An Intergalactic Sandbox Is China’s Latest Indie Gaming Success Story
A hit new Chinese-developed computer game has tapped into the niche market of people who’ve always wanted to build intergalactic logistics empires.
Created by a team of just five developers in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, Dyson Sphere Program has received glowing reviews and briefly topped sales charts since its early release last week.
Hyped by a successful Kickstarter campaign, DSP had topped the bestseller list on online gaming platform Steam within an hour of its launch on Jan. 20. By Monday, it had sold over 200,000 total downloads, priced around $15 on several platforms, and its current rating on Steam is “overwhelmingly positive” based on 6,000 reviews.
The game opens with a controllable robot character landing on a lush, resource-rich planet. The player begins by manually harvesting wood, coal, iron, and other raw materials, then uses these stockpiled resources to build increasingly complex automated systems consisting of mining machines, conveyor belts, processing facilities, and power generators.
Players can expand their factory networks across planets, solar systems, and even galaxies.
As a so-called sandbox game, DSP gives players almost unlimited freedom to build their logistics empires to their own tastes. But the ultimate goal is to craft a Dyson sphere — a gigantic mechanical apparatus built around a star to harness its energy. The concept was first described in a 1937 science fiction novel, then later popularized in a 1960 paper by British-American physicist Freeman Dyson.
DSP is currently available in an “early access” version, meaning the developers are still tinkering with it, resolving gameplay issues and adding extra features such as enemies. The game is slated to be finished by early 2022.
Li Jun, a co-founder of Youthcat Games, DSP’s developer, said her team has been so busy fixing bugs and addressing concerns raised by players that they’ve hardly had any time to notice or celebrate the game’s early success.
“There are a lot of players using all kinds of computers,” Li told Sixth Tone. “We’re trying to fix this game to the best of our ability, but we’re just a small team.”
In addition to being a relatively new concept for a game, DSP is also a literal labor of love. Li and her husband, DSP’s lead developer Zhou Xun, made a vow nine years ago, when they were both just 22, to one day design indie games together.
The couple worked at regular companies for seven years to gain experience and amass savings for their startup. Then, in December 2018, they got started on their pet project.
“(After quitting our jobs) we were a little poorer, we struggled a bit more — but we were able to make this game,” Li said. “We felt we should give it a go. If you don’t try, you’ll always have a sense of regret.”
After several months of testing their ideas, Li and Zhou officially launched the Dyson Sphere Program project in April 2019, hiring three full-time staff to assist them.
According to Li, DSP combines her and her husband’s love of simulation games with factory concepts and science fiction. Their enthusiasm for the idea was buoyed by the release of Chinese sci-fi blockbuster “The Wandering Earth” in early 2019, she said.
China’s indie computer game scene started gaining attention around 2018 with the release of a sim game called Chinese Parents, which challenged players to try their hand at guiding virtual children through China’s ultra-competitive education system.
Steam, the world’s largest online gaming platform, has played a pivotal role for Chinese-developed indie titles by giving small teams easy, unfettered access to enormous markets. Many top-selling Chinese indie games on Steam don’t have an English-language version.
According to Li, there’s a good vibe and a strong sense of camaraderie among China’s small-time game developers. “The people in domestic gaming circles all have the same desire to make this industry better,” she said. “There’s a real spirit of mutual support.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A still frame from the Chinese indie computer game Dyson Sphere Program. From @戴森球计划游戏制作组 on Weibo)