Kerbal Space Program: Something Different

  By Shamus   Apr 15, 2013   127 comments

splash_ksp.jpg

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…

  1. You design a rocket, which falls over and explodes on the launchpad, killing all three of the brave Kerbanauts aboard.

  2. You refine the rocket. Now it stands up properly on the launchpad and doesn’t explode at all until you turn it on.
  3. The rocket rises a hundred meters, goes into a violent spin, and the crew lives just long enough to puke all over themselves.
  4. 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.
  5. You get the idea. Sometimes one of your rockets might fail to explode and you’ll find yourself in space.

Engineers agree that heavy, useless wings are okay on spaceships as long as they look cool.

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.

An unmanned probe. Way easier to get into space. Kerbals require a lot of heavy stuff to keep them alive.

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.

Enjoy your time on the Mun, little Kerbal. Because I have no idea how to bring you home again.

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.


A Hundred!207There are 127 comments here. I really hope you like reading.


  1. Elilupe says:

    Oh wow, I remember playing this about a year ago. I loved every bit of it, the intricate simulation, the free-form, no objective gameplay, the trial and error, the dark humor of seeing your Kerbals panicking in their seats right before crash landing into the Moon. I might have to download the demo again…

  2. groboclown says:

    I’ll definitely need to give this a look. Those years working with NASA and the various space education courses they gave will finally have a use. Though I doubt I’ll have to choose between S-Band or Ku-Band telemetry.

  3. Kian says:

    I’ve played one other game (more a sim than a game) that had this same fidelity of orbital mechanics. That one was even more complex than this game, even though the core mechanics and the like were the same. It wasn’t as much fun.

    I think the main difference was that KSP has oversized rockets and a tiny universe, whereas the other one had rockets more in line with our current technology in a 1:1 simulation. Plus, you couldn’t design new rockets as easily. You needed modding skills and such.

    I mean, the Mun is only a thousand kilometers away from Kerbal. In our world, the Moon is 384 thousand kilometers. That’s 385 times smaller, which makes a considerable difference. It gives you a lot more freedom to try things, correct maneuvers, and such, which encourages trying new things. Which makes learning fun.

    I discovered the game this Saturday, and bought it this Sunday. My greatest success so far has been sending a guy to the moon, having him switch orbits, and bringing him back alive, finishing with the capsule landing safely in the sea.

    One important discovery I made is MOAR ROCKETS! does not equal significantly more range (delta-v, strictly speaking) or acceleration. Adding rockets (and fuel) lets you carry bigger things, lowering the ratio of payload to fuel mass.

    To put it simply, if you strap two rockets together and fire them, they’re going to get just as far as if you fired a single rocket. It’s crazy to think just how much our perception of “intuitiveness” is informed by the presence of the atmosphere.

    • Ithilanor says:

      I’m guessing you’re thinking of Orbiter? Personally, I have loads of fun with that game.

      • Kian says:

        I think so, yes. I loved it, but it was too hard and unforgiving. I never quite got the hang of landing the shuttle, despite following the tutorial a hundred times.

        • Ithilanor says:

          The Shuttle is definitely not a good way to start; try using the fictional craft like the Delta-Glider. Completely unrealistically powerful, but that gives you room for error.

          • Kian says:

            Yeah, I meant the delta “shuttle”, not the realistic space shuttle. I could never lower speed enough without flaming out or bouncing back out of the atmosphere.

    • AyeGill says:

      To be fair to the “strap two rockets on top of one another” approach, getting out of the atmosphere is usually the most energy-consuming part. In my experience, at least, although of course you’re right that there’s definitely diminishing returns.

    • Factoid says:

      I think your scale is off a little. The Mun orbits 12000km from Kerbin. The scale of the solar system is roughly 1:11, but it basically ends at the equivalent of Jupiter, so the whole thing is much smaller in total. Gravitational effects are basically the same, though. So the amount of Delta-V required to reach various bodies actually isn’t that much different than in our solar system.

      The planet Kerbin is about 1200km across but has the same gravity as earth. In real world terms, Kerbin is not even half the size of Pluto.

      • rrgg says:

        iirc the Delta-v to escape Kerbin is about half that for Earth, which isn’t too bad. The rescaling is a pretty big concession but I think it’s worth it if it lets the game use much larger SoIs and makes precise landings a bit less of an issue (10 km from target vs 100 km from target).

    • rrgg says:

      Ha, I’m still making those mistakes. Not to mention “Gee, it ran out while on its final stage, so obviously that’s where I need to add more fuel!”

      • Factoid says:

        Check out the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation. The more fuel you add to your payload, the more fuel you need to LIFT that extra fuel. So just adding fuel to an upper stage is not always a good idea, because now you need more fuel to lift that upper stage.

        It’s a viscious cycle. It’s the reason why our moon missions looked like the did. A 300 foot tall rocket took off, and a tiny capsule is all that came back. And when we landed on the moon we brought along a tiny, lightweight spacecraft just to land on it, half of which stayed on the surface. I mean seriously, the lunar lander was LIGHT. Some parts of it were only protected from the vacuum of space by the equivalent of 3 or 4 layers of aluminum foil.

  4. DollarOfReactivity says:

    Since their forums and mod site are still on fire, let me point you to these great videos on getting started in KSP.

    It’s a great game. Not since Minecraft have I been so absorbed in something, and the fact you might learn something new about how world works is pretty neat, too.

