths is leaving early access describes it as:
A game where you create vehicles from voxel blocks, create multiblock systems such as missile and cannon systems, design AI’s and pit your creations against each other in a designer or campaign setting.
That doesn’t come remotely close to capturing the scale, the depth, the complexity, or the sheer creative opportunities the game offers.
Imagine a colossal, LEGO set, with vast array of blocks, each of which has different capabilities and can be transformed into different shapes. Those blocks can be joined to create sensors, actuators, and other devices. These devices can be combined to create complex machines and huge active vehicles, from aircraft and tanks, to submarines, to spacecraft and, well, whatever you can reasonably imagine.
Then, of course, you can make them fight in enormous battles (in 75 x 75 km maps) with thousands of other vehicles, belonging to eight different factions.
There are over 300,000 people who have downloaded the game and a creative and active modding community has been a huge part in the development of the game.
Community members and modders have helped to the nine factions currently in the game, each with their own theme, lore, music and squadrons of vehicles.
The Steam workshop today features over 200,000 creations that people have created and shared.
Made in Aberdeen
Many of the modding community that created interesting add-on systems were employed or contracted to work for the development team and now most of the studio is composed of people who started as players.
We’re stunned. We had no idea a game of this magnitude was, oh so quietly, being developed in Aberdeen. We’re also delighted to welcome Brilliant Skies (the development studio) to the Scottish games community.
We reached out to Nick and asked how on earth he pulled this together. The answer was nearly as complex as the game itself, but boils down to: Unity – but not quite…
Voxels Are Awesome
From The Depths uses a 1m 3D “voxel” grid for vehicles. Blocks of various sizes inhabit that grid and the grid is used for calculating buoyancy of enclosed spaces, how explosions travel around the vehicle, that kind of thing.
It doesn’t look “blocky” because 1500 different blocks and the ability to move, stretch and rotate them visually allows the player the ability to make the intricate designs, smooth surfaces etc.
The meshes of each block are incorporated into chunks before rendering, to improve rendering performance. Meshes are made in blender and the PBR materials are from various programs (Filter Forge, substance) and places.
It runs in Unity 2017.3 (windows, mac, linux builds), but we’ve heavily multi-threaded it manually for performance. It’s actually more accurately described as a C# project loosely using unity than a unity game. It’s all compiled and unit tested in visual studio separate from Unity, with the resulting DLLs copied into the Unity Project.
We’ve paid special attention to modelling the ballistics of projectiles, figuring out which blocks they hit, at which angles, how far they penetrate, depth of armour, that kind of thing. We’ve also put a lot of work into calculating the drag (air and water) and inertia tensors of the vehicles as well as radar/sonar/visual/thermal cross sections for vehicle to vehicle detection.
Explosions are volumetric around the grid so piercing the armour and exploding inside is more effective than exploding outside of the vehicle. We have intricate damage models for collisions, HEAT, HESH, EMP, AP and HE warheads.
Mind blown yet? Good, onwards to gameplay:
The game’s got extremely intricate mechanics. There is literally too much to mention but I’ll give a taste of it by describing in some detail how one tiny part (active defences against incoming missiles) work… you can use a missile warner to detect an incoming missile, then fire a shell at the missile from a gun turret or spoof the missile using flares/radar beacons/heat generators (and more).
In this example the shell would be made of up to 20 modules where each module can be one of 30 different types of shell piece (warheads/fuses etc).
The missile is similar… usually eight modules with a selection of 30 different types of missile module. The gun and missile launcher here would be made of maybe 50 different blocks working together to form “the gun” or “the missile launcher”.
The missile warner and the flare/radar beacon launchers would form part of the AI subsystem or be controlled via player-generated code, or circuitry, or “if this then that” logic.
You can also shoot a laser at the missile, rather than a gun, and that laser and the engine that run it would be potentially hundreds of blocks. That’s probably about 5% of the exhaustive description of the active defence side of the game… the players love this level of intricacy because they can get their teeth into it for hours on end.
I should mention it has a global domination campaign where you fight approximately 1000 different (player-made) vehicle designs belonging to eight different factions to conquer a 75km x 75km world map using the vehicles you’ve designed yourself.
That’s one of 3 single player game modes to test your designs.
The community is strong with people sharing designs, advice, new ways of doing things. As well as using the workshop to share vehicles there are also “planets” on there, and mods.
The planets system allows players to make their own worlds, factions, campaigns, missions and multiplayer maps.
Then there’s multiplayer… We have many maps including a co-op campaign for up to 12 players controlling the ‘player’ team in the global domination campaign.
From The Depths is leaving early access on November 6 2020.
At launch many things that have been beta tested but unreleased to the stable branch of the game will be made available to players. These include:
- Over 90+ music tracks
- The talked about but never seen separator block (which enables players to create vehicles from vehicles!)
- Custom jet intakes, exhaust connectors and
- HUGE MISSILES
- A new Neter campaign map
- Sensor blocks
- Camouflage texturing
- Co-op adventure mode
- Battle royale mode
- …and anything else that makes it in before release!
Buy it. Just buy it.
It’s available on Steam and the Humble Store and supports Windows, OSX and Linux.
Congratulations to Nick and the entire Brilliant Skies team on what is undoubtedly a colossal achievement. Here’s to the next 300,000 players.