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Mars Society - Alpha Centauri: Mars Edition proposal

Index:

1. Background
2. Purpose
3. Resources required
4. Potential market
5. Possible features
6. Advantages over an original game
7. Conclusion

Background:

Alpha Centauri is the newest product from Firaxis games. Quote from Firaxis website:

"In this turn-based game, you are the leader of a faction that has just crash-landed on the surface of Alpha Centauri; you must now explore the area around you, discover how to survive and expand on the alien world, build up an empire, and conquer rival factions who seek to undermine your goals."

"SMAC uses common file formats for art, sound, video, and text files. Users can therefore modify a wide range of stuff in the game, including the look of the units, the sound effects, and many of the rules."

Expanding a little more on the description, Alpha Centauri is a turn-based simulation game of colonists on a new world trying to survive. Players are given total control over their units - they can build cities, assign people to work on science, build libraries, hospitals, hydroponics labs, research new technologies and make deals with other 'factions'. The level of control goes so far as to allow players to decide whether their society will be any number of types, e.g., totalitarian, capitalist, communist, benevolent dictatorship. They can change social conditions to conscription for the army, free medical health care, a free information system, or in the opposite extreme, a volunteer army, private health care and strict control of information. Each has its own repercussions.

In essence, players are given control to the micro/macromanagement level, although they can assign the computer AI to perform mundane tasks such as city management.

An integral part of the game is the terraformation of the planet - players can choose to keep the planet as it is, or try and melt the ice-caps, release greenhouse gases to raise the surface temperature and create a human-viable environment. This particular aspect would be of much use to a 'Mars Edition' as terraformation will be an issue central to possible colonists.

Developing a 'Mars Edition' of Alpha Centauri would not be technically challenging. The designers of Firaxis have previously written Civilization, and Civilization 2. Both these games have been critically acclaimed by the gaming media, won several awards, and also sold several million copies.

In fact, with Civilization 2, a 'Mars pack' was written in the public domain and distributed freely, although it lacked a storyline and detailed technology tree. However, this goes to show that it is very possible to create add-on packs for Alpha Centauri.

Altering the art, sound, video and text files, as well as the rules, would allow the Mars Society to create a game that would accurately convey the atmosphere and terrain of Mars, as well as using realistic technologies. It would also save the Mars Society the time and money required in writing a first-class game engine.

Alpha Centauri will be released late 1998/early 1999.

Purpose:

Alpha Centauri: Mars Edition would primarily serve to increase the public outreach of the Mars Society, and to increase awareness in the aims of the Mars Society and how they will be achieved. All this could be done at a very low cost to the Mars Society.

Resources required:

Very little financial backing would be required, and I feel that a team of around ten dedicated volunteers would be sufficient. Gaming experience, preferably beta-testing experience would be required, as would a knowledge of game design. Some members would have to be proficient in using art packages, others in writing, and more in programming.

The level of expertise in these fields would not have to be high. The programming of the Mars Edition would be simply altering features of Alpha Centauri, not producing a new game. People with knowledge of 3D art tools could be used to create units and buildings, but they would not have to be very detailed.

The members of the team could communicate via the Internet and if a message board forum were provided as well as some space on the Mars Society server, communication would be relatively trouble free.

Potential market:

Since the Mars Edition would be an add-on pack for Alpha Centauri, the potential market for this game is limited to that of Alpha Centauri. However, it is almost guaranteed that Alpha Centauri will do extremely well, having a loyal consumer base to work from. Civilization 2 sold millions of copies, and this follow up game should experience the same success. Add-on packs for Civilization 2 have similarly sold well.

As the Mars Edition would be created by volunteers, and all profits would go to the Mars Society, the add-on pack could be priced very competitively. A distributor will have to be found for the Mars Edition add-on pack.

Possible features:

Alpha Centauri: Mars Edition would contain a brand-new storyline which although would be fictional, would stick to facts as closely as possible. Technologies would be changed to more feasible ones, such as NTR rockets, solar sails, orbiting mirrors. However, in later stages of the game more sophisticated technologies such as nanotech and fusion.

