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Challenges of Designing a Space Sim
by sean lindskog on 10/13/11 08:40:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The golden age of big budget space sims is over.  Publishers like LucasArts, Origin, Electronic Arts, Interplay, THQ, Microsoft used to make space sims.  Now they don't.  The space sim fanbase, once a major audience, hasn't grown large enough to support modern AAA game budgets.

Some indie/small developers have taken up the slack.  There's an opportunity for us to create a game we love for a niche audience, without having to compete against big budget studios.


Screenshot: Salvation Prophecy

screenshot: Salvation Prophecy

This was my mindset when I set out developing my space sim, Salvation Prophecy.  I've learned a bit about the challenge of designing space sims along the way.

1.  Many Opposing "Deal Breaker" Features

If you read up on space-sim reviews, fan sites, or forums, you'll see widely opposing opinions about what space sim fans want to see.  Such as:


  • cockpit view vs. external ship view
  • joystick vs mouse vs gamepad
  • realistic Newtonian physics vs "arcadey" controls
  • single player vs multi-player
  • story/mission based vs free roaming
  • fantastic space (bright nebulae, dense asteroid fields, etc) vs. realism (black star-fields)

Sometimes the developer can cover both - maybe you manage to pull off both cockpit and ship view.  But the combinatorial explosion of features gets very limiting very fast.  There's almost no way you can cover everything, and still make a good game.

This really segments the space sim audience, and this is a big problem for the genre.  Space sim fans tend to be very particular about what they like and dislike.  So if you've created the almost perfect game (in the eyes of one fan), but you happen to use ship view instead of cock-pit view, it can be a deal breaker.

2.  Massive Feature Wish-List

Most genres have a pretty big list of features players would love to see.  But the Space Sim wish-list is insane.  This is partially because the space sim genre draws from some pretty divergent sources.  Take Star Trek and Star Wars - they have pretty different visions of what life in future space is like, and players seem to want both.  The space sim genre itself is fragmented too, from combat dog-fights, to trading, to fleet command, to 4X empire building.

So again, the niche space sim fan-base is segmented.  This time, along divergent wish lists of dream features, like:

  • ship crews
  • planet landings
  • seamless transitions across galaxies and planets
  • space station interiors
  • huge/infinite universe
  • modular ship customization
  • trading and economy
  • a "live", "busy" open world design with lots of space traffic
  • capital ship command
  • huge variety of pilotable ships
  • sci-fi interactions with aliens
  • action space "dog fights"
  • empire building
  • complex faction diplomacy
  • varying play styles:  trader, mercenary, pirate, bounty hunter, ...
  • ship boarding
  • asteroid mining
  • fleet command
  • ...

It's a tough crowd to please.  No matter what you do, a lot of people are going to be unimpressed.  The most you can hope for is a segment of the space sim crowd who dig the particular features of your game, or a niche within a niche.

Don't get me wrong - I'm super pumped to be making a Space Sim. But it's a tough gig. ;)

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Darren Tomlyn
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Of course it's split in niches - simulation is an archetype of computer game, within which many other types of game can either exist, or simply involve. The opposite of simulation, is, of course, arcade. But lots of games give enough power over the mechanics, now, to allow the players to select between the two, often incrementally.

But that's just the basic gameplay. The most important thing for any game, is to use ideas and concepts that are consistent with each other - it's no use having a big game-world if the gameplay lacks the depth to make it worthwhile to explore it fully - (*cough* Sacred 2 *cough*).

Generally a big setting therefore means more gameplay depth is required. But such a game requires more resources to make properly and consistently.

My advice to anyone starting out and making a game (of any kind) - is to start small and get the basic gameplay sorted - make it linear and mission based - that doesn't matter at first - what matters is that the foundations are laid upon which everything else can be built, added, or even replaced if necessary.

Some companies do that - such as Runic Games and Torchlight - others don't and then struggle.

Of course, the main reason WHY this 'genre' has problems, is the lack of resources to use - game engines etc. that means everything has to start from scratch - which again, means starting small - anyone who doesn't, is asking for trouble.

sean lindskog
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Hey Darren,

I don't think all simulations are split into niches the way space sims are. For example, flight sims seem to have a much more standardized feature set. To me, space sim fans seem particularly fragmented.

