The release is coming… I promise…

I know, I know… this is the time of year empty promises fly from the mouths of our exalted elected officials attempting to maintain their hold on their offices. Howard is still busy working out bugs and few features to ensure that a beta or alpha release can happen soon. There are a few key things holding it back right now – but he is close. I will leave it to him to make an announcement. I will be working on a couple of more scenario stories to help give you a flavor of what the simulator is like.

My name Kraniel, and I approve this message.

Abstraction, Abstraction, Abstraction…

Have you tried out SPORE?

In the search for space colony simulators and games that are just plain fun, SPORE, recently released by EA for PC and Mac is a great diversion. So is this a game review? or commentary on simulation? Probably a little of both… A good sim abstracts difficult elements to make them approachable and Maxis did a phenomenal job of keeping this game clean, consistent and fun.

SPORE is all about customization and diversity as you grow from a single celled organism to master of all space. Customization is the key to diversity and I have never seen such an incredible and amazing assortment of choices to make your character totally unique. Breaking down into the mechanics, this is a vastly complex series of custom models, choices, attach points and very flexible animation matrix that likely yields hundred of millions options. In addition, a very custom skinning and texture engine really make this stand out. From a single celled critter into the Tribal phase, you can work through hundreds of iterations, and make either subtle or significant changes. And above all – its fun.

I am impressed that the game is so approachable, and it’s a testament to the vision of the game designers and program engineers. The added flexibility of sharing these customized elements online lets people get in and out of the game elements quickly and find ideas for their own creations.

The customization and creativity explodes when you are able in the Civilization and Space stages to create your entirely unique houses, factories and entertainment facilities, as well as your city hall. And of course, there are the vehicles for land, air, water and eventually space.

Now I should say that I have never been much of a fan of real time strategy games. I find them somewhat obnoxios overall, with the possible exception of the LOTR series (just because I am such a Tolkien freak). The offerings here are extensive, can be quite difficult, but entertaining enough to be interesting. I find myself returning time and time again to the tribal and civilization stages to meet the challenges of different play styles.

Another wonderful surprise is encountering many of the critters that I have made personally as enemies! This brings a thrill of familiarity that rewards much of the time you spend making both beings and other assets.

What about space? Well – most relevant to this blog. It is incredibly deep and featured. I have spent more hours than I care to admit playing both with the RTS game elements (encountering aliens, setting up alliances and trade routes and warring) as well as the colonization elements (including the planetary terraforming). This is the most open ended part of SPORE and easily the most confusing and challenging stage. It can be very frustrating terraforming, while receiving demands of taxes from Spode followers and defending home and allied planets!

I cannot claim to be successful yet on the Space stage. I have played and traveled far and wide, and focused on a nearby cluster of stars and planets to keep the confusion minimized. Time will tell overall.

I highly recommend this game.

All is well, time for a break…

I just completed a drive from Austin, Texas to North Central Kansas and back, in three days, alone. Funeral trip, but not the point of this post… at best, I averaged 60 mph and the trip, just under 800 miles took about 14 hours each way. Never mind that I drove straight through – it was a bit cathartic and frankly I enjoyed it.

But here’s the question, what to do in the down time isolated on a planet? Never mind the travel there and back, but is music or television programming enough? How many hours of entertainment can be packed and stored in a space constrained vehicle? What kinds of entertainment are necessary?

I love to drive with books on CD. Listened to the entire unabridged “Deathly Hallows” Potter book for the second time this last trip. It was entertaining, but I still found myself drifting between the “zone” driving the car, emotions surrounding the funeral and family, and the material, being read read to me. Remember that I am driving, so must stay concious and aware, alert for road hazards and traffic jams (there is STILL a log jam South of Oklahoma City on I-35!). And, when I needed to – I grabbed the phone and chatted with Howard and my wife. Helped to keep me focused and awake, as well as let people know generally where I was. For myself, the key to successfully driving long distances are keeping my mind sharp, having something as “company” – in this case the CD book, and short breaks every couple of hundred miles to stretch, hydrate and consider the next leg.

When you are done for a day, or sitting out a horrible storm, do you sit there and twiddle your thumbs? Break out a book and pass the time? Take a nap? or are you alert, monitoring systems at the console hoping that the incoming 50 subzero C weather front won’t freeze up your water supply?

