Mars Colony Online – Developer Update 20JAN2011

For the past year of the Mars Colony development, I have read the ideas presented by the testers about the way they would like to see the game work. We have 250 users on the forums and about 20 of them chime in on a fairly consistent basis. Out of that group of 20 there are 20 different opinions on how the game should run, how it should look and what the user experience should be. I appreciate the input since it provides me a more diverse view of what it would be like to get to Mars and establish a colony of humans there. They have also challenged the science behind what I have created and presume to be the reality of living on the planet Mars. That challenge drives me to make things more realistic from an operational standpoint. I present facts and offer solutions and reasons on how to overcome the obstacles humans would face trying to survive on Mars.

Having said all that, as a game designer I have to bend the reality somewhat in order to make it enjoyable for the user. For instance, I can run the game in real time, but the reality of it would be so boring for the user I doubt many would run the game more than a couple hours. You spend most of the day doing research, maintaining the equipment and night time comes and you would sleep.

Sleeping online, think about it for a moment. You log into the game and watch your character sleep for 8 real hours? The excitement level at that point would be mind numbing. So as a designer I have to offer the compromise of time compression so the user is always active. I can put cots, bunks in some sleeping quarters and give the illusion of having that ability but for making things playable I compressed a day down to an hour real time. What we are after here is the core user experience. The user wants to drive rovers, discover new things and be put into challenging situations where they have to resolve issues of survival. That is the driving force behind this game. I want the user to experience all the action of setting up, living and surviving in a colony on an alien world with limited resources and help.

There are potentially multiple products or chapters in all of this. The first exploration mission, like the original demo is a game in and of itself. Like a camping trip, Colonists set up the tents, get the fires going, explore, get the basic necessities working, enjoy the scenary and then go home. The second trip is about establishing a permanent base, and thriving on planet and is a one way trip for those willing to take the challenge. And the last chapter is expanding the footprint of man on Mars. Humans will always want to see what is over the next hill and will set up camps along the way to make that happen. The current version of the game I am building is about the third key experience. The new base is 50 kilometers away from the main base so if things go wrong or you forget your toothbrush, you are on your own till the next shipment can get to you. I think this will give the user a lot of great Mars experiences.

Colonists will have to set up equipment, create a livable atmosphere, get the power generators running and start growing food. I may backtrack and make a prequel version of the first manned landing on the planet or setting up the first colony but from a game / development standpoint I can get more-bang-for–the-game-playing-buck with this version. Perhaps the future of this development will be to put all three chapters into one product but for now I am focused on delivering a great Mars simulation product, with a balance between game mechanics and real Mars science.

The real experience here is the human element, and human decisions and interactions with the challenges of long term survival on the planet Mars. Anything that deteriorates that experience, whether that is a game mechanics issue like where new players “spawn”, game play issues like permanent death or conflicting opinions on core science application in the Mars Environment are set aside. Those things that are perceived as critical and important, and play into situations that add to the sense of urgency and excitement add to the experience. Sweeping the dust out of the airlocks? Not so much.

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……

State of the Colony

You don’t realize how many things can be interconnected in a simulator until you have to write the code for it. In order to create a level of realism we have to consider what I call effecters on everything in the simulation. Take the character for instance; each one has health and stamina. The overall health of a player is affected by food, water, temperature and oxygen levels. Depending on the activity, the stamina level will go up and down. A person exerting energy to climb a hill or carry a heavy object will lose stamina and over time will cause a decrease in overall health. You get too cold or are depleted of oxygen and your health will go down. Depending on the situation like going outside with no EVA gear in freezing cold, the characters will lose health and die rather quickly. During the simulation we have to constantly monitor the player position, mounted gear, activity levels, food, water and oxygen mixture levels.

The same methods apply to all the equipment in the simulation. An object that is outside in the freezing weather with dust blowing over it will suffer failures much faster than equipment inside. The other factor that applies here is if the equipment is being used or running will tend to wear out and break faster than a unit not being used. Time will cause mechanical objects to break if they are constantly being operated. So everything that can be used or is affecting some portion of the simulation needs to be monitored and the calculation for failure is dependent on its run time and environmental conditions of operation..

Then we have the “jack random” failures where things just break with no reason. It is part of reality and we try to minimize this issue by building objects with the best materials and engineering practices we have but still things will break for no reason. This can be a difficult mode to inject into the simulation but still needs to be allowed to happen.

Every time we add an object to the simulation we have to decide if it can break, how it will break, what will cause it to break and how do we decide to break it. In a perfect world/simulation nothing will break and we just go about the task of completing the tasks given by the simulation. Most testers we have encountered to this point want the failure modes in the simulation to add more challenge or reality to the environment. Without challenge or the possibility of failure the simulation has no validity and generates a lower interest level.

The general operation of executing the mission orders is another level of decision making left to the user. Mission one is the geology survey and the hopes of finding liquid water under the surface. There are enough tools in the simulation to complete this task and the challenge is to do it in an efficient manner. Situations may occur that alter your methodology so it is up to the users to make decisions on how to accomplish the tasks required by the mission.