  5. Simon Dufour says:

    A few things you want to try:

    – Build a space-station and make orbital meetup. (it’s like a whole new game)
    – Make a battery powered rover and land it on Mün or Minmus.

    I really liked the game as well.

    • Factoid says:

      There is absolutely no better feeling in this game than your first successful docking. THe first mun landing was great, but completing a Rendezvous and docking was incredibly satisfying. Took me hours the first time. Now I can do it in like 10 minutes while hardly thinking about it as long as my ships are well balanced.

      Most important thing for docking is to make sure your craft is well balanced for RCS. Use RCS thrusters in 4-way symmetry only. Some people say to use the center of mass displays in VAB and to place thrusters at equal distance.

      That’s simplistic, but wrong if you’re working with a ship that has a lot of fuel or is top/bottom heavy. As it drains fuel it will handle differently. Or if you’re working with a very top-heavy craft you need your top thruster farther from center than the bottom set. Pay attention to center of mass certainly, but know that it can change in flight.

      • Decius says:

        And put your fuel close to your center of mass, so that you don’t change rotational moment or center of mass.

      • Phantom Hoover says:

        The really great thing about docking is what it does for spacecraft construction. Once you have it figured out, you no longer need to build, say, a lander, rover and an interplanetary transfer stage all in one and try to build an ascent stage that can bring them all to orbit — you can build each stage separately and dock them later, and reuse the same design for different missions.

        • Ithilanor says:

          EOR for the win!

        • Factoid says:

          That works great for capturing a lander or interplanetary stage..but if you need to land, I strong recommend everything be attached with more than docking clamps. They can take quite a bit of strain, but not as much as even a wimpy decoupler.

          What I do for my space station is actually use the tricoupler modules, and put three docking clamps on it. Prevents a lot of wobbling and triples the bonding strength

  6. S.E. Batt says:

    Good to see you enjoy the game, Shamus! It’s been a fantastic little time waster for myself as well.

    Some tips for people who are giving the full game a shot:

    – If you really feel you can’t handle the mechanics of the game (or can’t be bothered to), there’s a mod you can download called MechJeb. Now, if you’re a mod enthusiast, you’ll know that mods can range from the moderately useful to the insanely helpful. MechJeb clocks in at the ‘demand that the game plays itself for a little bit’ range, with a little module you can place on your ship that can auto-orbit, land, and other tweaks. Each automated feature is separate from its bretherin, so it’s entirely possible to only use MechJeb to land your cantankerous rocket and entrust the orbiting kerfuffle to yourself.

    – The first question you’ll ask yourself when you play the game is ‘what can I build?’. The second question is ‘how can I get it to fly?’. The third is ‘how can I use this to make a new crater on another celestial body?’. It’s a tough challenge, but if you feel that you’re up for a lot of learning, I recommend watching Scott Manley’s ‘Tutorial On Getting To & Landing On Moons’. It’s a long’un, but once you’ve finished it, you’ll be able to make a rocket that lands on and returns from the newbie-friendly moon Minmus.

    Other than that; goof about, try weird stuff, get to know the parts in your menu, and roast some Kerbals!

  7. Veylon says:

    Well, I keep hearing about this thing from all the people who like the same things I like so I might as well give it a try. The last game I played that had “realistic space physics” was Elite 3, which was cruel hard, but hopefully this one’s more entertaining.

  8. adam says:

    From almost the moment I started playing Kerbal Space Program a couple weeks ago I realized that it was one of the most brilliant pieces of software I’ve ever come across in 20+ years of gaming. In my first 4 days I played it over 30 hours. I’m now at over 80 hours (with a week break for work travel) and just managed to land a Kerbal on the planet Eve.

    Most games give you a few fun things to do and try to keep the “learning” part to a bare minimum before you can “start having fun.” KSP conflates the two, to spectacular effect. Almost everything you do is “learning,” and it’s amazing fun. Designing rockets is fun, crashing them is fun, figuring out how to get into orbit is fun, everything is fun. There’s absolutely no punishment for doing something wrong because every setback and every bit of lost effort is a highly enjoyable learning experience.

    The best games have a high depth to complexity ratio and KSP’s is off the charts. With the laws of physics as the rules and with a few powerful, easy to use tools, the amount of emergent gameplay possibilities is absolutely enormous. Do yourself a favor and get it. It’s only $20 and worth far more, even unfinished.

    • Trix2000 says:

      In an 8ish hour span today I managed to destroy something like 40 rockets, 20 spaceplanes, and killed their equivalent in Kerbals… and yet I had such a blast that I almost missed the fact that it was suddenly 1 am.

      I’m not usually one to even get into sandboxes much (never know what to do), but this one was different.

  9. Factoid says:

    Hooray, you checked out KSP! I love this game so much. I was up until 2am last night trying to rescue Jeb, Bob and Bill from the oceans of Laythe.

    They crashed their quite accidentally while doing a flyby tour of the Jool system. There was not intended to be any landings on their mission, fortunately they landed on the one planet that actually had a chance of supporting life. Liquid water, oxygen atmosphere, etc…

    I had no hope of landing a rescue craft on the water, and they were a good 100km from land, so first things first I had to build a craft that could land on water, pick up the boys and then fly them to land. I decided a vtol aircraft with a habitation pod would do. That took about 40 tries to finally get right. Precision ocean landings with jet engines are apparently quite complicated. Who knew!?

