Passion for space exploration, game development unite in MarsCorp

Game designed Robert Madsen spent four days in a remote spot in eastern Utah, simulating life on the Red Planet. Living at the Mars-like settlement was an experiment in education for Madsen, who hopes to apply what he learned into a video game simulating Mars colonization. Special to the Sentinel.

A local father-son team of business software consultants and game designers got a creative shot in the arm recently when company founder Robert Madsen donned simulated space gear and spent four days with a 10-person work crew assigned to spiff up a Red Planet simulator in eastern Utah.

The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Ranch Station near Hanksville, Utah, was Madsen’s home for four days in April. There, the 53-year-old worked alongside four first-time crew members like himself and five others who had visited the Mars-like test settlement many times before.

“It was amazing,” Madsen said. “There were people from all walks of life — engineers, teachers, all kinds of people.”

A would-be Martian himself, Madsen applied to work on the Mars Society crew for two reasons. One was his lifelong love of space exploration. The other was to complete an intelligence gathering mission.

While on duty, Madsen took hundreds of photographs of “everything (he) could think of” in dogged pursuit of the best science and graphics he could find to use in the design of a video game simulation he and his son have been working on for months.

“In addition to working and contributing to the scientific analog, I was keen to learn what it would really be like to live on Mars so we can incorporate the information into our game,” Madsen said.

The duo’s development studio, SynapticSwitch, is the innovator of MarsCorp, a game based on a simulation of building a colony on Mars.

The basic floor plan for the game is found in “The Case for Mars,” a book by aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, who argues for the start of Mars colonization within a decade.

“We’re pretty much building off of what he did and the science of what he did,” Madsen said. “This is how you generate water on Mars. This is how you generate air on Mars, etc.”

Typically, Earthbound simulators established by the Mars Society and other research organizations look very little like the shiny, futuristic technology depicted in movies and video games.

“It’s not like a perfect simulation. It’s not like they invested $1 million in these things. It’s built out of wood. But nevertheless, it has the functionality of a habitat. You can’t just walk outside. You have to put on a space suit, open an air lock, wait for the air lock to pressurize, then you can open the door and go out.”

Researching human relationships, not space age technology, is the mission of the Mars Society analog settlements.

“In a way, I’m pretending I’m actually living on Mars, but what’s the point?” Madsen asked. “The point is more about the logistics of getting a team of people together, putting these restrictions on what they can do, and then learning, now what can they do?”

That is essentially the back story to Madsen’s MarsCorp. The video game simulator involves a couple sent to colonize Mars by a corporation involved in space exploration, but their ship crashes and some of the supplies and equipment they need to settle the planet are destroyed. Numerous game variables could arise depending on how bad the crash is, he said.

The story within the story involves the couple’s deteriorating relationship with the corporation, which ominously changes the purpose of their mission. The tense relationship must be maintained in SynapticSwitch, the game development studio launched by Madsen and his son in 2010, which is situated in a two-room office, one flight up, in The Business Incubator Center’s technology building.

He works next door to his business partner, who also happens to be his 29-year-old son, Steven. Their collaboration started more than a decade ago when Steven was a teenager and the two played together in a heavy metal band, with Robert on drums and Steven on keyboards.

The career path Madsen followed to arrive at this moment started in a traditional way, with eight years of computer coding and other information technology services at a business corporation. Then, in 1992, he launched his own consulting business and never looked back.

That was the year another company bought his employer and offered him a severance package “that equated to about a year’s salary. So, I said to myself, ‘If I’m ever going to do it, this is the time.’”

“There were rough times, yes,” Madsen said. “But I worked hard to get here.”

After several years of more traditional business pursuits, Madsen decided to branch out and pursue his personal interest in Mars exploration into a new career.

“When I was in my mid-40s, I started thinking I wanted to do something slightly different, slightly more challenging — not that I couldn’t get better at writing business applications, but I’d done those for a long time. I actually settled down to two fields I would pursue. One was aerospace and one was game development,” Madsen said.

An analytical problem solver, Madsen said his game will present logistical and planning challenges, a little drama, and plenty of entertainment.


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