Project Sprawl: One man’s quest to make the next Deus Ex.

Project Sprawl isn’t a game yet. It doesn’t even have a name. But when I saw developer Cedric Kerr posting screenshots of it on Twitter, I had to know more. The images were of a vast cyberpunk cityscape bathed in neon light, the style of which Kerr tells me is “Blade Runner meets Drive.” But he didn’t build this futuristic metropolis: it was generated randomly using an algorithm he coded himself.

“The first step is generating the road network,” he explains. “Agents move around the map, leaving trails of road behind them. There are rules that govern how they move and branch, which gives the network its structure.”


Then it’s time to generate the skyscrapers that will make up the skyline of this imaginary future-city. “I created a tool that intelligently decides how to manipulate and divide up the geometry of the buildings,” he continues.“Each one is made up of façades, façades are made up of floors, floors are made up of tiles, tiles contain windows, and so on.”

The result is an urban landscape that looks like it could have been hand-modelled by an artist. And although it’s clearly from some far-flung future, the layout of the buildings and roads is rooted in reality. Kerr says he studied urban planning and architecture to help him achieve this: “To get a computer to generate something, you have to understand how it works. I love architectural design, and I can’t look at a building now without breaking it down and thinking about how to generate it.”
It’s an urban landscape that could have been hand-modelled by an artist
Kerr says his love of dystopian science-fiction began with a copy of the rule book for Shadowrun, a cyberpunk pen-and-paper RPG. “It stood out as something fresh amongst all the fantasy settings. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Its blend of crime fiction, near-future technology and a corrupt, broken society lends itself particularly well to games. And there’s just something irresistible about rain-soaked neon cities.”

I ask Kerr what kind of game these amazing procedural cities will be home to. “I envision  Project Sprawl  as an open-world crime RPG set in a simulation-driven cyberpunk city,” he says. “The focus will be on systems rather than scripts, with player agency at its heart. I want to provide the player with an open-ended simulation in which they can truly roleplay their characters and be creative in how they tackle problems.”

Kerr says he wants the game to be about the player’s relationship with the world, rather than the accumulation of power and loot: “I’m taking inspiration from the systems-driven approach of immersive sims like Thief, Deus Ex and Hitman, and pairing it with the social simulation of games like The Sims  and  Crusader Kings .” The idea is to create a rich, emergent world with a sense of cause-and-effect.
The player will be able to take part in heists, assassinations and solving crimes
“One of the things I’m really trying to do with this game and possibly the most experimental is capture the human side of those works in a systemic way,” he continues. “The biggest challenge in making this work is going to be getting the player to care about AI characters.” The game will revolve around crime within the city, with the player being able to take part in everything from heists and assassinations to solving crimes. “Here, I’m taking a lot of inspiration from old crime-fiction games like The Clue and Covert Action .”

Ambitious stuff, then. Especially for a single developer. I wonder if Kerr plans to build a team to help with Project Sprawl in the future. “Right now, it’s just me,” he says. “This is a long-term project, so I’m trying to be smart about how to make it. The plan is to build it in stages, releasing a series of smaller games of gradually increasing scope.” He says the first of these will likely be a short, Hitman-style mission that aims to capture the essence of what he’s trying to do. “I’d like to build a team, but that won’t be for a while.”

It’s fascinating watching  Project Sprawl evolve as Kerr works on it. I saw him add rain a staple of any cyberpunk city then the glowing neon signs of mega-corporations that are almost certainly up to no good. “Despite making what is ostensibly a cyberpunk game, I’m actually more influenced by 1980s neo-noir, classic film noir and crime fiction in general,” he says. “I’m drawing on everything from Thief  to The Big Sleep.”

But while the city generation is shaping up nicely, it’ll be a long time before  Project Sprawl  becomes anything close to the game in Kerr’s head. “I want to be clear that it’s very experimental right now, both from a technical and design standpoint,” he says. “I don’t know for certain that it’s going to work yet, but I’m being realistic about the possibility that it won’t.” Even if his dream of a  Deus Ex -style cyberpunk sim doesn't come to fruition, I’m sure he’ll find some use for those amazing  future-cities.

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