The red planet’s lure snared humanity's imagination eons ago, its exploration in fiction romanticized as one filled with blood-curdling adventure and real-time discoveries. Then humanity broke the looking glass by landing probes on its dusty surface. In reality, exploring Mars is a painstaking, monotonous process of long time delays threatened more by memory supply and tread issues than alien wars.
With its Martian simulator, Bohemia Interactive strives to straddle the romance and fun of exploring an alien planet on a fictional plane while staying true to the core and some of the realities of NASA's real-world missions.
Bohemia's Mars exploration simulator, Take On Mars, originally started as a personal mod of Carrier Command: Gaea Mission, inspired by the Curiosity Rover's landing on Mars. Polygon spoke to Bohemia and the two key figures involved in Martian rover missions to find out what is involved in a real Mars mission and the how the game development studio tried to strike the balance between fun gameplay and staying true to reality.
"I decided to make a small rover modification, where the player controlled a rover-like vehicle on the Martian surface," Take On Mars' project lead Martin Melicharek told Polygon. "It developed into a sort of prototype where we then decided to take it one step further and make it into a game. That game is Take On Mars."
In Take On Mars, players can modify and control rovers and landers on the surface of the red planet. They can also manage the budgets of missions, as well as conduct scientific analyses and experiments in various scenarios on the Martian surface.
The simulation consists of three modes. The Space Program is a career-like mode where players can unlock equipment as they progress and manage the budgets a fictional space agency. In Scenarios, players land on Mars with a functional vehicle and are tasked with completing individual research missions. Alternatively, players can create their own custom scenarios with the game's editor.
According to Melicharek, the in-game missions are based on or derived from the real missions conducted by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "So for example, the Viking landers performed analyses of the Martian atmosphere, which is the same objective you are tasked with in the first mission of the Space Program," he said.
The Take On Mars developers wanted the sim to be a balance between fun without shifting from the title's core purpose of "exploration via realistic simulation." Melicharek said the team took into consideration both ends of the spectrum — fun gameplay and staying true to the missions — when designing Take On Mars' gameplay.
"To help make it accessible, the player can control the vehicles with immediate response, which is unrealistic, but great for gameplay, for example," he said. "We have added options to make it appealing to those who may not wish to play such a hardcore experience, such as the third-person camera or the free-fly camera, not to mention the choice between real-time and game time, but the core experience tries to stick as close to reality as possible, deviating only where necessary or where limitations dictate such anomalies, such as the complexity of simulating precise atmospheric effects."
GOING UP AGAINST A MARTIAN REALITY
Currently working at Google, Scott Maxwell was the lead mars rover planner driving the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Aside from the obvious differences in the rover's interactive controls, Maxwell pointed out that, visually, the game's perspective awarded to the player is also vastly different to a real-life mission.
"It's a lot more visually stunning than the reality!" he said. "We see Mars exclusively through the rover's own eyes, and as often in black and white as in color. (The engineering cameras are all black and white.) So views of the rover itself are rare, achieved only when the rover takes a ‘selfie,' and sweeping panoramic views of the landscape are also rare."
"As you say, interactive control also isn't realistic because of light-time delays. If someone could manage to solve that problem, it would be very welcome! But we actually have to plan a whole day for the rover, a day in advance — sometimes more than one day. It looks like their way is a lot more fun, though."
Geospatial information and co-localization scientist and MSL Keeper of the Maps at JPL, Fred Calef III, explained that mission planning is very time orientated. If planning and instructions are not sent to the Rover by a certain time, it just sits and does nothing. Everything has to be planned with strict timelines.
"We have to bookmark a meeting from 8:00 to 9:30, and we have to deliver this program; and then at 10:15 we have our first science meeting, and that lasts an hour and a half; and then we have the planning meeting which takes those things and puts them together and double checks them; we have the sequence walkthrough where we walk through everything and everything has to happen at a certain time."
Calef said the main difference is that players have the luxury of restarting missions to figure out blunders.