There is an issue here to address: keeping your mind sharp and alert while relaxing and enjoying yourself, on a volume/mass/energy budget imposed by your circumstances. We take it for granted that we can jump onto the internet and access news, YouTube, etc. or come home to the Television. We can grab a cell and be instantly connected to loved ones, friends or the contractor that cannot seem to finish his job.

While this is not a necessary mechanical element of the simulation or game, it is necessary to bring in the context of these elements into the artwork, to make the simulation feel more real, more homelike. We can break this down into a few categories:

1. Casual entertainment: music or news in the background, short games to break up the time, but don’t require 100% participation or can be left easily to deal with an issue.

2. Focused entertainment: Entertainment that requires concentration, like reading or a favorite television series or movie.

3. Casual Social outreach: Things like IM, or quick phones calls

4. Formal Social outreach: Church, Work, News, etc.

What are the analogs to these issues that are important for survival (mental and emotional) for a long term stint in planetary isolation?

Status Report and Countdown to release…

Hi friends,

We have been a bit bogged down in details, trying to sew up a demonstration version of Colony ETS. Without giving away the surprise, mission control has changed our target landing site just a little bit… and the results should be fairly exciting. Look for an update in the next few weeks, and a possible announcement.

To that end, we are going through our preliminary launch checklist and stepping through things necessary to make the mechanical simulation and systems all work… some of it is a bit touch and go as Howard has bought some cheap aftermarket fittings that just don’t fit properly… let’s hope they don’t break at a critical moment and leave some poor explorer stranded out on… well in space, all alone, with just broken lander. No dogs allowed BTW.

Features up and running so far:

  • A working environment and planetary system with weather and resource gathering simulations
  • Lander power grid and life support systems
  • A biological model to grow a space garden, as well as support life (oxygen generation, CO2 removal)
  • A computer system to tract status and determine tasks
  • A task based scenario model to help direct activities and survival
  • Basic art assets to support the above…

Again, in the next few weeks, we should have some additional screenshots and hopefully, an announcement of the Countdown to Launch…

Planning a Mars colony mission

So, you have decided to travel to another world and create a sustainable colony or at least discover if it is possible. It is kind of like moving to some remote location in the middle of the frozen tundra in Siberia. You can’t carry all you might need in one trip so how do you decide what you would need and how many trips it would take. Your plan would also need to include the order of setup. What would be the order of importance for the items? If you were going to spend the night in your new empty house and you could bring one thing what would it be a television or a bed? I would bring the bed and spend a comfortable first night but others may value entertainment over comfort. This is the dilemma facing the planners for the first colony mission to Mars.

 

Let’s take a look at what needs to be accomplished. First you need to get supplies and people to the surface. Can you do that in a single vehicle? Does it make sense to use two vehicles? What about the return trip to Earth or is this, a one way ticket?  Let’s assume for the moment we have a method of getting the Lander to the planet, which we can cover in another paper so what would that first mission be?

 

After landing, you know one of the explorers will have to step outside plant a foot on the surface and utter some historic first words. “This footprint cost 122 billion dollars” or “Can ya hear me now?” Next would be to get the solar array working for power. We may bring a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) for power but the Photo Voltaic cells are a good backup and may even provide a safer power source. Either way I bet there will be PV cells at the first Mars colony.

 

After the power up, computer systems setup, GPS setup and communication setup we want to make sure there is oxygen to breathe. We brought an environmental system that uses frozen oxygen and hydrogen to create energy and water. The oxygen we pull off to breathe will be recycled through CO2 scrubbers. This system will provide what we need to survive for a limited period of time so we had better find water on the planet and soon.

 

We know the water is here below ground and we need to find it before we run out of something to drink and air to breathe. So set up the soil sampler and start the planet search. How would you conduct the search? That would be a matter for the mission commander to decide. Do a radial pattern or do a grid pattern, search near to far, search by elevation or what ever way you think would help you find water the fastest.

 

Ok so you found a source for water, sunk a small well and can pump it out fast enough to supply you with something to drink and something to convert to oxygen, now what? If this is all that we did we have a successful mission. We got here and we found a means to survive here so let’s start gathering information about our new home. We took some samples of soil to find the water and can save that information on a geo map for future missions but we can expand our search some and grid the whole area by taking and testing soil or mineral samples. We might find resources that would be useful or alter future missions.

 

Another major item for the first trip wish list is an enclosed algae system. The system uses carbon dioxide that we breathe out and sunlight to produce a nice green slime that gives off oxygen and can produce food. That technology could provide us with a constant and therefore permanent method to exist on Mars or any other planet that has sun and water.

