For nearly three decades, Finnish developers Sami Maaranen and Erkka Lehmus have been working on one game: Unreal World. As the game launches on Steam, Develop catches up with Maaranen to ask what he's learnt from taking his time

‘There’s no end in sight’: Lessons from 26 years (and counting) of Unreal World

It may seem a silly question, but why continue development on Unreal World all this time?

This is often asked. The main reasons are that the players wanted more from the very beginning and I’ve also had – and still do – a constant flow of new ideas and features I want to add into the game. Working on the game has become sort of a lifestyle, and it’s rewarding and enjoyable for both the players and me. So, why quit, especially as I’m still not in the least out of ideas? Periods of game creating activity, available time to spend on the game, have naturally varied during the two decades as there more to life than that.

Why was now the right time to release the game on Steam?

It actually wasn’t my idea, but the players just kept and kept suggesting it for many years. I wasn’t too keen about the idea in the beginning since, well, because it’s actually not a game for everyone. But finally, after serious consideration, I gave in – because I do listen to my players – and put it on Greenlight. It got accepted, and here we are. Judging from the early Steam popularity it seems the time might have been right indeed.

"Why quit development, especially as I’m still not in the least out of ideas?"

Sami Maaranen, Enormous Elk

How have the tools, technology and methods you’ve used to build Unreal World changed over its 26-year creation process?

A lot. That can’t be emphasised enough. This naturally applies to all digital culture – making movies or records or whatever.

Modern (programming) tools and environments are naturally far more efficient than 26 years ago, and there are no technology-dependent limits to your creativity as there were two decades ago. We don’t have to care about things like having only this-and-that much computer memory, disk space or number of possible colors. Dealing with these kind of issues was constant during the early years.

Computers are also faster, so the games can be far more complex on every level, and knowing that opens up new possibilities. We couldn’t have added some of the game’s current features in their full depth a decade ago – or if we had done, a single move in the game would have taken so long that it would have been completely unplayable.

How have the game’s mechanics and design also evolved over that time? Did you ever consider adding new features in line with modern trends, such as multiplayer?

Mechanics haven’t changed too dramatically since the game follows the roguelike genre and, in my opinion, it’s a set of certain winner guidelines in game design. Unreal World is turn-based single-player game and will probably stay so forever. Adding multiplayer functionality here would be a bit like making a multiplayer chess game. I’m quite sure somebody has done it, but it destroys the nature of Chess – which is a quite good and popular game concept despite of its old age. We don’t follow trends just because they are trends.

Design and outlook has naturally changed from ASCII (a text-based interface) to graphical over many, many phases. Naturally, we have some mouse support and such now, which wasn’t in the least desired in the early ‘90s. Also, in the beginning, there were not really things like sound effects or music in the game, so layers and possible goodies have been added constantly whenever they’ve become possible.

Unreal World 1.00b, launched in 1992

Similarly, Unreal World maintains a distinctly ‘retro’ aesthetic.­ Why did you opt not to overhaul the game with ‘modern’ graphics?

I guess I’ve always been more keen about the game’s content than outlook. It’s sort of a roguelike syndrome – even though there are roguelikes with a modern outlook, too. Also, over the 24 years of releases both the players and I have been pleased with the experience given with the looks we have, so there has been basically no need for that.

There are lots of beautiful survival and RPG games with modern graphics out there for the audience who craves for them. Some of them may lack the content – but if a flashy but shallow title sells well, it’s rarely asked: ‘Why did you opt not to overhaul the game with some gameplay content?’

Did you ever have concerns that the game’s appearance and long creation period would limit its perception to being a ‘relic of the past’ ­ especially when modern titles seem to have such short lifecycles?

Surely some consider it a relic from the past. I can’t really help it, but it doesn’t bother me. Those who find the essence of the game do find it and I’m happy with that.

If we would have given every release a name of its own – for example, Unreal World I, Unreal World II – it would be probably easier for newcomers to approach it as a game of its own. But then the current one would be Unreal World XXXIII! We could say it was created within a year. Building on an old engine, of course, but that’s how it goes…

"If flashy but shallow title sells well, it’s rarely asked: ‘Why did you opt not to overhaul the game with some gameplay content?’"

Sami Maaranen, Enormous Elk

What are the key ways in which the games industry has changed during Unreal World’s development ­ and how did this affect your approach to the game?

The coming of the internet is the biggest change for sure. Games are easy to find, get and distribute, feedback between players and devs is fast and so on.

Early on, Unreal World was distributed in BBS (Bulletin Board Systems). I ran one of my own too. With early international distribution, I needed to rely on fans who could already access internet, or maybe knew "a guy who living in the States and could put the game on an FTP archive if I’d send him a diskette via mail". This way Unreal World ended up on various internet-based software archives, but I had no way to check the international availability of the game or even receive direct feedback from abroad.

I also often used to receive feedback via good old traditional letters. From abroad, too. As you can imagine being a developer during those times was far less hectic. With modern communications it’s great to be able to interact with players from everywhere so easily, and it’s also easier to get a big picture of how the game is being played.

I barely consider myself being in the games industry, so I can’t say much about that. I guess my approach to the game hasn’t changed that much during the years. It’s a passion project, I have a vision to follow, I do listen to my players and enjoy being able to offer them these adventures, and respect the feedback and support I receive. 

What have been the main benefits and challenges of working on the same title for such a long stretch of time?

One of the great benefits is to have acquired number of new friends and companionships all around the globe. To meet, talk and share experiences with people with same interests. In some ways, for many, the game experience expands beyond the game itself. The same goes for me as an outdoors person and a guy who practices primitive skills and an old-school traditional lifestyle in real life, too. As for any demanding long-term job, making the game is no exception. You may get tired and stressed and still you have to maintain your position, do your duties and fix those bugs.

It’s been also challenging to keep up with rapidly changing technology – especially early on when, for example, new video standards popped out every two years. It’s somewhat easier nowadays as the technology keeps improving, but the development tools and libraries have gotten more stable and provide longer-term compatibility.

Unreal World’s 3.30 release, which launched on Steam this year 

What effect (if any) do you feel games with lengthy development times, such as Unreal World and Dwarf Fortress, have had on the audience perception of modern-day concepts such as Early Access and crowdfunding? Did you ever consider taking Unreal World to such platforms?

I haven’t considered crowdfunding. There’s a crowd and they can fund the game by buying or contributing if they consider it worthy. Also, ‘Early Access’ sounds a bit off in case of Unreal World. I’ve always trusted in giving people the actual product and then letting them support it if it’s their cup of tea. Promising this-and-that and then seeking funding for it, with possibly failing to execute it, isn’t my style or philosophy.

Dwarf Fortress and Unreal World, and many other long-term roguelikes, probably seem quite odd to new players but we can’t help it. I’ve often received feedback from players who tried it a decade ago when they were in their teens, saying they didn’t understand the game at all and it was unappealing. 10 years later they find it again, are completely sold and get playing. These bigger-than-life game projects may appeal to a more mature audience. They aren’t the easiest games to comprehend – nor to play.

"I’ve received feedback from players who tried the game a decade ago, saying they didn’t understand it at all and it was unappealing. 10 years later they find it again, are completely sold and get playing."

Sami Maaranen, Enormous Elk

What is the future for Unreal World?

At this point there’s no ultimate end in sight. I’ve always had a head full of ideas for at least two years ahead. When all of those are done and featured, I realise there’s more. The next big thing is to add quests based on Finnish mythology and folklore.

And what’s next for you – will you ever work on another game?

Oh my. I haven’t considered working on another game, but you never know. As the game sort of simulates life possibilities, future enhancements are endless. I think I can fulfill all my endeavours in regards to rewarding programming sessions and using my creativity and imagination in this very project.

Read more about Unreal World’s development history here

Lead photo credit: Katarina Karppinen

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