This is a guest post by NYU graduate Nina Demirjian. Nina and her team were the recipients of the 2019 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Games Production Award, which provided them with $20,000 to develop a game that raises the public understanding of science. More information on the grant program here. In this post Nina talks about the journey to take Red Planet Farming from a game jam project to a launched title, which you can play on and download on Steam.

In September of 2018, I created a nearly-unplayable prototype of a Mars-based farming simulator to submit to a game jam, only to receive an overwhelmingly negative response from judges calling it “incoherent.” Now, nineteen months later, Red Planet Farming is a fully-fleshed out strategy game launching on Steam in May 2020, and its content is based on direct advisement from NASA about real science and research surrounding Mars.

Looking back, it’s satisfying to see the progress made in just a year and a half. Honestly, the game would have probably stayed in its initial game jam submission state for the rest of eternity if a few professors from the NYU Game Center hadn’t approached me about it in late 2018. They mentioned that if I was willing to make the game more educational, it could be a good fit for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Games Production grant — a grant given out every year to a student game that gives players a greater appreciation for science. I was a senior at NYU, studying Computer Science, but I was interested in going into game development, so the grant sounded like a really good opportunity for me to get my foot in the door of the game design world.

When I expressed interest in the grant, The NYU Game Center put me in contact with a team of science advisors at the NASA Ames Research Center in San Jose who agreed to help me with research for the game. I found an artist that was interested in working on the project, and in May of 2019, we won the grant. But the task of transforming Red Planet Farming from a scientifically inaccurate prototype into a full strategy game with crops, technology, and weather patterns based on research and readings was only just beginning.

In those early stages of development, we were still questioning just how educational Red Planet Farming should be. Even from the beginning, I didn’t want it to feel like a training tool or a lesson disguised as a game. I really like the Sloan Foundation’s mission statement, which encouraged us to make a piece of popular entertainment that provided the player with a deeper understanding of scientific topics. I felt Red Planet Farming could fit perfectly into the current era of renewed interest in space exploration, but I knew if the game wasn’t also fun, the educational content would go unseen.

Engaging gameplay and educational content don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it often felt like the decisions I made would improve one of these two aspects and hurt the other. For example, I really struggled when choosing which crops to include in the game at first. My original list was full of interesting and colorful crops, like peaches, pears, pomegranates, cacao, and plantains. But my science advisors warned me that these crops wouldn’t be good choices to include in the game because they weren’t what humans would realistically grow in the early years of settling Mars. Instead, they proposed crops like spinach, arugula, kale, quinoa, and pretty much anything else that belongs in a salad. This worried me, because I suspected that our audience (which included elementary and middle school kids) probably wouldn’t want to sit around just growing leafy green vegetables for fun. But my advisors insisted that I make a spreadsheet with all of the crops I was considering, and fill out the calorie, fiber, carbohydrate, and protein values for each of them. It became pretty clear which crops were high in nutritional value, and which weren’t. And after seeing them all together in the chart, the decision to cut the less-nutritional crops felt obvious. It left a lineup of crops that I originally considered to be more bland, but stayed true to the mission of realism in the educational context.

After this, my science advisors suggested that I include the nutritional data from that spreadsheet on the small UI popups that are displayed when the player’s cursor hovers over a crop. Before they had even mentioned this, the UI was already something that I was struggling with greatly. One of the biggest challenges of making a game with a lot of data is determining how to coherently present that information to the player. Each crop, upgrade, and building has its own unique set of stats which need to be clear and concise in order for the player to feel like they are making strategic and intelligent decisions.

I worried that throwing protein, carbohydrate, fiber, and calorie values into the mix was going to confuse the player because none of these stats actually had any impact on the gameplay. I felt bad for wanting to leave information out, but I knew that including too many numeric values on the popups was not the right decision for the clarity of the gameplay. To compromise, I replaced the array of nutritional values with a single “Sustenance” rating, and added a short, one-sentence blurb about each crop on the popups. This allowed me to still mention more factual information about the crops, but keep the stats themselves strictly focused on gameplay.

Crop Information UI Changes Over Time

But decisions like this didn’t feel as obvious in other cases. Should the player have to worry about their oxygen or carbon dioxide usages? How about their power usage? Should the weather patterns mimic the seasonal patterns on Mars? Or is it fine to just leave the seasons out of the game in general? Every time my science advisors or my own research revealed another hurdle that humanity would face in order to survive on Mars, I questioned whether or not I should implement it into the game as a mechanic. I felt guilty if the answer was no, because it seemed like every time I left something out of the game, I was lowering its integrity. But on the other hand, I knew I couldn’t keep adding mechanics that would make the game feel scattered.

In these less obvious cases, I kept thinking back on my original impact goals for Red Planet Farming to remind myself that at the end of the day, the game didn’t have to be the end-all, be-all for knowledge, but rather a stepping stone that would pique the player’s interest in Mars. I didn’t want people focusing on facts or data; I wanted them imagining what day-to-day life and challenges could be like if they were just an average citizen living on Mars. So to add this human element, I started incorporating more narrative elements into the game.

An in-game newspaper serves as the most prominent world-building for Red Planet Farming. The newspaper has short articles that describe the lives of citizens living on Mars and sometimes even addresses game-related events that take place. A lot of the stories are just Mars facts disguised as cute anecdotes. For example, one headline reads “Martian Citizens Feel Left out while Earth Celebrates New Year”, which describes an article about how the Martian year is roughly double the length of an Earth year. The newspaper ultimately was one of the ways that I was able to incorporate more educational content into the game without having to add or change mechanics. It checked off the boxes for a lot of the things that my science advisors wanted the game to address, but it allowed me to deliver the educational content in a way that didn’t feel dry.

What I’ve come to understand over the past year and a half of making Red Planet Farming is that it’s not the amount of scientific facts or data you have in your game that matters, but how you present it. There were a lot of times over the course of development that I was worried Red Planet Farming didn’t feel factual or realistic enough. But I realized that it’s not worth stressing about every small scientific detail if it’s just going to deter people from wanting to play the game. Planting the seeds of interest in scientific concepts in your players can actually go a much longer way than boring them and failing to get them interested in a topic. And ultimately, this blend of scientific intrigue and engaging gameplay is what I think makes Red Planet Farming successful as an educational game. Red Planet Farming isn’t a lesson, or a textbook, or an exercise. It’s a game, first and foremost.

You can find out more about Red Planet Farming, including where to play the game on their website.