    While that mission was under way I had to develop a whole NEW type of rocket that I could send down to land on Laythe, fully fueled and ready to launch them into orbit. It is capable of reaching Kerbin orbit which I ASSUME means it will make orbit on Jool, but it also uses Jet engines in an atmosphere not quite as thick or with as much O2. But jet engines were essential to keep the weight down. I didn’t want to have to design a whole new lifting stage just to get a big heavy rocket into orbit and transfered to Jool. I’ve got a tried and true launch system that can easily lift 85 tons to orbit, and it turns out my return rocket + interplanetary transfer stage weigh in right at 84.

    • broken_research says:

      Laythe has atmosphere that “stops” at about 50000 meters, and has less thick atmosphere. It also has slightly lower gravity. So you should have little problem getting off Laythe if you can escape Kerbin. Only take care not to get a burnout with those engines…

      Good luck
      :salute:

      • Factoid says:

        Yeah, I figured anything that could make orbit on Kerbin could make orbit on Laythe. I’ll be making the transfer to Laythe tonight. I’m much more worried about landing the thing than taking off again. Basically I have 6 turbojets for my first stage, and then a poodle or mainsail (can’t remember which) to get the rest of the way to orbit. From there I should have plenty of fuel to make rendezvous with the interplanetary stage and fly home. Total mission time for the stranded crew will end up being like 9 years, a good third of which is them stuck floating on Laythe’s ocean. Poor guys.

        • Decius says:

          That story is almost as epic as the tales from Dwarf Fortress. If they were wrestling skeletal elephants and zombie giant sponges it would be more so.

        • Ithilanor says:

          “poodle or a mainsail”

          That’s some odd slang for parts of a rocket…

          • Phantom Hoover says:

            The Poodle and Mainsail are the (official) nicknames of two of the rocket engines.

          • Factoid says:

            I agree :) Those are the two rockets available for the 2.5 meter fuel tanks. The poodle is a short stubby engine. Not much thrust, but it works great for an upper stage when you’re out of the atmosphere because it has a higher efficiency rating (ISp).

            The mainsail is a huge rocket engine that puts out tons of thrust, but is less efficient with fuel. It’s an excellent lower stage engine to get off the ground.

            That’s one of the big things KSP cheats on to make the game actually fun. All rocket fuel is the same across every type of engine. You have liquid fuel and you have oxidizer. In real rocketry your fuel is the major thing that determines the efficiency of your engine, but in KSP all rockets use the same fuel and the engines just have different ISP values. It makes the game less realistic but more fun. Good trade-off in my opinion.

  10. KSP is AWESOME.

    Two recommendations, if you are taking the plunge:

    1) If you know anyone else you can convince into playing this, the greatest fun is for you to run your own Twitch TV streams and VOIP to share your experiences. Building a ridiculous rocket and having it explode two km up in the air is 1000% more fun with an audience.

    2) Do the tutorial in game to gt a feel for the controls and terminology, but then figure out as much as possible on your own. Discovering how to build a rocket that will orbit and fly to Mun and land on your own is lot more fun than just following a build someone else has already done.

    That said, if you are getting frustrated or bored, do it up. Just try and resist that ever-so-easy temptation.

  11. Factoid says:

    Oh, and as for returning Kerbals from other planets, The Mun is pretty easy to get back from. Minmus is actually EASIER to land on and return from despite being much father away and on an inclined orbit.

    Because it’s so small and has so little gravity, you need very little Delta-V to blast off and return to Kerbin. You can do a minmus return mission with something like 800m/s less delta-v than a Mun return mission.

    Most people try to go landing on Duna afterward. It’s by far the easiest planet to get to in terms of lining up an encounter. Go check out ksp.olex.biz for a neat calculator that tells you the angles you need to shoot for when making a hohmann transfer to another planet in the system.

    Duna is nice because it’s got that thin atmosphere you can aerobrake with. Eve is actually easier to get to in terms of delta-v, however its atmosphere is SO THICK that you need an unbelievably huge rocket to get off it again. Much better is just to go to Eve, then visit its moon Gilly. You can land on that thing with an EVA backpack.

    • broken_research says:

      I’m going to spoiler this because half the fun of KSP is realising the blatant flaws in your rocket design.

      Anyway, Duna landing spoilers below

      Duna’s atmosphere is unfortunately so thin that relying on nothing but parachutes is going to end with your kerbals splatting into Duna’s sand. Either have an entry path that’s very shallow and atmo-breaks over several orbits, slowing you down each time, or prepare to use your rocket engines during the last few thousand meters.

      • Factoid says:

        More spoilers:

        Exactly. parachuts are still a must-have for Duna, though. THey make landing a million times easier because it keeps you pointed straight up, unlike a vacuum landing where you need tons of thrust vectoring to stay stable.

      • Phantom Hoover says:

        You can still land on Duna with parachutes, it just takes some finesse. Fit 2 drogues and 6 radial chutes to your lander, release the drogues when you first enter the atmosphere, then release the radials when the drogues fully open. You might still need a tiny bit of throttle at touchdown, but beyond that it’s a free landing. (And a Kerbal on EVA can repack the chutes, so you can reuse them on Kerbin.)

        • Mephane says:

          They can repack parachutes? I did not even know that. This is the type of attention to detail and polish I was referring to in my main comment. Awesome!

          • KremlinLaptop says:

            The Kerbals are also able to repair broken tyres. So if you build a rover for them to drive around with on the Mün then you can just hop out and repair the damn thing when you pop a tyre. Not sure whether they can fix solar panels, though I’ve heard that they can.

