Spacegames and Community Tutorials
Hey everyone. I’m working on a new article to pitch to the same online videogame magazine that kindly rejected my last attempt. I thought I’d put my rough draft here, so you have some content to read and I can get some feedback (maybe: nobody really comments on my writing pieces. Still, I can dream right?). The sad thing is that if they accept it there’s a good chance I’ll have to remove it from my blog. So: enjoy it while you can. It could disappear.
“What’s your altitude?”
“Then why are you still climbing? You need to burn for the horizon if you’re going to make orbit.”
I frowned. I wasn’t nearly high enough to make orbit yet. I flipped off my stabilizers and set my rocket at a 45 degree angle to the horizon line.
“You’re climbing way too fast, you’ve got to aim for the horizon.”
I ignored my “copilot” and continued at full burn towards the stars. I checked with the tracking station. The blue line that marked my trajectory was slowly forming a circle around the planet. True, it was a little lopsided…well maybe more than a little. Actually it seemed to be growing more and more asymmetrical as I watched. Suddenly the circle became a line, curving off into space.
“Shoot. What does that mean?”
“That means you’ve doomed your Kerbals to die in deep space. I told you you were climbing too fast, now you’ve got escape velocity.”
Fortunately for astronauts everywhere I was not actually in charge of a mission to space. I was just playing the latest version of KSP (short for Kerbal Space Program) an indie game project from a company called Squad. The game’s premise is simple: you are in charge of the space program of a race of little green men known as the Kerbals. You design their rockets from scratch and then pilot them on missions into outer space; if everything goes right, that is. You have complete freedom when it comes to creating your rockets, and the game will never stop to tell you if your designs will just blow up on the launching pad. Apparently Kerbals believe in going straight to live astronaut testing, and if you’re first attempts are anything like mine were you’re going to go through dozens of little Kerbalnauts before you get anywhere near a stable orbit.
The game had been pointed out to me back when it was in alpha by my “copilot”: better known as my older brother. He’d shown me where to download the game and told me it was a lot of fun. A couple days later a friend and I decided to take the game for a test ride. We spent the next few hours laughing hysterically as our designs each found a new way to explode into tiny pieces within seconds of launch. Some were straightforward; we’d hit the launch button and they’d detonate instantly, engulfing the launch pad in a smoking fireball. Others would make it a few hundred meters into the air before losing structural integrity, rockets and wings ripping off one by one in a slow, almost graceful, disintegration. A few designs would simply fall over before they could even be launched, toppling like an unstable Jenga tower. Our designs became sillier and sillier as we attempted to find an even more ludicrous way for our rockets to self-destruct. But after the third hour had past we decided we’d had enough fun goofing around. It was time to take what we’d learned and build a sensible rocket. Our goal? Orbit. With high hopes we christened the Sanity I, the first of a new series of practical rockets.
We lost control of it after about 30 seconds of flight, and it plummeted to the earth in a ball of flame.
The Sanity II and III met similar fates, and Sanity IV: A New Hope was the worst one yet, ripping itself to pieces just moments after leaving the launch pad. Instead of getting better each new design was just failing in new, unique, and frustrating way. We spent two hours throwing ideas around trying to find one that would work. Finally we gave up: we checked online to see how to do it properly. There we not only found a design that worked, but discovered all kinds of useful information about rocket construction. We had no idea you could stack fuel tanks, for instance, and that alone made a huge difference. We made it to space on our next try. A couple of launches later and we made it to orbit. My friend and I felt accomplished. It was a moment of triumph when our command capsule safely landed our Kerbalnauts on the far side of the planet; but at the same time we were a little upset that we were reduced to looking online for help. It seemed to cheapen our accomplishment. It’s like using a walkthrough to make your way through an adventure game: sure, you won, but it was the walkthrough that solved all the puzzles for you. You might as well have just given up and stopped playing. I felt the same way about KSP. Sure, we made it to orbit; but it wasn’t by our own skill, but someone else’s. I stopped playing after that, and eventually forgot the game almost entirely.
That was almost a year ago and KSP has grown a lot since then. They’ve added two moons to travel to, a tracking system to plot your trajectories, and a ton of new parts. It’s in beta right now and new content is being added all the time. My brother encouraged me to try it out again. I decided to make it my goal to reach the moon. I still haven’t gotten there, and with each failure my brother’s frustration at my refusal to listen to his advice has grown. Every time I sent my Kerbals on a one way ticket to starvation in deep space my brother has told me exactly what I’ve done wrong. Each time I’ve refused to listen to him. After all, if I just do everything he tells me to I’m not really playing, am I? I might as well just look up the answer on the internet again.
