Try this at home: how a kid making improvised rockets created NASA’s favorite game
It's 2003, and there's a good chance 15-year-old Felipe Falanghe is about to blow his own hand off. He's playing outside with his friends, using spare rocket motors and disassembled fireworks to build his own custom rocket.
But while Felipe faces dismemberment, it's the “Kerbos” I'm really worried about. The tiny tin foil men are strapped into the cockpit with duct tape, ambassadors of Earth on a mission to find a new planet.
Probability of mission success: 0%.
Kerbos = Kerbals
“[The Kerbos'] missions weren't really successful,” joked Falanghe, now 26 and with both hands remarkably intact. He went on to create the runaway indie hit, Kerbal Space Program.
Kerbal Space Program is a game that essentially recreates what Falanghe was trying to do ten years ago. It gives players all the tools they need to build just about any rocket they can imagine, then they can try to fly it off the planet on a mission to explore the cosmos.
Eventually, Falanghe had to move on from callously sacrificing Kerbos, but this concept stuck with him forever. He never really left the Kerbos behind, carrying the idea with him through game design college and his first job.
The little guys stayed locked inside his head until his employers at marketing company Squad announced that they would be launching a sort of “make your dream come true” program for their employees. The concept was that any employee who had a business idea could come to the company owners, pitch the idea, and if the bosses liked it they'd help them flesh out a business plan.
“It started out very lowkey,” Falanghe told the Report. “The first idea I pitched was actually 2D… it could have been done in Flash. Basically you built a space craft, and tried to launch it as high as it would go… and that was basically it. It was kind of like a high score game.”
His employers liked the idea and greenlit the project. Feature after feature would be added until eventually the game was released to the public in 2011 with version 0.7.3, a very simplistic version of the Kerbal Space Program available today.
“I've got to tell you it looked very bad back then,” Falanghe said with a laugh. “It was much, much simpler back then. We had basics.”
And he means very basic. You could build a rocket, launch it, and that's about it. You could save the rocket, but you couldn't load it.
“The big thing when we developed the game, from the first version, was always having something that was playable,” he said. “At any time the game was at a point where we could have called it…'it.'”
Falanghe never really knew when the plug would be pulled on Kerbal Space Program. Any moment the game's production could just end. This uncertainty led to slow progress.
“It has to do with the way we started because being independent we didn't know how far we could go with this project or even with this concept because it was so different,” Falanghe said. “We had no idea how it was going to turn out. So we assumed that every update could have been the last one.”
Kerbal Space Program has spread throughout the gaming community by word of mouth as it grew, drawing in more and more users who fell in love with its slapstick-realism space exploration before finally exploding during this year's Steam Summer Sale. The excitement around Kerbal Space Program's light-hearted enthusiasm for space has even reached NASA where it's apparently a hit with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab.
But for Falanghe, it's all still a dream that's in the process of coming true. When he tells the story of Kerbal Space Program, the game feels like a totally natural part of his life story that's still evolving, its creation inevitable.
From the time he was five years old he said he loved to play flight simulators, ultimately leading up to an interest in modding, and a year-long project to model a full Boeing 737 in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. Which, in turn, made Falanghe feel a responsibility to keep the game open to the modders who have heavily contributed to the success of Kerbal Space Program over the years.
When Falanghe talks about building rockets as a kid, it's easy to see why the game is so compelling. Anyone can begin to experiment, and the failures are almost as rewarding as the successes.
“The most successful design we had was a two-stage rocket that actually ignited the second stage,” said Falanghe, obviously smiling on the other end of the phone, his voice still hinting of pride after 10 years. “It was glorious.”
It's almost poetic that now, in adulthood, his focus has turned to building something that will bring that same glorious feeling to a whole new group of people.
Without the risk of losing a limb.
As anybody who has played Kerbal Space Program knows, iteration is never complete, and neither is Kerbal Space Program. Falanghe and Squad have a long way left to go before they've created the game they truly want to build. Earlier this year they reached “sandbox complete” where they had added all of the flight simulator aspects of the game, but the work continues.
By the end, Kerbal Space Program will be a sort of management sim as well as a flight sim, as you guide your own space program to success through research and development and undertaking missions and contracts.