Rust is an online multiplayer survival game, one of the initial wave of games to flood into the genre after DayZ practically created it a few years ago. In the game, players eke out the basic building blocks of civilization, taking wood and stone and crafting them into primitive tools. Eventually, small groups can create small settlements, but to protect them from other players they'll need a full complement of automatic weapons and explosives to deter raiders.
The game systems of Rust are the carrot. You can do a lot in the game, and for $20 on Steam's Early Access program, it's proven quite popular. But there's a stick as well, and it's one that developer Garry Newman (known also for Garry's Mod) enjoys beating his players with on a regular basis.
You see, while every player in Rust has the same capabilities — the same opportunities if you will — they no longer have the same appearance. Every avatar is being randomly reskinned, slowly but surely, in a way that is permanently locked to their Steam ID.
It's at this point we would like to reiterate the NSFW nature of this story and its accompanying images.
Earlier this year Rust randomly assigned skin tones in the game, a change that led several outspoken members of the community to get really, really pissed off that their in-game avatar didn't match their real-world racial identity. Newman didn't tell anyone he was making the change, and just sat back and waited for the eventual fallout.
"I'm not a fan of talking about things much before implementing them," Newman told Polygon. "No one wins in that situation. You personally feel like you've achieved the task before you've even done anything, so you're less motivated to get it done. And the audience is underwhelmed when it's finally released because you talked it up too much."
But race, he said, is only the beginning. "It seemed like it was the lowest hanging fruit," Newman said. "We wanted players to look different, and what could be more different than black and white? It wasn't something that was given much thought. Internally, we always knew we were going to do it so it just got done."
His latest change to the game, at least in the development build, is new code that affects penis size.
Above video courtesy of Reddit user M4STER_TROLL.
But having penis size in Rust permanently locked to a user's Steam account wasn't the goal of the patch, really. Newman told us it was actually unintentional.
"The players have a skeleton of bones," Newman said. "This is how they're animated, with bones connected to other bones. To make the players more unique we started scaling these bones, so making arms thicker and head bigger, jaw more prominent etc.
"It turns out we have one of these bones on the penis too. ... So, it's not something that we sat down and said 'let's make penises a random size.' It was just a happy accident."
And Newman isn't stopping there. Soon, meaning once the model is finished, an avatar's sex will be randomized as well.
"Right now we have skin colour, faces, head shapes, arm size, leg size, height, head size, jaw size and penis size. We'll be adding sex some time in the next month. It's hard to say what other opportunities will present themselves in the future, a lot of this stuff is 5 minute changes to add some variety to the game."
So, is Rust turning into some weird social experiment where immutable physical differences are permanently mapped onto an unsuspecting player base? Newman brushed aside the question.
"To us it's pretty interesting that it's an issue at all," he said. "Player are kind of spoilt. They hate not being able to do things. It's how we've been bought up in games.
"I don't actually believe people behave differently to different races in game right now, because there's no minorities and people are segregated — everyone is scared of everyone else. I am pretty confident that if we found a way to separate races into different villages, then gave one race power over another, we'd start to see some events closer to the world we live in.
"Similarly, I'm more interested in seeing what happens when we add the female model. Whether women will get attacked more because they're perceived as weak, or whether they'll get attacked less because they're perceived as vulnerable. That stuff is interesting to me."
And making the game interesting to himself, and his team, is what keeps Newman focused on Rust. It's his game, ultimately.
"Players are useful at conveying a mood and a feeling," Newman said. "They're not game designers, their ideas generally involve making it so they can win at the game more.
"Paying $20 for a game in early access gets you a copy of the game," Newman said, echoing the sentiment of another designer, The Long Dark's Raphael van Lierop from this year's GDC. "It doesn't buy you a chair at the head of the designers' table."
"That said, players are awesome at finding and reporting bugs. Posting on Reddit asking for any bugs or annoyances fills your project management system up. Acting on those problems swiftly and decisively makes your game better and wins fans."
But the long and the short of it, so to speak, is that Newman and his team are in charge of Rust. Players are encouraged to enjoy the ride.