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Outpost design notes

By Bruce Balfour, head designer

You only get one chance to destroy civilization.

Outpost is a strategy / simulation game in which players explore new worlds, research new technologies, and strive to colonize distant planets.  Based on NASA research into future space projects, as well as current planetary science and theories on interstellar spacecraft design, Outpost is designed to be a realistic simulation of the complexities involved in building a self-contained colony on a hostile planetary surface.  At the same time, the game is entertaining enough to appeal to a wide audience.

When I was employed by NASA, I flew on Shuttle intercept missions with the high-altitude observatory, studied lunar colonization, researched artificial intelligence, and used one of the world's most powerful computers.  As a Game Designer for Sierra On-Line, I'm now required to create worlds and determine the future of the human race.  Compared to Sierra, working for NASA was a piece of cake.

There were times when the research effort required to build such a complex mathematical model made it seem like a six month Ph.D. program, but we couldn't take any shortcuts.  The only way to live up to the quality of  simulations such as Civilization or Sim City is to include a lot of wide-ranging, realistic detail, so I had to study exotic subjects:  self-replicating robot factories, terraforming, nanotechnology, fusion propulsion systems, stellar ecospheres, "habitable" planet types, orbital mechanics, and advanced technologies, among other things.  Since we learn something new about the Solar System every year now, I couldn't even trust my old astronomy textbooks without making sure the information about the planets was current.

Outpost is the first strategy game to be released through Sierra, so we also have the added pressure of proving to consumers, and our own management, that we can produce great strategy games which are fun and addictive.  The costs of game development have risen too high to produce failures, so we won't be offered a second chance if the first game isn't wildly successful.  We also have deadlines, so the massive efforts of designing, programming, and creating the art for the game have to be focused into a tight schedule that often wreaks havoc on personal lives.  For the Outpost team, the simulation has become reality, because they're never allowed to leave the Outpost environment.  Fortunately, the team is creating the sim game they've always wanted to play, so they don't mind living in it.

Starting with projections of technology that will be available fifty years from now, the player sends out fast probes from Earth to collect data on possible planets orbiting distant stars.  While those probes continue their journeys, the player builds a colonization mothership with a continuous thermonuclear fusion propulsion system that will allow the spacecraft to reach a cruising speed of two-tenths the speed of light.  Fuelled with hydrogen from the atmosphere of Jupiter, the mothership is launched on its interstellar voyage after choosing a target star system based on data returning from the fast probes.

On arrival at the target planet, the mothership's resources are split between the player's colony and a colonist splinter group that decides to establish its own base on the hostile world.  The player can set the level of competition for resources and trade with the rebel colony at the beginning of the game.

Once the colony is built, the player's job is to manage the colony as if it were a city: continuing the building program, keeping the population employed and happy, exploring the new environment, dealing with random events such as meteorite strikes and solar flares, recycling all waste products, mining for resources, surviving, advancing the civilization, and establishing a long-term terraforming operation on those planets that can retain an atmosphere.

After sufficient Computer Science research has been completed, the player will have the assistance of an artificially intelligent personality who can advise the player, manage factory production, or aid one of the laboratories in its chosen line of research.  However, the early AI's may have personality problems which can only be solved through more analysis and research.

Multiple planetary sites can be developed, and trade can be established between any of the colonies.  Scientific research can be directed into a variety of disciplines, allowing the player to develop advances such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and improved bowling shoes.

The realistic feel of Outpost is enhanced through state-of-the-art 3-D rendered graphics.  The photo-realistic look of the game, created entirely with Autodesk 3-D Studio software, is a quantum leap beyond the stale two-dimensional art of current games in the genre.  Cut-aways to cinematic sequences, combined with digitized voices, sounds, and a fully-orchestrated soundtrack, will add a new dimension to the experience of determining the fate of humanity.  Since we decided to develop the game for CD-ROM first, we've been able to let our artists run amok with their new toys.  While the floppy disk version won't be as cinematic as the CD-ROM, it will still be as much fun.  Both versions will be available in March, 1994.

Outpost is also being designed with expansion in mind.  Future add-on modules will include ground combat, aliens, a terrain editor, packaged scenarios, additional star systems and planets, multiple players, and anything else we can think of to push the technology of strategy gaming further into the future.  This way, the game can be customized by the individual player.  And choice is what makes a great strategy game.  Now, you have to choose whether to destroy civilization or save it by purchasing Outpost.