            The only problem with a rover that has a Kerbal in it is that the command modules are ridiculously heavy. Also I really want a terrain based waypoint system so I can leave my little rover to explore. Could even automate it so that it knows to pop out the big solar panel when electricity gets below 25% etc.

        • Factoid says:

          Yeah I think I needed all of about 50 m/s of delta-v to land on Duna. I basically just used a bit of thrust to kill my horizontal velocity so I could land where I wanted to, and then a bit more to soft land.

      • Phantom Hoover says:

        You can still land on Duna with parachutes, it just takes some finesse. Fit 2 drogues and 6 radial chutes to your lander, release the drogues when you first enter the atmosphere, then release the radials when the drogues fully open. You might still need a tiny bit of throttle at touchdown, but beyond that it’s a free landing. (And a Kerbal on EVA can repack the chutes, so you can reuse them on Kerbin.)

      • LunaticFringe says:

        I’ve landed rovers on Duna with parachutes only (both mod-rovers and the new in-game ones), no problem. I’ve heard you can also do it with one-man shuttles, I’ve never tried with a three-man though.

  12. Kernly says:

    I was introduced to this game when a let’s player I watch started playing it. I find it hilarious to watch him (and other people) play it. I’m on the edge about buying it – I am not sure I would actually spend that much time playing it in the absence of a real campaign.

    • Halceon says:

      Ah, another Jef watcher. Wooo! Balls may be the best designed ship in his entire carreer.

      • KremlinLaptop says:

        Haha! That makes three of us. I bought the game largely due to Jef’s LP and now having played the game I can only imagine how much friggin’ TIME he spent on stuff like the Herpderprise. I mean I use MechJeb, etc and it still takes me a good amount of time to build very simple things in orbit.

        • Halceon says:

          I dunno, it gets faster the more you play. You discover stable design modules that can be quickly assembled, like the asparagus system.
          I did a 2-vid series of putting a satellite in orbit back when docking and solar panels were only in mods. That was 1,5 hours with no cuts. So, yeah, not that difficult once you have a good basis.

  13. Dev Null says:

    You should probably just try the demo.

    Plus, it has a demo. Am I the only one who misses being able to try out a game before I buy it? I’m so much more willing to shell out the dollars for something I _know_ is fun.

    (Tried KSP about a year ago, but found I didn’t have the time to invest in working out how to make something achieve orbit. It seemed cool, just time-sinky.)

    • rofltehcat says:

      I think there were a few articles and an extra credits episode (maybe just saw another vid… not sure) on that…
      Basically, for most developers, releasing a demo judz increased risk but offers basically no benefit. Plus, it takes some manpower to make, release, promote etc. the demo.

      Myself, I downloaded the demo but atm, I’m pretty stocked on games atm. I got some insane deals this weekend and am still playing Tomb Raider… Hitman Absolution, Far Cry 3 and Sleeping dogs are still in the queue. Plus I’m keeping an eye on Dishonored-sales…
      I don’t really need demos anymore, I just wait a while and grab the games with good reviews etc. for a third or a sixth of their original price… except EA games because they a) don’t lower their prices (normally) and b) won’t see a cent from me (various reasons, hacked account and inapt support is the biggest one)

      • Raygereio says:

        Basically, for most developers, releasing a demo judz increased risk but offers basically no benefit

        That makes zero sense and just makes me think those developers have no clue what they’re doing. There are no risks to offering a demo and various benefits.

        One of the reasons why people pirate games for example is the lack of demos. People often just want to try a game out before buying. Especially on the PC where it can be hard to figure if a game will even run on your hardware. But once you already have the full game for free, why would you buy it? Offering a demo can help prevent that.

        And another very big reason is simple marketing. A good demo can do so much more to generate buzz and get people excited about your game then any trailer, interview or preview.
        The best example of this is Deus Ex: Human Beefcake. Sure the preview build leak was unintentional, but it did function as a demo. It got people excited for that game and even managed to turn a lot of atitudes of “This is going to suck” around.

        Edit:
        Actually, not that I think about it. There is a risk attached to releasing a demo:
        If you have really bad game, then a demo will either show that as well or require extraordinary work to hide that. And I suppose this is one off the main reasons why we very rarely see demos for the big AAA games. A demo – especially one released before the actual game – is uncontrolled PR, something they’re scared off.

        • Factoid says:

          Sure there are risks…if your game sucks, and you release a demo nobody is going to buy it.

        • Khizan says:

          “They’re money-grubbing bastards who don’t want us to know how bad their games are” isn’t the reason.

          At least, it’s not the entire reason. It is one of the possible reasons, but it’s far from the only one.

          Take KSP for example. Without a demo, I would have bought this game. It’s been talked up a lot, it’s got some great reviews, and it’s only $20. Buuuuut… I tried one of their earlier demos. And it gave me a pretty awesome taste of rocket candy, and the game seems pretty awesome. However, it turned out that, yeah, all I really wanted was a taste, and I don’t have any interest in playing past the demo.

          And so, their demo just cost them a sale because it was enough to scratch my itch while simultaneously not enough to make me want to play more than the demo.

          And that’s just one of the many possible bad outcomes of demos. Maybe you’ve got an awesome game, but the demo makes it look just so-so. Maybe you’ve got an average quality game with an awesome demo, and so it increases sales but generates a lot of bad press for you when the game doesn’t live up to the demo, and this backlashes on your next game.

          Demos are a losing proposition in so many ways.

          • Raygereio says:

            Personal anecdote isn’t the best basis for an argument. I mean, if it wasn’t for the demo, I wouldn’t have bought the game. And I were so inclined I can give a you long list of games I purchased solely because a demo convinced me.

