Oct 3, 2016

5 min read

Space Economic Simulation, Draft of Some Game Mechanics

A personal project of mine is to make a video game that does a somewhat accurate, although gamified, simulation of the economy of a space-faring society. But specifically, I have in mind humans living in the inner solar system and asteroid belt. Not much, but some code is here:

Tuning into the continuing developments from SpaceX has given me a slight kick in the pants to return to it. The first step is to write down some specifics of what it would be, and true to the Lean Stack method, begin advertising and drumming up interest right away.

As an example of the specifics of orbital mechanics that the internet is always quietly buzzing with, this is a high-profile article that mentions some real Mars architecture specifics. When it comes to the SpaceX ITS, I think we need to be talking about a lot more of this.

Only a few points are highly valuable there:

  • Docking in Mars orbit compares favorably to landing your transfer ship, and this would create a specialized niche for a fleet of surface-to-orbit propellant ferries

The thing that drives me crazy is that the numerical aspects behind details like these are actually entirely tractable. It’s very easy to enforce basic sanity checks for big-picture space concepts, but in practice it is very laborsome and frustrating.

Part of the real hard part is understanding how you will “slice” any given thing in terms of resource inputs. The Mars design with a surface-to-orbit propellant ship might have an obvious mass-budget benefit over the alternative. But this would be very difficult to really articulate in practice because the difference only matters in a long-term sense. You have to send the ferry to Mars to begin with, and recouping that cost has very complex effects on return rates (both financial and in terms of mass, etc).

Yet, there are also lots of things that are important to ignore. My argument is that ignoring them actually results in more fun. Listening to too many considerations would instantly make any effort intractable.

Gaming Components Breakdown

This is a very high-level breakdown of the classes of items that would be in the game. While they could be narrowed down to be much more specific, I think that these are very sufficient in a certain way.


Materials are produced by assets or bought from Earth. Or, alternatively… they’re just lying around on some other planet or moon. They are either consumed by other assets, or they are consumed directly by people. Some people might prefer developing “closed” ecosystems, but for first-pass stuff, consumption would result in some “waste” form.


Rockets! That seems simple enough. But there is a lot of complexity here, and this is where the extensibility really hits the road. Maximum propellant inventory and maximum Delta V would be hard-coded. In many aspects of mission designers, propellant metrics should be ignored until the end anyway.

In addition to this, some help reduce the need for rockets taking stuff from Earth to space stations. Some assets can only be produced in space.


If you have ever played Anno 1602, you’ll have a good idea of what I have in mind. There are naturally different tiers of people who will go into space, and they will come in stages. Unlike New World colonization, we have a very empirical basis to distinguish needs of different stages of travelers.

  • Astronauts: what we have today, we know exactly how much food, water, and other stuff they need from ISS published data
  • Fanatics: there is a group of people, less skilled than Astronauts, but willing to die for the cause of colonization
  • Settlers
  • Casuals

However, instead of a “pull” based model, I would prefer a “push” based model, based on the assumption that any of these people will be available for seats on a rocket, if you can afford to take them.


Locations should be described in the most simple terms possible, which is exactly what we have for a Delta V map. However, one of the nasty details that people don’t take about much is that Delta V maps aren’t truly universal. Because of the Oberth effects, the links between different points suffer more or less penalties. Additionally, some orbits only make any sense on the journey from one place to another. It is also a hierarchical model, going from moons to planets to heliocentric orbits.

This hierarchical model is the first part that I’ve started working on, because it’s core to the value proposition. With this implemented some value-adding mission designers could be quickly made public. After that, I think that the other resources can be built out on top of this scaffolding.

User Decision Order

I strongly advocate a sort of “headless” mode of mission designing, which instead of playing in any linear sense, users are just allowed to design a system using all assets that are available. The idea would be that architectures could be designed and shared on the internet (although I guess this is phase 2).

To actually “play”, we need to introduce user-restrictions and a notion of time. Restrictions would come in the form of money, both limited budgets and set payouts for accomplishment of objectives.

How is this different from what’s out there? We have some browser-based orbital simulators… which are themselves usually highly out of date. But this would not even be in the scope of this project. To be relevant to public discussions on this subject, everything must be based on the Delta V map type of layout (no integration, just accounting). That results in some nose-holding when it comes to technical details. It’s hard to say that you literally don’t care where on the planet Mars someone lands, but it doesn’t fundamentally influence rocket mass fractions, so it’s not critically important for doing a big-picture economic simulation.

The only thing I regret about this approach is that it would involve replication of things like the building ladder in Kerbal Space Program. However, I am firmly interested in the real world, even if the numbers are blatantly guesswork, and there is a very specific domain of applicability. Educated guesswork is beautiful.

Obligatory analytical writing, online participation account for Medium. Engineering, software, books, space, constant daydreaming.

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