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.

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?