            As for your other counter arguments.
            “The demo makes the game look just so-so”. Well, that’s why you put some effect in the demo and make sure it gives a proper indication of what your game is like.
            “Oh no. The demo makes the game look too good”. That’s just dumb. If the demo increased sales, that means the damn thing was succesfull. As for the potential “bad press” resulting in lasting repuation damage. That’s not going to happen. A quick glance a gaming history will tell you that even if there was “bad press”, then at worst we gamers will grumble for a while (a month tops) and then promptly forget about it. For actually lasting, sales-affecting reputation damage to happen, it would have to be something a wee bit bigger and less trivial.

      • Jimmy Bennett says:

        It was an Extra Credits video. I found the link if anyone wants to see it:

        http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/demo-daze

  14. Rodyle says:

    Woooooooooooooo! Got my rocket in orbit. The only thing I forgot to do was add a thruster to my last fuel tank, so I can’t position it any further. After that, I accidentally made my Kerbal leave his command module and now he’s floating around in space… 8( Poor fellow.

  15. This brings back memories. It also makes me want to fire up “Lunar Lander” purchased on Steam a while back, though that game didn’t have cartoony things in space suits that screamed when I crashed.

  16. Ithilanor says:

    If you’ve liked learning about orbital mechanics and playing around with that, I’m going to shamelessly plug Orbiter. Lovely space sim, with a great community. You can’t build your own rockets in-game, but with the modding community there’s a good variety of stuff to fly. It lacks the wackiness of KSP, but there’s something to be said for its realism, for seeing the Sun rise over the Earth’s Horizon, for seeing the rings of Saturn up close, for recreating the Apollo flights, and so on.

  17. Tuck says:

    It might be a great game, but it’s hardly rocket science now is it?

    (why had nobody else made this joke, thus saving me the embarassment?)

  18. Spider Dave says:

    I got stuck playing this game a few weeks ago. I’m now finding it difficult in my life to find time for anything else.

    • Phill says:

      I got the demo on Friday, and didn’t do much for the weekend (well, aside from the food shopping, cooking meals, and wrangling the kids to go visit some wildlife) apart from work on my Mun shot program. I was very pleased when on Sunday evening I finally managed to get a Bob to land on the moon and then safely return home. It is very, very addictive (at least for certain types of people).

      I suspect I am going to end up getting the full game despite my lack of time.

      Curse you Shamus, for letting me know about this…

  19. arron says:

    I had to stop playing KSP. It was basically consuming my life and unfortunately I had to do many other things. It needs some kind of health warning to tell people of the dangers of owning a copy..!

  20. noahpocalypse says:

    I’m calling it now: this is the next season of Spoiler Warning.

    It’d make a great special at least, right?

  21. Shamus? Here’s a possible column suggestion for you: Take games like Kerbal and Minecraft, which are obvious success stories in gaming. Now imagine that these games were presented to some company like EA, Bethesda, etc. We know these games are great, even when unfinished. Why would those large companies reject them, and what would that say about what game concepts aren’t welcome in AAA game companies?

    This is kind of a gaming version of the old WWII story where an engineer was called in to add some armor to RAF planes, but they couldn’t afford to armor everything. He asked to be shown the planes that had been damaged in combat yet returned to their airfields. His recommendation was pretty much “put the armor in the places where there aren’t bullet holes.” I’m hoping such a comparison might highlight some vital elements that need to be in the next crop of major titles if they want to thrive.

    It might also highlight why some games like this are “impossible” in the AAA culture, as they might not have anything for the marketing departments to latch onto, or perhaps the various structures they’ve got in place (the people they’ve hired, the departments they’ve decided they need, executive salaries, etc.) are too expensive for anything less than the next CoD or whatever.

    • Mephane says:

      For a moment the ultimate nightmare unfolded before my very eyes. KSP with overpriced DLC for individual spacecraft parts, always-online DRM, ultra-wonky physics simulation, and on top of a that a pile of lies and utter disregard for us as gamers and customers. Its main features would be (in descending order of importance) ultra-realistic graphics, a stupid and unnecessary plot, and then maybe a bit of watered-down pseudo-realistic orbital maneuvers between shooting either space aliens or the guys from another nation on Kerbin who are all merely evil villain henchman cardboard cut-outs.

      • My thesis is that it wouldn’t ever get that far. Kerbal is something that AAA game companies don’t apparently have any interest in, in spite of it’s rather obvious following and support. I’m curious as to what mechanics or elements they’d cite as being unmarketable or ripe for rejection from the outset if they’d even consider it at all.

        It also says something that they haven’t tried aping this (and other) game’s success by lifting elements from it for their own titles. I mean, imagine a space simulator given a yearly update like FIFA.

        • Mephane says:

          I think we have reached the point where it is beneficial for individual games to be considered “too niche to bother” by major publishers. This is both satisfying and disturbing at the same time.

          • Yeah, and that’s really strange. You’d think that someplace like EA would farm out smaller projects the same way movie studios hand out a few mil to smaller filmmakers to play around with.

            I’m thinking that for a lot of creative endeavors, there’s such a thing as “too big to succeed for long.” They have a marketing and legal team to feed, along with salespeople, managers, middle managers, etc., so not only are they not geared to try anything that’s more hands-off, they’re probably unwilling to try it out, as several people involved in their day-to-day operations might appear to be unneeded (and not involved in coding, art, or design for once).

