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Aspera Ad Astra

March 7, 2009

A phrase from a recent post by Craig Perko piqued my interest: “checklist games.” Perko was describing why the upcoming NASA MMO was destined for failure – that games that begin with a theme or a premise and attempt to design around it can become “checklists:” an accumulation of mechanics or systems based on experiences from a source material considered to be exciting or cool by its fans.

The trouble comes from trying to create games from situations that do not lend themselves to game-like behavior. The designers build the game on a foundation of faith that simulating these experiences, however feebly, will still be engaging and successful simply because of the enthusiasm of the fans, but they are too often proven wrong. A premise can be a good place to start when designing a game, but remaining too closely focused on it can cause a designer to fail to ensure their system is fun as well as faithful to the source. We’ve all see it happen.

But does it have to be this way? Surely no subject is wholly incapable of translation into game form. On principle we believe that any human experience can be simulated (even if not perfectly) in an interactive rule-based system. We’ve seen so many games made about such a wide variety of experiences that this assertion is constantly proving itself true. In the case of NASA, the trouble lies not with the premise (space flight can certainly be pretty exciting) but with accuracy – remaining too faithful to the details of the source is what kills the fun.

As Perko points out, astronauts actually lead remarkably boring lives… except for being in zero-G all the time. Trying to construct mechanics that carefully recreate and simulate the life of an astronaut must be, by definition, similarly boring. The designers of NASA’s MMO need to toss the mission plan and think about the visceral, emotional draw of space flight – the excitement and wonder that gets schoolkids all over the country up before dawn to peer through their telescopes. What are these emotional hooks? Discovery and exploration, mostly. It’s the uncovering of new, previously unknown amazements that is attractive about space – just like the Star Trek intro preaches.

Countless successful games abour space travel have been made, and even a few good MMOs (such as EVE Online). There have also been some famously poor games about space travel, particularly ones that try to approximate real-life astronaut skills and situations. NASA needs to learn from these examples and make a game that skips the brunt of the mundane tediousness of actually physically traveling in space and focuses on the wonder that comes from contemplating traveling in space. In this case, manipulation of the players’ emotions by playing to their fantasies will make for much stronger, more powerful mechanics than robust simulation of the strict reality, and once the players are hooked and flying high on this wonder, NASA will have practically achieved its goal: get and keep people interested in space flight. They will succeed at making the idea of space flight fun for hundreds or thousands of people.

– David McDonough

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2009 5:06 pm

    Your first post is on me? I’m flattered!

    Obviously, I agree. I just wish I could be as concise.

    I guess a good way to start would be to write shorter comme

  2. elgatodiablo permalink
    March 8, 2009 2:34 am

    Considering that this game hasn’t been created yet, or really even designed, I would would suggest that the ‘reviewers’ are breaking the oldest rule in the book. One could certainly wonder why a lifetime devoted to science followed by visiting realms where few have tread would be interesting, but of course that’s the whole point. An offering at this point in time, sharing the adventure of visiting other worlds in a meaningful imaginative way that allows the public to visit these places as well is a worthy endeavour. At least offer up something useful to the boys designing the thing and give them a chance.

  3. March 9, 2009 8:14 am

    This is a greater issue for most games built on licensed IP. If you’re making a game based on “Desperate Housewives” or “House” or what have you, you’d better darn well figure out what makes those shows compelling to their fans, and then figure out what systems you can design around it.

    So, I’m not sure I have the same problem with “checklists” that Craig does. I think it’s a perfectly valid way to make a licensed game. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if you *don’t* do this, you’re setting yourself up to make a great game that has nothing to do with the license… and is therefore not what the audience expects… so you get ripped by reviewers who wanted one thing and got another. Even if the thing you gave them is a perfectly good game-qua-game.

    So, the trick isn’t to avoid checklists, but to design the systems so they’re fun. But that’s the hard part with any game, license or no, isn’t it?

  4. jcaskey permalink
    March 10, 2009 2:07 pm

    I agree that they should look into making it a little stylized, that a serious space-flight simulation would be relatively boring. The idea of focusing on extracting the emotion and excitement of exploration sound great.

    The problem lies with the subject matter itself: I think it will be inherently difficult for them to design a game around exploring what is essentially nothing. If you really look at it, the appeal of Star Trek had very little to do with actual space travel, it was about the planets and people they discovered. By simply including that kind of content, not only would they already be shifting the core of their game, they’re increasing the overall scope exponentially. Whenever you design a game about space travel, it’s very difficult to balance what kinds of things the player will actually be able to do up there.

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