 

If there is room on this first mission I would choose to take a makeshift greenhouse and some seeds to see if we can grow something on the planet mainly because man can’t live on slime and crackers forever. Finding water was important to our basic survival but did we find a good enough source to irrigate some plants is the next question. Another major part of the mission planning at this point is to decide if we want to put the farm at the water source or bring the water to the farm. I would be nice if the water source was near the landing site but we can’t plan on that being true. We can’t plan on the source of water being on a flat enough landscape for the next Lander to be near by so I think we start now and plan on moving the water to the colony and farm.

 

Now that we have the base camp set up and running our explorers can return home for the ticker tape parade (do they still do that?) and the second crew can drop down with a rover and some construction supplies to start adding to the settlement. Will this second crew be permanent is a good question or should we plan on every two years rotating out the crews with new people? There will be a day when they just stay there because they want to. Personally I don’t see this as a permanent settlement until the first Martian child is born.

 

Simulation: The Colony Scenarios Phase 1

Below are a few high-level scenarios as you enter the game and learn the basic systems required for survival.

Scenario: You are hired by a corporation to do exploratory analysis of a potential site for colony installation. This will be the initial onsite phase: selecting the proper landing area, securing the basic materials and resources necessary to sustain life, and local resources that make colonization a potential profit center.

  • Select the planet and landing area
  • Select the required landing craft elements to establish a base camp installation
  • Add-on any proposed required elements (modules) for exploration, analysis or mining/harvesting

Scenario: You have landed. Now you need to setup a procedural mechanism that brings up and sustains the life support systems of the base landing craft. This includes adequate water supply, oxygen scrubbers and generation, power systems, all preparation for EVA exploration.

  • Run systems and communications checks. Automate maintenance of these services
  • Install CO2 scrubbers. Regularly check status – alerts if failure or maintenance required
  • Additional systems and services as required.
  • Check lifesupport supplies, ensure adequate quantity until sustained sources found.
  • Prepare suit for EVA

Scenario: First EVA. Suit up, check systems. Customize HUD and synch onboard computer with base craft. Set timers to indicate safe life support functions. Step outside.

  • Site survey: look around landing area for proximity sources of water, power, etc.
  • Inspect landing craft for problems, locate and detatch modules.
  • Analyze local air and soils, looking for trace minerals/gasses that can be utilized for life support
  • Look for “low spots” as good targets for water/moisture harvesting
  • Layout locations for additional “buildings” or installations based on information.
  • Pay attention to suit HUD information for dangerous conditions, lifesupport status, etc.
  • Decide priority requirements for service installation: Power supply, Water Source, Bio/Garden Installation, Resource Gathering and Analysis, Mining and Refinement of Resources.

Scenario: First return to base craft, sych computer information with suit and base computer.

  • Check computer for messages, craft system status, checklist of systems maintenance
  • Upload preliminary update to corporation
  • Analyze any preliminary resources gathered
  • Log plan to install solar power systems, extra vehicular

Scenario: Second EVA, power system installation

  • Suit up and exit vehicle.
  • Locate module with power grid system. Follow instructions to install, connect and test system.
  • Return to vehicle, run maintenance tests and check power storage, generation estimates. Determine if additional power is required for additional modules and activities.

Scenario: Locate water. EVA

  • Suit up and exit vehicle.
  • Use charts and visuals to locate likely areas to harvest water or moisture
  • Visit sites and sample local soil and minerals to test for water sources
  • Identify most likely source. Check suit HUD for status, return to base ship if necessary.
  • Locate and detach moisture harvest module and storage facility.
  • Transport module and storage to site, begin installation
  • Carefully monitor lifesupport HUD for danger
  • Finish installation, noting rate of harvest and estimates on quantity
  • Return to ship
  • Run estimates in computer to determine need to new installation or additional water supply for needs.
  • Send log update to corporation, check for messages

Scenario: Locate specific mineral or gas resources

  • Suit up and exit vehicle
  • Use charts and visuals to locate likely sources, particularly vents or areas of color difference in soils, surface rocks
  • Use rover to do soil and ground penetrating radar analysis to determine optimal site.
  • Carefully monitor suit HUD for danger – return to ship if required.
  • GPS tag all samples and sites
  • Return to ship, detach mineral or gas harvester module and storage
  • Transport module and storage to most likely location.
  • Begin deep drilling to target resource… (wait for feedback at ship), facilitate drill extensions if required.
  • Analyze core samples at intervals through the process
  • Remove drill at successful destination, install well head assembly if required.
  • Return to ship, synch computers and report to corp

Screenshots of planetary environments!

