Kerbal Space Program is, at its core, a rocketry simulation. When it first became available for download it had a limited scope. There was a large hangar full of parts and little green pilots, a launchpad with a button to push and a patch of sky to fall through when it inevitably all went wrong.
Since the day it was released, less than three years ago, KSP has grown to be so much more. Beneath its childish surface lies a complex physics system churning through mathematical calculations so expertly, real rocket scientists would blush to see it. KSP has even earned the respect of NASA — many of its employees play it regularly.
These past few months the team at KSP and the team at NASA have developed a professional, although distant, relationship. And this year they will begin to work together.
Soon the Kerbals will embark on the next phase of space exploration, more than a decade before their real-life human analogues. NASA hopes to land humans on an asteroid by 2025. It's their most daring mission in a half century, and they've asked the small team of eight developers headquartered in Mexico City to help promote that mission through their game.
The same mix of playfulness and hard-core simulation that garnered the attention of the world's leading space agency has helped KSP become one of the most popular games on PC — and one of the first games after Minecraft to show that the risky "early access" model can work at scale.
And the game might never have gotten off the ground if lead developer Felipe Falanghe hadn't woken up one morning, called his boss and tried to quit his job.
Unlike many independent game developers, Falanghe doesn't work for himself. He works at a company called Squad.
What makes his situation even stranger is that Squad isn't a game design company. It's a marketing company that specializes in installation pieces, capstone events to larger advertising campaigns.
By 2010 each event that Squad hosted was big and getting bigger. Formed in 2009, its signature touch relied on cutting edge technology like projection mapping and motion sensing. Squad turned a street into a living music video for Coca-Cola, a 10-story building into a touch screen for Hewlett-Packard. Every new client, from Sony to Samsung to Nissan, was anxious to work with the company because it could get the one thing global brands needed more than anything else in Mexico — eyeballs.
Squad needed a 3-D modeler to help design its installations virtually. That way it could spend less time making mistakes when it came time to deploy a project. And to keep headcount low, it needed a 3-D modeler who could go to a venue and physically build whatever outrageous project the company had designed only weeks before.
Falanghe's first interview quickly turned from how good he was with software to how good he was with a soldering iron.
"It was just a thing I had done for fun," Falanghe says as he plays absently at the long, scruffy ponytail that hangs off the back of his head. "I was playing Test Drive when I was in college. And it's one of the few games that supports … a proper gearbox."
Brazil's import tax on electronics made outside the country is notoriously high. A $400 PlayStation 4 now costs the equivalent of $1,700. When Falanghe was in college a proper Logitech driving wheel, the G25 with the five-speed transmission, would have cost him as much as a new iPad in the U.S.
So instead of paying that premium, he made his own gearbox using a USB number pad and parts harvested from his collection of joysticks. After a little soldering and a lot of calibration he had saved himself hundreds of dollars.
During Falanghe's interview for the 3-D modeling position at Squad, the owners were fascinated by that kind of ingenuity. They practically hired him on the spot.
Falanghe's first project was to create a 3-D model for an installation that would turn the inside of a box truck into a bank vault. People would be invited off the street and asked to navigate through visible red laser beams for the chance to win a new Sony cell phone. But, to his surprise, after the design was approved, Falanghe had to go into the field and build it.
The project took him a month, and after that they didn't stop coming. The next one was even more ambitious and had an even shorter timeline. It was a grueling pace.
"[We] were out there doing roadie work," Falanghe says. "Pulling cables and setting up projectors and rental gear that we were deathly afraid of dropping.
"I just wanted to let you know that I'm not going to come in. I quit. It's too much. Thank you. But no thank you."
"I remember when we were setting up a big projector on top of this 8-meter (26-foot) tall tower. We had this scissor lift to get it up — I mean, it sounds alright in theory, but imagine hauling this 50-kilogram (110-pound) projector up 8 meters to set it on top of this very precarious structure. I was sweating bullets just looking at it."
And it got worse. Squad was growing 100% in revenue year over year, but it never became larger than a dozen full-time employees.
Six months later, in October of 2010, Falanghe had had enough. He called the office, and co-founder Adrian Goya answered.
"I just wanted to let you know," Falanghe told him, "that I'm not going to come in. I quit. It's too much. Thank you. But no thank you."
