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: 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.

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

Can you cut it? We need testers…

Hi gang,

Well, Mars Colony Simulator is well on its way to a public demo release, but we need fresh eyes and strong backs to polish this up. A few of you have already been to Mars, but we need a few more pioneers!

Because the bug fix schedule is unpredictable, we are building an invitation list to query when we need a new test run. Usually we will need 2-3 hours of your time. Oh there are some requirements…

1. Windows users only… there is no Mac port of this project.

2. We will screen for system specifications… so will ask that you send some system information ahead of time. We have tested on laptops and mid-high end desktop computers so you will most likely pass. A good graphics card is useful. You can find out your specifications by running DXDIAG from your Start/Run menu.

3. You need broadband internet access… we don’t really care what brand, although GPRS or 3G modems will experience significant lag problems.

4. We prefer you use a headset with microphone and require Teamspeak. This information will be forwarded to you in the invitation.

Why Teamspeak? There is currently no in game radio system. Teamspeak will run in the background allowing you to talk with other testers during the game… this is far more efficient for communication than the console chat.

Teamspeak is a free client download – you can find it at http://www.teamspeak.com/ . Those of you that play a lot of FPS or MMO games maybe familiar with Teamspeak already. Teamspeak will require a microphone, configured through your system’s “Sounds” control panel.

Please setup “Push to talk” hotkey, we suggest the left CTRL button, if you are not using a headset mic. This prevents echo problems and feedback when using live speakers, and keeps the background noise down. 

In the invitation, you will be provided with the server IP address to join. While only 4 people are supported in a given Colony instance, feel free to join in. There may be people dropping out because of schedule – freeing a slot.

How to join…

Please send an email to hdortch@hyperkat.com. Include your name, location, email address and a general description of your PC. It is also useful to know if you are a space enthusiast or professional.

Testing sessions are happening about 3-4 times a week, during major updates and bug fixes, and occur during evenings on weekdays – and anytime on the weekends.

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?

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?

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.