Category: musings

Raving about Surviving Mars!

Role-playing city building and PVE real-time 4X strategy in a near-future Mars colonization simulation game

Wanted to put out a quick rave about my favorite game of (my) 2019 so far: Surviving Mars (2018), by Haemimont Games (out of Sofia, Bulgaria), published by Paradox (which also published my favorite game of 2015, Cities Skylines)!

Xbox Release Trailer

I bought Surviving Mars on a whim after checking the Steam review metascore, having never heard the game before (kind of the best way to have any kind of media experience, really). I was not disappointed! The title may suggest survival-oriented game mechanics, but I think the best description for the game would be Cities Skylines on Mars. Or as another reviewer wrote: Simcity with soul.

Simulations are one of my favorite game genres (the first game I ever bought was SimAnt, by Maxis) and games like the SimCity and the Sims series’ have provided me hundreds of hours of fun, challenge, and a sense of accomplishment; kind of like growing a virtual garden from scratch and checking it out once completed. The sheer scale of what you can build and simulate produce intricate emergent properties entirely artificial life constructs that are fun to observe on their own. It’s kind of like the Conway’s Game of Life, but with far more variables and a sense of purpose.

Come on USA! We got $8 billion dollars; LFG!

Clearly a lot of love went into this game to both represent a believable martian environment both at the macro planetary level as well as down to the human scale. I particularly love that the game provided the ability to land basically anywhere on the planet, including some historical sites–just to give it a, “this is the real Mars” personality. It doesn’t create any in game consequence though. Just use a little imagination 😉

We’ll check out the Viking 2 Landing Area
Choosing a landing site
Mars is a harsh, unforgiving place… can it be tamed and made livable by soft fleshy humans?

The purpose of Surviving Mars, of course, is to build a self-sustaining city on Mars (Elon Musk would earn his ST:Discovery mention if he can get humanity to this point). This is no novice task — Surviving Mars has you starting with a rocket (imagine the early iterations of SpaceX’s pre-Starship BFR) landing with a skeleton complement of autonomous robots and resources. Living off the land is the only way to get anywhere (as it will be in real life), so much of the early game is a constant hunt for resources; more concrete, more metal, more water, etc…

I spy some concrete and metals behind my ‘murica rocket! Humble beginnings, really…

Through most of this, the early game feels a bit more like real-time strategy / 4X than city building. Unlike Cities Skylines or Simcity, you directly control key “hero” units like Explorers that survey planetary anomalies and cargo rovers that enable a crude point-to-point supply chain management (or desperate resupply to a fledgling satellite colony). The game quests (or “Mysteries” as the game calls them) also operate much more like a real-time strategy game than most city building game scenarios, much to my enjoyment.

Unleash the drones!
Kinda cute little robots!
Aforementioned “hero” units – An explorer, transport, and drone commander (controls drones, duh)

The game has quite a number of random events/quests that give a lot of depth to the game’s backstory. City building games rarely have such things, leaving most to the imagination, but Haemimont’s done something awesome here in creating a single player simulation strategy game that’s more than just a city builder with disasters.

Real time 4x right here
The game has a good sense of humor; and lets you indulge in the dark side
Like any good city builder, there’s a good set of survival metrics to take care of
In this game, running out of resources means death. That’s not surviving Mars.

The game also provides a great ambient atmosphere, thanks to a stellar soundtrack By George Strezov and series of entertaining “radio” options, with a great tie-in to Cities Skylines, which curiously had the Mars radio station (perhaps they’re set in the same Paradox universe?).

I also remember reading somewhere that “real” martian geography was somehow included in the game, but the actual maps appear to be a far smaller set of maps in rotation (less than 10 vs the 50,901 start locations available). Perhaps future expansions can provide more scenario-based maps, or at least a greater variety of terrains.

Minor quips in an otherwise spectacular package.

Also of note, the Green Planet expansion offers an entirely new next step in colony development with the addition of a terraforming dynamic that continues until the entire planet is a lush, Earth-like world.

One of the Green Planet loading screens

LOVED:

  • Near-future space theme has a tech tree and plausibility is more believable than most science fiction
  • Game is challenging, mostly in a good ways! Many Steam reviews complain about the difficulty of Surviving Mars. I recommend auto-save at short intervals (once per sol for me). One temporarily disrupted supply chain can quickly cripple a city lacking redundancy and drive an early stage martian colony into collapse. Many of the same people also describe the game as often “stressful”. That too can be apt, but this is a game that one attains mastery in with experience; and as that occurs, much of these issues can be avoided.
  • Scenarios add unique game dynamics that feel like minigames of their own; adding replayabilty.
  • Visuals are beautiful! See screenshots! After building a massive Martian city, I’d often poke around in Photo Mode for hours taking snapshots of the dynamic ecosystem that is a Martian colony. It also runs reasonably well at 4k resolution on my 5-year old GTX 970 (latter screenshots).

Screenshots

Spectacular stuff! I hope to see more of it!

