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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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……

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.