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.

It’s Orange…

Welcome to the new template. Yes it is orange. Mars is orange, at least through a telescope.

Mars Colony is proceeding well. I heard from Hyper that the weekend testing was incredibly successful. He continues to focus on alpha testing and has stomped out most of the major snafus that our illustrious and “well paid” testing team have unrolled. Ok, well paid in process food stuffs and Mars dust. They have been incredibly generous with information, ideas and some pretty crazy edge case scenarios. Seriously? Who drills on the roof of a habitation unit?

The screenshot in the header graphic is the latest incarnation of the habitation units, branching into various facilities, and cast with the sunset.

We are always looking for new testers, so please feel free to join us in the forum. There are several tests a week, some directed, and some more open format. There is a bit of a learning curve, but some quicky tutorial information has been put together through the dedication of our great testers. Also – there are some great proposals and ideas, get out your abacus and discuss.

Tug on the suit and jump into the challenge!

Long, slow (boring?) progress…

As many of you know, HyperKat is a small company. As such, the ability to bring large teams in for development, art and testing are limited. No excuses however… Mars Colony is progressing, but feels somehow bogged down in testing. I wanted to quickly update everyone on what is happening now.

Mechanics testing: Mechanical testing is running the in-game systems, arrays and databases through their paces to ensure that a rich simulation is available, as well as enough content to keep the experience compelling and fun. Think of the permutations necessary to ensure that enough potential variables are present to make a system seem real, and tracking the sheer numbers of equipment, resources, resource types and dependencies. We have a great crew of game testers, who wait patiently (and not so patiently) for the weekly server bump and drop in and tear through things. Mechanical testing means that art sits on the back burner until enough bugs (yes there are bugs on Mars, but they only bite when the server is running) are eradicated. This also means that testers get to work with programmer artwork, which in this case is actually pretty good.

What this means to HyperKat: Literally hundreds of hours of debug, using both user feedback and server debug logs, to pinpoint the culprit in a couple of millions of lines of code. Some bugs are engine code, some are server/client issues, some are whole systems and arrays that have to be rebuilt from scratch… and all have cascading ramifications in other areas of the code. At the end of this process, the entire game will effectively be rewritten dozens of times, and without good in-line code documentation HyperKat would be lost.

What this means to our crack testing teams: It MIGHT begin to feel like little progress. We are thrilled with the feedback, but are still focused on mechanical systems. That means such things as accurate horizon and solar rendering or drill and sample animations are not put into the game. It may also mean that some feedback is set aside in a queue until it can be addressed. It may also seem that every week you see the same programmer art and find new little annoying bugs. However, without you – this game cannot exist!

Our testers, as most of you know, are an international crew located in all corners of the world, spending their valuable time exploring the Mars environment. Some stay up very late or get up very early to participate… and we love and appreciate their passions.

Bottom line, Mars seems to be caught in a gravity well and progress is slowing. However, the opposite is true. We are approaching mechanical feature completion (unless Marco pops a fuse on the reactor system or Profit parks the rover in the cohab airlock :) ) and with luck can start to address the ingame art. We have a massive list of potential new features that will be evaluated and targeted, thanks to the extensive brainstorming and research of the testers. Our helmets are off to you gentlemen! See you on Hyperia Base!

Mars Colony and Spam

Apologies for the length between updates on the blog. Lots of reasons, but few excuses. It has been a chore keeping up with what’s happening in the space exploration world, ensuring that Colony remains relevant and somewhat current with the new thinking.

Colony has currently split into two main projects: The Colony MCO project, which has evolved into a collaborative online community of Mars enthusiasts – many with great knowledge and curiosity, AND Colony: Surveyor – a mission oriented variation of the above that doesn’t carry all of the coding and programmatic challenges with a semi-persistent colony.

Colony: Surveyor has a strong direction, and provides a much more elegant platform to pursue and solve the challenges being discussed in the space community today. My recent discussions with Howard have gotten me excited about the opportunities. There are still programmatic and mechanical challenges to present a very rich and deep simulation experience, along with game elements that help make this simulation both fun and rewarding for the player.

Hyperkat has not abandoned Colony MCO,  dedicated to ensuring that a long term persistent experience is available. This is still a very important project, that fortunately shares the bulk of code with the Surveyor project. Howard, and the beta testers, have been carefully following the newest developments; plans to put a station on Earth’s moon, new ideas on how to build structures on Mars and so forth.

SPAM: Really, when are we going to evolve past the point that random spams, both to this blog and to the forums will end? Bless those dedicated coders that maintain the source code and security elements for both platforms, their efforts have saved us from some VERY embarrassing posts, yet spammers still seem to get past! What a waste of bandwidth and time!

So a question: Given the need for communication between Mars colonies and Earth, how would you respond if you were EVA in a suit for 5 hours repairing a water processing unit, and your HUD suddenly flashed with the latest Cialis scam or an announcement that you just won a lottery?

Me? I would wander back to the co-hab, open up a can of SPAM and fry up a nice hash with potatoes. Then log into the forums, blogs and other systems and delete all of that electronic garbage! Shame we can’t turn those bits into compost.

Where are the new posts?

This site still gets a lot of traffic, despite a calendar quarter of lack of fresh posts.