References:

  • Gamespot review: https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/surviving-mars-review-building-the-final-frontier/1900-6416877/
  • Surviving Mars Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zlapZxOAog
  • Surviving Mars Announcement trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG8b3rCI5rY
  • Surviving Mars Xbox release trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sovutsHwmj8

2019: Preparing for Mid-21st Century Humanity

(Two years since my last post? Geez, I need to get on it! Also of note, I’ve now had this blog for half my lifetime! Here’s to another arc of life to come!)

Can’t believe it’s 2020 already — even the number evokes “the future” for me. Yet now it’s here. What will come of the next decade? Not sure, but there will be a lot of work on millenials as we take on the sterardship of the world.

I think at core, I’d still describe myself as a problem solver. That’s why I picked engineering as a discipline; not just because the role solved problems, but also because I like problem solvers :P.

So with that in mind, here are some humanity scale problems that have been on my mind lately:

Sustainable urban development

Cities continue to be thriving hubs of humanity; but to continue to thrive into the foreseeable future, we need to incentivize solutions for sustained development without exceeding planetary boundaries.

Also key is to evaluate our relationship with our communities and develop new dynamism essential for the long term prosperity of our communities.

I only recently realized this but we surpassed 50% of the human population in urban centers back in 2014! This means we’re dealing with the consequences evermore and some of the ideas we had about urban development deserve rethinking. Still, if you’re going to have 7.7 billion people, cities are the way to go.

When in a cynical mood, I do wonder what good it is for humanity to have such a large footprint that we’re undoubtedly going to call this epoch the anthropocene, but maybe I’ve played too many 4X games like Civilization that I see population as potential.

When I first learned of the world population figures, that was back in the early 1990s in elementary school; I think I read a book of records, where I first learned the world had ~4 billion people (1990s figure); with multitudes of people being born every second! In that moment, I think I first became awakened to the idea that humanity was finite, but also immense. I think even during that time, my idea of humanity has shifted from being a dominant player in the game of life on Earth, to being a geo-engineer hitting planetary limits of sustainable development.

This is of course, a concern — but those are problems to be solved. In the mean time, I’ve come to appreciate that 7.7 billion souls means that many more stories, that much more economy, that much more potential to work together; and in some ways, the necessary urbanization has coevolved the means to get along, at least, along the arc of recent history.

Go humanity!

Developing a common human history

Human tribalism at all levels–the bad parts of it, isn’t going to go away–but to mitigate the risks of destructive hate, tribalism, and progress toward a future we can accept and get along, a shared history and understanding of planetary responsibilities need to be developed to ensure we can all coexist and develop peacefully.

Those alive today (especially those with the future they’ll need to live in ahead of them) need to play an active role in preparing humanity for the future, and a foundation to that is needed.

Technology can play a role here, but people have to want to depolarize–how can we incentivize people to be better to each other?

Personal and Commercial robotics application development

Drones, location tech, visual sensors are everywhere, and millions of drones are in peoples’ hands. Yet, why are they not doing things for us? Roombas have only progressed incrementally for the past decade. I got my first consumer drone in 2012, yet the promises have yet to be delivered on. This is still wide open territory.

I’m mostly thinking utility-oriented applications, but entertainment, pets, and the emerging realm of companion robot is are also likely to see mini-revolutions in the near future. (SpotMini is supposed to be a development platform; but at the likely pricepoints, it seems like not the dominant platform in the 2020 timeframe. Commercial use, I can see).

Individual/community driven privacy/security management

My community (Seattle) it seems worries simultaneously about a police state, but also if they’ll be there when the need arises. In my recent experience, the police are great, but it’s become abundantly clear that there’s a realm of crime that won’t easily be mitigated. We also complain about police when they don’t do what seem like obvious activities to disincentivize people/property crime, (To illustrate the climate, then-Seattle major McGinn in 2013 issued a still observed moratorium to police drones.)

To help communities find their own balance of autonomous physical security/privacy without the concerns of a government/police driven surveillance network across residential neighborhoods, I envision the development of privately managed security autonomous agents (likely small aerial drones, but backed by smarthomes) with data sharing controlled by individuals and managed via a community federation. A legal framework perhaps might be needed to ensure active consent and voluntary participation, as well as a general framework for privacy expectations.

The cost structures are likely favorable to 24-7 availability for <1 min deployment across most homes.

Space commercialization of the solar system

Thank you Elon Musk–you have a bit to go to fully deserve the mention in Star Trek Discovery alongside the Wright Brothers and Zephram Cochrane, but certainly, making space more accessible to private (non-government) is probably going to revolutionize humanity at least as much as the internet, and you’ve helped us get a LOT further.

Through 2019 and the decade, I’ll be watching for progress and launch of Starship, the internet satellite constellation Starlink, as well as other initiatives looking to develop human ISRU capabilities across the solar system. This may be the time where a broader set of nations develop space faring capability — it will necessitate an international framework for governance.

Space science is now merging with space current events it seems. The recent developments in planetary sciences and cosmology have been incredible–with humanity’s probes basically have reached all planets across our solar system.

But still, call me an engineer, but what thrills me the most is the possibility for humanity to be on a path to establishing a permanent, self-sustaining presence across space.

