You just know when it is right…

Mars Colony is first most a simulation, secondly entertainment, and thirdly bound by the laws of the game engine, 3D rendering technology and the capabilities of the designer and artist. As such, there have been a lot of interesting discussions lately around artwork. Namely the juxtaposition of object artwork in a imaginary facility on Mars, that closely tracks the mechanical requirements of the simulation, and meets the bar of quality and realism set by the game’s designer. As such, then objects that are interacted with, must meet certain criteria – but especially the nebulous “It must look right.”

Fortunately there is public information on visionary ideas of what colonization of a planet like Mars might be, but a strong lack of DETAIL. When you hold an object in your hand, it has to look right, whether a wrench designed to be handled with thick gloves of an EVA suit, or a portable Ground Penetrating Radar unit that must survive transport and being dragged along the rocky and craggy surface. Like a painting these Points of Interest can represent the Foreground of a painting, focal points that must appear realistic and convincing.

Beyond DETAIL, there are the mid-ground elements, like duct work, clutter and graphics on the habitation unit panels. Even branding… of course a private enterprise will want their logos present on systems and devices when images are transmitted back to earth and may become news or parts of documentaries. Yeah, think Pepsi or Bud Light in space… it happens now, will always be part of our environment. But these are the familiar cues… those that help decode what otherwise may be a confusing mass of wiring, foreign looking test equipment. They guide and direct the participant into a sense of real space.

Then comes the background. Those things that add ambient and atmosphere and a sense of presence. This is also a trap, as we have discovered. Specifically, I am talking about walking on the surface of Mars. Yes we have some video and images, some very detailed. But nothing from the viewpoint of a human, walking around. In a game engine, we can at best simulate the look, but are extremely limited in the variations that we can provide and keep the build within size parameters (megabytes not gigabytes) and performance limitations of the current engine.

In comes the magic of 3D game engines: vertices and normals that represent raw geometry of what is essentially a desert landscape with soft hills and a few rocky outcrops; DIFFUSE (color), DETAIL (image maps), and NORMALS (how light interacts with the surface) mapping provide a lot of illusions to create a compelling simulation. Color is tricky, as is the perceived “depth” of the surface. Oh and then there are the issues of tiling which creates unrealistic repeating patterns… in the real world it would be impossible to find a 1M square of surface anywhere that is identical to another, but in a game engine – there is no budget for a completely unique texture per meter texture, so those assets are repeated and tiled together to SIMULATE a whole environment. Intelligent compromises between the game engine and reality should create a unique experience.

To that end, we know, somewhat what the surface of Mars looks like. We have color corrected details, from the vantage point of Spirit and Opportunity. We have 50,000 foot photos that give us an idea of the landscapes from which to base the Colonist activities. We have libraries of information on what Nasa and other space organizations are working through to establish long term presence on various planets. What we do not know, is REALLY how it all comes together. There is a magic, undefined element of surprise, that makes Mars Colony interesting and realistic. That is the human element. This is an unscripted experience in a hostile natural environment. With 4 players, those unknown seeds into a dynamic collaboration will make or break success as they setup and attempt to survive long term. All of the tools are there and must be used, which requires periods of intense focus and has periods of dullness. Our testers have been providing immeasurable and valuable information that has started to help us crystallize on a final product that offers the richest and most realistic science based simulation of a Mars experience.

It is HyperKat’s goal to present a perspective on Mars Colonization that feels real and helps to make a compelling case for REAL exploration to the surface of Mars within our lifetime. Mars Colony is still in testing. Though not official, we have effectively moved into the BETA phase. Most of the mechanics are worked out, with a few outstanding issues. Final artwork is starting to be integrated. Now Hyper is working to figure out the productized version of the package. Feel free to join us in the Tester Forum, loving called the Litterbox. A link is to the right.

Leave a Reply