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!

Exciting Boredom

After almost a year of testing the online version of Mars Colony we have come to some interesting conclusions about the reality of the mission versus the reality of the game. One of the tests for the online version was to see how many people would dedicate the time and effort to maintain the colony and how many would just drop in to see what is happening. As in all games of this type there will be users that won’t leave as long as the server is up and others want to just look in on things to see what has changed.

The difficulty in creating this as a game is all about the level of activity for the users. I set the game up to require constant attention. The plants need water and fertilizer, the solar array needs cleaned, the Fuel Cells need recharged, the fish need fed and the equipment needs serviced. If no one logs in and keeps after all this work things fall into disarray. It was my hope that the users would organize a bit and get a schedule for maintaining the colony but I haven’t seen that happen yet. The game will have to be a bit more casual and some of the systems will have to be put into automatic mode in order to keep things working properly. I can’t know when people will jump in and do things so I have to change the methods a bit.

On the reality side, if you don’t water the plants they will die. If you dont keep the power systems running and the hubs warm, the fish will freeze and the plants will die. Having to live in this situation you would be more energetic about keeping yourself alive, warm and fed. Just having to keep after all the equipment would cut way down on the boredom of living in such a hostile environment.

The issue of transporting this extreme living condition to a simple, more or less casual game is one of the greatest challenges a designer will have to face. I can’t force people to log into the game to make sure the generator has fuel so how do I give the user the Mars experience when they are only occasional visitors. Most of the systems will have to be auto-magic and take care of themselves and it would be hard to plan a crisis to challenge the users when the users may or may not log on at any given time and stay for an undetermined amount of time. I am left with offering simple tasks for the user. Go fix unit A, take this load of X over to camp B etc…. As I see it this will get boring rather quick and the game will lose any value after a dozen log-ins.

We will be going through a second phase of testing in the near future to see if we can balance the casual user with some excitement in the colony. One of the tests will be to have things work automatically until someone logs into the game then have “issues” that will require user attention. This will be a delicate balance to code in order to keep things fresh and challenging for the constant users as well as the casual users.

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.

Mars Colony: Stage one setup

I had mentioned in a blog earlier about how building the game is much like the real thing. This statement is proving itself again with the construction of MCO (Mars Colony Online) . We have a place for the colony now and the modules have been dropped on the surface. The advanced team has dragged all the units into position and started setting up the hardware needed for the next batch of colonists. Our first goal is to get the life support systems running. Wells were drilled on a previous mission so all we need to do is hook up the equipment and activate it. There are dual pumps feeding into a water separator that supplies oxygen and drinking water to the module and the hydrogen byproduct is sent over to the Sabatier fuel generator. The fuel generator makes oxygen and methane as a fuel for the rover hybrid turbines and later the forges. The extra oxygen can also be used as life support if needed. We have a LS (Life Support) systems computer inside the module that allows us to set the flow rates and power the systems.

This is all a reasonable fiction of how this would be done and what equipment we would need to have to make the modules habitable. Now I have to write the code to make it all work. We have the objects in place and the math behind balancing flow rates and conversion rates has to be applied to the objects so the system will do what we expect. Cut off the pumps and the water tank in the separator will empty depending on the conversion rate of the separator. When the tank is empty the separator stops producing oxygen. Users inside the module breathe oxygen and the levels of the oxygen tank will diminish. All this is a delicate balance of code and math and takes time to get the values up to a level of realism I require for the game.

It would be easy to just do the video game thing and say turn the machine on and breathe but my goal for MCO is to add a level of realism to put it a step above what is out there. Having said that I also believe this can be used to make a more realistic simulation that we can use to test the ideas of sending people to Mars and have them survive. You can draw all the pictures you want and engineer all the ideas but you never know just how things will work till you have to walk through it and live with it.

Well the code and the math are in place and we have done 2 online tests with people from all over the globe. The game characters mount the EVA gear and wander outside to check the equipment, drive the rovers and enjoy the view. Rovers run out of fuel, EVA packs run out of oxygen, users have to eat and drink and use the bathroom. I watch their actions and I am amazed and how they adapt to this alien world and the restrictions of having to survive here.

