If it took God six days to build the world, then indie developer Sami Maaranen is taking it a little slower. More than 20 years slower, to be exact. That’s how long Maaranen has been working on UnReal World.
Maaranen was an indie developer before it was cool. Or, in a sense, when it was cool the first time around.
In 1992, the Finnish developer, then just 17 years old, released version 1.00 of the tough survival roguelike that’s developed a cult following over the years. The game is a wilderness survival sim/ roguelike based in Finland during the late Iron Age with a deep focus on player freedom. It pits the player as a lone individual against the rugged wilderness and dangers of nature.
Since its release over the Bulletin Board Systems of years long past, it’s gathered a dedicated fan base that rallies around the immersive, distinct experiences it creates, further expanded with each update. But the developer didn’t originally intend to keep releasing those updates for the title after its completion two decades ago. In fact, he didn’t intend for a lot of what the game has become since the get-go.
Maaranen was an indie developer before it was cool. Or, in a sense, when it was cool the first time around. He began working on UnReal World in the summer of 1990 as a hobby while gaming was still young.
“I was very much into roleplaying,” Maaranen recalls. “Be it around the table with a bunch of friends or hacking alone by the computer. RPGs and roguelikes were a fascinating world and the biggest thing for me in gaming at that time. I’ve always had a tendency to get completely carried away when something new and interesting blows my mind, and RPGs and roguelikes did that.”
That first version of the game, released without the fanfare of other notable ’92 titles like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis or Wolfenstein 3D, would hardly be recognizable as the same game as its current iteration. Rather than the realistic wilderness living of the current UnReal World, it was set in a medieval fantasy universe, complete with elves, orcs, magic and the typical multi-level dungeoning experience with which roguelike fans are intimately familiar.
Version 2.00 of UnReal World was released two years later in ’94. It was completely re-written in a different programming language and put the long-intended focus on an open environment. The dungeons of the original were still there, but the game became open-ended in a vast world of wilderness complete with seasons and rudimentary survival mechanics. Over the next two years, the game continued to evolve, and by 1996, high fantasy was replaced by fictionalized history, ASCII graphics were replaced with the game’s trademark photo style and a sleek new interface, and the game became the recognizable forefather to the current 3.14 version.
Numerous changes, additions, tweaks and adjustments followed over the subsequent years as gameplay mechanics were fleshed out and expanded. Among them was another full code re-write, a larger focus on interpersonal interactions with the game’s NPCs (including such staples as marriage, trade, murder and cannibalism) more tools and options for play style, an agriculture system, a continually updated visual and graphical interface and, finally, in 2007, a third major version release brought about the latest era of gameplay.
Devoid of the traditional dungeon-crawling fantasy formula popular in most roguelikes, that latest era of gameplay puts the focus on survival for survival’s sake. Rather than bashing trolls and searching for magic wands, players stalk elk and build shelters, tan hides and smoke meat, trap game and harvest berries. Races and classes are replaced by tribal lifestyles and aptitudes.
“It evolved in that direction together with my growing personal interest about my own cultural roots,” the developer says of the gradual transition. “The usual fantasy elements became more and more boring – to program and to play … I did search for a game, to play and to program, which would include the essential parts I found the most interesting at the moment in real life: adventuring, hiking, wilderness survival, survival techniques, wildlife, forests and the pagan Finnish culture. I wanted to share and show my enthusiasm towards these things in this game – to spread the feeling and experiences of a harsh but rewarding lifestyle.”
Those changes took time to implement, largely due to the developer’s interest in fully understanding and experiencing the various wilderness survival skills and techniques before actually implementing them into the game, and studying the cultural history that constitutes the setting. All towards the goal of an accurate and satisfying wilderness experience.
“It’s the call of the wild on your desktop,” he says. “For many who find the true essence of UrW, it soon becomes a game which expands and affects one’s life beyond the actual gaming session… In some sense, UrW is a tribute to a simple and free, self-sufficient, nature-appreciating lifestyle.”