Goya panicked. "You can't quit," he said. "Take the day off. Go to the park. Walk. And then we will talk. And then you can make your video game."
Sitting in Goya's upscale apartment not far from Squad's offices in Mexico City, he and Falanghe are having a good laugh about it now. Goya's hands are busy rolling a plump cigarette from a blue tobacco pouch. Trained as a video artist, he looks like a well-heeled hipster with horn-rimmed glasses and dark, wavy hair.
But back in 2010 Falanghe's departure would have created a crisis at Squad. Being such a small company, if Falanghe had left that October they very well might not have been able to meet their commitments to their clients. And in Mexico's tiny advertising scene, one failed project can be the end of a company.
That's why they hate marketing and advertising.
"It was never our passion," says Ezequiel Ayarza, the other cofounder of Squad. "Not ever." His gravelly voice is low. Ayarza has been rolling his own cigarette. It's thin, as orderly and symmetrical as his carefully combed blond hair.
"Ever since the beginning of the company," he says, "it was always us trying to find new, exciting things for our clients. But also new ways out of the marketing business. That's why we were so encouraged [when we hired Falanghe]. He started to show us things that were completely removed from marketing."
"Our relationship and our success is based on our kamikaze personalities."
Ayarza is a businessman, trained as a financier with an MBA from the University of Miami. He came to Mexico City from his native Argentina in 2001, fleeing the country's depressed economy, with little more than $150 and the will to build a business. Any business. He worked for an airplane manufacturer, then a helicopter manufacturer, until he finally came to be the CFO of a Mexican marketing firm. That's where he learned the marketing business, and also when he drew up the courage to start out on his own with the artist Goya.
"Our relationship and our success," Goya says, "is based on our kamikaze personalities."
Goya says that when Ayarza is in front of a client he only ever says yes, often leading to short timelines and absurd promises of lavish spectacles. Goya the artist provides the creative vision to pull it out in the end, while the rest of the team at Squad carries the load.
And so Goya and Ayarza decided to make good on a strange promise they offer to everyone who works for them.
Whenever anyone joins Squad, Goya and Ayarza make a pledge to listen to their pitch someday. For their dream project to go forward it has to make business sense for Squad. There has to be money to support it, but the promise is always there. In October 2010 Goya and Ayarza needed Falanghe to stay with Squad for just a few more months to finish the installation projects that he had started. Then they promised to help him make the game he always dreamed of making, a game about little green men, called Kerbals, launching themselves into space.
The men told Falanghe he didn't have to go to any more installations, that he could do his share of the 3-D modeling at the office until December. Then they would let him present his game design document and give him six months to make a prototype.
Even after they accepted his proposal, for a long time Falanghe waited for them to renege.
"I was just working away," Falanghe says, "terrified that any day the call would come in and say, 'OK, fun time's over. Get back to work now.'"
But his position in the field was quickly backfilled, and in January of 2011 he was allowed to start work at the office on Kerbal Space Program.
Go for launch
In July 2011 Falanghe posted the most basic parts of KSP to several online forums. It was an instant hit. Goya says that the day after they unveiled it they had more than 30,000 page views to their website.
"We didn't have any expectations for the game," Ayarza says. "I'm not a video games fan. For me rockets and spaceships was a very small niche. But it got so big so quick. We weren't thinking about charging or even making money off the game. That wasn't the plan. I think that's why it grew so fast, because people never felt that we were thinking about the money. ... We were still working, very hard, on the marketing company. We still are."
Fans of the game began asking if they could contribute to the development almost immediately. Squad settled on the sum of $7, later raising it to $10, then $18 and now $27. While the marketing side of Squad has remained stable at around a dozen employees, the success of KSP has allowed the team of developers to grow to eight. They're spread all over the world, each helping to stabilize and improve the game. It's a top title on Steam, as well as popular streaming sites like Twitch.tv and even YouTube.
While Ayarza and Goya are tight-lipped as to what share of Squad's total income is earned by the game, they admit that it's significant. It's the lifeboat they've been looking for, and they're both ready to leave the safety of the mothership. The marketing side of Squad, still around a dozen strong, will carry on under the leadership of Ayarza's brother. In 2014 the company's founders will assume a larger role in leading KSP to bigger and broader success.