I added a picasa widget that will feed a random image on the right panel. If you want to see more, either refresh your browser, or click directly onto the image, hyperlinking you to a higher resolution view in the Picasa service. Feel free to comment!

Other Colony (like) games…

I must say I haven’t been very impressed with the quality of the other space colony / settlement sims out there. They tend toward the cartoonish or focus on a particular element and that becomes all of the content quickly. As for the graphics – it drifts from pretty raw to downright rough, understandable in one sense, but given the vast possibilities, I am amazed how open this market might actually be.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha2KA_RHInM

The video above is the most promising title that apparently is out there – although I cannot find the game itself, and would be interested in it – even to learn what NOT to do. Also – this is a cut sequence and doesn’t show any in-game play, or I missed it. This is getting a lot closer to the Colony concept, but far further advanced in technology.

The rest, either don’t work, are isometric, or in something like java that highly limits the immersive graphics environment.

Seen any good colony – space exploration games?

Simulation design is much like the real thing

Designing the game or simulator is much like making the trip for real. That is a rather bold statement and I don’t want to ever trivialize the efforts of the brave men and women that venture into space for mankind nor the endless hours of work by top engineers to make this happen, but the path is similar none the less.

 

The Colony ET project is about the destination and not the trip so I will forego the construction of the rocket, the fuel, and the 6 month adventure just to get to Mars and look at this from the point when we crack the hatch at the landing site for the first time.

 

We have decided to make the trip to another world and now we have to decide how to do it and at what cost. In the game development cycle we try to get a vision of the technical issues to overcome and how long those issues will take to resolve. Time relates directly to money in the case of a game since salaries need to be paid and facilities need to be maintained. In contrast, the companies that have to design and build the parts on a contract basis still have the same types of investments in people and facilities to bring the project to reality.

 

In the game we have to make the landing zone and paint it to look like where we want to go. That means we make the hills and valleys, put in the sky, the sun and add in the minerals that might be found there. Now that we have a place to exist we have to design the craft that will land our brave souls. The design of the game will draw upon reality in shape and function of what we see in artist conceptions and engineering reality. The landing craft and the first habitat module will probably be the same object and will have a place to sleep, some equipment for exploration, a way to generate power, oxygen and something to eat or a way to make food.

 

In reality, the engineers need to make the landing craft out of a material that can withstand a landing on the planet, will protect the travelers from storms, and form a mostly air tight seal to provide a safe atmosphere. It will have a door to get outside or a “sally port” double door system to protect the interior atmosphere. The craft will probably have a portal or window to see outside, floor, walls and a ceiling.

 

The game has mostly the same requirements. When the artists create the structure they have to be sure the space is air tight even though we don’t have actual air in the game we can detect small cracks in the geometry by using light to find the holes but the requirement is the same for both simulation and reality. The skin for our game craft is just polygons and texture. I could add in the ability for our simulation to cause damage to the skin over time from a corrosive atmosphere but we have to make the decision of what is important to the simulation. For Colony ET we want the users to experience the day to day problems facing the explorers to set up a permanent presence on an alien planet and not the microscopic level of reality.

 

So the big decision by the simulation creator is how much it too much?  How much is not enough. We are giving the user a graphical interface for equipment like a soil sampler. The user will put the sample “here” and press the “sample” button and wait for the result. We could make the user fire up the spectrometer, weigh the sample etc but that might be too much detail for some users and yet not enough for others. The getting of the sample from some location on the planet, the mechanism to test the sample and the data derived from the sample is enough to approximate the activity for our needs. Unless someone wants to pay us to code things down to the nth level of reality I think this will be enough for now. The Colony ET project will have plants that grow over time, drilling machines, wells, photo voltaic cells, batteries, spectrometers and as many other “real” things as we can add to the simulation. We want the users to get the feel of being there and having to deal with the realities like “did someone bring the battery? Krap, Bob how bout you run back and get a battery, oh and bring an extra pv panel while yer at it.”

 

 

Storyline: The Ride

Brutus arrived in orbit, queueing a release of a slow spinning satellite that would remain asynchronous with the landing site. With a silent dance, small rockets oriented the satellite, as solar arrays and antennae opened and closed, testing the systems. In a few minutes, Brutus would receive the first string of communication exchanges, high resolution photography and radar scans of the landing surface, weather information and the queue to start the “The Ride” phase, or atmosphere entry.

