Almost five years ago, we began the development of our very first title — a space program simulator that would showcase the reality of the physics of space exploration. However, we realized that the game’s tone would be heavily affected if the player were to have every mistake be followed by the death of a digital human being. Therefore, we needed pilots who would help us somehow change the tone of space exploration.
Physics, astrophysics, trajectories, combustion, gravity, can be really dense concepts to explain, and even more if you’re trying to make a sandbox game about space exploration. We needed somehow to portray the seriousness of the game’s subject, but at the same time give it a more “gamer” friendly tone. It’s important that every mistake in the game feels like an opportunity for the player to learn something new and interesting, instead of a grim portrait of real failure. We needed a lighter, fresher, and more encouraging experience.
Inspiration came from the oddest yet perhaps most fitting background imaginable: two kids playing space program with fireworks in Sao Paulo more than a decade ago. One of them was Felipe Falanghe, our lead designer, who had enough creativity to come up with the idea of strapping little tinfoil men to fireworks, and not enough parental supervision to actually try it. He called the little guys Kerbals, and for all those years he carried both the name and spirit of Kerbals within his heart and mind.
A few years later he found himself working for Squad, which started out as a marketing agency, specializing in interactive technologies development. Every year, the owners of the agency asked their employees to come up with original projects, and if there was a good and viable idea, it could get developed. Felipe was an employee at Squad for some time when one day he couldn’t take the stress of marketing anymore. He tried to quit, but the owners insisted he instead presented a viable video game project idea. Barely believing his luck, Felipe set out to bring the Kerbals and their space program to reality.
Designing the Kerbals had a simple yet complex directive: embody the spirit of the game. They had to be relentless in their pursuit of scientific achievement and not be dissuaded by mistakes and failures, regardless of how horrific they may be. They had to be capable, yet reckless engineers who would be willing to fly a mission with a low possibility of success, while screaming “Never tell me the odds!” But they also had to be funny in their demise. Kerbals were going to die horrific deaths, so it was important that the design didn’t compound the horribleness of these things, but instead made them easier to swallow.
Big eyes of irregular sizes that aim in different directions show that the Kerbals don’t perceive reality in the same way human beings do, having a different perspective that may simply be incomprehensible to people. A body shape with cartoonish proportions and faces that were both alien yet capable of being filled with human emotions. Add in a color and size that calls back to the old-school ideas of little green men from Space, and you have Kerbals.
With great rockets comes great responsibility. Kerbals are willing to take up the challenge of building a space program from the ground up. They are eager to learn about the Universe, and want to explore all the corners of the Kerbol System, all in the name of Science! There are no mistakes in Kerbal Space Program, only learning incorrect ways to do things. That’s why every launch in the game leads to learning more about rocket science and space exploration. All the while, one is reminded that Kerbals don’t see the world the same way as we do, and can process their inevitable demise with complete, insane excitement as well as abject horror.
Kerbals are both the face and soul of Kerbal Space Program. An endless supply of expendable yet relatable astronauts willing to expose themselves to the dangers of space travel in the name of scientific progress and glorious success. All the while presenting the player with friendly faces that remind them that failure is fun.
Without the small green characters, we wouldn’t have been able to pull off a space simulator that interested engineers at space agencies across the world and elementary school students alike.
Thus, they will remain a huge part of the success of our game, and a big part of the reasons why Kerbal Space Program is coming to PS4.
Do you have any doubts or questions about how the Kerbals and our game? Drop your questions in the comments below!
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