Keen Software House founder Marek Rosa on sandbox hit Space Engineers

Photo: archive of Keen Software House

In 2007, up-and-coming designer Marek Rosa founded an independent Prague-based studio called Keen Software House, focusing (until now) on space-themed games. Today, he and his company are celebrating significant success, recently selling the millionth copy of Space Engineers. It is the firm’s second title delving into the treacherous environment that is the final frontier, where players mine resources and build or upgrade ships to travel across part of the solar system. Space always fascinated him, the CEO says.

Marek Rosa, photo: archive of Marek Rosa
“Since I was a child I loved reading all kinds of books on astronomy and so on. So I was interested, when it came down to it, to set our first game(s) in outer space rather than another environment.”

Last October, Space Engineers reached a significant milestone, reaching a million copies sold. How important was the fact that it was released on Steam?

“It is hard to say because we didn’t release the game outside of Steam but it did play a role. I think it would still have been successful, we can see games like Minecraft, for example. At the same time, I am glad we didn’t have to take a different route because Steam definitely helps. Steam is very good for games where players share information. People see their friends playing it and want to pick up a copy themselves and it catches on. This is a benefit of Steam.”

One of the articles I read about the game marveled at the fact the game has done so well with minimal marketing. Was that in fact the case?

“Yes. We use basic PR and marketing to get the word out. We did buy some banners on facebook or youtube just to try it but I don’t think we’ll do that again. For us it just isn’t worth the money. The best marketing approach we can take and have followed is to be good to our community, to our players, to provide software or upgrades which they want and to make the best product we can and make a game where people share their creations.

“That is a kind of marketing, too: when they upload their creations on Steam Workshop or yoututbe or other sites to show their friends, it is essentially also a kind of marketing where we don’t have to do anything more. It leaves us free to focus on what we need to, which is just to develop the game. To sum it up, we keep people in the loop in what is being planned, what is going on, but we don’t follow up with a big campaign.”

Photo: archive of Keen Software House
The big decision for Space Engineers was that it is a sandbox design. For someone who may not be familiar with the concept, what does sandbox allow players?

“Sandbox games are usually about providing players with an open-ended game environment where there is no linear path which you have to follow, no story. In a sandbox game you get the environment, the tools, you get the game mechanics and it is up to the player to do what he or she wants to do. There is no end goal and there is no ‘princess’ to rescue. That is beneficial for our players, our community, although it is not for everybody.

“At the same time, I think there are users who would like us to make a less sandbox title in the future or to offer variants in the future, such as campaigns or goals they would be forced to reach if they had to progress. I myself would be happier at this point if we were adding campaigns or if we add them in the future.. Other than that, there is one rule which we follow in designing the game and that is that it obey, as much as possible, the natural laws of physics as we know them from the real world. We want everything to be as realistic as possible, based on physics and certain logic. Everything has a certain size, volume and mass. That said, we are not trying to make an exact copy of the real universe and we still want the game to be fun.

“We also want to avoid inconsistencies we call hacks: for example, if you have a rocket and there is equipment stored aboard, if you suffer damage the inventory may be affected. If the part where it is stored is hit, those items have to be lost. So you have to make sure those things are consistent, but against making it fun is the top priority.”

You chose space as a playground – an incredibly dangerous environment in real life – what kind of situations do players find themselves in? I imagine resources are scarce?

Photo: archive of Keen Software House
“Yes. You have to mine for resources and get them to a refinery and process them to survive. It is about building bases and surviving.”

In terms of the in-game limits, are they realistic? Can someone travel to a new solar system, for example?

“Well, there are limits. Just a few weeks ago we introduced a new feature called Super Large Worlds. Until now, the limit was far shorter because after that the math would get wonky and imprecise and everything would begin to shake after a small distance. Now though you can travel up to 6.6 astronomical units (one unit = 149 597 871 kilometres). That is basically from the Sun to Jupiter. And it is stable, it is solid. We don’t do galaxy to galaxy. We also have asteroids which are procedural which means that when you fly in this vast space they begin to appear. You can drill a cave on the asteroid or make whatever changes you can imagine. You can then leave but if you ever come back you will come across it again: it is there for good.”

There are also two modes in the game: Creation or creative and…

“Survival. In creative mode players don’t have to worry about resources: you have unlimited energy and you cannot die. In survival mode, things take more time to build, and you can die. But people like it. When we introduced survival many more people – three or five times as many – began to play.”

Looking back, did you imagine when you started where you would be by today that you would succeed in a fairly short amount of time? Are you happy with where you are now?

Photo: archive of Keen Software House
“Yeah, I am very happy. Back then I wasn’t sure if I would be able to achieve it but I just had it as a vision in my head. I knew that someday in the future I would be in the situation I am in today. But I wasn’t sure: anything can happen. At the same time, if you try to do what you decide upon and you work hard, I think things have to work out. But I am happy right now. We have the experience now, the resources, the community, a team that can take on anything, whatever we want to do, which is great.”