"But we don't have that nicety when we are doing a real mission. We have to take in consideration every possible angle, ‘Well, what if it is a little steeper over here? Could we slip?' And would that mean the instrument is going to hit a rock and break or we drive over here to the sand dunes? But do we really want to go over the sand dunes? How steep are the sand dunes? Can we actually drive up those sand dunes?' And there are all of these variables and vectors. We're three hundred million miles away, so we can't do it real-time and if you make a mistake, you've drove a two and a half billion dollar piece of equipment off the deep end or off a crater."
"So, we are super cautious, the reason why we take maybe ten hours. It is just really urgent, we can't make a mistake. Failure is not an option. So, we double check every possible failure that we can think of to make sure that it works that one time."
BRUTE OF A LANDSCAPE
The game's development began with the Curiosity's landing, it was released as an early access title on Steam on Aug. 1, one week out from the real life landing's first year anniversary on Aug. 6. The simulator is set to receive the free Deimos update on Oct. 3. It will feature two new locations, dynamic mission generation and a zero gravity environment-capable vehicle, the Zero-G Probe. An overhauled part failure system feature will take the weather conditions and player's actions into greater account in relation to part failures.
"Players will operate a remote probe designed for use in zero-G environments," Melicharek said. "This will be very different from landers and rovers, as Deimos' gravitational pull is -0.0039m/s^2, compared to Mars' -3.711m/s^2, which is 0.1%. At the same time we are implementing a new mission generator, which will generate tasks around vehicles that have no missions assigned, significantly lengthening the time a vehicle may be useful for."
The Deimos update will also introduce Martian weather systems such as sandstorms, strong winds and dust devils. Maxwell explained that Mars' weather systems pose no immediate danger for the rovers, the Martian wind is too weak to be reckoned as destructive force because the air is so thin, "less than 1% as thick as on Earth."
"And that's most Martian weather v wind and dust, wind and dust," he explained. "For MER, the biggest danger is a dust storm that could block light from reaching the solar panels — and/or deposit so much dust on the solar panels that they just wouldn't work any more. We've come close on both Spirit and Opportunity, but that's never managed to kill us."
As for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, it doesn't suffer that issue because it is nuclear-powered. The Martian landscape is where the real danger lies, Maxwell said, with the two biggest categories of hazards being big rocks and soft sand.
"The big rocks are kind of obvious," he said. "If the rocks are small enough to disappear under your wheels, no problem. But there's always a rock that's big enough to smack into the body, maybe damaging the arm or some of the cameras in the process. Fortunately, we just steer the rover away from those rocks, and when it's driving in autonomous mode, it knows to avoid them."
"Then there's soft sand," he continued. "We didn't really know about this risk until we were actually exploring on Mars. Imagine that you were the first person ever to explore the jungle — how would you find out about quicksand? Probably by stepping in it. And so it was with us. Opportunity got buried up to her hubcaps in soft sand a couple of times, necessitating careful work to get her out, and that's how we lost Spirit as well. So far, at least, MSL hasn't had any problems with it."
What makes such scientific analyses difficult on Mars is its unforgiving terrain, Take On Mars' Melicharek said, which they've tried to simulate as accurately as possible.
"Every part of your vehicle may be damaged and broken off, so driving through an array of rocks may result in a detached wheel, thus significantly hindering progress of the mission, if not resulting in failure altogether," he said. "Careful evaluation of the path ahead will result in success, and this is doubly true for our upcoming features, such as the one-way light time delay (OWLT), which will mean you must send a series of commands to the vehicle and watch in dismay as it falls off a cliff with badly planned routes and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Such features will be optional, of course."
While rover parts can be damaged in-game and in real-life, Maxwell says that the parts are made "fairly robust."
"The robotic arm is probably the most delicate part, and also the most dangerous because it can interact with the rest of the rover (unlike, say, the rear wheel, which cannot pose any danger to the front wheel)," he said. "On both the MER and MSL designs, the arm is strong enough to hurt itself and the instruments on it, and on MER you could probably manage to damage the solar panels with the arm. So that's the part we have to be most careful with."