Here’s why… there are a couple of “big” things happening. Those of you that are actively testing each week with Hyper in the Mars Colony Online alpha are aware, but for the rest…

MCO has been ported to a new and more capable engine. This gives the engineers and artists many more tools to make the environment much more immersive and leverage Shader technology in modern graphics cards. The result is considerable hand work in porting core logic and rendering systems into the new engine. The good news is that the bulk of the work is completed, and the team is back on mechanics and fixing minor bugs as they pop up.

Secondly, MCO is beginning to mature to the point that actual plans for release are forming. So for all of you Mars simulation fans… stay tuned!

HyperKat Games Announces Mars Colony ETS Demo Release

For Immediate Release

HyperKat Games Announces Mars Colony ETS Demo Release

Mars Colony ETS – Independent game developer, HyperKat Games, is excited to announce the immediate release of Mars Colony ETS public demonstration. Mars Colony ETS is the first virtual Mars exploration simulator, based on existing practical science, that puts the user into an immersive first person 3D graphics experience. The demo is available as a free download at Hyperkat.com.

Inspired by JPL’s Mars Rover projects and the proposals of entities such as The Mars Society for manned exploration of Mars, Mars Colony ETS hopes to bring realistic space exploration experiences to everyone. The first mission puts up to four people on the surface of Mars, with all of the basic tools of survival and specific goals to ensure the eventual successful colonization of our sister planet. While open ended, the primary tasks are to locate water, sustain life support systems, generate fuel and gather and catalog information on local exploitable resources. The simulation has an active weather system and Colonists are required to equip EVA gear to survive the hostile Mars environment while installing and managing external activities. Things break and successful Colonists must think creatively in juggling mission requirements while maintaining critical systems. Successful missions complete all or most of the mission parameters while generating sufficient fuel and oxygen to return to earth. Additional missions are under development and will include the addition of rovers, vehicles, food production and engineering.

Colony ETS is based on a client and server model, allowing for individuals to play solo or host up to four friends in collaborative play requiring a broadband Internet connection. Mission hosts can create private or public servers, accessible through server lists in game. Game status is persistent on the host server allowing for games to be played in single or multiple sessions. Completed missions are given a score and analysis of the completed mission parameters. Hosts can also reset the mission to replay.

While this demonstration is still conceptual, there is a lot of potential to influence the development, from academic to mainstream experiences. HyperKat needs your feedback and participation to help refine and steer the development toward the best possible experience. Please join us at HyperKat.com to provide feedback, opinions and participate in testing programs for new missions. Our special thanks to “thedubman” who has shared his tremendous enthusiasm and time in testing and providing great feedback, and to the rest of our wonderful testers who have logged hundreds of hours working out the bugs in Mission 1! We have a great community and would love you to join us!

Colony ETS information: www.hyperkat.com
Colony ETS blog: www.hyperkat.com/blog
Colony ETS Testers: www.hyperkat.com/litterbox

HyperKat Games was created 2003 by Howard Dortch to design, develop and distribute fun games for all ages. The company is located in an economically depressed area of Southern Ohio in hopes of providing local college students employment in the games industry.

Howard Dortch currently teaches game design at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. HyperKat is home to Mars Colony ETS, Virtual Rover Simulator, ScudBuster, SOF/Raiders and HyperXBall.
Company Site www.hyperkat.com

Colony Stories – A New Mission

Hi readers,

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing and posting a story about a return, 3 person mission to Mars. Before we begin the stories, I want to address a few things directly – to avoid any confusion.

1. The likelihood of a single manned mission – as expressed in the first story series – is pretty low. The risks involved are too great and additional team members ensure a higher probability of success. The “logs” were loosely based on my experiences running Mars Colony Simulator (alpha and beta) in single player mode… and it is conceivable that once these kinds of missions are regular, that a series of bases, manned temporarily by a single person, could be established. I would guess however, that a larger “local” base, with a full staff and facilities would be required to allow for this kind of pioneering effort to be considered. Personally – I see this idea much like the hundreds of pioneers that set out alone to establish the West in North America. They grouped together to make the treck, but split into smaller groups and individuals to setup homesteads, farms and ranches. Other pushed on to the west coast. My point is that there is a key spirit of discovery, pioneering and risk taking that will be a central criteria for successful colonization… whether for long term expansion of civilization or for resource harvesting.

2. To increase the “challenge” the next story will focus on a 3-person mission, rather than 4. As a focus, I am going to dwell the relational aspects and interactivity – the actual tasks will start to take a bit more of a backseat. We are also picking up elements of “Mission 2” – under development by Hyperkat for the commercial release of the simulator. I am not a psychologist nor a behavior expert, but will draw on historical events, as well as logs and mission reports from the Mars Society missions, and my experiences managing diverse teams. I look forward to putting three highly capable pioneers into the stressful grinder of a return mission to mars, and watching how their personalities and capabilities run up against difficult circumstance.

3. I will try to mix both narative and the “log” report format, to provide some continuity, as well as a few directive’s from Command and Control back on earth. Dealing with the (6 minute) delay is very hard in fiction – real time communication is not practical, so the focus will be on broadcast audio, some limited video and email/report communication, so while “real life” will have more direct communication, this story line will have very little. In fact, my early drafts feel a bit like Command and Control is very passive.

I hope that you enjoy the series.