If you are interested in joining us on Mars go to www.hyperkat.com register on the forums and have your say. We welcome game players and engineers to help build this colony. We have room for 30+ colonists so don’t be shy.

Mars Colony Online!!

We have started writing the code for version 3 of the Mars Colony Simulator. This iteration will have a dedicated server that can be run 24/7 and will allow as many as 64 players to log into the game any time they wish. We will be testing this system over the next year to see how viable the product will be run from a home cable or DSL connection. Most cable companies supply a 5 meg download but only a 500k upload speed so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Having said that, what are the advantages of having a dedicated server and 30+ users in the simulation at the same time? The biggest one is the social aspect. Many online games have a draw due to the interaction with other real people. They make friends and form social groups, hang out, tell jokes and make the interaction a form of entertainment. When we go to Mars and form our first colony the social aspects will be an important part of our survival.

So is this version a simulator, a game or an educational tool? Short answer is it can be any or all of the above. It will be a simulator in as much as we are trying to replicate what you might face having to be on Mars and having to face the fact that your existence is totally dependant on how well you manage the resources.

It will be a game because it has an objective of survival and we want to add in an economy where each player can earn credits and the colony as a whole can earn credits. The game part of it will also face the possibility of failure. This will be a new model for online games where the entire server can fail. If the colony fails to survive the server will reset the game back to the start. 

The educational skew of the game will come in the form of the sciences. The Psychology of the social activity and who will be boss and who will get sent back to Earth because we just can’t stand them anymore. Team management comes to bear here as well. Who will do which job and when and how do you cover your ass in case someone fails.

Farming and the agricultural science will be a big part of the game. Users will have to plant seeds, water and fertilize the soil and maintain a suitable growing temperature in the greenhouses to produce plants that can be used for food.

Geology and Mining will be required to find minerals we need for survival and we can convert the raw rock into a product to make game credits.

Since we are in the early stages of development we can offer to educators and scientists the possibility of altering a version of the game to suit your needs. The game has a SQLite database system and that database can be setup to extract any data you would want. This would be a great classroom activity that students could run at home and discussed in class. The architectural layout of the habitation, farm and mining modules can be altered to test different theories on what this colony should look like and how humans would react to the confinement.

The first colony is being built right now. We have the modules on the ground and the advanced mission crew is busy hooking up all the equipment. Come join us and be a part of the first Mars Online Colony. You can get more information by joining the forums and following the web pages. Go to www.hyperkat.com and stay in touch. See you on the surface……

Mars Colony: A Psychological Insight

While living on Mars sounds glorious on the outside, the realities of social structure and dealing with daily activities would be a test of will. Everyone would have a job and would report to a superior and they would in turn report to someone above them until we reached the top of the food chain where we have one boss, one leader, a supreme commander of the colony. So is this a company structure or is it a dictatorship? If we are working for a company then it’s simple, you do your job, get your paycheck and stand around the water cooler on breaks talking to your cohorts about how management couldn’t get a clue if they bought one, go home and deal with your wonderful wife and 2.5 children.

If the colony is a dictatorship or monarchy, not much will change in the day to day activities so why would it matter what your position in the grand scheme of things would be? People will get moved to different jobs as needed or promoted to easier jobs and manage others more effectively due to experience. Why does a persons’ position in the pecking order mean so much to us? The dictator would have to eat and breathe just like the rest of us and the delicate nature of our existence on Mars would make the big boss less of a tyrant and more of a leader.

Can we have a democracy in the colony? Yes, we can. But what would it look like and how would it work? We are used to voicing our opinions, voting and standing up for our rights as citizens here on Earth. How would this work on a colony where almost everything you do has consequences for sustaining not just your life but the lives of others? You can’t just quit working on the only oxygen separator because you are pissed off about not getting enough internet time. In a remote colony we won’t have many of the things that allow us to tolerate the day, but humans have a way of adapting to dire circumstances. What are the rewards for our hard labor in the colony? If we don’t have something to look forward to after our work shift is over then we are nothing more than slaves or tools. What will be fun on Mars? What will we do to make living there tolerable?

