A deep exploration of Maia so far…

For the past week or so I’ve been playing Early Access title Maia, following its 0.50 update. After spotting the game at EGX Rezzed back in March, I’ve been very interested in testing out the game and exploring what it has to offer. From what I’ve experienced, Maia has a profound and intricate structure with all the variables and dangers that you would expect to find on a different planet. It is clear that the AI has been carefully constructed down to tiny, individual details, including body temperature and rate of perspiration. Taking all of this into consideration, I can safely say that the game has the potential to be one of the most elaborate god games in existence, but it’s nowhere near ready.

“Maia is a new god game from indie developer Simon Roth. Inspired heavily by the 70’s Sci-fi aesthetic, Maia is a colony management simulator where you must keep your colonists safe, fed and happy. Liberally influenced by nineties god games, the game has a dark sense of humour and more toys to play with than you can shake a Molyneux at”.

You are stationed on a hostile alien planet, sheltered from blistering winds and extreme weather conditions in a small base, underground. As the overseer, you have access to materials to build rooms and objects. You also have the ability to command an ‘IMP robot’ to clear away the remaining rock to make way for new rooms and extract minerals that can be used in the base. You start with a small group of colonists to observe as part of a colonising experiment. Consequently, your objective is to encourage the colonists to make the base (or colony) self-sustaining, and adequate for scientific research. This can be achieved by placing the blueprints, marked by green dotted silhouettes, of the objects and rooms that you want built. However, as stated in the tutorial, “it is impossible to directly control colonists”. You are just an observer; you can only provide the colonists with the materials and location for building; placing an object does not ensure that it will be built. Unfortunately, this is where the problems of the current build are most visible. In theory, enabling the AI with the power of freewill is genius. Unlike The Sims, this god game takes its AI to a very realistic level of ‘human’. Rather than being able to control the colonists’ every move you can only provide them with the tools to sustain themselves and expand the colony, making them appear all the more independent and lifelike. However, as I stated above, the game is not ready to facilitate this concept. The colonists decide when they want to build stuff, if at all, and there does not appear to be a way to prioritise what is built and when. Most of the time I found myself helplessly waiting for the colonists to acknowledge my requests for them to build objects that were desperately needed.

Moreover, each new game that I started also revealed more inconsistencies. Some things work perfectly fine in one game and won’t work at all in the next. For example, I started a game by building a wind turbine outside. For whatever reason, the colonists didn’t build the turbine so after about five minutes I then placed another five turbines, in hope that at least one would be erected. After a little while, the colonists built one turbine, ignoring the others (which remained as blueprints for the entirety of the game). To add insult to injury, the one that the colonists did build kept collapsing, due to what I can only assume was the extreme weather conditions. The colonists continued to ignore my other turbines and only built the one that I had to keep replacing. This resulted in five turbine blueprints, a few piles of junk where old turbines had collapsed, and one working turbine. Interestingly, in one of the other games that I played, I decided to place just one turbine. To my surprise, it was built straight away so I tried placing three more and all of those were built quickly, too. None of these turbines collapsed either! This is similar for other objects, especially vital ones such as the atmosphere generators. Despite the alarms droning on about the atmosphere in the base dropping to critical levels, the colonists walked around ignoring the blueprints for a number of atmosphere generators, as if blissfully unaware that they would soon be asphyxiated. I lost a lot of colonists this way. Actually, I lost a lot of colonists overall and in many cases, I wasn’t even sure why. Causes of death and ways to avoid them aren’t really explained very well in this game, AI suddenly drop dead and remain on the floor either as a corpse or in a body bag with living colonists and robots walking over them. In addition, all of them appear to have the same cause of death if the player checks their messages on the top left hand part of the screen: starvation – even if there is sufficient ration boxes and water barrels! All of this was incredibly frustrating as I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing wrong. The tutorial only introduces players to the basics, guiding you in moving the camera, building a room and placing objects. As a player, it is quite difficult to know whether a problem has occurred as a result of your actions or whether it’s just the game itself. After finishing the tutorial, I still felt like I had been thrown in at the deep end and I wasn’t really sure how to go about building the colony. The AI was frustratingly unresponsive and in one play-through, the IMP robot didn’t even spawn so I had no way of clearing the rock to expand the base. Although after about half an hour, the game crashed and I was forced to restart, this time, with the robot.

Maia Screen 1

Generally speaking, it seems like a lot of important information has been omitted in the early release of the game. There are two save icons, differentiated by directional arrows. One appears to load a previous save whereas the other saves the current game. However, if you try to load a save in-game you will lose the game that you are currently playing. This is not explained in the tutorial and can be a costly realisation.

Objects do not have a description until after they have been built and when the player is finally provided with these descriptions they are a few paragraphs long, making them undesirable to read. One of the main points stressed on the Maia website is that the player will have to “deal with environmental hazards and dangerous indigenous life”. I came into contact with two different species outside. One was an ‘unknown’ bird-like creature with no description and the other was just labelled ‘Megacephalalgia’ with no description. These creatures just appeared to amble around away from the base without causing any real danger. One of the Megacephalalgia actually made it to the base and died shortly afterwards. In this scenario the game enables you to mark dead creatures for the colonists to take samples but the game promptly crashed after I did this so I have no idea what becomes of those samples.

Furthermore, a lot of the information included about the colonists seems to be a bit pointless. “Colonists are accurately simulated down to body temperatures, emotional states, respiration and perspiration rates, social preferences, metabolic speeds, fatigue levels, photosensitivity, and specific British social anxieties”, but in reality, these things aren’t helpful at all! Sure, we’re made aware of their body temperature and perspiration rate when we hover over their head but the colonists won’t tell you why they can’t build something or whether they are hungry, thirsty or tired. When the colonists’ body temperatures and a few depressing comments in their progress reports are all that you have to work with, it can quickly drain your enthusiasm to play Maia when things start to go wrong. On top of all of this, I ended up restarting the game five or six times as a result of the game randomly crashing, and when the game did run it was a very juddery experience.

Finally despite the relatively clear objective stated on Maia’s website and in this review, there appears to be some conflict in what the developer wants to achieve, putting the functions of the entire AI system into question.

Also posted on Maia’s website:

“Using the new in-game console, players can now execute a variety of development commands and cheats. For example, the console may be used to spawn objects, trigger earthquakes and instantly build objects”.

Therefore, my confusion lies with the fact that an official cheat now exists to enable players to build objects straight away. Surely this would then render the notion of ‘just being an observer’ pointless, as you can simply take over and build whatever you want anyway? This seems like more of a quick and easy fix to the AI ignoring blueprints than a feature that complements the main objectives of the game. For this reason, I am unsure of the real objective of the game. If this is the direction the developer wishes to follow, giving more power to the player then maybe the overall objective and AI systems need to be reconsidered.

Overall, I would say that the game is a bit too vague right now, which makes it more frustrating than fun to play. It has interesting ideas and is clearly very detailed but just isn’t ready to thoroughly explore its own complexity and depth. There are a number of things that have been included that do not seem to add anything of value right now, and the game appears to operate on the assumption that the player knows what they are doing fresh out of the tutorial. Nevertheless, I will certainly be checking up on this game later on as I truly believe that it has a lot of potential. I’m also interested to see how it will be improved.

Sources:

Maia Website

First Impressions Video: