THE FINAL FRONTIER
The week of May 17, 2015

Behind the indie video game sensation that caught NASA’s attention

By Cynthia McKelvey

“Here let’s zoom in so you can see your Kerbal floating above Kerbin,” my boyfriend suggests before hitting the “M” key on his keyboard.

He’s helping me learn how to play Kerbal Space Program (KSP), an indie PC game popular on Steam. I’m new at the game and wanted to see how far I could get, so I enlisted my boyfriend’s aid. I successfully launched my first rocket; now I am trying to get into orbit. I have a few minutes before I need to do my next maneuver, so I’m admiring the sights below.

“OK, let’s go back,” he begins, but we both freeze at the sound of my engine disconnecting from and falling away from my spaceship. He accidentally pressed the spacebar—triggering the engine decoupling—instead of “M” to zoom out to the orbit view. I’m now floating free, with no engine to boost me into orbit. My mission has failed.

“Goddamn it!” I sigh, exasperated. My boyfriend wouldn’t stop apologizing all night.

At its heart, KSP is a space flight simulator—players construct spacecrafts and conduct missions manned by cute, wall-eyed little green men and women called Kerbals—but it’s so much more than a training exercise. Available in beta since 2010, the game’s very realistic physics has attracted hardcore gamers, physicists, and engineers alike. Even NASA is so impressed with the game that it collaborated with the development team to create a playable mission based on a real-life NASA mission. With a thriving community in the thousands already behind it, KSP just released its first official version, Kerbal Space Program 1.0.

Kerbal 1

Screengrab by Santiago Rubino

In it, players try and fail and try again as they complete missions with a sense of reckless experimentation—perhaps aided by the nigh-indestructible, not-quite-human Kerbals themselves. They’re intrepid folk thrilled to be in space—even if their craft spirals out of control before it clears the atmosphere. If their mission veers off course, they contentedly drift through space without food, water, or company, patiently waiting for their equally doomed rescue mission.

With a little skill and a good enough rocket, players can escape the atmosphere of the Kerbals’ home planet, Kerbin, and visit Kerbin’s two moons, Mün and Minmus. If they’re really good, they can visit even more distant planets. Each planet and moon has its own set of atmospheric and gravitational parameters, forcing players to plan proper flight routes and jet construction to land safely on the planet—and get back to Kerbin with the data they collect. As players accrue data and bring missions home safely, they unlock more features to create more sophisticated rockets and do more complex experiments.

KSP is difficult to learn but also has an endearing charm, thanks to its open structure and whimsical tone. The ragtag, Mün-or-bust Kerbal way means building rockets practically held together with shoestrings and bubblegum. “This thermometer is definitely not a store-bought model with some wires stuck to it,” reads one tongue-in-cheek description. “Warranty void if an engineer admits it’s actually a store-bought model with some wires stuck to it.” Players put some parts together and see what happens.

“Why would the largest space agency in the world want to talk to a bunch of nerds in the heart of Mexico City?”

“That is a great way to learn things,” says Scott Manley, a self-proclaimed “astronogamer” whose series of tutorial videos earned him a following among KSP fans. He believes experimentation and comedic failures encourage players to get creative and learn about physics in an intuitive, hands-on way.

Manley has logged over 2,000 hours in the KSP, mostly recording footage for his videos.

“It’s really rare to see a game that brings together both gaming and astronomy,” says Manley, who pursued a Ph.D. in astronomy before being headhunted by a Bay Area tech company. “Orbital mechanics was something I studied in university, which doesn’t help you in any other game, but I was able to apply it.”

orbital_mechanics

Photo via xkcd.com

From Kerbal to NASA

Felipe Falanghe whiled away his youth modifying fireworks. He fashioned them into little rockets, manned by rocketeers of tinfoil, and launched them into the skies of Mexico just to see how far they would fly. He once even tried to formulate a more explosive gunpowder, which he tested by cooking it in the microwave.

In the late 2000s, Falanghe nearly quit his job at Squad, a marketing company in the heart of Mexico City. He said he couldn’t keep up with the stresses of marketing and wanted to do what he loved: make games. But instead of bidding Falanghe adieu, Squad asked him to pitch them his game idea, Kerbal Space Program.

Getting a realistic space-flight simulator off the ground proved no small feat.

“To say it was a challenge, that would be deeply underselling it,” says Miguel Piña, the game’s producer. “There are no actual rocket scientists in Squad. There were a lot of books brought in, plenty of reading on Wikipedia, formulae on the Internet. It was about finding a way to make it so anyone could understand it.

“Rocket science is really freaking hard,” he adds.

Kerbal, mercifully, is more forgiving.

“A lot of the maneuvers that players do are probably a lot more aggressive than NASA or any space agency would do,” Manley notes. “Kerbal Space Program is quite happy to let you do that and crash.”

KSP also makes interplanetary travel a lot less dull. Real-life spacecraft lumber along at 2,000 miles per hour, taking three days just to get to the moon. (It’s actually quite far away.) But KSP players can tweak the flow of time; its celestial bodies are smaller than the Earth and moon, but with greater gravitational pull. Kerbal space travel occurs over a shorter distance, but the stronger gravity makes take-off and orbit realistically difficult.

“Our community is the lifeblood of Kerbal Space Program,” Piña says. “It’s hard to find two Kerbal players who are exactly the same.”

“We kind of had to play with the laws of physics and reality to make it so people could have a game experience that would make sense to them,” Piña relates.

Despite the tweaking, KSP’s physics caught NASA’s attention. In 2013 the space agency reached out to the development team over Twitter, asking if they would be interested in a collaboration.