Gerome woke up. It was the 4th and final awakening on his trip. While his head was fuzzy and his mouth felt like he had been eating insulation, he was fairly certain this time he would be preparing for entrance. The stasis bunk clouded with a blast of mist that smelled faintly of apples, and when the fog cleared, so did Gerome’s brain. He was hungry.

“Brutus, ETA on entry please.”

Welcome Gerome, I hope you had a pleasant sleep. The time is 21:08:47. Entry will occur in approximately 2 hours. You will find refreshments in the cooler. All systems are go. Please run entry protocol tests.

“Fine.” Gerome wondered about the wisdom of speaking to a computer. It seemed odd, but the computer had been programmed to use natural speech patterns, and he had the ability to change it’s voice, language, even accent and sex. Yet he had given it a fairly electronic voice, just to remind him this was NOT a person.

His legs were quite stiff, as was just about every other muscle in his body. The last stasis session was nearly 200 hours, and while his body was provided with nutrition and mild electrical stimuli to help prevent bone and muscle loss, he still felt somewhat plastic. Protocol required a short period of calisthenics, followed by a quick checkup at the medical station. It only took a few deep bends with bungies cables for sweat to break. With no gravity, Gerome still fought the nausea that most people felt, but his training had helped to keep his bearings, and he knew it would pass in a few minutes.

As Gerome sipped a cold protein drink, he stroked the control panel which immediately brightened to life. The lights hurt his eyes a little, but he quickly adjusted. Protocols were running and ship statistics indicated that everything was a go. He looked through the video streams showing the position of the ship and satellite in geosynch over the landing site. The planet glowed a golden orange and the dark shadow was shrinking away from the large crater that was his destination. The truck, the train of resource modules that were being towed into position, created a long line of tubular “boxes” behind the lander. A count down timer started.

Prepare for truck release in 30 seconds…

When the count down finished, a muffled clunking sound indicated the release of magnetic and vacuum lines that held the modules behind the lander. Silently, the modules fired small bursts of gas, moving the containers into a formation preparing for entry. Short bursts of rockets launched each module into a decaying orbit. These modules would sling around the planet and enter at a lower orbit than the landing module. The monitor showed the modules, flying into the planet like fighters ascending for a bombing run, glowing slightly as they broke the upper atmosphere. Visuals would be lost as the modules raced behind the planet.

Palettes are away. Trajectory patterns are correct. Expect parachute deployments in 6 minutes. Please prepare for entry in 30 minutes. Module confirmations expected in 12.3 minutes.

Gerome powered down the non-critical lander systems, per protocol, and carefully buttoned up all of the loose gear. He kicked back over to the stasis bunk, and slid back in. This time, as he belted into the seat, a number of air cushions inflated, pinning and stabilizing his head and torso. The pressure would keep him safely in place and provide pressure to help to mitigate the effects of shock on his internal organ and sensors would monitor his vital statistics. Should something go terribly wrong, the bunk would be released like a torpedo from the lander, and very slowly descend to the planet surface via redundant parachutes and air brakes.

All palettes are down, skids deployed and leveled. Please brace for entry in 5…4…3…

There were three things that Gerome remembered from the ride to the surface. First the incredible noise that seemed to build and build, creating both an aural pressure and panic that lasted until the an incredible jerk indicated the chutes had deployed. The second was the amazing shaking, which he was sure would leave him broken and bruised. It felt like being dropped into a blender. The third was the heat, an immediate flash over of energy that raised his bunk temperature by 45 degrees C. A cold mist deployed again providing some relief.

Suddenly the shaking stopped and the noise dropped considerably as Brutus snapped against the cables holding several parachutes. These were designed to slow the lander enough to properly deploy landing skids and allow the heat shield to come away from the lander. As the shields broke off, Gerome’s ears began popping as the pressure of the capsule equalized with the atmosphere.

A low growling roar sounded, and the lander dropped away quickly as the parachutes released. Then the lander seemed to float as the rocket skids engaged. Gravity seemed to pull immediately, rather than the slow transition that was proposed in the training. It took Gerome’s breath away. In all of the confusion, he realized that Brutus was speaking…

… deployed. Airspeed slowing to 12 meters per second. Touch down to terra in 3…2…1…

The roar ramped to an explosion and the lander touched down.

Welcome home Gerome.

Gerome felt like he had ridden an explosion.