The latest version of the simulator we added the oxygen mixture valves. A higher concentration of oxygen will allow the characters to heal faster while a lower mixture will cause a faster loss of health and stamina. We added a failure mode for the oxygen tanks in the COHAB so users are faced with the dilemma of mixture settings. If you are low on oxygen you might want to cut back on the mixture to conserve but you do so at the expense of crew health. Set the levels too high and you do so at a higher consumption rate. We also changed the Photo Voltaic array to be 8 separate panels. Any one of the panels can fail and may cause the batteries to drain faster than they are being charged. You can shut down some systems like the lights to conserve energy or stop using some of the equipment that consumes energy. Again, this is a simulation decision that has to be made by the crew on a per incident basis.

As we add more things to the simulation we also add more challenge in the overall operation of creating and maintaining the colony. The next major phase will introduce food production in the form of algae and plant production in a greenhouse environment. The code is in now to actually allow the users to plant seeds and grow plants, harvest and convert the bio material to food or medicine. Users will have to constantly monitor soil, water and temperature to create enough food for survival.

Good luck to all the testers out there, time for me to get back to writing code……

Storyline: Colony Reports, the first two days

11.18.2012, 08:17 PHX

The landing was successful, with only a few areas of damage. I have confirmed the return vehicle is operational, however significant fuel leaks will require repair, and re-composition of fuel reserves are necessary. The generation of fuel will require finding a significant source of water, which is underway.

It was a beautiful morning, but cold. I underestimated how cold it could be here. The landscape is beautiful and orange. I prefer to view it without the blue filters in my EVA suite enabled, although the brightness is a bit stark. I am surrounded by hills of painted rocks and soil, much richer than expected. I am sheltered in a large crater, that is beginning to fill in from erosion, but it creates a wonderful sunrise and sunset, particularly as the light shows through the dusty winds.

11.18.2012 12:00 PHX

Still adjusting to clock cycles. I have given up trying to keep up with earth time.

The lander module status is fine; however, I seem to be using water, food and air at a more rapid pace than predicted. This reduces the original estimate of 2 weeks down to something more like 10 days. The GPR device is functioning, however I am losing some of the results due to a glitch in GPS readings. This makes it extremely difficult to return to measurement sites as the wind quickly erodes the footprint left by the device.

I should note that I have found what appears to be icy formations about 80 centimeters below an area I have dubbed the Swamp. I have not been able to successfully analyze the crystals themselves as they evaporate in the pressure lock. I suspect these are not water, but a frozen gas. I am working to determine what possible gas formations can crystallize under the prevailing temperatures and pressures outside.

11.18.2012 20:17 PHX

Tired. Hungry. Again I underestimated the physical demands of this mission. The food is terribly bland and I am finding that spending more than a few cycles in EVA is wearing.

Found a likely sight for a water well. The oxide levels are high – so I am concerned about contamination. My estimates on current sustainability of existing resources will be further dialed back, meaning that I must bring my water levels up to 50% in about 8 days or face a prolonged stay. Our data on available water at this site, however, seem accurate. It seems that I have found a large water source about 180 meters from the lander. This is good news as lugging the drill and well head will be difficult.

While checking drill and well head status, was caught in a dust storm. The electrical and radiological activity was significant. Faced bright light but white out conditions. It took about 40 minutes to locate the lander visually as the EVA suit electronics were not functioning properly. Need to pay closer attention to pressure levels and the weather prediction systems.

11.19.2012 06:14 PHX

EVA suit is not recharging properly. I am forced to take apart the suit systems and clean all of the  connections. Significant powdery dust has accumulated in all of exposed connections and seems to be creating interference.

11.19.2012 08:47 PHX

Suit maintenance is completed. It seems that some of the materials oxidized the connections. I cleaned all of the terminals and the suite is fully charged. I must admit a bit of reluctance to climb back into the EVA suit and head out. I am still quite sore from yesterday.

11.19.2012 14:34 PHX

Success. The drill is currently pushing down to an estimated depth of 72 meters. I have found water. Tomorrow, will be setting up the well head, assuming I have hit an adequate pressure source.

The drill was a bit finicky. It seems the model provided is older than the more automated tool I trained on. Basic principles apply and I should have no issues retrieving the drill.

This was another terribly difficult day. There were three critical storms that slowed things down. In one case, I was forced to abandon the drill and return to the lander module. I am performing maintenance at every opportunity with the EVA suite. While this slows me down significantly, I am able to keep the suite at peak operating status throughout the day. Map module seems to be working again, but maintenance of all facilities are necessary and more frequently than protocol suggests.

Solar panels are covering up with the powdery dust. This dust seems to be a product of sand and soil that gets caught up in the plasma generated by storms. My analysis shows a variety of chemical traces all burned and sterilized in high temperature. After each storm, there seems to be an “ash fall” like event which is piling up on all horizontal surfaces. Also – the dust appears to be acidic, and has caused minor burns on my skin. All future maintenance of the suite will require gloves for cleaning.

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.