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.

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.

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.