How a game about dwarves mining in space has helped me weather the pandemic


Enlarge / Deep Rock Galactic is a bug-killing, gold-mining good time.

Ghost Ship Games

I’ve never loved online multiplayer games. I’m always up for a few rounds of Smash Bros. or Towerfall on the couch with a couple beers and a couple buds, but when it comes to playing online, I never put in the work to find a group I could play with regularly. I also never wanted to invest the time it would take to really get good at highly competitive first-person shooters or MOBAs or battle royale games. But like so many things—working, parenting, my relationship to the concept of time—that began to change when the pandemic hit. Couch multiplayer was no longer an easy option, but I was starving for human interaction, so I turned to my PC.

What began with me and one other person intermittently dabbling in Age of Empires II eventually became a group of three-to-four people who were meeting to play games once or twice a week, every week. We started with group Geoguessr sessions and a sort of pass-the-controller-style thing where we’d chat while we took turns streaming American Truck Simulator. Then we played Ultimate Chicken Horse until we’d unlocked all the levels, and we stuck with Fall Guys through a couple of seasons. But it wasn’t until a group replay of Left 4 Dead 2 that we realized what we really wanted was a game where we could work together. And when we were done with that, at long last, we landed on the game this piece is actually about: Deep Rock Galactic.

Deep Rock Galactic (hereafter DRG) is a co-op game where between one and four players suit up to explore the planet Hoxxes IV, collecting its resources and fighting its hostile insectoid inhabitants on behalf of a comically heartless, hypercapitalist space mining corporation. You only have a few distinct mission types to choose from, but the tunnels of Hoxxes IV (and the enemy encounters) are all procedurally generated and you can play as any one of four classes, making each playthrough unique. Also, you’re all dwarves.

Deep Rock Galactic [Xbox, PC]

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DRG is a PC and Xbox One game that was originally released in preview form in early 2018. It was continually developed over the next two years before getting a 1.0 release in May of 2020, and its developers have continued to release big content updates and smaller rebalancing updates since then (the next one, Update 35, is due out sometime in Q3). It’s the first release from Ghost Ship Games, a Danish studio that formed specifically to work on co-op games back in 2016. The core game costs $30 (Microsoft Store link here, Steam link here; note that cross-play is supported between the Xbox and Microsoft Store versions of the game, but not between the Microsoft and Steam versions, and that the game is included in a Game Pass Ultimate subscription). And while there is a ton of paid DLC on top of that, it’s exclusively cosmetic and you don’t need to buy any of it to have a good time.

The trauma and nastiness of the last 18 months have made basic, unalloyed kindness feel precious, and DRG, its developers, and its community overflow with kindness. Job postings at Ghost Ship Games go up with “NO CRUNCH!” in all caps as the second bullet point under “competitive salary,” and the developers stream regular play sessions where they often join public games just to hang out among their playerbase while they answer questions (common answers: there are no plans for more classes, they will never focus on PvP, and they are working on non-male dwarves). The fan community on Reddit is also an improbably wholesome place where fans post DRG memes, strategies, videos of funny things that happened on their runs, and more. Those Redditors just generally seem excited to welcome new players into the fold.

That’s all nice (niceness: it’s nice!), but it wouldn’t matter that much if the game wasn’t fun—but it’s a lot of fun. The core mechanics are part Minecraft, part Left 4 Dead, and most missions intersperse more laid-back stretches of mining and exploration with more heated “swarm” sections where you’ve got to fight your way through waves of angry bugs. Completing missions earns you gold and minerals that you use to upgrade your weapons and unlock cosmetic customizations (you will spend lots of money on beards and mustaches), experience points that will increase your level and rank, and perk points that you can spend on small active and passive buffs. The higher your level and rank, the more upgrades and customizations you’ll be able to buy. The game is good at giving you rewards whether you choose to play a single class and get really good at it, or whether you prefer to hop between the classes for more variety.

The game is fun enough in single-player mode, which gives you an AI-controlled robot companion to help you mine and fight. But it really shines in its multiplayer mode, whether you’re playing private games regularly with one or two small groups of friends or hopping into public games to join a team of complete strangers. Even if you’re a complete newbie joining a team of grizzled experts, people will almost always treat “greenbeard” players kindly (since you don’t fail a mission unless the whole team goes down and you can revive downed players as often as you want; one inexperienced player usually won’t tank a team that knows what it’s doing).

If you want to start playing the game (and you should!), here are some tips to get you started:

  • Play your class! Each of the game’s four classes has unique strengths and weaknesses: the gunner is your brute-force damage dealer, while the engineer is more of a strategist who can guard your flanks. The driller’s flamethrower can take out loads of enemies at close range and your drills can create shortcuts for the party by drilling directly through walls and floors. And the scout isn’t as good in a fight, but it excels at grabbing minerals in hard-to-reach places and lighting up caverns for the other players.
  • Hopping between classes is fine, but new players should pick one and focus on leveling them up to level 25. At that point, you can “promote” the character, which unlocks access to special high-risk/high-reward “Deep Dive” missions, more powerful weapon upgrades called “overclocks,” and more class-specific cosmetic options.
  • Learn to use the mini-map, which you bring up by pressing M or Tab. Move the mouse to look around, and scroll to zoom in or out. Press the spacebar to point your dwarf in the direction that you’re looking on the map.
  • Most people playing online are happy to help new players find their feet, if you don’t want to play alone and don’t have a group to play with. Your character’s progress is also totally independent of who you’re playing with, so your resources and experience points will always accumulate no matter how you’re playing.
  • Press V early and often. It’s by far the most powerful move in the game.

It doesn’t take more than a couple dozen hours to play through all of DRG‘s missions and biomes, and by the time you’ve promoted your first character, you’ll have seen most of what the game has to offer. But the procedurally generated maps, well-balanced character classes and loadout options, weekly missions, and the sheer chaos of the game’s higher difficulty levels keep things feeling fresh while adding tons of replay value. The PC version also isn’t exceptionally demanding, hardware-wise, which makes it a bit easier to get a crew together. In my experience, you won’t have a good time if you’re trying to run it on Intel’s HD 620 or 630 integrated GPUs, but it runs fine at low-to-medium settings on the newer Intel Iris Xe laptop GPUs and AMD’s last few generations of Ryzen APUs if you don’t own an Xbox or a high-end gaming PC.

I know I’ll get tired of this silly dwarf mining game eventually. I’ll swing my pickaxe to grab some gold or I’ll kill a bug with a well-timed throwing axe and it won’t feel as thrilling, or a friend will be crushed beneath an incoming supply drop and it won’t be as hilarious. But I’m 104 hours in, and it hasn’t happened yet.



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