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Thursday, January 16, 2014

KSP: Is Using MechJeb Cheating?

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a seemingly simple game. Its user interface consists of fairly static screens and an old fashioned menu driven selection system. What isn't static or menu driven is done with a somewhat primitive point, click, drag and drop functionality that could have come from any game of the early 90s. The height of graphical sophistication KSP is not.

But a game isn't always about its pretty face. I must cop to having a thing for beautiful immersive graphics. I wouldn't have a dual 580 GTX rig if I didn't. (Hey! This setup was state of the art three years ago, and very few cards can beat its capabilities today - though I do twitch every time I see a 690 GTX) Back to beautiful graphics. They can only make a game enjoyable. They can't make the game fun, and having fun is really why we play games.

screenshot28So what is it that makes KSP so fun? It's the challenge of it! It makes up for all its lack of graphical sophistication by having at its root a physics model that is virtually 100% true to real Newtonian physics. Terms like Delta V (Δv) and terminal velocity take on real, tangible meanings within the game. Apoapsis and Periapsis are not just words in a text book in this game. KSP is all about launching things into space, getting them to other planets, and for the sake of the Kerbalnauts, getting it all home - and doing so within the rules the universe made. You can't game those rules. Anyone with a passion for space flight knows it's no easy task. And even though KSP is a simulation, there is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when it all works and your Kerbalnauts land safely.

First off, you can't do something in Career mode until you research that technology. This includes MechJeb. You may be able to load the module, but until you research an appropriate technology, all those nifty features that allow you to auto ascend and auto land are disabled. In fact, the technology needed to perform an auto ascend or auto land is in the 6th science. It takes 300 points and a good, long time to unlock that capability. Until you do, all your orbits and all your landings will be done the old fashioned way: manually. That in and of itself leads me to believe it is not cheating. You don't suddenly get this huge advantage over the game if you install it. You only get what you've earned.So is it cheating if you use a plug-in like MechJeb to calculate your trajectories and auto-pilot your spacecraft? That's the question I've seen asked on the KSP community forums, and it's a question that nagged me - at first.  I almost convinced myself not to use MechJeb; to take the purist route. I'm glad I didn't. Here's why I don't think MechJeb is necessarily taking the easy way out.

But there is still an argument to be made that having a computer to calculate your trajectories is somehow... wrong. Well, maybe those people might want to tell NASA and the other space agencies that. From almost the beginning our spacecraft have had some form of automatic device to make the journey more successful. The Apollo Guidance Computer may only have had magnetic-core memory and only 15 data bits of processing power plus a parity bit, but it got mankind to the moon. Whether it was an altimeter to gauge when parachutes should deploy or a "full blown" computer like the Space Shuttle carried, manned space flight has always included an automated device to make it easier - and less dangerous.

screenshot24But just because MechJeb can calculate and execute a Hohmann trajectory to Mün, doesn't mean you know how to land - or even position yourself to land where you want. Even if you use the MechJeb landing computer, it does not guarantee you will land safely. At no time does the computer obviate you from the need to think, plan and react appropriately. If you are on final approach and you see you are going to land on the 60 degree slope of a crater wall, MechJeb will not abort the landing for you. It knows how far you are above the crater wall, but knows nothing of the slope or the fact your lander will tip over on it. Nor does MechJeb have enough intelligence to know if your remaining Δv is enough to attempt another landing and get your Kerbalnauts back to Kerbal. It's just a computational device, not an AI as such. You must determine that - by pencil and paper if you like - but you still must make the call.

screenshot27You make the decisions, at every stage of your Mün shot, that mean success or failure. Making the right decisions means Jebediah and his brothers get home safely. Making bad decisions will require more work on your part to get them home. MechJeb is only a tool to assist you in accomplishing that objective, and it can never make the decision for you. And in my experience, it does not lessen the feeling of accomplishment when I succeed. All MechJeb does is free me from piloting chores so I can actually concentrate on being the program director. I don't have to be the pilot too - most of the time. ;-)

Fly Careful

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