Ulf on: Deep Rock Galactic
There’s a game I keep coming back to, of late. Not grinding, in multi-hour gaming binge sessions, or even nightly – but about every week or so I find myself compelled and excited to spend another couple hours digging in the subterranean mines of Deep Rock Galactic. And now that it’s cumulatively found me nearly one-hundred hours of play over the course of its Steam Early Access run, I think it’s probably worth taking some time to talk about this game and what’s made it so lastingly fun, for me.
The debut title of Danish indie studio Ghost Ship Games, Deep Rock Galactic is a four-player co-op first-person shooter, in the vein of Left 4 Dead, with fully procedurally-generated levels, well-defined character classes, and a high science-fantasy setting that has you take on the role of a space dwarf working for the interstellar mining company of the game’s title. Instead of zombie hordes or evil rat legions, the game’s combat has you facing swarms of insectoid aliens, wonderfully reminiscent of Starship Troopers’ arachnid bugs. But the game chooses to place a heavy emphasis on the non-combat experience – you’re there, after all, to do your job: mine for precious minerals.
The spelunking and digging add a wonderful twist to the co-op shooter formula, in a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts manner. The creators of Left 4 Dead developed their iconic “AI Director,” responsible for managing pacing and creating periods of rest between stressful zombie attacks, because constant high-intensity action is, perhaps somewhat un-intuitively, tiresome and boring (“…these big, exciting battles are only exciting if there are also periods of quiet, creepy, tension and anticipation to contrast them against.” – Gautam Babbar, on the Left 4 Dead developer commentary). Deep Rock Galactic creates further contrast between its low-intensity and high-intensity moments with differences in kind, not just scale, as you shift gears from trying to meet your quota to trying to not get eaten. The simple, meditative monotony of mining is broken by the skittering, buzzing, frenzy of sudden swarms.
It’s worth talking about just how good those swarms look, too. And the look of the game, overall. Still screenshots don’t quite do it justice – you have to see the bugs crawling down the ceiling towards you, their shadows dancing in the fading light of your tumbling flare, to really appreciate how much the game does with how little. Deep Rock Galactic is a fairly incredible technical achievement on a number of levels – the fully destructible procedural caves are properly synced in networked multiplayer and seemingly never leave the AI unable to path-find along the dynamic surfaces – but it is never boastful or showy, and somewhat coyly hides its tech behind and within a subtly brilliant art direction. Replicating the full range of artistry of hand-crafted level design is still out of reach for algorithmic generation, so why not emphasize and celebrate the digital ‘brush-strokes’ rather than try to hide them? And if the caves are to be thoroughly polygonal, why shouldn’t the characters be? Don’t want to risk either making the other look out of place, so might as well have the same artistic constraints bind each. So, no mesh smoothing, no normal maps, no texture maps at all outside of patterned materials, really. Instead, all details are modeled geometry, rather than painted surfaces, in this strikingly unique high-density low-poly style.
The game’s angular geometry is enhanced by some truly incredible lighting. All light in the caves is dynamic – there’s no static, fixed light sources (what few shiny, glowing crystals or bio-luminescent sources there are can be destroyed) and no ambient sky light whatsoever. The glow-sticks each dwarf comes equipped with are dynamic point lights and physics objects – they tumble and bounce off surfaces, washing waves of illumination along the walls and casting stretching shadows – and only last a set amount of time before fading. The colonial-marines-esque sentry turrets of the Engineer cast a red cone spotlight into the darkness as they sweep the area for threats. The high-powered phosphorous flares of the Scout soar through the air like shooting stars, revealing large caverns and distant, rocky ceilings (and, in large enough caves, fading them back into darkness as the flare flies farther). The mounted flashlight centered on your screen has a ringed light cookie which seems to emphasize the darkness closing in more than the weak, short-ranged light it casts.
The darkness itself seems thoughtfully and intentionally rendered. Any time your temporary light sources fade you can well and truly feel their absence – the darkness is made quite oppressive by the limited strength of your only remaining flashlight, as this fan-made trailer showcases in a dramatic take on selling one part of the game’s fantasy. Unlit areas are never quite completely black, however – there are always some faint sources of light or self-illuminated details – and the dark always maintains a faint sense of distance. Atmospherics and fog grant the larger caverns that can generate an awe-inspiring sense of depth and space, even when all the lights are out.
But far more than the fun, campy fantasy and the strong, stylized visuals of the game, I think the thing that has drawn me back to Deep Rock Galactic so regularly is the strength of its co-op. More than any other game I’ve played, it seems extraordinarily successful at encouraging and facilitating teamwork, even among complete strangers.