"In my own personal opinion there are many crappy products out there. They're not coming from different places. They're just remakes."
"Right now video games are going to be a focus for the company going forward, because we're already in it," Goya says. "I think we have talented people that can move us forward to another level and start doing other titles that are also fun, also creative."
Squad is not becoming a publisher per se, rather an incubator for the passion projects of its staff. Ayarza has finished the script for his first movie, which will be produced by Squad. Goya is creating a record label and composing, all funded by Squad. And there are other projects in the works from other Squad members. Now that KSP has left orbit, the sky is the limit for the other members of the larger team.
Ayarza and Goya, for their part, are trying to seed their recipe for success among Mexico City's elite and trying to get other business leaders in South America to support the dreams of their employees.
"The KSP story is something that we are really proud of," Ayarza says. "Most people who listen to the crazy ideas of their employees … would say to us now, 'Are you fucking crazy? You are starting to do something in which you have no idea! You're just going to invest and throw money at it? And maybe you're going to lose all the money?'
"We followed our gut, and in that sense we supported a new idea from a guy that didn't have the ability to do it by himself, to make that idea real. And we feel like that thinking could actually spark a lot of other new ideas, ideas coming from people that are not in the elite."
Ayarza sees high-profile, annualized franchises as a black mark against the modern games industry.
"In my own personal opinion there are many crappy products out there. They're not coming from different places. They're just remakes. ... Why? I mean, are there no new ideas? We think there are. And so that's why the plan is to invent and to motivate young talents to come forward with good ideas.
"We are just trying to get the message out that it can be done, and it could be a profitable business at the same time."
The final Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, returned to Earth the same month that Kerbal Space Program launched in 2011. And while Squad has grown, NASA has shrunk in relation to the rest of the U.S. Federal government. But NASA's mission remains: to explore and also to inspire. Soon the lowly, cockeyed green Kerbals will be called upon to assist in that mission.
A downloadable mission pack, made in partnership with NASA, is in the works that will allow players to put Kerbals on an asteroid. It will be one of the most complex and dangerous missions in an already difficult game.
Players will first have to launch a spacecraft to fly alongside the asteroid, the equivalent of parallel parking one missile next to another. Then they will have to push the giant rock into a stable orbit around the Kerbal's home planet without creating an extinction-level impact below. Finally, they'll need to safely land on it.
The mission pack will represent everything terrifying and wonderful about manned spaceflight. To Falanghe and his team it's more than an opportunity. It's a genuine privilege.
"I look up to NASA as one of the pinnacles of human achievement," Falanghe says. "It's not just an American space program. It's an inspiration for all mankind."
Working with NASA isn't the end of their educational outreach. With the help of Teacher Gaming LLC, the same company that makes the educational version of the hit game Minecraft, KerbalEdu was recently announced. Falanghe's game will spread to classrooms around the world promoting science, engineering and space exploration to a new generation of young people who, instead of passively watching man land on the moon, will be able to land on a moon — rather, Mun — all their own.
Falanghe can't believe that his dream project has made it this far.
"We have people saying that KSP inspired them to change their majors to aerospace or some other related field," he says. "It's happened more than once, and it's just incredible. And I think that for us we're just experiencing a very small version of what NASA does on a much larger scale for humanity as a whole."
To Falanghe, KSP is more than just a job now. It's become a calling.
Soon the rest of the KSP team will be gathering here in Goya's apartment for KerbalKon, the third anniversary celebration of the beginning of the journey of their game.
Goya will sit down at the baby grand piano that fills a third of his apartment. Falanghe will take up an acoustic guitar. The whole team will drink and sing together late into the night. Tomorrow they will stream their game for 12 straight hours online, revealing to their fans just some of their plans for the coming year: a research tree, an in-game economy and, at long last, multiplayer support.
Tomorrow is a high holiday for Catholics, the anniversary of the day in 1531 when the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to Saint Juan Diego in Mexico City. Outside Goya's apartment the streets are swelling with pilgrims streaming in from the countryside by foot and on bicycles. But inside Squad is busy with the work of believing in its employee's visions. Movies, music, games and projects not yet named will have their start here at Squad, all thanks the discoveries made while building the Kerbal Space Program.
Photography: Charlie Hall and Squad
Editing: Russ Pitts and Matt Leone