Everything else you said is bang on though. And good point about game engines. Not only are space sim developers usually small teams these days, but they have a huge technical hurdle to overcome before they can even start the game proper. I've seen a couple space sim projects get indefinitely held up on the tech.

Stanley de Bruyn
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To me simulation is testing or training and specific job relelated.

For games simulation is often chalange. And is simulation with a game twist.

Problem with Space sim is simulating a lot of fiction. Uless you stick with reallife aimed NASA ESA sim.

To have space warfare like manny scifi movies and series show us. there need to be some crusial 1001++ technical breaktroughs.

So to me realism in space sim isn't newtownian flight model it just where it starts.

Then you need a whole lotta fiction to make it interresting.

Simulating mixbag of lot of fiction that weird

Gerald Belman
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It is looking awesome.

I think the variability of the possible features is a testament to how awesome the genre is.

For Example, Eve Online is trying to get the whole package together. And even with all their funding it has taken a long time and they still have soooo much farther to go. (obviously they are a little more strategy orientated vs. the more hand-eye coordination orientation in Salvation Prophecy)

But you've accomplished some tremendous things with this project. I hope it is successful and people play it.

And the skills and the experience you must have gained. That is equally valuable. You would be in hot demand by game companies and really any company I would imagine. Very few people can say, "Yea I made a full length video game, here you can play it." You should definitely put that on your resume. (I have no HR experience but I would certainly think so)

sean lindskog
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Hey Gerald,

> I think the variability of the possible features is a testament to how awesome the genre is.

Agreed. That's a great way of looking at it.

Eve is a good example. Whatever the secret to MMO longevity is, Eve certainly seems to have found it. It goes to show that space simulation, if done right, is still a viable genre.

Thanks for the kind words about the game. I'm just hoping it sells well enough that I can keep on doing what I'm doing.

Stanley de Bruyn
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Well Eve I would not put it in Space sim genre perse.

For me MMO is a whole different beast. Wich influence game mechanics so sefere. That I put all of them out there normal genre and in different MMO genre.

Where the formula is often addictive grind leveling gameplay. To keep junks/gamers attachet to this game. Where even MMO gamers die of 48 hours continuous playing.

There are gamers who finds MMO the thing to aim for. Me I hate it.

So another big audience split.

Jacob Pederson
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Some of my favorite "space sim" games


Starflight 2


Homeworld 2

So yea, I totally see what you mean about genre creep. Homeworld 2 is an RTS even!

On your list of deal breakers, I think controllers should be where most of your focus goes. Nothing scares people away faster than the "wrong" controls. Unfortunately for you, that means you'll have to support everything. Xbox controllers, stand up joysticks, keyboard and mouse, headtrackers, the whole 9 yards.

sean lindskog
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Hey Jacob,

What's encouraging about your list is that you are jumping between space-sim "types"/niches a bit. Hopefully this is a bit of a trend among space-sim fans.

I agree with your call on controllers. Controllers has been a huge focus for me. I feel very confident about my mouse&keyboard, and xbox 360 (for windows) gamepad controls. I've also put a lot of effort into joystick control too - I support generic mapping of axes, sliders, and buttons to the various ship controls. Of course, it'll be tough to see how well the joystick support plays out until the game is released, since there is such a huge range of joystick hardware our there. It works great on my Logitech Force 3D Pro, but that's all I've had for testing.

On a programming note - gamepad and joystick support was kind of a pain. On windows, for proper xbox 360 gamepad support, you need to use XInput. And for all other joysticks, you need to use DirectInput. So I switch between them depending on what you have plugged in.

Another challenge is that aiming tends to be more precise with a mouse and keyboard compared to a gamepad or joystick. So I needed to add some difficulty options to account for a less precise control device.

Stanley de Bruyn
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Some short in my game history time I was a RTS gamer. Homeworld 1&2 where my thing.

Nexus game I didn't like.

But that RTS but there is also that space game RPG Mass Effect.

Walking around in the normandy. but that the only space ship feel you get.