But as I failed for the 27th time, I realized something. I was thinking about this game completely wrong. This isn’t an adventure game. This isn’t even an FPS, RTS, MMO, or RPG. And I obviously don’t mean in terms of gameplay: by its gameplay alone it’s more like a flight sim than anything else. I just mean by terms of what is and is not cheating.
If you look up a walkthrough for an adventure game, then you’ve basically defeated the purpose of playing. The whole point of adventure games is to figure out the correct way to solve a puzzle. It’s like taking a multiple choice test: there is only one right answer. If you look the answer up on a cheat sheet then you didn’t really pass the test; you just copied answers. But with most other genres it’s a little different. Looking up a walkthrough for a quest or a particularly hard boss is less like cheating on a test and more having someone tell you exactly what challenges you’re going to face during football tryouts. Sure, now you know that you know exactly what the couches will be looking for, but if you’re not strong or fast enough the knowledge won’t do you that much good anyway. In the same way knowing the boss’s weak spots is helpful, but if you aren’t skilled enough to hit it then you’re still out of luck. In a RTS you can look up some strategy guides to learn the optimal build order for victory; but in any good RTS no one strategy is undefeatable, and your opponent might do something unexpected that makes the strategy useless. In the same way looking up information about how to win has different levels of acceptableness. In an adventure or puzzle game its unacceptable: anyone can win if they know the answers, so you get no credit. In an FPS or RPG it’s still frowned upon, but understandable if you’re having a really tough time with a certain quest or boss. And in an RTS there is almost no stigma against looking up strategies; in fact it’s considered normal and completely acceptable. I realize now that KSP lands in a forth category, one that I find harder to find a name for. You could call it indie, but not all indie games fit. Probably the best example I can think of is Dwarf Fortress.
If you’re not familiar with Dwarf Fortress, it’s a game that can be downloaded for free and has been around since 2006. Dwarf Fortress is notable and unique for a lot of reasons, but right now I’m concerned with one specifically: the fact that if you try to play Dwarf Fortress without anyone’s help you are in for a world of pain, confusion, frustration, and ragequitting. You cannot play Dwarf Fortress without referencing its wiki or consulting the community forums. There’s no tutorial, there’s not real in game guide, and you could go online and memorize every element of the game and still fail miserably 90% of the time. And that’s fine. There are some games where it’s not only acceptable to look up the answers: it’s downright necessary for the enjoyable playing of the game itself. Dwarf Fortress is arguably the king of these games but it’s not the only one. Minecraft is the most recent and most notable entry into this category. I was lucky: the first time I played Minecraft it was at a LAN party with someone in the room who had played it before. Without his guidance I would have had no clue what I was doing; thanks to them my first experience with the game wasn’t walking around wondering what I was supposed to do before getting killed by zombies after the sun set. Instead it was filled with frantic activity and steady learning. “Punch one of the tree blocks to get some wood, and make a craft table. See those boxes above your inventory? That’s how you craft. You can make tools to do different jobs faster, but right now we need to make some picks and find some coal so we can make torches before it gets dark. Yeah, we’ll need those because zombies come out when it’s dark and will kill us, so let’s get moving.” Minecraft is a game where if you’re too proud to ask for help or look it up on the wiki you will not be able to have much fun. Sure it’s possible to figure out all the crafting recipes on your own by trial and error…but it’s not much fun, and you don’t feel any less accomplished if you look them up.
KSP is the same way. Sure I had fun experimenting with new designs: but it’s incredibly frustrating when your rockets fail and you don’t know why. Online there’s a whole community of people who are all learning together. It’s not cheating to share in that knowledge. Imagine if you tried playing a game like Shogun: Total War or Starcraft II for the first time and you refused to use the tutorial first. If you got frustrated and confused, then it would be your own fault. But for a lot of indie games like Minecraft or KSP there is no (or only extremely simple) in game tutorials. The community is the tutorial, and if you don’t use it then you won’t be able to enjoy the game to its fullest.
So it’s time for me to put down my foolish pride. If you need me I’ll be cruising the KSP forums looking for tips on how to get to the moon.