Flieger, grüß' mir die Sonne, grüß' mir die Sterne und grüß' mir den Mond. Dein Leben, das ist ein Schweben, durch die Ferne, die keiner bewohnt! - Hans Albers, F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Adaptation in the 80s: Extrabreit)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Joined the Kerbal Space Program

Yes, it´s the fault of Elite: Dangerous that I found out about this game called "Kerbal Space Program"; it was mentioned in an online article alongside. I had already read about it before, but hadn´t been convinced by its early access programme, the impression of a very inaccessible UI without any game goal to achieve turned me away. This has changed. Open Beta now offers a career mode, where your task is to accumulate money, technical expertise ("science") and reputation in order to start and grow a veritable space programme for your species, the Kerbals. The latter provide for comedy relief, they seem to be offspring or grand-grand-evolution of the Lemmings of the old days. They would just go ahead and do whatever required. In other words, perfect test pilots.

I got sucked in right from the start. You have to build your rocket, later also air/space plane if you want to, and fulfil missions in order to get the mentioned game representations. The fascinating thing is that it is very accurately representing real physics. It took me two days (literally) in order to figure out the higher art of entering and maintaining earth orbit. Apoapsis and Periapsis, prograde are terms from space flight science which I never had heard of before. Well, this knowledge is vital for this game. Moreso, outfitting rocket is a delicate game of balancing thrust to weight ratios, take into account some rudimentary lift and drag (air resistance) simulation, the economic costs and the Kerbal lifes (plural). Fortunately, the beta version has a "reverse flight" button, so I could undo my countless attempts to get that heavy load up higher than 10 km...

- one of my first tries to mix rocket engines with jet engines for reaching nav points for missions on Kerbal

It is a sandbox for your creativity, remining me of my old days when I constructed real rockets from a mix of fireworks and Lego components (yes, I made it work, but I never found them again after launch...). Of course, just playing the rules is not enough for me, as with Elite, there are my own added goals to fulfil. My generation has received key terms like recycling and sustainability with the mother´s milk already, as we say in Germany, it is of course hardly acceptable to use throw-away stages, expensive ones at that. As a result, my rockets have to pull along a lot of dead weight. Combinations with air/space planes are not available yet for me. Kerbals evolved their tech with rockets first and not with planes, it seems.

The Kerbal Space Program has an abundance of positive reviews, mostly from early-access nerds, but that´s fine by me. Why does this game fascinate me? Because it covers some aspects which I would passionately like to see but are not covered by Elite: Dangerous yet. It is even closer to real world paradigms, you can build your own realistic spacecraft and you can actually land on planets.

Add to that a 100% newtonian flight model and realistic physics with drag and gravitation mechanics, and you have your challenge set up. On top of having to figure out the games mystical UI; the tutorial on travelling to the moon ("Mün") stops the moment when it comes to actually land on it with the lander module (quote tutorial: "Have fun trying it, mission control, over and out!"). Let´s just say, the infamous "splash" at an Orbis´ station walls from the old Elite gets a whole new dimension here! That´s where the Kerbals´ genetic qualities from the Lemmings comes into play. Fortunately the game´s player fanbase got most aspects covered with a wiki portal and numerous tutorial videos (some of them also from an avid Elite-fan).

This game is for sure an incredible learning experience. After all, the goal of virtual realities is to have a learning environment. One of the more known computer game celebrities, Sid Meier, only recently stressed that every good game includes a little bit of learning grounds. If just more so called adult humans would understand this. It is part of our basic motivation to actually play games; we want to learn. This is also again my point driven home that we should actually re-label computer games into virtual reality applications (might want to find a snappier term, though).

The Kerbal Space Program it is easy enough on you to get started with, and soon I found myself immersed in rocket construction and testing. There are also a lot of sub-orbital missions, which require extra finesse to time and steer your rocket into certain ascend and speed levels, at best cost efficiency, if possible on first try, of course...

It is still a beta version, I realized when a mission had me land on earth/Kerbal itself for a simulated EVA mission. Problem is, landing at 1g gravitation in a thick atmosphere on a spot which is unmarked and only rudimentary pointers as to where exactly this spot is supposed to be, proved indeed to be the toughest challenge so far, some gradients above the challenge of "just" getting that damn rocket into a stable orbit. And after four hours, when I finally succeeded with one controlled touch-down close enough to a target area, I was crazy enough to take two more of those well-payed missions later on. The result was some hair tearing, lots of deceased Kerbal pilots, a passed weekend, and some dawning but crude understanding about how tough being a pilot can be, and how scary it can be out there in space, where you are in essential just falling and falling permanently, and that rocket science is indeed rocket science!

The most notable result and my current pride is my "Space Ship One". It is a hybrid consisting of three turbo jet engines, a centered liquid-fuel engine and one staged cheap and small solid fuel rocket engine. This setup is able to get the spacecraft into sub-orbit of up to 100 km (sub-orbit in Kerbal starts already at 70km), but also fly through the atmosphere for an extended time, and land vertically and actually allow the pilot to get out (space-proof ladders are a high tech item which took some research to make available, right next to wheels...). An upgrade with three more small booster rockets provides for enough punch for achieving a stable orbit, thereby reducing throwaway components to an absolute minimum.

My other accomplishment was to build an airplane, get it launched and also land it safely, on my first try (although that one has remained the only one since...).

 - common occurence in Kerbal Space Program

And such hath passed the weekend, and will do some more days to come, I get the feeling! I don´t mind; Elite: Dangerous is still on my low apoapsis until the Oculus Rift is finally out and anti-prograde until a "landing on planets" expansion. It is just a pity that my day has only 24 hours and there are only 7 per week and that an efficient life includes mundane stuff like a job, socialising and sports (and a need for food and so on...), else I would love to also maintain my daily travels through Elite´s beautiful galaxy! But Elite: Dangerous is not the only shunned bride; wife and kid are away, and I have also skipped tackling the weekend challenge from Dragon Age Inquisition Multiplayer.

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