Feature Article

Grounded Director Talks About Building A World For The Story To Play Inside

We talk with Grounded creative director Adam Brennecke about the new koi pond update, version 1.0, and why it's hard to make giant bees.

The next update to sandbox survival game Grounded will add a koi pond area, new crafting recipes and base-building elements, and pond-based wildlife--including swimming spiders that will absolutely ruin your watery getaway plan. The game is still in early access, but these progressive improvements that continue to flesh out Grounded's world are part of Obsidian's plan to build out the entire sandbox before creating a full-fledged story for it. GameSpot spoke with creative director Adam Brennecke about the update, how the studio brainstorms new biomes and creatures, and what the future holds.

What do you see as the finish line for going into full release? What are you hoping to accomplish while you're still in early access?

Brennecke: I think we're still quite a ways away from a 1.0 release. I see that as when we are story complete, so when you can go from the beginning to the end and complete a really cool and enriching storyline. Until we're at that point, I don't really consider us to be 1.0. There's still tons of stuff on our side that we want to do before we're at that point. But right now we're just building out all the bits of the backyard right now. That's what we're working towards is, what we we're calling is, the act one of the story.

So you're designing the world and all the moving parts and systems and then building a story that takes place in that setting.

Yeah, that's pretty accurate. We do have the story and what we want to tell, so we have all those details. But I think that's a good thing to note is that we are building out all the content and all of the systems before we do the story. Because that's the meat and potatoes of the game. If that stuff isn't there, then there's not really a place to experience the story. So we want to make sure that the areas that we put in--such as the koi pond and the labs--are there, and then we're going to add in the quest and the story throughout those areas.

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What drew you to making a water environment, knowing that it comes with some challenges? What do you see as the positives of the water environment, and what made you interested in pursuing that?

We've always wanted to do a water environment even in the very, very early stages of planning Grounded. It's always been a part of our backyard design of having a big, massive lake, if you will, right in the middle of the backyard. Originally, the idea was to do a swimming pool, but once we thought about that for a day or two, we're like, "Okay, a swimming pool, you can't really do a whole lot with the swimming pool, so let's come up with something a little more creative."

We landed on a koi pond just because I think there's a lot of interesting things that could be living in there--a lot of cool insects, a lot of cool plant life. It will look really neat when it comes together, and that was the way that we wanted to move forward. I think the cool thing about the koi pond is that it is definitely a different experience than wandering around on the ground and the outside of the pond.

We don't want it to be a frustrating experience. We want it to be an enjoyable exploration experience. So we were looking at a lot of, during our play tests, "Hey, is there any frustration? Are there things that are confusing with traversal? Are there things that we can improve on?"

We're doing that right now in our play tests, but we also want to get community feedback and player feedback around that to see where we can improve and make the experience more enjoyable.

When you're choosing which non-hostile creatures, what goes into that? What are you trying to make sure they add to the world?

Yeah, the way that we approach that is when we initially are doing concepts of the environment, we make a big list of how many creatures or what types of creatures that live in this area. Then we choose which, based on the roles that we need in the game for.

Because if it's just a bunch of awful creatures, that's not going to be super fun for the player to explore. So we want to make it so it feels alive where there's things swimming around all over the place. I think the tadpole was an easy one just because it looks so cool. We did some early concepts that it just looked cute, and it reminded me of the aphid. The aphid is just that cute little creature that you want to chase, and the tadpole, I think, fit that really well.

Then the water boatmen, I think it's almost elegant in a way, which I don't think we have a lot of insects that are just cool to watch in their natural environment. I think that's something that we also consider with our creature design and what creatures we choose. It's really neat to the animate. They almost look like they're swimming, and that was a really, really neat creature to choose for the pond.

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They all have their own unique routines or behaviors. How do you approach the design, making sure that they're unique, while also not interfering with each other?

When we're playing, if we see creatures just not really doing anything interesting, we try to discuss that as a team. Say, "Hey, I just saw these tadpoles just sitting around. What would they be doing right now? Is there something cool that we could have them do?"

Then we have a big, the crazy chart of how all these insects interact with one another. So we also try to look at it in terms of how do they interact with the plant life? How do they interact with each other? Do they have a natural predator that we could have? That's how we approach it. There's a lot of play testing and saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be better if the these creatures hid from you when you got close? Or where do these creatures sleep? What would make sense in that case?"

So it's a lot of play testing, and we have a really cool AI system that allows us to adjust all that routine and behavioral stuff really quickly. The other fun thing is that the creatures try to maximize their happiness. So whatever makes them happy, and that could be eating something, it could be eating something else, it could be like fleeing from the player character, or fleeing from other insects. They try to maximize their happiness.

All these variables change over the course of the day, so if they get hungry, the thing that will maximize happiness is to go find some food. I think that's a cool thing that we have a lot of knobs that we can adjust and we try to just make it all come to life with adjusting all these knobs on all these creatures.

So moving onto hostile creatures, you have a water spider, the diving bell. Obviously spiders have gotten a lot of attention, especially because of the arachnophobia mode. You don't want water to be a safe space because it's a survival game.