Everyone Has a Job to Do
Ghost Ship Games bill themselves as having a single, central motto: “co-op first.” This singular commitment to cooperative play shines through a number of facets of Deep Rock Galactic’s design, but nowhere more obviously than the division of utility through the class roles. Procedural level generation always runs the risk of creating un-pathable terrain and blockades, but Deep Rock Galactic treats that as a feature and turns it into an engaging puzzle to solve.
Every dwarf wields a customizable pickaxe in order to mine minerals or melee bugs that get too close for comfort, but it can also break the procedural terrain to clear obstacles, carve makeshift stairwells into cave walls, or dig fresh tunnels between disconnected caverns. As such, any lone player can technically tackle any of the problems the random cave generation might throw at them, provided that they’re willing to be patient enough and don’t get overwhelmed by a swarm of bugs while they whittle away at the rock. While there isn’t a hard time limit on how long you can take exploring the hostile caves of the alien planet, the game gives you limited ammunition and won’t stop sending periodic waves of bugs to slowly drain your resources. You can call in a resupply pod with extra ammunition and health to top yourself back up, but they have a cost – a fixed price paid in a special resource called ‘Nitra’ that you have to mine alongside whatever other minerals you are collecting. There’s usually plenty, but the Nitra is finite, and the looming threat of more swarms finding their way to you pressures the team to keep moving into new areas with fresh veins or risk being starved out. As such, there’s strong incentive to work quickly when possible, and each of the four classes of Deep Rock Galactic’s combat miners brings a unique tool to help solve spelunking problems for the team more efficiently.
Upon encountering a ravine too wide to jump across and too deep to survive falling down, for example, any dwarf can simply dig straight down one side and slowly chip out a ramp along the opposite cliff to get up the other. The Driller, with their twin titanium drill-fists, can accomplish this dramatically more quickly, and with a cleaner and more readily traversable ramp, to boot. The Engineer, with their instant-foam platform gun, can shoot a staircase into existence along the cliff-sides or build a bridge across the ravine. The Gunner, using their zipline launcher, can fire a cable into the opposite wall to form a makeshift ski-lift suspended over the gap. The Scout, with their unlimited-use grappling hook, can simply pull themselves to the other side, and if there was only so much to do on the other side, zip right back. Importantly, every tool that each class brings is something that everyone on the team can utilize and benefit from (and while the Scout can’t help move anyone else with their grappling gun, they also bring the extremely useful flare gun to light the caves for the team during exploration and combat alike).
The magic comes in how well these all compliment each other. The Driller excels at, well, drilling and moving through terrain, but struggles to cross large open areas – a problem that pairing with a Gunner and their ziplines helps them solve. Engineers can build their way up to hard-to-reach minerals, but can save a great amount of ammunition and work much faster by letting a Scout simply grapple up onto a single platform directly at the vein. As such, teamwork is directly mechanically rewarding and players are strongly incentivized to stick together due to how much they can do for each other. There are monsters and dangers designed to punish dwarves for wandering too far off on their own, requiring a teammate’s rescue, but the game dispenses them fairly sparingly – it doesn’t have to lean on the threat of being alone as much to encourage team-play with players already enticed to stick and work together.
Room to Fail
There are many more subtle ways the game pushes cooperative play, as well. All mineral loot is shared, but not divvied up – at the end of a mission everyone simply gets their own copy of everything that was mined, giving a great sense of everyone contributing to the team effort and eliminating the idea that a teammate is ever potentially detracting from your rewards. The game tracks how many times players get downed or revive downed allies, but there’s no penalty or specific reward tied to either. Only one player needs to make it to the escape drop pod for the mission to succeed, but everyone gets bonus progression experience for the total number of players that make it out together.
And the game makes player successes feel great in part by making sure there’s room for players to make mistakes. The limited supplies and threat of running out of ammunition makes skillfully lining up critical shots on enemy weak points feel highly economical in addition to just being satisfying gun-play. The presence of friendly-fire makes making it through a hectic firefight or safely detonating explosives to kill a large number of aliens without accidentally downing a teammate feel like more of an accomplishment. The satisfying highs are defined in contrast to the potential lows, without failures feeling too punitive or devastating.
For Rock and Stone
The pieces of Deep Rock Galactic’s cooperative design that have perhaps been more fascinating to me than anything else, however, are its player communication mechanisms and tools. The game does have built-in voice comms, but in all my hours of online play, I found it rare to ever actually hear a stranger’s voice. While constant communication can help and elevate play (I’ve had an absolute blast playing with friends on Discord), Deep Rock Galactic has a number of features in place that make vocal communication not feel like a requirement to effectively participate.
