If you build it...

A brief look at Rawbots, the impressive robot-building sim.

Lights are a problem. I've sorted out the thrusters, the aerodynamics of the fins and wings, but getting a set of LEDs that run down the length of my flying robot to toggle on and off with a single keystroke is proving to be significantly more complicated than getting the thing into the air. I'm fiddling around with a toggle circuit that should send power to the lights with one press, and then take it away with another. But for some reason it's just sending more and more power to the bulbs. They're either going to explode or blind me. I should probably rethink what I'm doing.

Rawbots melds robotics and programming, and throws in a whole load of punching fists, laser swords, pulse cannons and hydrophonic jets into the mix. With a few dozen components, you can pretty much create whatever kind of robot you could ever want. And then collapse it into its parts and start all over again with something else.

The genius sits inside each of those components, resting just a tap of the escape key away. Click on any of them, and a neat little hexagon with the component's name will latch itself onto the programming grid. You can then expand it into the component's functions, so thrust and glow for rocket jets, or the intensity and colour of a light. Some components are considerably more complicated than others, but every single one can be programmed.

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As complicated as it is, Rawbots does a lot to make the code easy to read.

So say you want to fly, you'll set up some jets on your flying machine. Then you can create a bunch of inputs to increase the power to them, and then maybe even a failsafe system of logic gates if you start to lose control. Map them to whatever key on your keyboard you like (or even your smartphone), and when you hit that key you'll start increasing the thrust of the engines.

You'll end up with a metal Frankenstein's monster, and, like Frankenstein, you'll be desperately crossing your fingers, hoping beyond hope that what you've created works, and, more importantly, isn't incredibly stupid and spluttering on the floor as it gurgles on the precious few breaths you've given it. Needless to say, my first few robots were not you could qualify as 'a success'.

At it's most basic, that's how Rawbots work. It's when you start trying to add things like controllable arms, or perhaps even a vertical takeoff function by attaching your jets to angle-poised elbow joints, that can rotate through 90 degrees once the power in the jets has exceeded a certain amount. Or maybe you want to attach a giant fist to an arm, and have it constantly hammer down towards the ground. You can set up an oscillation circuit and watch that elbow move through its pivot.

Still sitting in an early paid alpha and having just been given the Steam Greenlight, that's about the entirety of the game so far. But still, people are running with what's there, creating amphibious planes, jumping robots and even just about creating a propeller out of two fins and a motor. Code pages begin to get increasingly ridiculous the more complicated and conditional you make it, but there's a certain brilliance to spending so much time making sure everything works exactly as you want it to be.

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Eventually you'll be able to make huge automated bases.

It's in Rawbot's future that things are still looking most exciting. Multiplayer servers are due next, letting you live out all those fantasies planted a decade ago by Craig Charles and his boundless enthusiasm, pounding one robot into another and seeing who's the more competent engineer. NPC robots that occupy robot forts and guard precious robot parts. Essentially, the kind of things that constitute a game, rather than a sandbox. Right now, though, it's all practice.

But there's promise here. Far flung from Minecraft's accessibility, there's still the kind of obscene flexibility in Rawbot's systems that mean that, even if you are struggling to set up a toggle circuit on the light system of your robot, there is someone out there that's going to do something absolutely insane. They're already doing it, and while the first hour or so with Rawbots feels like an exercise in being about as obtuse as a game can be, it's considerably rewarding once you figure out its basic circuits.

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