Red means danger: how to survive in Surviving Mars

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The people living in my new habitat dome have jobs to do, that’s what brought them to Mars in the first place, but when they finish work they have two choices: they can either go to the casino or the bar. I could have built a gym or some other kind of leisure facility, but I went with the casino and bar combo. It’s what I’d want if I had to live in a dome on a hostile planet.

And make no mistake, Mars is a hostile planet. That’s why Surviving Mars [official site] can be so demanding.

Broadly, I think Mars colonisation will have three phases. I’m referring to the process of colonising in the game Surviving Mars here rather than preparing to deliver a TED talk.

The first phase involves populating the planet with robots. They trundle around setting up the infrastructure, making sure that when people arrive from Earth they can do all the fun things that humans like to do, like eating and drinking and sleeping.

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So you set up power networks, harnessing wind or solar energy, and you set up batteries to store the power during the nights or on those occasions when the wind isn’t up to much. Then you make concrete and mine metals so that you can construct more useful buildings, and eventually you build domes. That’s when you enter phase two.

The domes are where your people live and after playing the game very briefly, I reckon those people might be the most interesting thing about Surviving Mars. Rather than living in settlements on the surface, they’re confined to the domes, only really leaving to get from one place to another or when commuting to the local exotic metal refinery.

Dome management, then, is very important. Throw a bunch of homesick colonists into cramped living quarters and only give them bars and casinos as social spaces, and they’re likely to develop some bad habits. You won’t see the individual members of your population wandering around like Sims, but they do have traits and can develop new ones if their surroundings encourage good/bad behaviour.

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Migrate to a distant planet with a tiny population and spend your days working and drinking? That might lead to some problems down the line. And that’s why it’s better to have some variety in terms of leisure offerings in your domes, but providing that variety takes space and even though Mars is big and empty, your domes fill up quite quickly. Throw in a school and a health clinic and a few apartment blocks, and a small dome will be pretty much full. Bigger domes are more expensive and require more resources, but offer obvious advantages.

If you treat your colonists badly, or if Mars isn’t to their liking, they’ll take the next rocket home. You could just stop sending rockets home and turn Mars into a sort of prison planet, but connections with Earth are important. Depending on the sponsor you pick at the beginning of the game, you’ll have various equipment and resources right at the start of the game, but you’ll also need to figure out why the heck you’re on Mars in the first place.

Research is the key goal – like an Arctic outpost you’re out on the edge of nowhere to Do Science – but there’s nothing wrong with making a bit of cash along the way, so if you find deposits of rare minerals, you can pull them out of the ground and send them home. And you might be able to ask for supplies as well, provided everything is hunky dory back in the Old World, and your sponsors are still supportive of the mission. It’s not clear yet how that relationship will play out, but there could be some interesting twists in the tale.

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All of that will be revealed closer to release though. These are still the early stages of public showings for Surviving Mars. The game as I’ve played it is as solid as the shell of those domes but it’s impossible to gauge how well each of the three phases will work. I know nothing at all of the third, in fact, which is when martian mysteries might kick in, adding a touch of sci-fi suspense along with all that martian management.

The domes are neat microcosms, little bubbles of life within an automated world. If Surviving Mars is going to grab me, it’ll most likely do so by balancing the usual machinery of management games, which so often become self-sustaining loops once all of the elements are in place, with the more fragile environment of the human habitats. I saw an example of this when a storm drained my power supplies, forcing my people to rely on reserves.

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When disaster strikes, the response requires a cool head. What can we shut down to preserve energy for life support systems? How long is this crisis likely to last and what are the essential facilities needed to prevent misery and death? There’s something dangerously picturesque about the scene as lights flicker out across the planet’s surface.

Whether Surviving Mars will maintain that tension, between pushing forward at pace and playing it safe, is up in the air for now. But there is the promise of something intriguing in the balance between an automated planet and the fragility of life beneath the domes.

Oh, and go back to the fourth paragraph of this article. If you weren’t screaming “AND OXYGEN, ADAM, DON’T FORGET OXYGEN” at the internet for the duration of the preview, you have failed as a Mars mayor before you’ve even begun.

15 Comments

  1. GrumpyCatFace says:

    I see a lot of potential here. For a great management game, or another hellish RTS..

  2. Drib says:

    This looks like sort of a fun game. I hope it’s decent whenever it comes out. I don’t think I’ve seen a hard release date, though.

  3. Zenicetus says:

    I hate to be the grump here, but I can’t help it. This looks like a standard city builder game transplanted to Mars as a cool setting, but without being realistic enough to be interesting.

    Why would the architecture look like that? What’s the point of building something under the dome that looks exactly like an Earth city? And that’s not even getting into the mechanics, like why wind farms wouldn’t work on Mars (not enough atmosphere pressure).

    Building a settlement on Mars would be a fascinating challenge, but not when it’s just plopping down an Earth city like this, and not taking into account *why* Mars would be such a challenge.

    • modzero says:

      Think of the domes as upside-down bunkers. They look way better, and from the perspective of the game they’re equivalent. Wind farms introduce visual variety. And so on.

      • Zenicetus says:

        The interesting feature of this type of game should be adapting your colony to the unique Martian environment. Otherwise it’s just a change of color scheme and a bog-standard city builder.

        Okay, I just haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet so I’m nitpicking. Maybe it’s a fun game, and those wind turbines are on frictionless bearings and turn veeerrry slowly.

        • modzero says:

          Not really; it’s just “super hostile environment.” So it’s like a city builder in the arctic.