CONCEIVING VIRTUAL MARS
Surprisingly, Bohemia didn't reach out to NASA for resources for its Martian recreation. The team created the Martian landscape compiled from its own research, made easy by the Mars resources readily available online.
"There is a plethora of information regarding Mars available online, especially from NASA sources, so the information they kindly made available was already available for use," Melicharek explained. "We gathered images taken by the real rovers from areas within Victoria Crater, for example, and stored data that the real rovers gained from there. The locations were then modeled and shaped according to those references, keeping to reality as close as possible."
Geospatial information scientist Calef said that even though people view NASA as an organisation paid for by the United States taxpayers, it consists of a large international contingent, where a lot of instruments used are partially run or made by other nations.
"We have this duty to return something, you know, it is not we get the data sets from Mars and we hoard it and keep it," Calef explained. "There's tons of data out there. And sometimes it is like ‘Who gets to play with it?' Me. Maybe a few students. But it is good to see that it getting out on a more public realm; it is great that they are taking it up."
"We have such great data. We have these hi-rez images and they are 25 centimetres per pixel. And it is nice, especially when you put them into the game environment in 3D and you can go down to the surface, it looks like you are standing on Mars."
Even the feel of the Rovers' movement and operation, and even the in-game landing sequence, was from watching development videos NASA had made available online.
"We tweaked the movement of the rovers and various mechanical parts by watching either reference footage of Curiosity in the development process (such as it's wheel motor test, available online) or from videos created by NASA," Melicharek said. "The landing sequence especially was highly inspired by real footage of Curiosity's descent to the Martian surface, which for me was absolutely awe-inspiring."
GERMINATING SPACE EXPLORATION INTRIGUE
Melicharek hopes that the game inspires interest in space exploration and sciences.
"There has been such a case already if I reference our Steam forums, where a father and son play the game together, raising the child's interest in space exploration and science," he said. "Such stories are very heart-warming and extremely satisfying, further strengthening the purpose of such projects."
Maxwell said he thinks the game will help generate interest in Mars exploration. "Certainly it will help more than Yet Another WWII Shooter," he said. "Anything that helps get Mars into the public consciousness in that way is likely to do good."
"I think it would be great if people with an interest in Mars exploration, or at least a potential interest, had realistic simulators of what it's like to actually explore Mars," he continued. "But having said that, I grew up with unrealistic video games, books, and movies that still managed to spark my real interest, and the fact that reality wasn't exactly like them didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the real thing one whit."
Calef believes it will serve to show players how the Mars missions operates, offering players an interactive opportunity to see what instruments they use and how they use them within realistic landscape the game and "actually poke at things." And, perhaps, dispel the popular myth that driving the Rover around isn't hooning around in real-time.
"Yeah, it should at least get that first feeling for what we do for these missions and how do we plan all of these things," he said. "Before I was in the sphere of working on missions, it was always like, ‘Well how do you take a picture on Mars? How you make the Rover go?' So yeah, I can see where the game might be able to expand in that and show that it is more than just moving the joystick, and you press the button, and it works. There is a lot more to it than that".
Through Take On Mars players will be able to get a taste of what Calef and Maxwell did while working on the Mars rover missions.
As Calef explains, Mars is a geologist's dream with its incredible textures and the stories its granulated landscape of valleys and ridges tells. "And I always, beyond that purely aesthetic level, take that next step and say ‘Well, how does that happen? Do we see that on Earth And why does that happen?,'" he said. "So yeah, there being able to look a bit farther and a bit deeper is a great thing for people to do."
For Maxwell, the best days were the ones where he got to solve a problem that "literally nobody in history has ever solved before."
"On Star Trek, Kirk and Scotty would have exchanges like this: ‘I need you to solve this problem right now!" ‘But sir, nobody in history has ever done that — I'll need at least 15 minutes,'" he said.'"You've got 10 minutes, mister!' I've actually lived that life, and loved it. I helped to invent large chunks of the job, usually under severe time pressure, and by the next day it was just the standard way of solving problems like that."