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Blasting Off From Colorado, High Frontier Aims to Be the Most Realistic Space Game Ever

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When the European Space Agency's Philae lander touched down on Comet 67P on November 12, millions of people were watching. For one day, the washing-machine-sized robot was the world's biggest celebrity, spawning a Google doodle and making the home page of the New York Times.

From his house in Fort Collins, software developer Joe Strout followed the probe's journey with special interest."It's a very encouraging step, for sure," Strout says. "Someday we'll be using the resources of asteroids and comets to build our own worlds, and this will be remembered as a very important day -- the first time any artifact landed on a comet."

You could say that space colonization is Strout's hobby, but that would be selling his obsession short. A software developer by profession, Strout is a self-taught student of physics who has co-authored papers on space-colony design and construction with a member of NASA's Ames Research Center. Now he's hoping to give gamers a crash course in what it takes to settle the stars.

See also: New Colorado Video Games Got a Chance to Shine at the Denver Indie Games Expo

High Frontier, a new game seeking funding on Kickstarter, aims to be the most faithful space sim on the market, with realistic physics and an evolving economy that grows as players' colonies expand out into space. Now available as a playable demo, the game is almost entirely the work of Strout, with help from his two sons, ages fourteen and ten.

"I wanted to do something that would raise awareness of the idea of orbital colonies, and also do it in a realistic way," says Strout. "I put a lot of effort into getting the physics right, investigating the radiation environment and getting the effects of shielding all right."

Players in High Frontier begin by designing their colonies piece by piece, adding living spaces, solar generators, communications arrays and other components together into a single station. Then they sit back and watch as new residents arrive and populate the colony, gauging their reactions to their new home via messages on a Twitter-like network called Squawker.

The game gives players almost-total control over the parameters of their colony -- its shape, the soil depth, the thickness of the radiation shielding -- and every detail makes a difference. Make it rotate too slowly, and residents will become weak from the low gravity; neglect to put in enough radiators, and they'll complain about the stifling heat. Botch the geometry of the colony, and it will spin wildly, throwing everything inside out of whack.

To ensure the game's scientific accuracy, Strout padded his own expertise with help from specialists, consulting mathematicians and physicists on the minutiae of keeping a giant habitat stable. When Strout had difficulty figuring out how radiation would impact colonies, he turned to acquaintances at NASA to help him work through it. Going to space is expensive, too: While it won't be as prominent as the game's physics, the final version of High Frontier will have its own economic system as well, with prices for resources changing as companies develop the moon and other astral bodies.

"There's going to be a sort of background economic model that goes on while you play," says Strout. "That determines what materials are available at what cost in different orbits." Eventually, Strout says, players will be able to expand throughout the solar system; He plans to make it possible to build all the way out to Neptune. The finished version of High Frontier will also add on a management mode that lets players govern their colonies, Sim City-style.

In developing High Frontier, Strout borrowed inspiration from another physics-heavy space sim, the well-regarded Kerbal Space Program. First released in 2011, the game puts players in charge of a nascent space agency staffed by tiny green beings with little sense of self-preservation.

"Because of that game, there are now thousands and thousands of people who understand orbital dynamics better than almost anybody who hasn't [played it]," says Strout. "I wanted to do something similar, but with a longer view."

To fund the artwork necessary to flesh out entire cities and parks for High Frontier, Strout is attempting to raise $10,000 on Kickstarter. As of Thursday night, the project had raised about $7,700, with five days left. You can learn more about High Frontier and contribute on its Kickstarter page.

Follow Adam Roy on Twitter at @adnroy.

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