    • Corran says:

      I second Aaron on this; would make for a really fun article.

  22. Akri says:

    I just got the demo after reading this post, and have been having fun with it (or should that be Fun?) I’ve managed to avoid steps 1 and 2 of your outline, but have traded them for a different step: somehow trigger separation before launching, leaving half of the rocket on the pad.

    On the upside I had a parachute that time, so nobody died!

  23. Astor says:

    OMG! I had no idea this was a sort of rather realistic simulator. I thought it was a simple game with set-on-stone predifined objectives you had to meet in a specific way and be done with it!

    I may have to buy it now…

    • Factoid says:

      Yeah, there are like no objectives AT ALL in KSP. You have to be pretty self-motivated to play this game because there’s nothing telling you what to accomplish, no story being told, etc…

      The devs have hinted recently that they are going to start focusing on the career mode, however. So that might start to change. I have a feeling it will still be very sand-boxy though. Defined objectives, but little direction on how to achieve them, so to speak.

  24. Bropocalypse says:

    I bought this about a week ago after seeing you talk about it on twitter, and I really like it. I’ve figured out how to land a kerbal on the Mun, but now I’m wrestling with getting enough fuel with him to get him back. Unfortunately, larger rockets have a tendency to break apart when you lag, but I figure I can possibly get around this by separating the fuel tanks from one another by building them on an inert central spine, or something.

    Incidentally, if you’re interested in watching some KSP hijynx, allow me to plug Danny2462’s youtube channel. He enjoys doing things like launching kerbals with jet exaust and destroying planets(!!!).

  25. nerdpride says:

    I didn’t think it was so terribly addicting, but then again, I’ve had almost a week away from work in which I could play it and I’ve stayed up long past my usual bedtime some nights playing it. Yes, I’ve bought the full version within this month too, although not from Steam.

    I can manage to get probes to Eve and Duna. I have to say that it’s also one of the more rewarding things I’ve ever seen a videogame do. I really feel like a rocket scientist. For some reason. Even though I don’t plan out my launches and landing is a problem at the moment.

    When people make jokes about the nonequivalence of certain tasks to rocket science, I have to remember this game and laugh and say that it is about as hard as a dumbed-down version of rocket science actually.

  26. Bryan says:

    Well, I’d look into it, but it probably doesn’t have a Linux versio…

    Oh.

    Uh, crap.

    Well, there goes all my time for the next *way too long*… :-P

    (And the demo is only ~250 megs!)

  27. Ravens Cry says:

    This is a game, alas, I doubt my system could run, but I can engage in it through the magic of Lets Play’s. It looks brutally hard, yet incredibly fun at the same time, and I am rarely a ‘challenge’ based gamer.
    Really wish my system could run it without melting.

  28. Mephane says:

    Oh yes, this game is incredibly addictive if you are into at least two of these: space, physics, puzzles. Like Shamus, I learnt a lot about real world space flight and orbital mechanics from the game (for example, the ridiculous differences between amounts of fuel needed for stuff. You may need fuel tanks the height of a large house to get into orbit but a car-sized probe can easily fly all the way to the moon and back).

    I would say even in the current state of the game, which is still declared as alpha, it has much more gameplay value than many AAA games, and astounding amounts of polish. So often I just thought “what if…” and tried, and it worked just as I thought it worked (except when my understanding of the specific physics was utterly wrong, heh).

    One word of warning, however, this game is heavy on DIAS (Do It Again, Stupid). If your Mun lander comes down to fast and crashed upon landing, you have to start over. You can and should save and load your spacecraft designs, but when the mission catastrophically fails you are back at the launch pad, or the in the construction hall if it was a design problem. But, for reasons I don’t fully understand yet, I have never so far been frustrated by such situations. Maybe the intrinsic nature of the game (there are no set goals, you just start with a bare solar system and make out of it what you want) makes all the difference, but every single time something I built blew up, crashed down, run out of fuel half-way etc, I always went back to Challenge Accepted mode.

    While we are at it, I still have a guy in a bare capsule orbiting Kerbin without fuel, and another one sitting on Mun with a lander perfectly fitted and fueled up for flight back to Kerbin, had not its engine been destroyed in my pitiful landing maneuver. Gotta rescue both some day. :D

    • KremlinLaptop says:

      I think part of it is that even the failures in this game are rewarding because if you think about them you can usually figure out WHY something failed and how to avoid it in the future.

      Like when I was flying the fourth section up to my first space station, I detached my fuel tanks/engines, did a retro-burn with my final small rocket engine/fuel tank combo before detaching that too and then buzzed in with my dinky ion engines to dock with it — before I had MechJeb — the thing handled like a pig and it took me around fifteen minutes to get it aligned right and docked. After that I just sat there admiring my satellite, solar panels gleaming in the sunlight, keeping it rather nicely aligned so that when it was in the sun it picked up rays on every panel. With all those bits on it I’m guessing it weighed around 300 tons.

      …And then I noticed those big orange fuel tanks go buzzing by. Do you know how hard it is to get 300 tons of space-station out of the way with two tiny little ion-engines?

      I mean what were the chances! All I could do was watch as the big orange fuel-tank of death sliced my station in half. The station did survive, though. It still has two solar panels and a few bits left, but none of the parts with docking ports survived so I can’t really do anything with it.

      • Mephane says:

        So you detached the fuel tanks, slowed down in order to dock, and then one of those very tanks caught up with you? I see how that could happen easily. I suppose the solution to such a situation is to orient the entire thing so that the tank points back to Kerbin, and the impulse of the stack separator gently pushes it inward?