Piña says the team was skeptical, and some even suspected a cruel joke: “Why would the largest space agency in the world want to talk to a bunch of nerds in the heart of Mexico City?”

But it was real.

“[KSP is] highly technical; a departure from other gaming options out there,” says Robert Jacobs, the NASA communication manager who wrote the initial tweet.

The game even attracted several NASA engineers. To stimulate interest in real-life space missions and promote NASA’s work, Jacobs suggested they collaborate. That led to a Kerbal update based on the upcoming asteroid redirect mission, part of NASA’s project to get humans to Mars by 2040.

Kerbal 32

Screengrab by Santiago Rubino

“We got to take a peek at the missions they’re planning, and they were kind enough to lend us our expertise in the dos and don’ts of reaching an asteroid,” Piña says. “The biggest thing was getting the information to figure out what the most Kerbal way of undertaking the mission”—which lets players mine or redirect an asteroid.

Jacobs hopes people will click the NASA-related links to learn more about the real-life asteroid missions. He admires KSP as a way to engage more people in space exploration—and possibly inspire some future astronauts. Perhaps players’ creative contraptions may, in turn, inspire NASA engineers.

And the vibrant internet community of KSP players is nothing if not inspired.

Astronauts in training

When Squad—now successfully pivoted from the marketing industry to gaming—first developed the game, the team wasn’t sure whether anyone would be interested in it. “We didn’t have a lot of experience in how to reach people,” Piña says, “but Kerbal is just one of those ‘if you build it, they will come’ stories.”

“We can’t just limit space for men. Space is for everyone.”

In the last four years, KSP has developed a diverse and devoted cult following, with a subreddit of over 100,000 subscribers and a forum pushing 150,000 members, including engineers and scientists from space agencies worldwide. YouTube and Twitch host several Kerbal channels and clips featuring engineering challenges such as creating a working humanoid mech.

“Our community is the lifeblood of Kerbal Space Program,” Piña says. “It’s hard to find two Kerbal players who are exactly the same.”

Some players are committed to simulating real-life missions. Others, Piña says, dedicate themselves to finding and exploiting every glitch in the game. Danny2462 is a YouTube user especially gifted at darkly comedic manipulations of the game’s mechanics. In “Catch-a-Kerbal,” he ejects the small green astronauts from a space plane, then tries to catch them in a makeshift basket on the plane’s nose.

“We almost use him as some sort of test subject,” Piña says. Whenever a new Danny2462 video debuts, the team scours it for evidence of new bugs.

Squad and the KSP development team want to be deeply involved with the gaming community. They’ve open-sourced the game’s physics and mechanics, letting players manipulate it at will. Players have increased the difficulty, for example, by making atmospheric re-entry more realistic. (The development team sometimes even incorporates such modifications; the game’s now-standard space planes are one example.) Others have gone the hardware route, building their own cockpits with customized control panels.

Piña says KSP modders from around the world come together to build and experiment—at all levels of skill.

“You are just as likely to find someone who’s built an amazing robot that has taken advantage of every mechanic of the game as you are to find someone who’s just started the game, who’s made it halfway to the Mün and failed and they will be welcomed with equal enthusiasm,” Piña notes.

It might seems surprising, given the often-toxic nature of Internet “communities,” but Piña suggests KSP players have a different outlook. “I think people who are into space have a different kind of mentality,” he posits. “If someone looks up enough, and they just understand their place and size in the universe, you have a harder time being self-important.”

“We are teaching like college-level physics to people who are probably still struggling with long division.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been controversies among the fans, albeit minor ones. Though the Kerbals were originally supposed to be genderless—like Pikmin or the minions from Despicable Me—in later revisions, Piña says the Kerbals accidentally grew to look more masculine. Some players complained about a lack of female representation. So as of Kerbal 1.0, players can enlist Valentina Kerman, the first female Kerbal.

“We really have to do the right thing,” Piña says. “We can’t just limit space for men. Space is for everyone.”

According to Piña, the community generally liked the idea, but a small but vocal contingent saw it as a waste of time or as pandering. Those players wanted development time devoted trees and clouds instead, arguing that no women play KSP anyway.

Kerbal 22

Screengrab by Santiago Rubino

Piña has seen that adult women are sometimes reluctant to play, but he hopes Valentina will attract more female players. But the team has observed that young boys and girls are equally interested in the game. At South by Southwest, Piña said he was blown away by a young girl of about 9 teaching her older brother how to play. “We are teaching like college-level physics to people who are probably still struggling with long division,” he says.

Squad never planned KSP as an educational tool, but it has become one nonetheless. Teachers can download a special educational version called Kerbal Edu that superimposes thrust and lift vectors onto the spacecraft. Manley, the video tutorial creator, says he regularly receives fan mail from students whose test scores improved after playing KSP.

Piña would love to see some of that curiosity and determination—and the thirst for novelty and adventure—help establish a community of Latin American game designers. “There might be something in the culture in general that makes you think that you can’t be as good as the rest of the world because you’re here, because you don’t have the advantages of Ivy League universities or European healthcare,” Piña says. But he also sees that changing, with more Latin American companies developing games, especially on mobile platforms.

For Squad, Kerbal 1.0 is just the beginning. New features are in the works, planned as free releases over the next several years. Already, though, Kerbal has grown in popularity beyond Piña and Falanghe’s wildest imaginations, Piña says. And the game’s fans are clamoring for more, ready and eager for new ways to send their little green men and women deep into the wilds of space.

Correction: A previous version of this story mis-described Squad. The company continues to to marketing as well as produce Kerbal Space Program.

Photo via Grant/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)