The Success of Kerbal

A happy little Kerbal

Kerbal Space Program is a probably something that anyone interested in serious games has come across.  In fact, it’s often at the top of the list.  So why is it so successful?  For anyone who doesn’t know, serious games are games that serve a primary purpose other than entertainment.  This could be to teach, market a product, practice a skill, or more, but it’s important to recognize that it must still be a game.  In other words, it must still be entertaining.

If you haven’t played or watched gameplay of Kerbal Space Program, it is essentially a rocket science simulator.  You must build ships, satellites, probes, etc, to leave Kerbin’s (the in-game planet you start on) atmosphere.  Eventually you land on moons and planets, build satellite arrays, retrieve asteroids, and more astronomical related activities.  So it’s not surprising that the game is incredibly complex.  In fact, to some degree you MUST learn rocket science.  This game has been praised by experts in its orbital physics, and even worked with NASA on one of its missions.

So it’s easy to see where the serious side of this game comes into play; it has realistic physics that players must slowly learn and understand in order to accomplish various tasks.  But since this is rocket science, how is it able to appeal to enough people to play and invest time into the game?  For starters, it does simplify things a bit.  You do need to learn quite a bit, but not everything that has to do with sending rockets into space.  It still has a lot of complexity, but it does not require such precision that you would need an actual degree to play.  But more importantly, it retains many of the same values that make up a good game.  It eases you into gameplay, by restricting access to materials and abilities until you’ve progressed far enough (at least in career mode).  It contains a creative mode with no punishment for failure, thereby encouraging players to experiment and learn without adding to frustration, and it has goals that are always within reach yet difficult enough that when they are completed, it feels like a real accomplishment.

At its core, it remains a good game.  I think this is the reason for its success.  It started out as a passion project with a focus on its realism.  It was made by someone who enjoyed the idea of sending rocket into space and created a game where it was possible, even if it meant making small sacrifices in some aspects of the physics.  If it had been designed intentionally for the purpose of education, it may not have the elements that make the game so enjoyable.  And the game is enjoyable, as many players have attested to.  The game has an estimated 1.7 million copies sold on Steam according to  Interest for the game is still high and NASA and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, have both shown interest and support for the series.  In an article posted by theguardian, more than 12,000 players were surveyed with over 90% of them having no experience in the aerospace industry with similar numbers showing an increase of interest and knowledge in science and astrophysics.

Interest in space and what NASA does has been waning ever since the first moon landing.  Media helped promote space travel when we first sought to land on the moon and now it seems that video games have become the perfect medium with which to encourage even more progress.  With numbers like that, it’s hard to argue with the results.  Kerbal Space Program is a great example of how to do a serious game right.


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