All systems go: Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager preview

By Owen Faraday 28 May 2014 0
It's not gonna be a long, long time. It's not gonna be a long, long time.

This time last year, Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager was sitting on Slitherine's launchpad with the clock counting down to an intended summer 2013 release. A semi-public beta had just gone out and testers were putting the unfinished game through its paces, playing as a space agency executive and guiding the development of spaceflight projects through the simulated 1950s and 1960s with ultimate goal of putting a man on the moon.

Everything looked green across the board for the sim to lift off for PC and iPad. Until word came back from the testers, loud and unanimous: abort the launch.

The game's UI has gotten a makeover in the past year of development. The game's UI has gotten a makeover in the past year of development.

Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager was fun in the moment-to-moment play, testers told publisher Slitherine and British-Argentine developer Polar Motion last year. Recruiting astronauts, choosing real and hypothetical technologies to pursue, designating roles for your mission controllers -- all of that was great. But there was a particular design choice that was sapping a lot of the fun out of the game. There was no race in this space race.

In a design choice that had been intended to give players the broadest possible spread of choices, SPM had only one "faction" to play as: the fictional Global Space Agency. The idea had been to give players their choice of Soviet and American technologies to experiment with, allowing them to create a hybrid space program that would eventually put human bootprints on the moon in the name of all mankind.

This was a beautiful notion. But the sad fact is, the thrill of the Cold War space race wasn't down to just the pure love of exploration and learning -- it was also about sticking it to The Other Guy. Without another superpower to race to the moon, SPM felt limp. So Slitherine and Polar Motion took a gutsy call and went back to the drawing board, redesigning Space Program Manager to allow for two distinct US and USSR factions with unique technologies and advantages. While they're doing all that, they're also adding multiplayer to the game.

You're welcome to launch missions before you've completely researched all their components, but by doing so you add to the danger that your astronauts won't come home. You're welcome to launch missions before you've completely researched all their components, but by doing so you add to the danger that your astronauts won't come home.

Much of the core gameplay today works as it did last year in the beta, but Polar Motion have expanded the array of parallel options for you. In Space Program Manager, you'll have to compare different technologies and choose a path for your country's astronauts to follow. Do you want to try and get to the moon with a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous like the Apollo missions did historically? Or do you want to try the riskier Gemini Direct Ascent approach, which could cut your research time significantly and get you on the lunar surface before your opponent does? Achieving critical goals before the other superpower earns you prestige which you can use to improve your program's facilities and staff.

The more complex the mission in SPM, the greater the chance of something going wrong. After you launch a rocket, you're shown a dynamically-generated stage-by-stage playback, showing the effects of your decisions and the point at which everything gets Apollo 13 when Murphy's Law kicks in.

For the average soul, a year-long delay might have felt like a kick to the stomach. Polar Motion's Ignacio Liverotti was unfazed. "Actually, SPM has been in development since 2007," he told me a couple of weeks ago at Slitherine's press event.

You might be wondering how a game that started development in 2007 (three years before anyone outside of Cupertino knew what an iPad was) is aiming for a release on tablets. Liverotti told me that Space Program Manager actually started life as a Pocket PC game. "I knew that mobile games were going to get big, but at the time the only platform around was Pocket PC. So I made the right bet... sort of."

Slitherine adopted SPM as part of its portfolio in 2012 and convinced Liverotti to switch over to Unity, which allows for more seamless ports between PC and iOS. With the help of Slitherine, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was brought on board to advise the game's development.

This is where Buzz really wants us to be. This is where Buzz really wants us to be.

How much actual time do you get with Buzz?, I asked Liverotti. "More than you might think," he told me. "I talk to Buzz on Skype." The dude talks to Buzz Aldrin on Skype.

"Buzz is hugely passionate about space exploration, and anything that he thinks will help get people excited about it is something he wants to be part of," Liverotti said. "He gives me very detailed feedback about the game and he's anxious for us to get to the Mars missions part of the game."

The Mars missions will form act three of SPM, which Slitherine intends to release as a trilogy of games. The first title, due out for PC and iPad in the next few weeks, starts at the dawn of the space age and runs through the lunar landing. Part 2's campaign covers the rest of the manned lunar explorations and through to the contemporary International Space Station. The final chapter's campaign will focus on getting men and women to Mars, and will introduce a post-Cold War third faction, a global space agency that amalgamates non-American and non-Russian programs like China and the UK.

How do you feel after seven years of working on the same game?, I asked Liverotti. "The actual Apollo program was almost as long," he jokes. "But it's almost there. And that feels good."

If you're anxious to get your hands on Space Program Manager, Slitherine are selling early access to the game while it's still in development.
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