First off all the Normandy is like a Blackhawk in a Modernwarefare shooter which brings the squad to the action zone.

As a scifi and spaceship game fan. I dream of a genre mix of

Masseffect with Xseries.

For a small game team and limited resource I would focus on one and more open platform. PC. For a indie game or low budged project. PC space and sub niche markets are large enough.

Michael Joseph
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Players want everything. That goes without saying. But if you give in to their cries (especially when its for features/functionality that are outside of your original vision or which don't contribute to the core gameplay) you're definetly going to suffer the overloads of feature explosion.

"seamless transitions across galaxies and planets"

That particular goal has always felt to me like sandtrap. Users may exclaim they want it, but I don't see the value in implementing it... You've seen the Infinity guys working on this and advanced planet rendering for the last 5 years and they still don't have any gameplay besides dog fighting.

"There's almost no way you can cover everything, and still make a good game."


"It's a tough crowd to please. No matter what you do, a lot of people are going to be unimpressed. The most you can hope for is a segment of the space sim crowd who dig the particular features of your game, or a niche within a niche."

Lots of players understand that you can't implement everything in a version 1.0. Easiest way out is to just leave them with a glimmer of hope by responding "That sounds like a really cool feature idea, maybe we can do it in a future version." As long as you don't completely shoot down their pet ideas, they wont be hurt and rage quit.

sean lindskog
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Hi Michael,

> "That sounds like a really cool feature idea, maybe we can do it in a future version."

That's a good response. I'll use it. :)

Re: "seamless transitions across galaxies and planets"

Yeah, I skipped on this feature. I do think it's cool, but way too much work. My approach has been to always to work within the bounds of the available tech.

Michael Joseph
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not to go off topic but

a neat little space game called Kerbal Space Program

Marc Schaerer
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I might be stupid, but that list and 'problem' kind of fail to cover titles like X3 or the unhappily closed Earth & Beyond (sure for fleet commanders and trekies EVE is the non plus ultra ;)) that were able to do many many of the things in there.

To me the problem seems more that with 0-1 title a year, the devs seem to suffer from enough sources to draw 'inspiriration' and hit & miss data from but especially enough competition and challenge to push themself further beyond the border, they fight against the worst enemy only and either lose it early or give up half way. The enemy I mean is 'the void of nothing' instead of a physically touchable enemy that was shipped last month like the trash spitter genre (FPS) does, a thing to fight and compete against, a thing that the own customers will compare the own title with.

What I agree is the 'almost no way to do it all' but thats not due to the genre, thats due to the expecations on the non linear universe that just requires other humans and thus an MMO, for example on the empire building. But also for fleet command we prefer it cause without an idiot ignoring our command we can't get angry and without feeling angry it does not engage one half as much ;)

sean lindskog
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(edit: I seem to be responding to a deleted post here.)

How you handle travel time is an interesting problem in space sims. The whole idea of space is that it is supposed to be like, fairly big right? ;) Some hardcores sim fans seem to dig long travel times, and the sense of authenticity this gives to the game. Others get bored to tears.

Personally, I agree with you. I get bored easily. I had trouble playing through the X games (X3:Terran Conflict, etc) for this reason, even though there was so much else that was really well done in those games.

Darren Tomlyn
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@Johnny Fox

The problem with MMO's (especially RPG's) at this time, is they are the largest symptoms of the problems my blog is here to talk about. (Which, I've realised, I'm going to have to re-write - *again* - to cover the real basic problem/s in a more complete manner - (merely covering the aspects that directly affect the word game and nothing more, doesn't seem to be enough for many people to truly understand what is happening and why, unfortunately.))

The biggest problem that affects 'RPG's', especially, is that very few games of that type truly use the computer for what it's capable of - and instead try and shoehorn a P&P based system into it, without realising that automating one of the main elements that made P&P systems involving, takes away much of the interaction - (dice rolling). The then places the emphasis on just two areas - the basic game-play which provides the reason for such dice-rolls, (which has nothing to do with a game being an 'RPG'), and whatever elements the game has above-and-beyond such gameplay, for (hopefully) gameplay development. But since such elements tend to be very limited, either in scope or possibility for the player to use, it generally adds a level of repetitiveness to a degree that games really shouldn't have, (for this sort of size), and certainly don't really need.

