Have You Played… Kerbal Space Program?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Most films and books about actual human space exploration are about triumph. There are challenges and accidents along the way, but they’re stories of humans overcoming incredible odds in the noble pursuit of knowledge and exploration. Kerbal Space Program [official site] is different because it’s a game about the failures along the way, rather than the success that comes at the end.

KSP has you clicking together rocket parts like Lego bricks and then piloting those rockets towards your own expanding goals: first, to get into orbit, then to land on the Mun, then to get home again, and so on. Depending on the mode you choose to play, this progress might be directed via missions or structured according to the financial expansion of your NASA-like space research center. But the core joy of it always remains the creativity in designing your own spaceships, the physics model which makes escaping atmospheres and gravitational pulls tricky, and the freedom to crash, explode, break apart through your own dumb mistakes.

The latter will happen a lot. Your first rocket will lift five feet off the ground and then collapse back on to the launch pad with a shuddering explosion. Your second will simply fall over without lifting off the ground at all. Your third might end up in the sea, while the next dozen crash into a each of the Kerbal homeworld’s continents. Even success will come as a kind of failure: you’ll reach orbit, but then what? As your grinning Kerbal astronauts drift around the globe, you’ll realise that you’ve no fuel to bring them back down. Kerbal Space Program will communicate to you the scale of the universe and the majesty of human endeavor by depicting progress as a series of embarrassing failures. That’s what makes it fun, and what makes it inspiring.

As I’ve grown a little older, I’ve abandoned a lot of my dreams of greatness. Instead my ambitions are more meager, and somehow therefore easier to pursue. For example, I no longer imagine that I might one day be an expert coder, but I’ve come to realise that I can muddle through, with a lot of patience and Googling, to accomplish what I want. “Muddle through” is kind of my motto: it pushes me to do things even when I know I won’t be good at them, when I’m afraid of being bad at them.

Kerbal Space Program is a game about muddling through. You might not be able to get those stranded Kerbals home from the Mun yet, but that’s a small price to pay for going to the Mun.

21 Comments

  1. Zenicetus says:

    Coincidentally, I just started playing it again a few weeks ago, after being away for a couple of years. The last version I played was before science gadgets and career modes, back when people were trying to figure out if you could actually land and take off from Eve (it’s been done many times now).

    I’ve been fooling around with Career Mode, got as far as orbital rendezvous (not docking yet) and a Mun flyby. Career mode is a mixed bag. The concept is good; it provides some direction to your space program while still allowing plenty of flexibility in exactly how you build your planes and spacecraft. Restricting the part list by making your earn your way into better gear is a good learning experience for newcomers.

    But the actual execution of Career mode is still pretty rough. The tech tree isn’t always very logical, and the sequencing of missions you get often doesn’t ‘make sense. You’ll get “test this part” missions that are impossible for your tech level, or missions to fly tourists on a Mun flyby or orbit before you’ve even done that with a basic single-Kerbal craft. This needs a lot of work, but I’m still enjoying it by just ignoring the sillier missions. The Sandbox mode is still available if you want to be completely self-directed.

    The user forums are good, and there are a ton of how-to YouTube videos available. Look for the name “Scott Manley” if you want to learn stuff (and also be a little discouraged at how easy the program looks for other people). There is also a huge modding scene.

    It’s not an easy game until you get the concepts down, but you can learn about rocketry and orbital mechanics by hilariously blowing stuff up, and doing a little better next time. There’s nothing else quite like it.

    • Merlin the tuna says:

      “Test this part” missions actually give you temporary access to the part until you’ve completed the contract. They’re a nice way to repeat a science activity while also scratching off a contract. And I guess in theory you could leapfrog the tech tree a bit if they ask you to test a badass engine or something.

      • Zenicetus says:

        That’s something I only just realized after reading a forum post. I got one contract to test the launchpad stabilizer thing. I completed it and lost the test part. Should have waited, so I could use it indefinitely until I reached that part of the tech tree.

        I guess the main limitation is in the early career, where you can only keep a certain number of active contracts until you upgrade Mission Control to level 3 for unlimited active contracts.

