Extrasolar Channels the Explorer in All of Us

What follows is waiting: it takes at least an hour, and more often four, for the rover to arrive at its location and send back the image. Then you analyze it by checking out the generated photo for anything of note — like indigenous life forms — and tag it to be analyzed by XRI’s scientists.

In a world in which the word “casual” is often a pejorative when applied to certain games, and in which free-to-play, browser-based games often get a black eye simply for their nature, Lazy 8′s use of these elements is a bit on the risky side.

“The game mechanics are a huge gamble for sure,” Jagnow said. “Every time we talk to designers who have been making free-to-play games for a few years, they say, ‘you’re doing everything wrong!’ But there are good reasons for all of our design decisions. We wanted to create a game that’s addictive but that is also very respectful of your time … something that’s great for busy people who can’t commit a lot of time to an experience but who still want something deeper — much deeper — than what’s available out there right now. It’s a hard balance to strike, but based on the tester feedback, I think we’ve really hit on something magical.”

The mechanics of Extrasolar may even help add an additional level of realism to it. The game doesn’t feel like a game, so much as a science experiment and corporate interface. Jagnow said that the developers at Lazy 8 will sometimes try to avoid calling it a “game” at all, and described it as more of an “interactive story.”

There’s strategy in what you might call “gameplay” in Extrasolar, but only as it feeds the goals of the fictional science experiment: if your rover will arrive at a location at night, for example, you’re left with the decision of whether to snap a photo in darkness, but potentially pick up light sources, or try with infrared. It’s also possible to shoot panoramas, which convey more image but lack the ability to shoot in infrared.

Choosing the wrong kind of photo for the time of day, for example, or parking your rover in a bad spot means waiting as you fix the issue and the new image is beamed from the planet to the browser. All that uncertainty and simplicity adds depth to the experience of actually trying to send instructions to a distant rover.

Extrasolar’s images are key to the experience, and they’re what inspired the entire project to begin with, Jagnow said. His background and education are in computer graphics, and Extrasolar originally began as an idea of how that experience could be used to create a game experience.

“To create these ‘photos,’ we render the images on a powerful computer in the cloud,” Jagnow said. “Drivers tell their rover where to go, what time of day to take the photo at, what direction they want to face, and whether they want any special options for there photo — like infrared imagery or a 360-degree panorama. We upload those specifications to a special computer that moves a virtual camera to a position on our virtual island and renders a photo from that time and location. We can take several seconds to create each photo, which allows us to have incredible detail. The island where you start exploration has tens of thousands of plants and detailed terrain.”

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