We Aim to Miss the Moon: Or, “How I Learned Orbital Mechanics Instead Of Fudging It All The Time”

Some years ago, I attempted to land on the moon.

Okay, it was the moon in the astrosim Orbiter. But it was, in logistical terms, still a huge challenge; Orbiter is a simulation, after all. So I decided to make things a little bit easier on myself. After all, I could learn the necessary astrophysical calculations to do it as NASA did in the 1960s. Or I could use the future! The science fiction future of Firefly, to be precise. I figured that the main challenge would merely be the limits of my vehicle. So, I postulated, if I was to use a high-tech scifi spaceship, it would be easy! I wouldn’t need to worry about trifling matters such as calculations. And I could not have been more wrong.

Serenity leaves Earth in a general moon-like direction

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Sim City 2013

So you may have heard there’s a new instalment of the legendary Sim City franchise freshly released. You may also have heard that it is having problems. And yes there’s probably a fair amount of drama thrown into the mix; after all, everybody loves a good train-wreck and EA Games is about as popular as the Child Catcher at a PTA meeting (and they’ve only got themselves to blame). I certainly have little patience for the game’s constant excuses, having cancelled my own pre-order as soon as I realised it stank of Origin. And I think the main reason they decided to shamelessly rip off a previous title is because they realised calling it Sim City 2013 might be admitting it’s a whole 987 iterations below Sim City 3000.

In any case, it would appear it’s time move on to something better. But what are the options for a modern Sim City game? An obvious first choice would be their contemporary competitor Cities XL. Despite being for the most part a Sim City wannabe, the most recent version is still much closer to what SC2013 should have been; fully customisible, massive plots of land and all the sort of infrastructure and zoning you’ve come to expect from these games (as opposed to those Duplo city playsets on Facebook that call themselves games, like Sim City Social or Cityville).

Up close in Cities XL

Up close in Cities XL

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Space Exploration & Orbiter

While riding the highways and byways of the hypertext stream (oh grief, please don’t ever let me use that sentence again) I recently encountered two unique Space-themed titles of a more exploratory and scientific kind than many of us are used to. As an intrepid explorer myself (I occasionally drive to Wales), I was very interested to delve into them.

For anyone with the desire to become the next pulp-scifi space captain (and possessing the rudimentary minimum imagination necessary to read a book), Space Exploration : Serpens Sector is a work-in-progress worth a look. Fundamentally, the game focuses on a top-down view of an area of star systems which you can visit with a simple click. However, each journey costs fuel to get there (and of course, to get back). Fortunately, your friends at the home station are on hand to reward your exploring efforts with more fuel, so it forms a principle resource.

All this would be pretty dull were it not for the fact that every new star system holds something different; contact with new races, hanging out in bars on asteroids, having your crew abducted… every voyage plays out like an episode of Star Trek. Of course, with this incredible scope these encounters are text-based, but as stated earlier this gives it quite a literary feel and the entirely random universe varies well.

Additionally, battles are fought out using a detailed (if sometimes ponderous) combat engine of a similar look and feel to the galactic map. A nice touch is that you can ask your crew for advice in battle, advice that is actually worth listening to. The version I played was the tenth, and current, build, which seemed very stable and gave no problems. And unlike many indie developers that feel cornered into using awful DRM in their games, Metal Beetle have stated the game will be free; only the content-adding expansions will cost anything. Read more about that here.

The second game, which is not so much a game as an immensely complex freeware simulator of space flight, is called Orbiter. Featuring the Space Shuttle, the ISS, plus a number of theoretical craft of the near future, it almost reminds me of the first time I played Xplane back in its old days. It has that charm, that strange attraction that comes from simulating just about everything that makes you go “I wonder what happens if I do this.”

Orbiter is 100% a simulator. One way to tell this is that I have only really been able to figure out how to pitch, bank and yaw. After connecting a joystick I discovered I could throttle the forward thrusters. Yet it had me spinning in orbit for half an hour, fascinated, attempting to try this and that to see just how easy it is to knock a shuttle out of orbit. I was expecting the slightest goof to send me plummeting toward the big blue thing, but here it would seem it’s almost as hard to hit a planet as it is to miss it; several times I found myself accelerating away from Earth accidentally at ridiculous speeds. This is the nature of orbits, although one always wonders what is accurate and what isn’t in a simulator: especially when my triumphal crash into the pacific ocean actually made me bounce a kilometre back up into the air.

Orbiter is a geek’s toy, no doubt about that. But it does come with a plethora of preset scenarios and recorded sessions to help you see it all without having to first attain a Masters in astrophysics. You can watch the shuttle launch in the skilled hands of an expert, which gives you an idea of the scale and speed of the real thing. Many other situations and some very fine graphics (for the most part) make it an educational, often enjoyable indulgence; especially for space nerds like me that could reel off all the planets and moons from the age of five.

My only real gripe was the lack of sound, even in the atmosphere (but as you’re mostly in space this isn’t a biggie). The lack of planetary detail beyond Cape Kennedy is a shame too, but an understandable limitation. I would have liked to have seen better simulation of impact with the ocean/land at 100 metres per second, but I guess they aren’t supposed to show shuttles disintegrating in a game of this nature.

Overall, both of these are labours of love and definitely niche programs, but it is refreshing to see an experience you just can’t find elsewhere!

Iron Skies Devblog: New Start!

Welcome to the first of the development blog posts for my game project, Iron Skies!

This still just looks like a mess, alex

So first up, a bit about what Iron Skies is. It started out as a university project in Blitz Basic 3D, circa 2006. In 2009 I decided to make a completely new version from scratch in the fantastic Unity3D game engine.

The game is based on my much-talked (but so far still public-elusive) Cloudgazer universe. You play an airship captain, able to take command of anti-gravity battleships and nimble skyfighters, in a battle for supremacy of this groundless world. The cool thing about the game is that not only can you fight naval style real-time aerial combat in all manner of craft, you can actually build the airships yourself using a component system. This same system even allows damage to be taken based on hit location, and your ship’s stats in every attribute depend on the condition of these components. Shoot up someone’s engines and they’ll be reduced to a crawl, and even sink them by destroying the antimass tanks: provider of lift!

The current stage of the project sees me finally having a set of almost finished airship components in Unity, which have been compounded into a ship that can be flown about. You can also switch craft at this stage, which is an odd feature to see this early (especially as it probably won’t actually feature in the gameplay). However this helps debugging no end, and also ensures proper separation between Player and Craft in the code, aiding both AI and multiplayer architecture.

Space Station Sim

I buy more games than I play. I think everyone does this a little. But I also buy games I know aren’t that great, just because I’m curious. I’m curious to know what’s out there; what the virtual world offers us today, how it ticks, and what I could do to improve it. This has led me to buy games that I rarely play, and take chances on titles with such bad marketing and presentability that their only other buyers will be confused pensioners and clueless parents. Raph Koster calls it ‘Designeritis’: the almost scientific need to acquire and analyse as many games as possible, then toss them aside like an ungrateful teenager.

Well one such whim was a game called Space Station Sim, recently on offer at my local GAME for a rather amusing £1.95. How can I say no to research at that kind of price? Titles that do something I’ve not otherwise had a chance to do always perk my interest, regardless of how interesting the activity may appear at first glance. Making a spacestation sounded intriguing, so I payed the price of a bare sandwich and took a look. Review follows! Continue reading