Why is this lack of influence over dice-rolls a problem? Because it means the player generally has no input or influence over any of the randomness involved in the gameplay - and it's this that generally makes such games more interesting.

The fact is, is that most 'RPG' systems, do not fully USE the computer for what it is - (an overgrown calculator) - to really ENABLE as much for the player to do as they could - instead of fighting it.

It's here that the differences in capability of the different media really come into play - which is why table-top experience is not necessarily enough for all aspects of computer games.

The general point, is just to 'understand' games for what they are, regardless of implementation, rather than just 'know' them - but that is currently a problem, which my blog is here to address (for now).

Stanley de Bruyn
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@marc Schaerer

Well tie fighter and X3 are like,

Doom vs Fallout 3.

Or multi miljion game budged for 3plus years vs Independed studio doing one year for something that needs 5 years due complexity.

I would put Privateer -> Freelancer ->Universal combat -> X3TC

Tiefighter I put Wingcommander against it.

Its like airdogfighting in space. It's closer on gameplay mechanics to Chuck yeager WW2 stuf.

Then a complex trading and micromanaging thing Xseries are. Resource RTS management games have often that complexity to.

And yes there isn't much out there that has a decent funding. Yet triple-A status. That also would you as publisher responsible for company continuity. Put 15 mil on a game where there is no recent big succes out there that is similar to this new fresh pitch similar project.

As prove of a big enough audience.

And no, a open non lineair univers doesn't need MMO or Mplay at all. It's not directly related. Because that bring the need of PvP game mechanict and most off all balanse. What it needs is a living universe with lot of depth and a belivable Artificial inteligents. For NPC Enemys and Friendlies. And formost wingman and shipcrew that act more similair to real once. And MMO wich have NPC need acualy the same.

The problem with X3 is the dated single tread game engine and the very limited AI capabilities. And a UI interface that suit more aps like Ultiboard or orcad in dos era. Then a realtime combat while baby sitting every unit.

So what X3 needs for AI are deliverd is only a fraction.

So I avoid fleet warfare compleet. Even Carrier. combat.

All my capitals are docked and only uses one some time two to switch fast from ship.

If fighter gameplay is needed I jump in a fighter that fit the needs.

But X- rebirth a huge overhaul in the series. seams to tackle few of the limitations.

Derek Smart
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A lot of people tend to confuse "space games" (e.g. Homeworld) to "space sims" (Independence War, Freespace, Battlecruiser, Universal Combat etc).

The space sim fan base is just as diverse, niche and ecclectic as any other genre - and are in fact just as fledling as war games and even RPGs.

The niche nature of the sector is the primary reason that the fans are so rabid, demand more etc.

The funny thing is that no matter how you slice and dice it, if you end up developing a space game or a space sim to cater to everyone, very few will bother. The key - I find - is to target a specific group, make games just for *that* group - and don't get greedy. Being doing that for years; and it has worked out just fine. :)

As to the Holy Grail of "All Encompassing" space sims, very few have actually done it. I'm one of them. Apart from the whole "walking inside a ship or station" bit (which I'm actually doing right now in the space combat segment of my upcoming Line Of Defense game at and my follow-up hard core game, Galactic Command Online at, I've pretty much walked the entire list of "must have" and "nice to have" lists over the years. But I drew the line at Newtonian Physics because, well, it's just not fun and will simply frustrated most gamers - even those clamouring for it.

Games like Black Phrophecy, BSG etc are non-starters and just serve to taint the genre even more. Eve on the other hand is just one giant spreadsheet in space. It it a space game, not a space sim. And my guess is that it will continue the downward spiral because they were insane enough to rock the boat and think that adding pseudo-fps - then tying it to a console game - is the same as actually "doing it right".

sean lindskog
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Hi Derek,

On the difficulty of developing a space sim for everyone, I certainly agree. It's not only a budget and development nightmare, but some of the features actively conflict with one another.