          While we already know that we wouldn’t be building domes or windmills on Mars, we actually really have no idea what survival there would look like until we do at least preliminary medium-term (say, half a year) crewed missions there. Meanwhile underground bunkers would place strict limits on presentation style (esp. as going full 3D costs quite a bit of performance — see Dwarf Fortress), and nuclear reactors are just concrete cubes that do away with anything interesting for power management in an early colony.

          So I’m quite fine with this. I mean, I have my inner boring nerd who’d like Dwarf Fortress on Titan (Mars? Meh, what is this, the seventies?), but I suspect that would be a hard sell.

    • gentlehosen says:

      I can’t say for sure on the viability of wind turbines, I know that Mars has some kind of windstorms, but my scientific knowledge quickly runs out from there.

      As for the domes, I can see it making sense if Mars is being set for long-term habitation; high efficiency shelter might be good in the short term, but for the long-term the people living there are really going to want their space to seem visually pleasing. Mechanically, though, I agree that it absolutely needs to be different from just another citybuilder copy-pasted onto Mars. It’s hard to say from what little info seems available.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Mars has periodic windstorms, up to 60 mph I believe. But very little pressure behind those winds, just 0.6% of Earth atmospheric pressure at sea level. Not much there to push anything but very light suspended bits of dust in a storm.

        Solar panels would be the way to go for power (if you can keep the dust off), and you’d probably jump-start a new colony with a compact nuclear reactor for initial power. You’d get 30 years of steady power from a reactor as a backup. Maybe that’s incompatible with a game where the player is supposed to be handling survival emergencies.

      • vorador says:

        Actually what a colony on Mars should do is to build underground. Mars atmosphere is very thin, so there’s a lot of radiation, radiation that can be avoided by living underground. Also AFAIK there’s very little risk of earthquakes.

        The problem is that the best material by far to block radiation is water. A crystal dome would do zilch. So unless you want all your residents to die from cancer in a few years, the only solution for now is to build underground, or to cover every habitation with a meter thick deposit of water.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      I agree that this could hardly be less plausible as “what a Mars colony would look like”; but I must admit that I also got a strong “PlanetBase with perhaps some deeper social and other mechanics” vibe; and for some reason I keep getting pulled back(for a little while) to PlanetBase; despite the fact that all my games seem to follow the “everyone almost dies in the beginning, and actually dies if your build order is wrong, then things get much easier and you can coast indefinitely unless you actually want to expand substantially, in which case things will get brutally clumsy and there will be some tiny little hill that can’t be bulldozed at any price and ruins your plans”(hence the “for a little while”).

      If someone can come up with a plausible-and-also-fun space sim(anyone else remember desperately trying to pretend that Outpost didn’t suck “any mistake at this point will doom you, and your colonists, to certain death. Have a nice day.” then finally breaking down and accepting that not only did it suck, it wasn’t even finished? Maybe I’m just getting old); I would be delighted; but I can’t deny that I would also be delighted by a ‘lessons learned’ take on the Planet base formula; impractical domes and questionable wind turbines and all.

  4. Meoith says:

    I’d rather set up a colony on some randomly chosen hostile planet and deal with the challenges that planet provides, this whole mars fad thing is getting a bit stale, there are other planets out there in our solar system and beyond.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      There are other options (and the “gritty cyberpunk industrial dystopia on Titan” one that was featured here a little while back has me intrigued); but “randomly chosen” has its own hazards in terms of style.

      Unless your generation mechanism is brutally good and deep(possibly not dwarf fortress level; but what is?); your ‘random hostile planet’ ends up being “we combined a randomized dirt color with a ‘meteorite risk’ value and a temperature’.

      High risk of feeling generic no matter what you roll. Mars is certainly not an exotic choice; but “somewhere” with strong art direction can end up having a lot more character than “exotic; but ultimately feels like nowhere”.

  5. Kelvin says:

    He’s got a point; you’d have to get creative to keep your people from getting cabin fever.

    My suggestions: Make spacesuits and buggies purchasable by civilians, and train everyone in airlock etiquette so your settlers can walk/drive wherever they like.

    Get good med centers to help your settlers when their freedom inevitably results in physical injuries.

    Set up Earthly institutions in martian form to provide quality of life, such as:

    1. FLGS with transmitters and 3-d printers so you can play miniatures games.

    2. Community centers with reserveable time slots for ballet/HEMA/music lessons, etc.

    3. Places of worship/churches; if not in big-blatant-building form then in NT-style meetings and groups held in homes.

    4. Speaking of stuff in homes: barbecues, garden parties, yard games, etc. Those bubbles seem to have a lot of green space around the boarders – give people their own back yards!

    5. Local Public Broadcasting. Your citizens aren’t going to be happy if the majority of what they hear on TV is how much interesting stuff is happening on Earth. So make shows on Mars, for the Martians! Local dust-storm watcher and weather so you know when it’s safe to go outside the bubbles and mess around, community spotlights, “Hydroponics and You” cooking shows, martian fashion logs, The Most Dangerous Jobs on Mars!, local theater, and maybe a bubble-based sitcom or two?

    I just can’t imagine sending people to Mars so they can just sit in their HAB-Bloc all day and wish they were back on Earth.

  6. benzoate says:

    The real question anyone should be asking: are there three-breasted prostitutes? and also, but obviously with much less importance, leftover alien machines that will instantly create a breathable atmosphere.

  7. PancreaticDefect says:

    To be 100% honest, I was screaming “AND BREATHING!” at the Adam inside the internet at the end of the fourth paragraph.

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