It's been a long time since I've literally sucked wind when I first sat down and had a quick preview of a new game. Outpost changed that for me. At the Winter C.E.S. show, I was privileged to get a short look at this ground-breaking game, courtesy of Sierra's own Bill Crow. The most immediate question is - what 'kind' of game is Outpost? It's very hard to shoehorn this game into any existing category, but I prefer to think of this game as 'Sim-Space Colony'. There's no real game "ending" per se, but rather, you continue to develop and grow.
In 50 years or so, Earth is effectively destroyed by a gigantic meteor. Prior to this destruction, however, is the formation of an international coalition that begins the building of a mothership capable of discovering new worlds and rebuilding human civilization among the stars. An unsuccessful attempt at destroying the meteor ends the earth as we know it and mankind begins their journey to the stars to try to recolonize the human species and ensure its survival. On gigantic starships, man begins the quest again to reign supreme as the most flexible and resilient of all creatures. At your disposal is technology beyond our wildest dreams; machines that are automated to develop the most primitive resources into useful materials to assist in the preservation of mankind. In other respects, Outpost might resemble a form of "Civilization in Space", though the competition is not other developing colonies, but rather the harsh reality of space and foreign worlds themselves, and the occasional rebellion.
Outpost runs in the Microsoft Windows environment and is, without a doubt, the most visually stunning piece of Windows programming I've ever encountered. Once running, you'll never guess that Windows is actually at work here. The menus and selection buttons don't resemble anything you've seen in Excel or Microsoft Word. Virtually all of the graphics are rendered beautifully with Autodesk 3D Studio. The digital audio and music soundtrack are also highly professional and add a very acute sense of 'high-class' to the product.
So. What do you "do" in Outpost? Once you're off the earth and out into space, you must discover new planetary systems and determine if they will support life and eventually a human colony. You do this by using probes. Once probes are in place and development can occur, you control the use of nanotechnology to create and build research robots and other facilities. You can also use these robots to develop alternative food and fuel sources, prevent the spreading of disease and decrease the mortality rate of your colony. Once the colony is in place, you're not out of the woods yet. You must also deal with very hostile planet conditions such as 300 mph windstorms, meteor strikes, and ultra-high temperatures. Surviving will be as challenging as the establishment of a colony.
The following is a brief interview with the designer of Outpost, Bruce Balfour.
Q: Tell me about your computer gaming experience?
A: I've been a Game Designer for 8 years. I was one of the designers of Wasteland (RPG) for Interplay, which was my first game design. As an independent contractor, I worked on the design and writing of several other projects for Interplay, including Battle Chess and Neuromancer. Of the three games I've designed for Sierra, only The Dagger of Amon Ra has been released so far. The other two are Codename: Phoenix and my current project, Outpost.
Q: Outpost is a new title and category for Sierra. Tell me about it.
A: Outpost is a strategy/simulation game in which players explore new worlds, research new technologies, and strive to rebuild human civilization on 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 an entertaining and realistic simulation of the complexities involved in building a self-contained colony on a hostile planetary surface. We're using state-of-the-art 3-D rendered graphics to enhance the realistic feel of the game.
Q: What do you do when you're not designing games?
A: I've also been a freelance writer for 12 years. I've had fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, mainstream) and non-fiction (science, historical, travel) published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. I've had 3 screenplays optioned by film producers and 3 of my stage plays have been produced.
Q: Is it true that you worked at NASA? What did you do?
A: I was a Systems Manager at NASA's Ames Research Center. That position made it possible for me to work on a variety of management, programming, and research projects for the Space Sciences Division. I researched artificial intelligence applications with regard to future space probes, as well as owrking in an infrared Shuttle imaging experiment we operated from NASA's flying observatory during the re-entries of STS-2 and STS-3. I also participated in studies evaluating proposed space stations.
Q: What impact has that had on the game?
A: Because of my work at NASA, I ended up with a lot of detailed studies regarding proposed Mars colonies, lunar colonies, orbital laboratories, terraforming, robot factories, and artificially intelligent computer systems. I've been able to make use of all this material, as well as current planetary science information and other topics, in building the Outpost simulation.
Q: What new technology is the game using?
A: We're using Autodesk 3-D Studio, a 3-D rendering software package, to do all our graphics. Although the rendering process is very slow, often requiring 20 hours or more to mathematically build the final rendered animation sequences, this gives the game an appropriately photo-realistic appearance. By releasing Outpost on a CD-ROM first, we've been able to do all kinds of impressive animated sequences that make full use of the rendering tool. We also have the usual digitized voices, sounds, and great music. In the floppy disk version, which should be released the same month as the CD, we'll try to retain a lot of these advantages.
Q: What are you trying to accomplish with Outpost?
A: We have the technology, the staff, and the capability of becoming the leader in the strategy game market. Outpost is the first strategy game to be released by Sierra, and will establish us as a major force in the genre. Nobody else has done a hard-science oriented, space colonization, strategy / simulation game with the kind of realistic "you-are-there" feeling that you get from Outpost. Because of the information incorporated into the game in an entertaining way, I think this product will cross over to educational use as well.
Q: Where do you see the future of gaming?
A: In the short term, simulations of a variety of real-world tasks and environments which will apply to both the entertainment and educational genres. Interactive movies will appear as soon as the technological problems are solved so that the mass market can use them. I'm also very particular about the use of the term, "artificial intelligence," which is generally used as a buzzword that doesn't mean much in past computer games, but I expect to see more and better AI being built into future products. Of course, virtual reality environments will eventually toss us into situations that make full use of our senses during gameplay, which will start to blur the line between games and reality.This preview is Copyright (C) by Ross Erickson and Sierra On-Line for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.