We will do this in my lifetime, so it’s worth envisioning the work needed to make this happen.

There are other ideas

  • Ongoing projects: Personal, experimental, etc..
  • Breaking cultural barriers?
  • Korea issues?
  • Simple musings?

I’ll have to start somewhere. 😛

Happy August 2019!

30th Anniversary of the June Democracy Movement in South Korea

Democratic consolidation: The process by which a new democracy matures, in a way that means it is unlikely to revert to authoritarianism without an external shock. – Wikipedia

Today marks the 30th anniversary of democracy protests in South Korea–known as the 6월 민주항쟁 (the June Democracy Movement)–that led to democratic consolidation in the South Korea. While so crucial to the identity of Korea today, and even having learned about it in school, its significance wasn’t in my consciousness until much later as an adult when I had gained a greater appreciation of the human fight for progress (which continues today!) across centuries, especially recent decades.

(Aside: Much of that recent appreciation came via a Democratic Development MOOC on Coursera, taught by Stanford professor Larry Diamond. The movement in Korea itself is part of the greater context of a democratization wave (1960s-1980s) across Asia, worth learning for those w/o contemporary Asian history context)

As I started the appreciate the historical relevance that happened in the span of my family’s lifetimes, the need to be proactive in dealing with today’s challenges is also clear, as the fight for democracy continues across this world.

The background of the Korean protests are fascinating and worth reading into (I won’t go into them here), but despite much uncertainty, they ended peacefully, with concessions from the then-authoritarian government to rewrite the Constitution and established the Sixth Republic of Korea, leading to the following promises being implemented:

  • Direct participation in upcoming presidential election for all citizens over age 20
  • Freedom of candidacy and fair competition
  • Amnesty for Kim Dae-jung and other political prisoners
  • Protection of human dignity and promotion of basic human rights
  • Freedom of the press and abolishment of the restrictive Basic Press Law (see: Media of South Korea)
  • Educational autonomy and local self-government
  • The creation of a new political climate for dialogue and compromise
  • Commitment to enact bold social reforms to build a clean, honest, and more just society.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korean_presidential_election,_1987

I had just turned 2 at the time, so I have no recollection of the actual protests, but my parents do remind me that it was only months before we moved to the U.S. in late 1987. By the time we moved back in 1995, it had only been a few years since the events, but indeed, at least what I observed and felt like a functioning democracy.

Through the eyes of history, these events are seen as the Asian component of the Third Wave of Democracy, which also includes similar movements in Philippines and Taiwan. As most of the world knows, these transitions from an authoritarian rule to democracy are often messy, with the principle characters being young people (students) against the various proxies of authoritarian regimes.

And not all of these movements succeed or remain peaceful, as sadly, we we’ve seen recently in the Middle East after the much anticipated Arab Spring, and when things go wrong, horrible things can happen like the ongoing tragedy in Syria.

And with major disruptions in stability, the temptation of authoritarianism when facing crises real, or amplified by the political climate is ever present. One notable rollback of liberal democratic norms has been in the Philippines, which despite their history of democracy, we are seeing with the current administration, a steep decline in the rule of law, and a sharp rise in populism, supporting a distinct shift toward an authoritarianism. For someone like me, who focuses on trends, this is not encouraging, and across the world, we’ve seen with a rise in those willing to fan the flames of populist resentment. Not in Korea though, and with the newly elected center-left president, Korea’s execution of democracy moves forward.

Still, advocates for democratic development can take hope in the one more recent event in South Korea: the overwhelmingly peaceful civil protests that ultimately led to the impeachment of President Park (a constitutional process that hasn’t even (yet) happened in the U.S.). With this and the subsequent peaceful transition of power to an opposition party president, it is clear that despite the chaos, it was a test and a win for the rule of law, democracy as a principle, and the people at large.

I actually remember when I was younger, seeing a US official address a crowd of students in Korea. Referring to the idea of “national stability” — he said something along the lines of, “In Korea, if you had an impeachment, the country would tear itself apart.” Glad to see that wasn’t true.

Politics aside, kudos to Korea for demonstrating how democracy is done! It is something the country should be incredibly proud of. What had been still on formation while growing up, as of today, I’d say that it is one of the few true democracies in East Asia, along with Japan and Taiwan.

Looking back at the last 30 years, I think it’s important to remember the active role the citizenry must play in fighting for and preserving democratic norms and values. The global push and pull of nationalism and internationalism has never been so readily apparent, and in this joined mission, we must realize that the universal principles and norms of liberal democracy must be fought for and the battles, and heroes, remembered.

The specific date of the anniversary does celebrate one particular incident — a democracy movement protester that was killed by a police tear gas grenade. That event is considered crucial to bringing public awareness to the authoritarian regime’s violent crackdown of the protests and is considered a pivotal moment in public sentiment. From that shift, ultimately, the government conceded to the demands of protesters seeking democratic reforms.

Today, Korea remembers this day to remind itself of how freedom from authoritarianism must be won, and to remember those who fought in that struggle.