I worked on a game in the late 90’s called Everquest for Sony. The company had a great game idea and a masterful crew to make it a reality. Of course Sony looked at the game as a product for sale since they were in the business of making games to make money. The game was a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game or MMORPG . Users from all over the world logged into this game for hours and days at a time and still play to this day. The game is of the swords and sorcery genre, but beyond that it lies a society of people from all over the planet interacting in a fantasy world. I play the game as well and I am amazed at the social interactivity that goes on inside. For the most part gathering up a team of adventurers and running into a dark cave and getting our asses burned of by some fire-breathing dragon is what I like to call fun. But there is a dark side to the online games. I have seen people leave their spouses and move to another state to be with a person they met in the game. I have seen good friends get mad at each other over looting some virtual sword out of turn. Cursing, bitching, complaining, and crying are all prevalent and yet players have to log in every day and get their fix.

Version 3 of our Mars Colony Simulator will be about a persistent online colony. We are going to create a virtual Martian colony and test its viability as a commercial product. Like all games there is an obstacle to overcome which creates a positive result. The goal will be the same, but the challenge for this venture will be the survival of all colony members. Food, air and water will be the primary goals for the activities presented, but we want to discover how much more entertainment we have to add to make it fun enough to bring people back. I am interested in the psychology of the simulation from a business standpoint. Can we make the simulation compelling enough that users will want to play a lot? is a question but there is a more serious lesson to be learned here. What is going to happen when we get 20 or 30 people I have never met start playing? How can I control my colony? What is to prevent someone from grabbing a rover and running amok? This is a golden opportunity for a Doctor of Psychology to jump in and observe the action. Watch a society degrade into anarchy or survive the storm and become a productive new world order. Either way it will be an interesting experiment and I think this aspect would be of interest to members of the psychological vein of study. The first test colony will be online Q4 of 2009 and we will keep everyone posted on the status of the colony.

Mission 2 is Here !

As an edit would be more expedient, I will simply be updating a previous post with the following. Mars Colony Simulation 2 has been posted for public download on the HyperKat website; please follow the links at hyperkat.com. There will be ongoing changes and/or additions as time permits, so please check back every week or so for any and all updates. Inside the download is a documentation file that I would like for anyone who downloads the sim to read. This document contains very important information on the operation of the simulator and the expectations of the simulator. Previously, there were complaints of lack of documentation or help files. Also please make note of the in-sim help dialog box, which is accessed by pressing F1. These documents will make your simulator usage much easier. Thanks again to the interns for producing some new art, as I know my own artwork can be somewhat lacking.

The testers have been running mission 2 for a month or so and most of the little bugs have gone away. HyperKat will probably release this version to the public within the next month. At this point we have received many positive comments about the direction we are taking with the simulation. We didn’t want it to be a game as such where you would be given a task and a time to finish it. Our goal was to put the user into a quasi-realistic adventure. Is it a simulator or is it a role-playing game? So far the response to the question is it’s both. You are put into the role of an astronaut, dropped on the surface of Mars and forced to survive. We simulate the activity you might expect someone to deal with being on Mars. So now how do we balance the aspects of a role playing game with the realism of a simulator? Perhaps it is time to rethink what we have accomplished to this point and re design things with more of a game aspect. People like choices in games. They like to pick a character, pick the equipment, and pick the locations to run through. Choice gives the user a feeling of control and creativity that suits their specific needs. So what can we give the user for choice in this simulation? I think we can offer multiple landing sites, allow the user to pick the mission sequences, uniforms, types of gear to take on the missions and the difficulty level. After landing the craft, each user is in charge of what they want to do or what they think they need to do in order to survive. The simulation allows up to 4 players at this point. We can expand on the number of players and each user can form their own mini adventure where they can invite their friends and run the simulation as long as they might want. We would like to think this could be released as a commercial product within a year. Many of you have sent us emails about how this sim is so much different than anything currently on the market makes us believe that a commercial RPG would be worth the effort.

Now that we have a release of the mission 2 version we will take a look at the responses from the general public and make a decision to continue as is or dig into the possibility of creating a super space RPG. We would like the general public to respond and tell us what you want. Leave us some comments and lets see what happens….
I would like to thank all the testers for their help.

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