The dwarves themselves are quite talkative, and have voice line call-outs for nearly every single action in the game. They will automatically announce that you’re reloading, placing a turret, throwing a grenade, using any of the class-specific utility tools, dumping minerals into the robo-minecart, being shot at through friendly-fire, have run out of ammunition, and so on. Moreover, wherever there are opportunities for it, the voice lines are often written to invite teamwork: “Sentry turret needs assembling!” prompts others to help the engineer build their turret faster, “Access provided!” implies and reminds that the gunner’s zip-lines or engineer’s platforms are there for others to use. Most call-outs for running out of ammo also come with a request or reminder that the team should call down a resupply pod. Alongside this is the clever decision to have no idle lines – the dwarves don’t speak randomly after some amount of inaction or during lulls – so any time you hear a dwarf speak outside of the initial drop-sequence you know they are communicating some kind of information.
For the things the game can’t automatically announce, there are manual communication tools. Many games have adopted the increasingly common modern solution of pre-set or customizable communication wheels, but Deep Rock Galactic strips communication pings down rather elegantly to three simple, dedicated buttons: a laser pointer, for calling attention to things at distance; a shout, for calling attention to yourself or your position; and a ‘salute,’ an all-purpose exclamation of dwarven exuberance. Of the three, the shout is hardly ever used, which means Deep Rock Galactic handles its player communication largely through only two buttons.
The laser pointer works in two ways. First, it’s a literally a laser pointer – holding the key down shines a beam directly at whatever you’re aiming at, and other players can follow the line towards your indicated target, but it also enhances gestures like nodding and quickly coming to consensus (everyone can point at and see that they’re all pointing at the same thing). Second, it’s a contextual call-out – pressing fire with the key held places a marker at your target and causes your dwarf to announce what it is, for everyone to see and hear. The voice lines are once again impressively exhaustive – there’s a clip or two for nearly every kind of object and enemy in the game, including things that don’t have gameplay-relevant properties – and are written to call the team to action and give hints where appropriate (“If anyone needs ammunition, there’s Nitra here!” and “Detonator! Shoot it before it gets too close!” for example).
The ‘salute’ is, itself, rather remarkable and is instantly iconic. Pressing it (by default, the ‘V’ key on PC) causes your dwarf to raise their pick aloft and cheer, shouting some manner of rallying cry – most commonly some variation on, “ROCK AND STONE!” That’s it. That’s all it does. And yet, I’ve found it to be one of the most wonderful and important features in the entire game. Players organically adopt it as a means of celebrating moments of triumph (after surviving a particularly nasty swarm or making it successfully aboard the escape drop pod), coordinating readiness and signaling agreement (gathering around an optional challenge event and cheering to indicate willingness to start it or gathering around the button to call in the escape pod and cheering to indicate being ready to end the mission and to pre-hype the final escape sequence), and just greeting one another (cheering to welcome new players dropping in to a mission in progress). I believe it has an incredible effect on player positivity and mindset, and that there’s a few key aspects of its implementation that help make it so powerful:
- It’s spam protected. This goes for all the voice lines, as well – the dwarves won’t self-interrupt or cut lines short, and that means that you can’t spam any of the audio to make goofy immersion-breaking remixes or turn it into just noise.
- It’s committal. The cheer leaves you with some movement and full aim control, but you can’t take any other action while doing it, so you only want to use it when you have a breather. You can’t continuously shout and remain effective, which helps keep it feeling like it should be saved for moments that are in some way special.
- It’s random. You can’t choose which of the large set of lines your dwarf will say, so you can’t, for example, shout a voice line at a player repeatedly or choose to say something that, given specific game state or context could be berating.
- It has embedded priming. Pressing the button has a generally expected result: the majority of the lines feature the quintessential phrase, like, “Rock and stone, YEAH!” “Rock and stone forever!” and “That’s it lads, rock and stone!” But there are some more uncommon variants, like “Leave no dwarf behind.” In going for a cheer, you might find yourself reminded to try a daring rescue the next time a dwarf goes down during the end-of-mission escape sequence.
- It stays positive. Every one of the lines in the random pool of salutes is delivered with a spirited sense of camaraderie. With the lack of a communication wheel or other controlled vocalizations, there’s no way to make your character to say “no” – leaving the salute as a sort of mechanical manifestation of the improv comedy “yes and” rule.
The game allows players to be quite expressive without speaking. Take a look at this community video, and see just how much communication is understandable and readily apparent in spite of being almost entirely without player voices.
Hiring New Miners
Deep Rock Galactic is something quite special, and I suspect I’ll find myself continuing to come back to it, over and over. The team at Ghost Ship Games have an extensive continued development plan, but beyond interest in seeing the game evolve and checking out what’s new, I fully expect to just keep coming back for the outright fun of it.
I highly recommend you give it a try yourself – it’s out now!
ROCK AND STONE, TO THE BONE!