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          I think for the test contracts you get given five or so of the part in question, so you can’t get too cheat-y with it.
          Fortunately the tech tree and contract system are easy to mod (the tech tree is just a text file), so even if Squad don’t get round to it, the modding scene will.

  2. Merlin the tuna says:

    Even success will come as a kind of failure: you’ll reach orbit, but then what? As your grinning Kerbal astronauts drift around the globe, you’ll realise that you’ve no fuel to bring them back down

    Oh god, this. My first orbital craft had just the tiniest squirt of fuel left in the tank to inch back towards Kerbin. So now, every time it circles the planet, it just barely grazes the upper atmosphere, slowing down and taking off a few meters of altitude. A hundred more revolutions, and maybe it’ll make it home! Or explode in a horrible, fiery re-entry. Could go either way.

    This gaaaaaaame!

    • adamsorkin says:

      In the most Kerbal of Exploits, you can get can actually get out and push. If you aim retrograde at your apoapsis, you can do an EVA, go to the back of the ship (or the front, and aim prograde) and use your EVA thrusters to decelerate your ship. Since you’ve got infinite EVA fuel, you can very tediously (you get 5 m/s dV for Kerbal’s worth of mass every time you exit the ship) get enough dV to shift your orbit into (or deeper into, in this case) an atmosphere at periapsis.

      • Premium User Badge

        neffo says:

        EVA fuel is no longer infinite (by which I presume you meant replenished each time you get in the craft again).

        It actually uses fuel from the craft now, so if the tank is empty it won’t be replenished.

        • aleander says:

          No, it doesn’t. That was the plan, but it doesn’t. I don’t exactly remember the reason they backed off, but it was something along the lines of “not yet ready”.

        • aleander says:

          Oh, and (dammit, no edit!), the resources thing is a common problem for mods, e.g. Antenna Range adds electric charge to kerbals, but until the most recent version it also refilled from “nothing”.

  3. Senethro says:

    Hello friends. Please remember that it is a good idea to attach computer cores even to manned vessels. This allows mission control to control the vessel. This is especially useful if, say, your kerbonaut exits a very tall lander without extending the ladder first, and cannot climb or jet back inside. Just saying.

    • Aninhumer says:

      Of course, even if you had put the computer module on, you’d then realise you forgot any batteries/solar panels and it’s been deadweight for almost the entire journey.

      Or maybe you did add panels, but the ship just happens to perfectly line up the tiny axis with no panel exposure with the sun at the exact window of time you need to make the orbital insertion burn you’ve just spent an hour setting up.

      Not that I’m bitter about that.

      • James says:

        Don’t remind me. Stuffed up a landing on Moho because of that.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I had a very, very tense period of sitting, watching a probe very, very slowly turn through that point, its batteries depleted, hoping it’d catch a glimpse of the sun before falling into Kerbin’s shadow, and then atmosphere.

        And I couldn’t dare time-accellerate, since that’d kill the tiny rotational velocity that was its only hope. (It did, eventually, make it.)

  4. James says:

    When in doubt, more struts.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      If it moves, and it shoulden’t then use more duct tape struts. If it doesn’t move, and it should; WD40 boosters.

  5. Cinek says:

    Well, it’s as good game as it is flawed.

    Career mode is basically the “meat” of this game, but at the same time ranking up difficulty above medium basically increases grind, not the difficulty itself, and it’s very much unfinished – in terms of contracts, tech tree (which at the moment is probably the worst offender – it’s basically a scrap from an early version of the game that never got updated to create any logical progression with new items) and post-Munar gameplay (which is where Career basically stops working and real chore of a grind begins). And if you are just looking to explore space – it is great… until you find out that there’s nothing to explore as every planet is basically a ball with texture that changes colors (there are easter eggs, sure, but.. huge amount of them are broken (eg. deeply under the surface) and there’s still nothing to… actually explore, like canyons, volcanoes, rivers, seas with different waves depending on what they are made of, etc. etc.) and has a different terrain scatter from one to another (which sadly is useless cause these objects do not have a collision mesh)

    Game got reentry heat, but it’s so flawed that just as well it might not be there at all. Same with heat management – it sort-of-is-there, but never really becomes something you need to think about. Same with science – basic clickfest, but nothing that would actually require you to build a spacecraft for a particular use (like Hubble was build to be a space telescope or Deep Impact was build to hit comet and observe the event).

