In my youth, my father handed me nails, wood, and a hammer and told me to build whatever I wanted. I managed to create swollen fingers and a few tangled heaps of wood and nails. Nerd Kingdom is a lot like my father, but instead of wood, the studio is handing me TUG, or as I like to call it, everything.

TUG is a sandbox RPG akin to Landmark or Minecraft, but something about TUG is different. Maybe it's the development team that contains working titles like Economist or Behavioral Scientist. Or perhaps it's the data-driven design philosophy, which claims to deliver a better experience by analyzing how we play. Regardless, it's clear that Nerd Kingdom is attempting to give us more tools to create, both for the players in game and the modders outside of it.

My recent demo, interview, and hands-on session showed me how TUG will unlock the creator's imagination -- with fewer swollen fingers.

Environments

My time in TUG began with exploration. I started in a forested area with magically large mushrooms and a few glowing plants. Everything around me had a refined, curvy look to it, right down to the slope of dirt hills in the distance. As I reached a desert biome, the team reminded me that the world contains 13 distinct biomes for players to discover, and the procedurally generated world is roughly the size of the sun -- that is, the surface area of the sun, but they told me it would take a lifetime to reach the lowest depth or highest height within the world.

I happened to notice a large meadow of dry grass in the valley of the desert, and it was blowing as though a breeze had picked up. Lead Programmer Andrew Davis explained that there are some physics systems already in the world, but the studio is in the process of updating the game to work with Havok, a physics suite used in games like Guilds Wars 2 and Skyrim.

When I asked to see a few of the other biomes, Davis loaded me up into a few others such as the bleak haunted hills and the snowy mountain tops of one of the mountain biomes, each of which was covered in distinctive details like ice crystals or mangled dead trees. The world isn't as visually stunning as Landmark's, but it has its own beauty created by the unique-smooth shaping of the voxel-based landscape.

I decided to explore a few of the tunnels weaving through the surface of the earth and discovered that very few of them truly head down into the depths of the world. Davis told me that there will be cave systems, but currently Nerd Kingdom is in the process of redesigning them to be less resource intensive. Even so, the tunnels managed to create incredibly dark and unique networks below the surface of each biome and those that blend into the surface create deep and interesting canyons to fall into. The devs explained that some have been deep enough that player characters unfortunate enough to fall in one have starved to death!

Crafting, economy, and survival

Crafting in TUG functions differently from the crafting in any other sandbox I've played. There is no grid system or fancy UI for the player to work with recipes. Materials are literally dropped in a pile on a surface, and a creation button melds the materials into an item. For example, we placed a vine, a shattered stone, and a branch on the ground and managed to create a crude hatchet. This hatchet then unlocked new materials like logs from trees when we used it on them. The developers told me they are still working on the functionality of this process, especially with large piles of materials, but they are committed to the absence of a crafting UI. Instead, they are opting to stick with a visual process that bolsters the feeling of discovery through "scientific experimentation" with materials.

Crafting plays a large part in TUG's economy by adding incentive to trading materials. Every avenue of survival can utilize materials from a variety of pursuits. In other words, a player who spends all day mining can work with a player who spends her time foraging for food or wood. Each player's pursuit results in the collection of some material that can be utilized in one of many ways. Even if you're a player-killing warrior, you'll need materials to experiment with in order to create new weapons or armor, and other players will need your collection of dismembered body parts to discover potential recipes in their own progressions. When I asked Economist Steve Levkoff if one player could become a master of everything, he reminded me that every choice to work toward a specific goal is a choice that comes with consequences.

Behavioral Scientist and Founder Peter Salinas explained to me that survival isn't just about participating in the "social particle collider." Players will have to forage for food during their adventures in order to keep themselves alive. Eventually, the team plans to include thirst or perhaps other survival concepts once the systems are developed.

Survival games

TUG isn't just about open world survival and creative power. In fact, one of the most interesting features in TUG is its Survival Games mode. Survival Games place up to 20 players, a number that could grow, on a small plot of land with limited resources. These players will have to duke it out for materials and food until only one player remains. Salinas tells me how he's seen people starve to death. In fact, in our own match, one of the other developers died almost instantly when another player beat him with a rock. Yikes.

Survival Games can go on for quite some time, especially with viable tactics such as food hoarding and hiding helping players avoid direct combat. To keep dead players interested, the studio has ensured that when a player dies his soul is removed from his body in the form of a wisp which can float around the map slowly accumulating light. This light can help illuminate a player who is hiding or even stun a player in combat. Players who are still alive will be able to craft special items, provided they can gather the materials, which can capture wisps and effectively remove the dead player from play. Salinas mentions that he's seen a few players that are even better at playing wisps than they are living characters.

Modding and beyond

Nerd Kingdom plans to make TUG moddable from the start. The team told me it wants players to feel as if they can create just as much outside the game as they can inside it. In particular, the devs mentioned textures, biomes, components for crafting and their natural sources in the game, and even new types of survival game maps and functions. They remind me that TUG isn't just a game but a platform for creation, a tool that players can use to engage and create. The idea almost immediately reminds me of what Minecraft has become, but TUG has the advantage that its features aren't just a distant goal for the game but a foundation that everything else is built upon. And that's what truly makes it different.

TUG's early access launched on Steam earlier today, so you can play right now.

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This article was originally published on Massively.