        P.S.: Though I feel a bit mean for saying this, but that collision you described sounds hilarious.

        • KremlinLaptop says:

          I flew my space-station part in on an opposing orbit, so when I detached my big tanks and spun around to do a retro-burn, the big orange-fuels-tanks-of-doom were left an aligned orbit but in the opposite direction. My original reasoning was that it would be easier to fly towards my space-station than trying to catch-up with it. Rather forgetting about the obvious issue of all the debris I was going to be leaving hurling around.

          So the tanks did a full orbit around Kerbin before coming back to smash into me.

          Solution? No more orbiting things in opposite directions. Also I’ve begun giving more thought to detaching stages (no detaching when circularized) to minimize the amount of crap left floating around. Also those tiny little boosters? Damned useful for detaching big parts and getting them out of the way.

          It was sort of hilarious and sad all at once because all I could do was watch in dismay as my dinky ion engines refused to move my big ass station even an inch to get it out of the way. Looking back I think I could have saved the station if I had used up the RCS to move it.

          • Ithilanor says:

            If you launched retrograde to the station, I’m amazed you had enough delta-v to rendezvous with it. That must have been one heck of a collision.

          • Halceon says:

            Oh, that gives me the idea to slap the OKTO II on every exo-atmospheric stage as well as some unstaged boosters. Just to make sure that each and every part can be slowed to an atmospheric orbit.

            Remember, only YOU can prevent space clutter!

    • Mike says:

      You can avoid a bunch of the DIAS pain via F5/F9 for quicksave/quickload. I’d have never managed a Mun landing without that crutch.

    • Alan says:

      I think a key difference is that KSP doesn’t care. It doesn’t judge you as inadequate. There are consequences, but KSP doesn’t care about those either. It doesn’t demand that you succeed at some goal before you try for a different goal. It never trashes one of your attempts with a pre-scripted cheap shot to add to the challenge. KSP quietly simulates the world and nothing else.

  29. Jarenth says:

    Man, no joke about the orbital debris thing. One of the things I really like about this game is that it saves the debris you leave in orbit to your account, ‘allowing’ you to come back later and see the massive amounts of eternal floating garbage you’ve left in orbit. I can’t wait to accidentally bump into some of this garbage on my way up!

    Honestly, though: my absolute favourite part of this game, and the thing that completely hooked me on the previous demo, is building a simple Solid Rocket Booster-type rocket, fire it out, and just watch and listen. The amazing roar of those engines, the visuals of the launchpad and the smoketrail, the almost inevitable explosion… it’s the next best thing to actually being there.

    Wait, you can make space stations? Wait, you can dock and refuel at space stations? Wait, why am I looking up a billion tutorials? Noooo, I have work to do tod-

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Ohhhhh, now if you want to completely ruin my life, just tell me there’s also a way you can build tethered satellites and use space debris to change orbits (essentially, the theory goes, you capture a piece of debris with a looong rope, form a rotating two-body system connected y the rope and then let go just when the debris is heading in the direction of the planet you want to get away from. A bit like swing-by, but using a rope instead of gravity and garbage instead of planets and moons.

      • RTBones says:

        Whats also cool about tethered satellites is that if you drag them through the ionosphere, you can actually generate electricity.

        And though the tether eventually broke, it has actually been done:
        Tethered Satellites from the Space Shuttle

      • Halceon says:

        It’s possible.

        The design I’m imagining might be single- or several-use. What you’ll need is a core ship with one or more docking ports; an appropriate number of long structural arms with a debris catcher on one end and a docking port on the other.
        The catcher can be made in several ways. The simplest is to have ALL PARTS EVER have a bunch of radial docking ports on them. You can go a bit more advanced with extendable landing legs and other moving parts.

        So what you do is set up your core ship in orbit, approach a piece of debris with your tether arm and ensnare it. Then you do your spin-up with RCS or internal gyros. Then at the right moment, you detach the whole arm from your core ship. Profit!

        EDIT: I just realised my gravatar has a monocle. This is the sweetest thing of all.

  30. Wulfgar says:

    this game lack good training missions. i passed all of them i i still don’t know what is going on :D

    • Given the high Kerbal mortality rate, it’s probably in the space program’s interest to create a false sense of competence among its personnel or they’d have to start man– er, Kerbal-ing the ships at gunpoint.

    • Factoid says:

      Yeah, there’s really no training to speak of.

      Check youtube for Scott Manley’s videos. He has a KSP 101 video that will have you into orbit in no time.

  31. KremlinLaptop says:

    I find that my Kerbals and my Dorfs are kindred spirits. Recklessly brave, not too bright, infinitely ambitious, and rather willing to follow the whims of a madman.

  32. RTBones says:

    I need to really REALLY resist buying this game. First, I have several games I am either in the midst of or are waiting to be played (Dishonored, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, a Skyrim playthrough, XCOM). Second, from just looking briefly at a couple tutorials on You Tube, I know that the simple things in life (eating, drinking, bathing, sleeping) would likely go by the wayside, which would I am certain get me into trouble.

  33. Phineas Rhine says:

    If anyone wants to see video of a player that’s clearly sold their soul to the devil in exchange for KSP skill, this is where I go whenever I feel an overabundance of hubris. All short and to the point, and every one of them ends with me just pointing at the screen, open-mouthed.