    KSP is released… but at the same time lacks numerous things to make it feel like a released game – eg. SLS parts set lacks numerous components (eg. short, upper stage, engine), some parts, like Probodobodyne QBE are a one-off shot that instead of having a whole parts family just… floats in a vacuum. Career, as I already mentioned in a second paragraph is a mess.

    Probably the best testimony to the state of KSP is the SSTV signal on Duna – it was supposed to be a beginning of whole adventure exploring the system, looking for cues, and instead it’s.. broken in a current version.

    • Shadow says:

      The game’s a sandbox and a playground at heart, and the interest in exploring the other celestial bodies lies more in the engineering/navigational challenge than the destination itself. Reaching the Joolian system or distant Eeloo is quite a feat, and producing a sound mission which can accomplish the trip (and ideally return) is the rewarding experience, as opposed to actually finding something interesting at the end.

      Career mode, from my perspective, creates a sort of interesting framework but isn’t very replayable in the end. I played it a couple of versions ago, before the addition of funds, and maxed out the tech tree throughout several missions. I finally reached Duna (Mars analogue) before taking a break.

      When I started playing again, in the release version, redoing Career felt like an immense chore, and I didn’t feel motivated to unlock the tech tree all over again: it primarily felt like a major restriction to my creativity (and an obstacle to reach the shiny new parts). I could’ve gone back to Sandbox, but I -was- interested in the economic aspect, and collecting science did give a bit of depth to otherwise plain missions.

      Technically, I could modify my savegame to give me all the science I wanted and unlock the whole tree in Career mode from the beginning. But then I was stuck between a rock and a hard place: I either had to deal with the unpleasantness of cheating, or the unpleasantness of a lackluster mechanic. Science would’ve lost its purpose, and that’s problematic when its only use is essentially unlocking fun.

      • Cinek says:

        I don’t know, Sandbox for me is like a test mode for Career – a place where you can design and test stuff before playing it seriously in your major playthrough. With no limits it brings I could build a rocket to anywhere as soon as I figured out all of the major quirks and oddities with KSP (the “engineering” in this game is seriously f*** up, fun, but from a perspective of someone with education background it that field – it’s totally f*** up, so I spent most of my learning curve in this game banging my head on all the weird and/or stupid decisions devs made (eg. horrible un-aerodynamics system that was there before 1.0 release) ). So personally I don’t see reaching Eloo as a feat in a sandbox – an overpowered “nuclear” engines combined with no logical limits on anything really let you blast anything out there. Even more so now, when they added mining, and you can even build some mega-ridiculous crafts, get there, refuel, and come back.

        That’s why I say that the “meat” of KSP is a Career mode. That’s where the challenge and fun is. And while replayability isn’t it’s strong suit – so it is not in a sandbox mode, which is basically a shortcut through most of the meat in career mode to the point after you research all the techs (by which funds shouldn’t be much of a concern either).

        For me the fun in exploration should be in exploration, not in flying or building stuff. Building is fun on it’s own, it doesn’t need to be used as an excuse for the flaws in other departments.

      • Rozza says:

        This. I want to play by the rules, but I’m in that grindy post-mun period and it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm.

        Plus, for me, it’s a massive time-sink – which some people will love, but I don’t have enough time in my life for slow-paced games. I look at the “358 hours played” label in Steam and realise I still feel like a beginner, just scratching the surface of the game.

  6. P.Funk says:

    Have you played Kerbal Space Program is a bit like the PC Gamer’s version of “Have you seen the Wire?”

  7. klobuk says:

    Guys this game is amazing. There aren’t many games where you can spend hundreds of hours and still come back after few months. I’ve made a cinematic video for fans or those who are still not sure if to give this game a GO ;) HF link to youtube.com