on Apr 15, 2013
It’s been a long time since I found a game this instantly engrossing. Kerbal Space Program is kind of like a… Sim? Sim NASA? That’s as close as I can come to describing it using pigeonhole genre labels. You’re given rocket parts, a space center, a solar system of planets and moons, and you’re left to find your own fun. Orbit the planet? Go to the moon? Throw a kerbanaut into the sun? Build a space-jet? Make a giant tower of fuel tanks and blow them up? Whatever.
The game devoured last week. I don’t even know what happened. I played the demo on Saturday, bought the game on Sunday, and the next thing I knew it was Friday and I was eyebrow-deep in orbital mechanics and rocket theory. I’m not sure where the time went. I don’t even think I accomplished that much. I put a guy on the Mün. Put a group of them on the other, smaller moon. I threw a guy into the sun. This is pretty simple stuff. There are legends that some players have landed on other planets and then brought the Kerbals back again.
There’s a certain rhythm to the game…
- You design a rocket, which falls over and explodes on the launchpad, killing all three of the brave Kerbanauts aboard.
- You refine the rocket. Now it stands up properly on the launchpad and doesn’t explode at all until you turn it on.
- The rocket rises a hundred meters, goes into a violent spin, and the crew lives just long enough to puke all over themselves.
- The rocket rises up, then the command module breaks loose and falls back to the ground. Miraculously, the crew survives the impact. They’re still cheering when they’re crushed under a hundred tons of burning fuel and steel as the rest of the rocket lands on top of them.
- You get the idea. Sometimes one of your rockets might fail to explode and you’ll find yourself in space.
If you’re designing a simulation game the most important step is figuring out what you’re going to simulate and what you’re going to approximate. Sure, you could add a whole new layer onto Sim City 2000 that models stuff like zoning, property classifications, issuing permits, arbitrating land-use disputes, the ramifications of seizing property through eminent domain, the burden that zoning puts on the court system, and the friction that complex zoning puts on small business. You could have this super-deep simulation where the player has to balance the few against the many and minimize the damage of negative press. You can have them arbitrate thousands of edge-cases of what constitutes a “residence” and what is a “business”, like the guy shipping tons of mail-order goods from his home or the woman living in the back room of her tanning salon. This may or may not be fun, but the team at Maxis wanted to make Sim City, not Sim Zoning Laws, so the entire system of land usage was abstracted down to the hilariously simplistic system of drawing blue and green rectangles.
If you had proposed Kerbal Space Program to me in its current form, I would have been very, very hesitant to make a game with this fidelity of simulation. Would players really want to learn all of this stuff about the mechanics of orbiting? Would that be fun? Wouldn’t it be safer to focus on the ship-building stuff and abstract away all the Delta-V and gravity assist?
As it turns out, this orbiting business is a lot of fun. There’s an entire game packaged in the rules of real-world space travel. It’s a creative puzzle game where you figure out how to get from A to B without running out of energy. Maybe you’ll attack the problem by trying to build better rockets, or maybe you’ll try to solve it with tricky slingshot orbital maneuvers. Either way is fun, and to get to the really tantalizing targets you’ll need to excel at both.
My introduction to the game was the most educational hour of videogaming I’ve ever played. I learned why, in real rocket launches, they do a vertical burn that gradually curves east, then they do nothing for a while before doing another burn parallel with the equator. I’d always wondered about that. I mean, I could have looked it up, but I never got around to it. Then suddenly I had game mechanics that nudged me into this understanding though simple experience and experimentation. Along the way I got a sense of how geosynchronous satellites work and why we have so much junk in space.
The game, even in this rudimentary state, offers a lot of depth. You can try to get into orbit. You can mess around building spaceplanes. You can try to reach another planet or moon. You can try to land there. You can try to get back again. These challenges range from accessible to brutally difficult and technical, and you can climb your way up through them as fast or as slow as you like.
KSP has a Minecraft-esque development cycle. The game is far from done, but it’s playable and fun and they keep adding new things. Right now there’s only sandbox mode, but the menus suggest there’s some kind of focused campaign mode planned.
I don’t like to give unqualified recommendations because I have no understanding of what people like or why they like it. (I mean, some people play those social Facebook games, or train-driving simulators. They even pay money for them. On purpose. How is anyone supposed to make sweeping consumer advice in a world inhabited by such people?) So I always stick to talking about my own experiences and let you figure things out for yourself. But look: There’s nothing else like this out there. It’s strange, it’s fun, it’s creative, it’s different, and it’s educational. I have no way of knowing if you’ll like it and you have no way of knowing you won’t. You should probably just try the demo.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.