  34. AdmiralCheez says:

    I downloaded the demo, secretly hoping it would not run on my computer, but sadly, it did, and now I have the full version of the game, and now I can probably just cross off everything I was going to try to accomplish today.

    Oh well. At least I’m getting a lesson on real-world space physics, so that kinda justifies it.

  35. LunaticFringe says:

    Actually Shamus, according to the devs (who are awesome guys,very connected to the community) KSP’s main inspiration is a DOS game called Buzz Aldrin’s Race to Space.

    Suggestions for people starting to play KSP:
    -Learn the navball. It’s the easiest way to determine direction with no point of reference, plus you can use it to burn based on degrees rather then ‘eyeballing’ your rocket’s angle.
    -Retrograde/Prograde burns. Learn what these words mean. Learn how to do them.
    -Learn the maneuver system. Less important then learning the navball, but being able to plot out your burns in advance comes in handy.
    -The Mun is an awesome tutorial because it’s easy as hell to get to: you just burn as it’s coming over the horizon while in a 100-200 km orbit.
    -If you’re having difficulty getting to other planets, Protractor is a great mod that determines angles for you, makes interplanetary movement easy.

    Anyway, KSP’s great, I’ve been playing it since 0.09 I believe (whatever version where you could deorbit the Mun) and it’s really amazing how much they’ve added to it.

    • chiefsheep says:

      Oh man! Buzz Aldrin’s Race for Space takes me back (actually only back about a year when I got it running under DOSBOX) but it’s still as addictive/frustrating as ever. Every launch is still a suspenseful experience.

      Odd how my imagination still provides most of the visuals when playing that game……

      It was probably my love of Race for Space that meant KSP was an insta-buy for me.

  36. hewhosaysfish says:

    After reading this post (and the associated comments) I went and downloaded the demo of this. Since then Seemon Kerman has orbitted his home planet and returned to the surface alive to tell of it and I am immensely pleased with myself about it.

    I think I may buy the full version tomorrow.

  37. guy says:

    I CANNOT STEEEERRRRR!

    Seriously, not only do I way oversteer sometimes but it feels like my controls randomly reverse on me during ascent.

    • 4th Dimension says:

      Actually you shouldn’t steer at ALL while in atmosphere. At least not withouth some computer guidance. Basically slap some winglets on the bottom of your rocket, slap on some RCS thrusters and an RCS tank for when you go over 10 km in height, and during most of the ascent (0-30 km) have your ASAS on (it’s a module that ads an autopilot that when turned on with T key tries hard to keep your rocket on course it was then you pressed it) while going straight up.

      • KremlinLaptop says:

        …Or use MechJeb. http://kerbalspaceport.com/mechjeb/

        If you’re a big lazy cheater like me. Adds all sorts of autopilot functionality. Mostly I find that it’s very useful for my rockets which rival the Empire State Building terms of mass because flying them by hand they tend to just explode into a million bits.

      • Dan says:

        I’ve found that so far my rockets have flown best with no winglets at all… all my original attempts had some wings or winglets in some form or another but when I tried without they flew needing much less course corrections, so long as the center of thrust was pretty good. And when I tested the autopilot against my own skills I’ve managed to achive approx double the efficiency in atmospheric conditions over what the autopilot did (test bench rocket:- auto pilot 11,000mtrs @ 300m/s before first stage decoupling, me- 21,000mtrs @ 550m/s, using the exact same base rocket model and accel setting). So I do not use autopilot unless I’m doing high atmospheric testing on something or another and I don’t care too much about wasting resources to get there or, over about 25-30kms above ground level, it’s awesome to use once you break out of the atmosphere and it’s saved me much trouble out there. My advice is to have a feather touch and remember that if the craft is going left quickly you won’t be able to stop it going left easily, correct early and softly… or if it’s the size of a building it won’t stop going left at all while in atmosphere. Gentle nudges unless it’s misbehaving then controlled pushes.

        I’m still rather new to the game though and it would come as no surprise that all of that is due to my novice rocket designs.

        This mechjeb mod sounds awesome for me though as the best I’ve achieved so far in regards to orbiting another planet or moon was smashing my probe face first into the Mun at 740m/s… I learnt some lessons and fingers crossed next time goes much better. There’s a few mods I’ve read about I need to install now.

        No Kerbals are harmed in my flights as I’m currently using prob’s. Except for the few Kerbals that were killed in my initial testings. Poor brave souls.

  38. Vagrant says:

    Playing this game I’ve learned 2 things.

    1. I’m really bad at orbiting

    2. I’m really good at using the Mun to slingshot things into the Sun

  39. Paul Spooner says:

    I had heard about this game a few times before, but bought it on your recommendation. Have had a blast so far! Very mentally challenging. Lots of depth and intrinsic rewards for optimum play. Do want more updates, but what you can you do but throw more money at these guys?
    I made an ion probe that I want to share with the world, but the community site seems to be down for some reason. Ahh well.

  40. Author says:

    I’m wondering if the game is popular with people who weren’t STEM majors.

    • Chekhov's Gunman says:

      Yes (philosophy major, back in the day). Granted I always thought space was cool, but I still got 12% in high school maths. And I have been having quite simply the best time building a series of increasingly improbable-looking rockets, like wedding cakes made out of steel and rocket fuel. They have propelled my brave kerbals onward, ever onward, in the noble pursuit of Science! And explosions. Mostly explosions, actually.
      But despite giggling like a small child when another learning experience has occurred, I have actually sent my crews to several planetary bodies and brought them back. Uncrewed probes still circle others.
      And I’m still having fun.

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