Emphasis can be made on colonists having to 'live off the land.' Structures such as the malls and geodesic domes shown in 'Case for Mars' could be used in the game, as well as moholes, NTR shuttles and so on.

Alpha Centauri: Mars Edition would be partly fictional in order to generate sales. Non-fiction games such as SimCity exist and do well, but I feel their style of play would not be suited towards a game concerned with the colonisation of Mars. Games such as Outpost by Sierra, while trying to remain as factual as possible, do contain a certain element of fiction and so sell better.

A possible storyline for Alpha Centauri: Mars Edition is that in the first decades of 2000, a private organisation begins the human exploration and settlement of Mars using the Mars Direct plan. Soon, the first habitats have landed on the surface and begin exploration. Explorers begin to stay on Mars for longer and longer periods, and start to link habitats together. Experimentation is carried out in using indigenous materials to produce metals and compounds for further habitats, and experiments in growing food on Mars are successful. A small colony is established.

Other organisations see this and send their own teams. The United Nations establishes its own base on Mars, and attempts to become and authority for all living there. Some of the organisations are reclusive, some want terraforming as soon as possible, others don't want it at all. In the later stages of the game, one or more of the non-player factions, when suitably strong, announce their independence from the UN and aggressively expand their sphere of influence. Other factions may join them or oppose them. During this time, terraforming and scientific research is being conducted. The player will be embroiled in number of different factions all with different agendas. 'Special projects' such as 'space elevators,' space stations, etc, can all be produced. In addition, the player can choose to be any faction at the start of the game.

Admittedly, this storyline is very much like that of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. In fact, it would be preferable to use his storyline, but James Cameron has bought the rights to the Red Mars series and is planning to create a mini-series out of them, with heavy use of CGI techniques. On the other hand, this is a Mars Society game, and so should be based on the Mars Direct plan. So this storyline would be entirely believable, entertaining and also based on fact. This storyline could obviously be changed.

One of the major features of Alpha Centauri, and so the Mars Edition as well, is that it is multi-player capable. Up to seven players can connect over a LAN or the Internet to compete against each other. This would certainly increase the lifespan of the game.

Also on the CD could be included an educational resource about Mars and the Mars Society. This would be similar to the Mars Society section I am planning to include in the Eurisko GCSE study guide, containing information on the Mars Direct programme, the purposes of the Mars Society, possibly video interviews, information on the Arctic base project, etc. This would interest players in the Mars Society, perhaps enough to make them join, but at least to make them aware of the Society.

Via the Mars Society message boards, suggestions for the game could be conveyed to the designers, allowing the development of a well-rounded game.

Advantages over a 'full' Mars Society commerical game:

I feel that it would be a waste of resources to produce two separate Mars Computer games. I think that it would be very difficult for volunteers from the Mars Society to create a high-quality computer game from ground up that could compete with existing titles and also be finished within a reasonable time. Any proficient programmers in the Mars Society will already have jobs, and I'm not certain whether they would have enough time to participate in two projects. Cutting edge computer games have programmers and artists working on them full time, with long working hours and excellent facilities. As yet, the Mars Society does not possess the same resources, and doesn't have to either. The Mars Society will want to be associated with the very best of technology and media, and this means all Mars Society affiliated products must be of the highest quality - it would be easier for us to create a good add-on pack for a good game then spending time trying to compete when we don't have the resources or time.

Conclusion:

With the rise of computer gaming as an entertainment medium, a Mars Society add-on pack to Alpha Centauri would be able to access the potential of the youth, teach players about the problems and advantages in Mars colonisation and increase awareness of the Mars Society. As an add-on pack, it would be easier, cheaper and quicker to produce than a full-scale game, and most probably of higher quality. Alpha Centauri: Mars Edition could be produced in less than a year after the release of Alpha Centauri, and a beta version could be produced in time for the summer convention in 1999.

Adrian Hon
20/9/98

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