Welcome to Europa: the history of Barotrauma

Hello again! As Aku and Ez are preparing to head across the Atlantic for GDC and PAX East, we thought it would be nice to take a little trip down memory lane and talk about the history of Barotrauma. As you may know, the game’s been in development since 2014, and a lot has happened along the way…

So where did Barotrauma come from?

Space Station 13

Space Station 13

I’ve always loved sandboxy games that make use of procedural generation and emergent gameplay – not only are they fun to make, but I also feel they offer something that not many other types of media/art can. A book can tell a story, a movie can add a visual aspect to that, but they can’t throw you into a world and say “okay, welcome to Europa, go and do stuff, and we’ll see how your story plays out”. That’s why I find games like Space Station 13 and Dwarf Fortress so interesting: rather than dishing out a pre-designed experience, they drop you into this open simulation and let the stories and experiences arise organically.

As mentioned multiple times in this blog, Space Station 13 is perhaps the biggest individual source of inspiration for Barotrauma. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, SS13 is a rather obscure indie game that’s gameplay-wise very similar to Barotrauma. It runs on an ancient game engine called BYOND and has an even steeper learning curve than Baro. I love it, but it has its flaws – not just the clunky UI and technical problems, but I also feel it’s almost a little too sandboxy: with so much freedom and very loose objectives, the rounds can easily become pretty uneventful. Despite this, the core concept is wonderful – it takes the emergent storytelling aspect of Dwarf Fortress and turns it up to eleven by making it multiplayer and adding human interaction to the mix.

All that is pretty much what pushed me to start developing Barotrauma: I wanted to play a game that builds on the foundation of SS13, smoothing some of the rougher edges. So, some time around early 2014, I started thinking about a game idea that would essentially take bits from SS13, Dwarf Fortress, a game concept called Pressure, and to some extent my previous game SCP – Containment Breach, and try and combine them into something that hadn’t been done by too many games before.

From Subsurface to Barotrauma

At the end of 2014, I announced a game called Subsurface, intended as a procedural 2D simulation game taking place in an underwater facility. At this point, the project was in the very early stages: I had a couple of metal rooms with ragdoll characters inside them, some rudimentary water logic and a really simple subm… station editor.

It took about 6 months to get from that point to a playable pre-pre-pre-alpha version, which was also still very bare bones and probably wouldn’t have gotten much attention from anyone had it not been for the SCP – Containment Breach fans keeping an eye on the project. Pretty soon, I decided to replace the underwater facility with a submarine – a moving vehicle just offered so much more for the gameplay than a static location!

Barotrauma submarine before and after

Evolution at work: from a floating box to the modern Humpback sub.

Around the same time, I also started an internship at this young indie game studio called FakeFish, being a computer sciences student at the Turku University of Applied Sciences at the time. I continued working on Subsurface in my (dwindling) free time, and the game progressed, slowly but surely. The working title stuck until fall 2015, at which point I thought I should switch it sooner rather than later. Not only was Subsurface a pretty lame name for the game, it also turned out there’s a diving app called Subsurface and a game studio called Subsurface Games, which could’ve caused some problems further down the line. The name Barotrauma came up when I was browsing for diving-related articles on Wikipedia. The moment I saw it I thought, this has to be the name.

In February 2017, Valve announced that Steam Greenlight would be discontinued “in a few months”, with very few details released on how indie developers could submit their games to Steam from that point onwards. I decided to try and get through Greenlight while it was still possible, and to my astonishment, Barotrauma got greenlit in less than two weeks, with an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Open-source-ish

Despite having the intention to eventually put a price tag on the game and hopefully earn a bit of money with it, I had decided right from the beginning to share the in-development versions of Barotrauma for free. This was largely due to the experiences I had with SCP – Containment Breach and the wonderful community that helped to shape it into what it is now.

A very important moment in Baro’s history was making the entire source code public in June 2017. It was something I had been thinking of doing for a while but just wasn’t sure it would be a smart move, or even possible. In the case of SCP – Containment Breach, it had worked wonderfully, allowing modders to do stuff that would’ve never been possible otherwise, and some members of the community were even able to point out bugs in the code and contribute directly to the game. But SCP-CB is a free game under a Creative Commons license, not a commercial game. What finally encouraged me to release the source code was a game called Space Engineers, which had successfully done what I was planning to do: releasing the code under a restrictive license to give modders more freedom and to allow them to contribute to the game.

Now with the source code having been out for almost two years and a publisher signing a deal with us despite this weird sort-of-open-source development model, I would say open development was the right decision. Over the years I’ve often looked at the barely playable game, not very fun to play, and thought about the huge amount of work ahead to maybe shape it into something enjoyable. If I hadn’t known there were people out there already having fun with it and waiting for the eventual full release, I’m pretty sure I would have given up. And I believe all the Baro players out there were a big factor in convincing the guys at FakeFish that there’s actually a market for this weird-looking submarine game that’s hard to explain and even harder to play.

Barotrauma gameplay footage

Hold on to your reactors!

I had originally estimated that the game would be finished some time in 2017, but it eventually became obvious that it would take much longer. Even though I got tons of help from the community and from a couple of programmers contributing to the game, there’s only so much you can do as a solo developer – and working, by then full-time, on other games at FakeFish didn’t leave me with as much time to work on Baro as I would’ve wanted. So when, in early 2018, Baro became a joint project with FakeFish and I was able to start working on it full-time, with a team of almost a dozen talented people, it really kicked the development into overdrive.

It’s really has been a very long journey. I won’t say we’re about to reach the finish line, because I believe the Early Access release will be just the beginning, but I think we’re about to start an even more exciting chapter in the history of Barotrauma.

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