Squad is aptly named.Â The Mexico-based company was founded in 2008 as a marketing firm that wanted to be an employee-centric workplace, according to co-founder Adrian Goya. It had enough marketing acumen to draw regional business from global brands such as Coca-Cola and Samsung, but along the way something else bloomed at the firm.Â It transitioned into a kind of ideation lab, encouraging staff to take advantage of a program the company labels âmake your dream come true with Squadâ.Â Teams can pitch any new venture, and Squad will fund it as long as there is a potentially successful business case behind it. The program is what gave birth to Kerbal Space Program, a rocket science simulation game thatâs long on originality and gaining a dedicated player following.Â
“Kerbal-nauts” on a mission
Some of the same tenets that seem to underpin Squad as a company also apply to Kerbal Space Program, or KSP, as a game.Â TheÂ brainchild of Squadâs Felipe Falanghe, KSP is one big adventure in courageous risk taking and learning on the go.Â Thereâs also much more to it than initially meets the eye.Â Itâs a serious and solidly designed science-based simulator with physics rooted right here on earth.Â Yet itâs wrapped in the veneer of a quirky, otherworldly IP where the characters that populate it, called Kerbals, are something right out of a Nickelodeon cartoon.Â That hasnât hindered the game from attracting a following among serious PC gamers, including loyalists in the game press like PC Gamerâs Ian Birnbaum , who has aÂ running journalÂ dedicated to his KSP exploits.
âOur lead developer, Felipe, played with fireworks as a kid and built little tin men to strap onto his bottle rockets,â says Bob Holtzman, who runs PR and marketing for KSP. Â âHe called them Kerbals.Â The Kerbals are there for comedic relief. Theyâre pretty fearless, in a sort of stupid way. So theyâre always good for a laugh and help you enjoy yourself, even when your rocket blows up. Felipe told me players come for the explosions and stay for the rocket science.â
Squad thinks the appeal of the IP helps overcome one ofÂ KSPâs biggest challenges from a game play standpoint. True to its source material, much of the experience is rooted in trial and error as players tinker with designing rockets, launch pads, space vehicles and everything else needed to build a space program from the ground up. When it comes to figuring out what works and doesnât, the emphasis is on learning from failure, and lots of it.
âItâs not a casual experience and takes effort,â says Holtzman, adding, âThe development team understood that attempting to realistically recreate a space agency was going to be a real challenge for most gamers, myself included!Â So one of the teamâs major focuses is making sure failure is fun in Kerbal Space Program. The Kerbals make that happen. Theyâre like a running joke version of âdid you see the look on his face â while youâre blowing your latest rocket or spacecraft to smithereens.âÂ
With KSP as its first foray into game making, Squad might have been impatient about quickly recouping what it invested.Â Instead,Â the company is taking a patient approach to marketing and monetizing the game thatâs surprisingly cognizant of how gamers embrace a product.Â Itâs using theÂ freemium version of the free-to-play model, but it’s doing it in a much more calculated way compared to how many games come at free-to-play on a wing-and-a-prayer, essentially begging players to go ahead and play for free while hoping they’ll eventually buy something.
Goya explains, âAfter several months in development we made a free public release of the game on our website, just to test and see how people reacted and see if the idea was a good one worth keeping up developing. There was a very positive reaction so we decided to carry on with free updates. After a while, almost a year in development, we decided to start accepting pre-orders for the game, while still giving it for free. If you gave us seven dollars at the time, you would have the full version of the game forever. The pre-order price has increased over time and we eventually released a free demo version and a paid version youâd only have access if you made a pre-order.â
âIt was a natural process for us and youÂ can say itâs a sound marketing strategy,â adds Holtzman.Â âDevelopers who understand the market for their game can form a powerful community of word-of-mouth marketers while funding a longer runway for their team to develop the game. The important part, and this is where teams canât slack off, is making sure the game is developed to the utmost of its potential with each new update. One bad update can ruin your relationship with your community. Their support is fueling your takeoff so you canât let them down.”
âYou have players who are in direct contact with you, who start loving your game, help you shape the game and talk about your game.Â And added to that, in our case, you get very talented people out there creating mods that make our game grow,” says Goya.
A big part of experiencing this game is getting exposed to that robust modding community around it. Â Modders are playing a critical part in helping lower the barrier for entry for new players. Â The game is all about building and testing parts that work within larger systems, and while failures that explode are fun not everything that fails explodes.Â Once a player is past the basics of building a rocket that flies into space, thereâs room for all sorts of improvements. Ultimately the player moves from building rockets to the other fun aspect of KSP, space exploration.Â Thanks to mods,Â which in KSPâs case could very well stand for âmodulesâ, players can get past the time sink of testing every little component of their growingly complex enterprise by installing parts and systems developed by other players.Â As one example, the currently most popular mod for the game is a nifty looking, and presumably tried and tested, escape pod for players who are building space stations.Â
Shopping for mods almost adds a game within a game to KSP.Â Squadâs robust online hub for modders, Kerbal Spaceport, feels like an e-commerce site.Â Browsing through categories such as âStructural and Aerodynamicâ or âCommand and Control,â and considering items such as the aforementioned space pods, the site makes you feel as if youâre a NASA acquisition specialist sifting through a database of government contractors.Â Given the level of sophistication for some of the mods, itâs not surprising to hear Goya say that theyâve actually hired modders to the development team.Â Thereâs seemingly an opportunity to monetize this side of the game too, though Squad says theyâre not ready to for that just yet.
âItâs definitely something weâve considered,â says Goya.Â âOne of the challenges is the legal side since our game is played globally and if you start to allow people to sell the mods, it opens up a number of legal issues. Itâs something weâre working on but havenât made any final decisions.â
From here out, the emphasis for Holtzman, Goya and the KSP team is to broaden appeal for a game that may not have mainstream hit written all over it, at least not at first blush.Â Overcoming that has a lot to do with how the product is communicated, and whoâs doing the communicating.Â Here, Squad is still relying on the people who play the game and get what itâs all about.
âWeâre trying to make sure the community has all the tools they need to share this game with their friends. We recently updated the website to make it more user friendly. Weâre also looking to expand our social media options. Right now, our focus has been on our forums, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch.TV. Weâre really making an effort to show people how much fun it is to stream KSP and had our social media manager, Miguel Pena, and one of our developers, Chad Jenkins, join the GamesRadar team on a stream the day we launched update 0.21. It was a chance for us to introduce the game to a new audience and some of our core audience members showed up to both tease and support some of the new players from the GR team.â
âKerbal Space Program hasnât approached its potential, both as a game and its brand,â Holtzman adds. âItâs going to be a lot of fun to see new players discover the game and see how future updates help it grow. Weâre also working hard to strategically invest in the brand. We just want to make sure it makes sense with where the game is in development too.â