Friday, March 8, 2019

KSP vs SR2

Rocket science is paradoxically very complicated and surprisingly simple.  Engineering challenges mixed with the counterintuitive nature of space flight can impose some pretty major obstacles when it comes to exploring beyond this little magic bubble we all call Earth.  On the flipside certain fundamental questions like "will this rocket fly?" are straightforward mathematical problems that can be solved using basic algebra.  "Where can I get to in this rocket?" is a little more complex, but with the aid of a scientific calculator (specifically one that has a 'ln' or 'natural logarithm' key) it's certainly possible to get numbers that can be compared to a delta-v map; a bit like a subway commuter comparing the funds in their wallet against route ticket prices.

Now, I know looking at just the title of this blogpost might cause some to think that it's about an obscure crossover fighting game.  Alas, no...this is actually about a pair of semi-realistic space flight sims.  The first is Kerbal Space Program (or KSP for short) while the second is SimpleRockets 2 (abbreviated SR2 and the upgraded PC sequel to a much more basic 2D smartphone game).  Comparing the two might seem obvious to some (both are games wherein players design, build and fly rockets into the great void), but others may feel it's a stretch (apples and oranges).  Regardless, I think there is some insight to be gained by facing these games off against each other.  So, let's dig in.

Right away it becomes obvious that KSP is more feature complete...which makes sense given that the game has been in development for the better part of a decade.  SR2 on the other hand has just debuted (at the time of this blog post) as an early access title.  It might be tempting to conclude (based on this information alone) KSP is the superior product, but the truth is SR2 holds a significant advantage in that it can learn (and in some ways has already learned) from KSP's mistakes.  The parts used to construct rockets is a great example of this.  KSP has five different sizes each of which has their own subsets of different lengths, different adaptors, and different storage properties.  The result is a Lego bin of pieces that can be fun to sift through, but also a pain in the neck when you know what you want yet can't seem to find it.  In KSP's defense there are sorting tools to alleviate some of the frustration, but SR2 has a much more elegant approach.  Instead of a myriad of parts it has a short list of generic sized essentials which can be shaped and modified quick 'n easy by clicking and dragging with the mouse.  Enough about parts's time to fly.

There's a noticeable difference in loading times between the two games.  Specifically, KSP takes its sweet time while SR2 has much better optimization.  In part this is due to KSP being developed in Unity (a generic game creation engine) instead being coded from the ground up to be a space simulator.  Another problem that has plagued KSP since its inception is weird bugs.  Often the blame lies with Unity and nowhere is this more apparent than with the dreaded "Kraken," a particular kind of physics glitch that crops up when parts are loading into the game or are under time acceleration.  As far as I can tell, SR2 doesn't have a kraken...yet.  It may never thanks to a lack of any third party software.

Of course many of the merits of SR2 are present in KSP provided one is willing to install fan-made mods.  In fact KSP has a huge number of these available, allowing each and every player to customize the game to their heart's content.  The problem is said mods tend to exacerbate the fundamental issues KSP has; more bugs, longer load times, and poorer performance.  SR2 represents a clean start on the concepts that KSP pioneered.  Whether or not it will ever surpass its predecessor though remains to be seen.  Perhaps one could say (in so many acronyms) SR2 is the SpaceX to KSP's NASA.         

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