Mars Horizon is primarily a strategy game in which you take on the role of controlling a government space agency at the start of the space race. You’ll have the choice of countries between the USA, Russia or Europe, and then it’s up to you to send rockets into space and start your journey to be the first to land on the surface of Mars.
Recently I had the chance to try out an alpha version of the game, developed by Auroch Digital, and I enjoyed it a lot. I reached out to the team, Mike Daw and Matt Bone, with some questions about my experience and what gamers can expect from their future release.
Grimm – Hi, Mike and Matt, thank you for taking the time to discuss the Mars Horizon alpha with me. To start us off, I’d like to ask: how long have you wanted to make a game about space exploration, and what attracted you to the genre?
Mike Daw (Producer on Mars Horizon) – The idea for Mars Horizon came from our boss and design director, Dr. Tomas Rawlings. He was reading a biography about Elon Musk, and there was a section where he either had to gamble the last of his funds on making a third iteration on a rocket which had previously failed twice in spectacular fashion or give up. It was a risk-reward system that any gamer can empathise with. From there the idea germinated and developed slowly into the loose series of design pillars which formed the basis of what Mars Horizon is.
Matt Bone (Designer on Mars Horizon) – Like Mike says, the decisions involved in running a space agency are a great fit for a video game. Putting those critical choices in the player’s hands makes for an exciting and meaningful experience. Then there’s the whole space race aspect — competing and cooperating your way towards achieving historical firsts, like putting the first human on the moon. On a personal front, I have an astrophysics degree, so obviously I’m a massive space nerd. Making a game about blasting rockets into space is pretty much perfect for me.
Has the success of Elon Musk and the technology of SpaceX had an impact on the idea and achievement of the Mars missions?
Mike Daw – Through working with the ESA, our inspirations have mainly come from their goals. However as this is the speculative part of our game, we have incorporated ideas from all of the space-faring nations so far from using 3D printed habitats to the type of rovers that will be used to traverse the surface of Mars. Obviously, Elon Musk’s endeavours are widely known and discussed, but as SpaceX or private firms are not (currently) a part of the game other than contractors, we have not focused on his plans exclusively.
You’re consulting with the ESA on the game; can you reveal what help they’ve added in regards the gameplay and what steps you are taking to ensure that fun doesn’t take a back-seat to realism in the game?
Matt Bone – ESA have been massively helpful. Not just in the large strokes, like explaining how space missions are run, and showing off their ridiculously cool spacecraft – see Rosetta, Swarm, Exomars – but in the small, anecdotal stuff that helps us craft the feel of space exploration, and make it more human and relatable. I think that human touch is vital in crafting an immersive sim, and one that players feel connected to. If you care about that first astronaut you’re firing into orbit, success and failure take on even more meaning. As for fun versus realism, that’s always a balance. The game has to come first, but at the same time it’s very important to us to remain faithful to the spirit of space exploration.
Mike Daw – As an industry veteran, I’ve made it my career goal to focus on fun above all else. Fun is one of those mad, impossible to quantify things which you only really get a grip on through luck and experience. So whereas ESA have given us mission knowledge, anecdotes and authenticity of terminology and tech, the team and I working on the game have all brought their own skills and experience as gamers to keep the gameplay fun and fresh.
You released an alpha build just recently, and I know you asked players to take part in a survey. Are there features you’d like to implement in the game that weren’t there for the alpha or are you looking to player feedback before deciding how to expand the game?
Mike Daw – Yes, the survey has been absolutely vital in crystallising to us not only the areas which could be improved upon, but also parts of the game that people have gotten the most enjoyment out of. The results of the survey were fantastic and have let us know we are definitely on the right track.
Matt Bone – It was definitely a relief to see the positive reaction. And luckily the parts that players didn’t like as much were areas we’d already identified that needed improvement. The alpha was only a small slice of the game, so it was fun to see players asking for features we already have in the full game – if frustrating [because] we often couldn’t tell them that! Spoiler: we’ll have space stations and multi-stage missions. I’m already looking forward to seeing what people make of the beta, when we release that.
In some ways this game parallel is Kerbal Space Programme. Was this game an inspirational force on Mars Horizon?
Mike Daw – Not really, no. Obviously, it would be nice for Mars Horizon to be as successful as Kerbal, but that’s really where the comparison ends. Mars Horizon is about being a part of the actual ‘Space Race’ with a focus on getting to Mars thus making humankind an interplanetary species. We’ve made it our focus to mirror the events and technology of history as well as make the player feel like they’re in charge of an actual existing space agency. Our focus is more on feel, human achievement and the risky drama involved in putting expensive technology and priceless human souls into space than the actual physics involved.
Matt Bone – We love Kerbal, but as Mike says, Mars Horizon is a very different game, with a different playstyle and focus. I think players have been very quick to pick up on those differences in approach, and there’s plenty of space for both. Yes, that’s a space pun.
Do you plan to keep players to the technology of the time they’re playing or will there be the possibility to discover better technology earlier? And how does this tie in with gameplay once players progress past the current time and technological advancement?
Mike Daw – By prioritiszing certain research, it is absolutely possible to discover technology earlier compared to the events that have happened in reality. For instance, it’s quite possible that the Russians could land a rover on Mars before anyone’s even reached the moon!
The tech tree available in the demo wasn’t a complete version of what you plan to release in the final game. How much would you say in terms of percentage have we seen so far?
Mike Daw -You’ve seen less than 20% of the total tech tree in the alpha demo.
Do you have end game missions in mind for this title, and how do you plan to promote replayability?
Mike Daw – The goal of the game is to be the first boots on Mars, but there’s a wide range of ways you can do that. You can go it completely alone as any of the space agencies we have in the game which all have their own unique perks and challenges, you can rush to Mars taking risks or take it slowly, or you can form diplomatic ties with other agencies to undertake a joint mission. The scope for replayability in our game will be very wide because so much of what happens is determined on the outcome of missions and narrative events which are randomly scripted throughout a playthrough.
Matt Bone – The ‘space race’ aspect will definitely help a lot – there was one player in the alpha who completed four playthroughs just to beat ESA in launching a certain satellite first! But there’s a lot more that’ll make each playthrough unique, from the route you take through the tech tree and which missions you prioritize, to the events that occur during play. The latter relies in part on the actions and achievements of the player and often take the form of branching narratives. The game also has ‘Request Missions’ with their own set of variations that alter the gameplay, and we have a few other surprises up our sleeves when it comes to the missions. You’re definitely going to want to play it through a few times to see it all.
You mention co-operative options with other agencies to work on missions, will attempts at improving diplomacy involve missions with the rockets and launching or will there be another aspect to the game we haven’t seen yet that deals specifically with diplomatic missions?
Mike Daw – Yes, there will be many ways to improve diplomatic status with other agencies, but we’d like to keep some of this secret until the game is out 😉
So there you have it: some interesting reveals and plenty of secrets and surprises still to come. What I liked about playing the alpha was the options available for different play styles, you could push your luck and risk a negative effect to your mission for the sake of being recognized as the first one to complete it and reap the rewards or play it by the numbers to improve your chances, to sacrifice the glory for a better chance of success. I am very excited to see what the finished game will have to offer and it’s due to be released for the PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2019.
If you’d like to learn more about Mars Horizon you can check out the Auroch Digital website or visit the Steam page.