Certain aspects of Salvation Prophecy are very ambitious, particularly the combination of both character and ship control. Given your work, I'm sure you appreciate the challenges of this. I intentionally cut some other big features like multi-player and seamless transitions to give these more attention.

On your specific space sim critiques:


To me, it seemed a too light-weight to capture an avid space sim fan.


While I have limited play experience in Eve, I agree it is largely a spreadsheet game. That's not what I'm looking for in a space sim. But I still have massive respect for the world they've built and what they have been able to accomplish. I look forward to seeing what happens with their console FPS experiment. I agree there is a bit of insanity going on, but that makes it all the more interesting to watch.

Black Prophecy:

I tried playing BP during beta, but the installer did some really nasty things to my computer (BSOD, subsequent failed startup, needed to run the repair utility). As far as I'm aware, this wasn't a common issue though. Based on the video and screenshots, I thought the production values looked quite good. For anyone who has played it, I'd be interested to hear specific critiques.

Thanks for the links. The space station screenshots for LOD look really nice.

sean lindskog
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From Derek's "Line of Defense" game website:

> "So the games that I want to make, tend to require specific engines for them. Which is why for more than twenty-two years now, I have never licensed a game engine for any of my games. LOD is no different."

Interesting. I took the same path. I can't say for sure how hard it would be to make a space sim using a popular game engine (since I've never done it), but I share your suspicions that it might be tricky.

Although to be fair, my choice was largely based on money. At the time I started Salvation Prophecy, Unity was in its infancy, and the more established game engines like Unreal hadn't begun to offer their indie licensing yet. Had they, I would have looked more closely at it.

Linh Ngo
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As far as which niche to tackle, I only know of one in great detail and that's the niche gamer I represent. So we spent a couple years building our space sim game to make me happy if nothing else. We attempted quite a few of the items on that Holy Grail list and for mobile no less. One of the toughest parts was making a game that is a cross between Elite and EVE (including Newtonian flight). And also an open universe with living autonomous ships which is the feature we spent the most time on. It's like trying to simulate the EVE Online MMO in a single player game. And fighting on foot planetside. We pretty much took the kitchen sink approach.

"Dangerous" - An epic 3D space combat RPG

We're releasing our game within a month for iOS and Android, so we'll see what the reception is though I suspect we'll have more success on PC/Mac/web. Since we developed in Unity, we have the luxury of easy ports.

sean lindskog
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Hi Linh,

I'll be very interested to hear how the game is received on the different platforms you mentioned. I envy Unity users for the portability of that engine. Did you run into much difficulty making a space sim work on Unity?

I checked out the video - nice music and I love the hand-drawn art. Good luck!

Linh Ngo
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Hi Sean,

As for difficulties with Unity, if you watched our video, you might notice that our planets are 3D and relatively large compared to the station and ships. For me, the scale of celestial bodies was important to convey, and though they're still not quite planet-sized, they're somewhat convincing at least for a mobile device. Especially since most other space games on mobile use a flat 2D painting or have tiny-sized planets. We had to experiment quite a bit, and in the end, used a Unity camera feature to make it work. For a complex game like ours, I think Unity really helped us track down bugs. No need for a long compile cycle either. And now with the Unity Asset store integrated into the platform, it's awesome what packages you can quickly integrate into any project.

By the way, I was amazed when I found out about your game. Nice work on the space and planetside combat. It really looks fantastic! I'm surprised I hadn't heard about your game before, though I'm just now starting to frequent various space sim sites. Do you have a release date or publisher lined up? I'm hoping we can sell on Steam and other digital stores and on the Mac app store.

sean lindskog
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Hi Linh,

I noticed and appreciated that your planets were real 3D objects. I much prefer that to planets pained on the background. I understand what you're saying about the scale of celestial bodies. With 32-bit floats, you start running into precision difficulties once you go much beyond a million units. Some engines offer something called "camera relative rendering" which can help a bit. Perhaps this is the unity camera feature you mentioned?

Thanks for the kind words about the game! In case you haven't already, you should check out - it's a great place to reach out to space sim fans, and also read up on other space sim projects.

I don't have a release date. But I believe it is only a matter of months. Steam is definitely my preference for distribution, although I have not made a formal deal with them yet.