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Angry Red Planet
Jamais Cascio, 21 Aug 04

It appears that NASA recently underwrote the production of a computer game about exploring and eventually colonizing Mars. This would not be a shooter (unlike the original Doom, which was set on Mars) or a wargame -- the #1 rule for producers was that there be no explosions or injuries to explorers. NASA paid a group of students at the University of Montana to design, write, code and record media for a game called "Mars: The Journey Begins." Unfortunately, the game remains locked away, with NASA uncertain how, or even whether, to release it.

This is not the first time a virtual Mars colonization simulation has been made and then not released. In 1999, Maxis -- creator of SimCity, the Sims, and other Sim-related games, was telling everyone about its soon-to-be-released SimMars, a NASA-assisted simulation of Mars exploration, colonization, and eventual terraforming. Although Maxis suggested that the simulation would be released in late 1999, it never came out, and the website for the project was quietly shut down a couple of years ago (although it can still be seen via the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine").

If NASA continues to sit on the University of Montana effort, the next potential hope for simulation game enthusiasts to get a chance to imagine building a colony on Mars (without having to fight extradimensional demons or "enemy" colonists) is the independently-developed "SimMars" mod pack for SimCity 4. This will give new textures, buildings, transportation systems and (presumably) infrastructure to the popular city sim game, although it won't be a full-scale simulation of building in the Mars environment. Currently in development, the target release date is March of next year. You'll note that, with 7 months left to go, the project's News page is filled with links to Design Team News, Graphics Team News, etc., which result in "page not found."

Mars seems as deadly a challenge for software developers as it often is for robotic explorers.

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Comments

“No explosions and no dead people”

Only rarely one can see a short and simple saying that contains everything that is wrong with the subject at hand. The above quote is a good example.

NASA is out of touch with reality in their insistance on 0% casualty rate, in their self-image of being the only ones who can do something in space and in their, so common everywhere, resistance to change.

NASA doesnt exist in vacuum though, and many words continue to be said about our risk averse society. May the Fates save private space entrepreneurs from an early disaster.


Posted by: Cortez on 21 Aug 04

I wonder why they don't just open source it?


Posted by: Vinay on 21 Aug 04

Cortez, I can kind of see NASA's point -- they didn't want to make the Mars sim a combat/adventure sim, they wanted it to be (essentially) a management sim. How can you keep this colony operating and growing? Random accidents and interpersonal struggles may be more realistic, but they distract from the impersonal model of the intended sim.

Vinay, the reasons why developers don't put unreleased code into the open source world are multifold: the code may include stuff they have in their still-proprietary software, and they don't want to jeopardize that; the application may be incomplete or bad, and they don't want people to associate the organization with sloppy & shoddy work; the application may compete with something else they have on the schedule/drawing board, and they don't want to undercut sales of a future product; they may be working to bring it out, or something based on that work, eventually, and don't want to eliminate that option. And so forth.

That said, I do think that Mars is a ripe subject for simulation and virtual adventure. A massively-multiplayer RPG based on the KSR Mars trilogy, for example, would kick all kinds of ass.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 21 Aug 04

> Vinay, the reasons why developers don't put unreleased code into the open source world are multifold: the code may include stuff they have in their still-proprietary software, and they don't want to jeopardize that; the application may be incomplete or bad, and they don't want people to associate the organization with sloppy & shoddy work; the application may compete with something else they have on the schedule/drawing board, and they don't want to undercut sales of a future product; they may be working to bring it out, or something based on that work, eventually, and don't want to eliminate that option. And so forth.

The thing is, this was written by university students. I doubt there's any proprietary code involved, people probably won't care too much about the condition of the code, and this won't be competing with anything else by the university. Open-sourcing really seems like the best option here.


Posted by: Neil Halelamien on 21 Aug 04

That the new Mars sim was done by university students is secondary to the question of who owns it. NASA may not want this released now, and the students can't do much about that. That said, I agree that an F/OSS Mars sim would be good, and if the university *does* own the code, and NASA really isn't going to release it, I do hope the university opens it up.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 21 Aug 04

Hi,
ever heard of the Mars Simulation Project? I never tried it, but the site says it's a "free software Java project to create a simulation of future human settlement of Mars. The simulation is a multi-agent artificial society set in a detailed virtual world."

http://mars-sim.sourceforge.net/


Posted by: Mattes on 23 Aug 04

I've been waiting for a good Mars simulation for years! Hope we at least get the SimCity one soon. Will it have any terraforming?

As for open source, how would an open source game work? I can see something text-based, but graphics-heavy games aren't that modular, are they? Players can create new characters, objects, scenarios, etc, but that's not the same as open source.


Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 23 Aug 04

I invite all those here to see what Vision Videogames has been working on with NASA for the last three years. Go to

http://www.vision-play.com

Space StationSIM is nearing completing and we hope will be a very popular game. We developed it through a Space Act Agreement with NASA and appreciate their assistance.
Best Regards,
Bill


Posted by: William Mueller on 8 Sep 04

Thanks, Bill -- I checked out the site, and the project looks very interesting. I look forward to seeing the final result!


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 8 Sep 04



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