That free, self-sufficient style is the central tenet running throughout every aspect of the game. Placed in a spacious, random world, complete with its own history and primitive beliefs, players are given the tools and freedom to experience and survive a world absent of strict rules and guidelines.
Utilizing a host of skills as diverse as skiing, carpentry, tracking and foraging, along with whatever tools can be built or traded for, players are free to hunt, trap, farm, marry, murder, trade, build and live in a persistent world where they take on self-chosen roles as hermits or merchants, providers or cannibals, and many more things in between.
“I think the word ‘world’ needed to be in the title from the start,” Maaranen says, “as the very early idea was to start creating a whole fantasy world instead of just a dungeon exploration game.”
When the first version of that world was released and offered over Finnish BBSes, Maaranen didn’t know what to expect, but calculated that if he made 40 sales, he’d be able to avoid a summer job and continue development on the title. Those 40 buyers showed up, and sales soon started to expand beyond national borders.
“The game and my life are sometimes so tangled up that it’s hard to distinguish whether my lifestyle has greater influence on the game or vice versa,” Maaranen says.
“With early international distribution I needed to rely on a bunch of UrW-enthusiasts who could already access internet, or knew ‘this or that guy who lives in the states and could put UrW on some big ftp archive of shareware programs if I’d send him a diskette via mail,'” Maaranen recounts. “This way UrW ended up on various internet-based software archives like The Simtel (one of the oldest and biggest ones). As I had no way to check the international availability of the game or even receive direct feedback from abroad I just thought ‘Okay, thanks. That’s cool.'”
The only contact information listed to purchase the game was Maaranen’s postal address, which soon began to receive letters and money from across the globe. Upon receipt of payments for the game, the developer would mail back a registration diskette.
“Occasionally, some Finnish players could also just come knock on my door instead of sending a letter,” Maaranen adds. “It was very different compared to modern times – and in some sense it was much more exciting.”
Twenty years is a long time by any account. For Maaranen, it’s been his entire adult life.
“When UnReal World version 1.00b was released in 1992, I considered it a somewhat finished game,” he says. “I had no idea that I’d still be working on the same title after two decades.”
There was something compelling about the game he’d created, something that wouldn’t let him go.
“I actually spent some time working on other games and programs,” he says. “But no other projects were as satisfying and interesting as UrW.”
In part, that satisfaction is no doubt attributable to the overlap present between the game’s setting and scope and the wild and storied life of its developer.
Between work making apple juice, repairing TVs, tracking elk, competing in archery competitions, hiking into the barren northern wilderness, playing in bands on streets and on stages, making newspaper comics, travelling “semi-homelessly” with UrW on a portable USB drive, farming, fishing, hosting a radio show, and enjoying primitive living, Maaranen shows a quick and decisive love for flexibility and freedom over the stability that some pursue.
“The game and my life are sometimes so tangled up that it’s hard to distinguish whether my lifestyle has greater influence on the game or vice versa,” he says. “My life and the life of the game have been closely linked all through these years.
“Over the years I’ve been offered long-term programming jobs that would have at least tripled my monthly income, but like for many indie game/roguelike developers it’s not about the money at all. You just have that urge to stick with your beloved project. I do live on very low budget and like to say that ‘scarcity is basic need of a man.'”
With over 20 years put into the project already, you might think Maaranen’s just about wrapped up the work. Not quite.
“I’ve always got a head full of ideas for at least two years ahead,” he says.
Right now, a big goal is complete moddability for the game. Because, he says, “If I’m working on the game when I’m 72 years old, with only one good eye and shaky hands, then I’d like to have it perfected up to the point where … players can continue its life after I’m gone.”
For now, 20 years is a pretty good run.
For more information about Sami Maaranen and UnReal World or to try or buy it, visit the game’s official website here.
Stephen Murphy is a general assignments reporter at a small town newspaper and lover of games. He maintains the blog deepthinkingforfun.com, and is most known for not really being well-known.