Yeah, the players feel safe when they jump in the water right now. They're being hunted by a spider and they're like, "haha, spider, you can't get me," but then they turn around now, and there'll be like, "Oh, man, spiders can swim!" I think that's a fun little thing, almost to tease the player. We don't want them to feel safe in the pond--not only with the big koi fish, but just with the spiders.

The one thing that we are really paying attention to with the hostile creatures is how long does it take to kill them? They're not as spongy as our creatures on land just because it's not that fun to poke at these creatures for a long period of time while your oxygen meter is fighting against you at every minute. Every moment losing and losing more and more oxygen. So we're trying to balance that, where we do have combat in the water, but we want to make it where it's not a huge hindrance for exploration.

The other thing that we are also doing is whenever you fight a hostile creature in the water, such as the diving bell spider, you get a little boost of oxygen. So the spider releases bubbles around it, and you'll be able to refill your O2 meter. So you get a little reward not only from the bits and pieces that you can craft out of the spider, but you also get a little boost of oxygen as well.

Obviously in a lot of games, there's a slow ramp up of difficulty. So ultimately are you planning on progressively adding new threats into the open world? Or will players actually venture to new areas where there are different kinds of threats?

I think it's a little bit of A and B. So we do want to continue to look at the grasslands and to see, "Hey, are there threats that we can add over the course of time, so that when you get further into the game, do the insects get more aggressive towards the player? Can we introduce other insects in the yard based on what the player is doing?"

But also, as you can see what we're doing with the koi pond is each new environment that we're going to add into the backyard, there's going to be a whole host of new insects. We feel like the grasslands is the starting area, the tier one area. All these labs that we're building out like the hedge, the pond, the haze, those are our tier two areas.

So they're pretty much, I wouldn't say equal in difficulty. I think there's going to be some more difficult encounters depending on how you're traversing and the order that you go through. But we definitely want to create an open experience where the player can poke at these different environments, and encounter different insects at different difficulties, and then they'll have to go back and craft more powerful items to be able to progress through those areas.

Grounded uses a static map instead of a procedurally generated biome. That's the plan going forward, to have this map that sort of unfolds as you add new areas, but doesn't necessarily become buildable chunks?

Yeah, we definitely have a handcrafted environment. There's a lot of areas to the west of the grasslands that we want to build out. There's a picnic table over there right now, and we want to build all that stuff out with more content. So we're just going to be continuing to get pockets built out, and flesh that content out in those areas. There's the whole north side of the yard, there's a retaining wall right now that separates the north side and the south side of the yard that's going to be a whole big expansion. Once we get to that, that will add a whole host of new creatures and new places to explore.

You mentioned wanting to add flying creatures long-term. What's proving particularly challenging about that?

We want to be able to get flying creatures to be able to attack the player in interesting ways. Flying creatures, the speed of which they can traverse the area, if you want to make it realistic, flying things can fly extremely fast. So we're trying to find a good balance of how fast they fly and making them feel appropriate for their scale and size.

We've had a lot of prototypes of bees, for example, and we've been working on bees for a while, and getting them functioning properly. So there's a lot of padding, technical challenges to the speed and just the aspect of them flying around.

One awesome thing though, with the koi pond, swimming in water isn't a whole lot different than flying around in space. So we are solving a lot of those problems right now with swimming creatures. So that's something that we can take over and improve those flying creatures before we think that they're ready to be released.

The other big piece you mentioned that's upcoming is the next phase of base building. What are you planning to be leaning into for that?

That's something that we're really discussing as a team is, what is that next material that you use to build your next greatest base out of? I think there's a lot of room for improvement where we want to have, being able to reinforce your walls with more structural integrity. What is that material? We want to introduce that at some point.

Then also, having more options for players. Then on the flip side of that, we want to really improve on how the wave mechanic works, and how you have stuff at your base and how creatures attack your base. I think the phase two and the tier two of base building will tie into that really well. As well as flying creatures, because I think that's another thing that we want to look at, is having flying creatures attack their base and being to defend against flying creatures. That's going to be a really cool dynamic.

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The arachnophobia mode was such an interesting approach to that problem. Are there any other creatures that you've just thought, "This is a little intense"?

I think anything with multiple, like more than four legs, is always going to be super creepy. So it's something that we have to really consider if we ever do either a really long creature, like a centipede or something like that. I'm not saying we're never going to do a scorpion, but I think anything that's hostile, or something that's scary to people in real life, I think we just have to pay extra care and attention to those creatures.

Because I think people, if we introduce a creature that is seen as something that people might have a phobia of, I think we just have to make sure that we consider that and in the game option. So it's something that we'll probably just take creature by creature when we add them to see as if players react negatively to the experience and tying that into the arachnophobia mode, or having a separate mode where you can toggle that stuff on and off.

How big is the team on Grounded? How big is that as a percentage of the studio as a whole?

We don't want to grow the team much more than it already is. We're 14 people, give or take one or two people depending on what we're working on at the time. But we're a really small team at the studio. We got a lot bigger projects going on. I don't know what our headcount is right now, but it's a very, very small percentage of the studio. So we're just a little, teeny team doing our own thing. We're just going to continue to work away at it. It's been successful so far, so there's not any reason to rock the boat on that end. I love working with a small team, and I think we've been able to do amazing things together. I think we're just going to continue to move forward as a team making awesome stuff.

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