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: 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.