Sometimes, at the end of a long hard day, you just want to shot Earth with a giant laser, toss Mars at Saturn, and hang out in deep space for a while admiring a massive galactic collision.
That’s why programmer Dan Dixon created Universe Sandbox, a hyperrealistic space and gravity simulator that allows players to create alien worlds, volley astronomical objects, and generally run amuck on a cosmic scale.
First launched in 2008, the game is currently available on Steam Early Access as its latest incarnation, Universe Sandbox ², which includes a newly released virtual reality version. So now, when you’re in the mood to casually toss Earth at Uranus, the experience of life as a vengeful space god will be even more satisfying and immersive.
Earth meets Uranus. Video: Brad Lynch/YouTube/Universe Sandbox/Giant Army
Note that Earth freezes up before it wipes out into the nether regions of Uranus, which is a good example of the attention to detail within Universe Sandbox ². Indeed, the development team at Dixon’s company Giant Army includes Jenn Seiler, a computational astrophysicist, and Naomi Goldenson, a climate scientist, whose input shapes the scientific verisimilitude of the vast cosmic landscape of the simulator.
This realism, combined with VR interface, makes for some wonderfully entertaining scenarios for players, some of which Dixon got to observe firsthand last month when he previewed the VR version at the Game Development Conference.
“It was always a joy to see people discover they can launch moons with the VR controller (or whatever planet or star they have selected) and accidently annihilate Earth with a mistimed trigger pull,” Dixon told me via email. “Or when they realize they can launch a hundred moons if they keep pulling the triggers.”
Moon gun action. Video: Brad Lynch/YouTube/Universe Sandbox/Giant Army
“The new laser feature was also well received, which is a simulated laser allowing the user to set the wavelength and power input, and if set high enough, can melt the surfaces of planets. Carving your name or drawing a smiley face into planets were popular activities.”
The attack of the smiley laser. Video: Brad Lynch/YouTube/Universe Sandbox/Giant Army
“But the feature that got the most praise was the ability to dynamically set the scale of the scene using both controllers, like you’re pinching to zoom on a tablet or phone,” he said. “Do you want the Earth to be the size of a marble, or a beach ball, or the size of your house, or the size that it actually is? Having dominion over galaxies that seem to fit in your hand and then scaling back to 1:1 and getting a sense for the true size of the third stage of the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the moon is quite delightful.”
Zooming out on a galaxy. Video: Brad Lynch/YouTube/Universe Sandbox/Giant Army
Dixon plans to add even more features as Universe Sandbox ² develops, including a planet-compatible grappling hook, a giant baseball bat for planet-scale batting practice, and a Spaceballs-style orbital vacuum cleaner that could suck up water, rock, or other materials from an unsuspecting world, among other space adventures.
“In the immediate future we’re focusing on remerging the VR and desktop version to simplify future development, and we’ve been hard at work on new, realistic physics improvements (for both versions) that will cause stars to be ripped apart as they slingshot around a black hole, or cause a moon to break apart when it gets too close to a planet, because it’s inside what’s called the Roche limit,” Dixon told me. “Beyond that there’s still many subtle interface improvements to make the VR experience more intuitive and elegant.”
Universe Sandbox ² gameplay trailer. Video: Brad Lynch/YouTube/Universe Sandbox/Giant Army
“We’re very fortunate and grateful that Universe Sandbox ² has been so well received and selling well since its launch on Steam Early Access, such that we’ve hired a couple new team members and are looking to hire a producer and simulation developer,” he added. “This is to say that we’ve really only scratched the surface of what’s possible with a universe simulator and are excited to continue working on Universe Sandbox ² for a long time to come.”
“Personally, I see this as my life’s work and have no interest in working on anything else. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this year brings.”