Mars the Arrival: an ode to the slowest game in the world

In a world embracing instant digital gratification, I’d like to compose an ode to a quirky game where the average length of a move is measured in days and even paying money can’t speed things up. This game is Mars: The Arrival (MTA), a Mars colony builder app by Heiwa Games, for Apple and Android.

First, a bit of backstory. I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction, SimCity, Elite and Civilization, and am thus always on the lookout for a decent Mars colony simulator. “Decent”, in my book, means bearing some resemblance to reality, so that (for example) materials should either be made locally or slowly and expensively hauled from Earth. Paradox’s Surviving Mars is typical in the shortcuts taken by big-budget games: metals can be obtained by having a drone zap rocks of metal ore conveniently lying on the surface, instantly turning them into refined steel. At the other end of the spectrum, the obsessively micromanaging Mars Simulator Project does things like assign each settler Myers-Briggs personality types and track the radiation exposure of their eyeballs, pretty much foregoing colony building entirely. Between the two lies a whole heap of pay-to-play trash, where materials can be magicked out of the thin Martian air and buildings completed instantly simply by forking out cash for credits.

One day, idly dredging the depths of the Play Store, I stumbled on MTA. As you start the game, you’re treated to a 3D view of Earth, where you can select your faction, and then another 3D globe of Mars, where you can select the placement of your nascent colony. Enjoy these shiny graphics while they last, because for the rest of the game, the UI is closer to Excel’s 1979-vintage predecessor Visicalc: green figures on a black background, slowly ticking up or down.

The core of the game is a resource gathering/city building exercise. Your initial objective is simply to become self-sufficient in the essentials (energy, oxygen, water, food), shuffling your meager crew around a cycle of researching new things and building buildings. Unlike any other game I’ve seen in this genre, there is no visualization whatsoever of what your colony looks like: the UI is a simple tree of expandable options with miniature icons, and if you complete a solar panel, the “Solar Panels” row ticks up from “1x” to “2x” and the Power panel adds +0.3 MW. There are no disasters and no surprises: if you run out of oxygen, it’s on you for not noticing earlier. Even a positively boneheaded move, like taking out your only habitat out of operation to build an upgrade, only results in leisurely red blinking and a slow but inexorable dip in the Happiness stat as 12 colonists find themselves squeezed into the 10-person Landing Module.

I was sufficiently intrigued by the concept that I reached out to Heiwa Games, and lead developer Stefan was kind enough to answer a few questions. On the inspiration for the game: “I was reading the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy of Kim Stanley Robertson. So I started with a space colony building prototype and focused on a realistic rather than on the typical game-style approach. The first prototype was “too close-up”. You had to piece building segments together forming a resource transportation network and you was supposed to see settlers doing their work. I felt that a more strategic “zoomed-out” approach would lead to the terraforming stage quicker so I started the second prototype that finally grew into the app you know today.”

It is difficult to convey in words just how slowly the game moves. One less than complimentary review compares it to “watching paint dry”, but most paint dries in under 24 hours, while in MTA it’s quite common to find yourself adjusting a shipment that’s going to depart Earth in three days (real time) and won’t actually reach you until a week has passed. The average small building takes at least 1 day to build, sending out an expedition takes over 4 days, and some late-game buildings can take up to 10 days, not including the week or four it took to gather the necessary resources. And because your colony is so strapped for colonists, especially in the beginning, you can rarely do more than one or maybe two things in parallel. A typical day of game play thus consists of loading it up, spending a minute or two shuffling people around just enough to kick off the next thing, and making a mental note of how many hours or days it will take until that thing will be ready and you should log in again. As I write this, I am well over 6 months into my first game, and while I’ve finally made it to the final phase, there’s still plenty of work to do to get to a stage where I can say I’m done.

Yet these nearly absurd constraints are also what makes the game interesting, and once you make your way to the Expansion Phase, the game turns into slow motion chess, where you’re often plotting your moves a week in advance. “With 8 settlers in the next ship, I’m going to need to expand beyond the Habitat into a Dome, so I’ll need to make sure I’ve got plenty of Construction Supplies. But I can only research the Dome after they’ve arrived, so it’s going to packed until they finish research and building. To keep everybody happy, I need to complete the Media Center, but then I’ll need to pull the Scientists from the Greenhouse and risk running low on Food…” The game undergoes a gradual fractal explosion in complexity, as you move from bare survival into exploration and industry, juggling exotica like biomass, hydrogen and rare earths. Maintenance also becomes a serious headache, since repairs are costly and take buildings offline, but if you don’t repair, they may break down entirely. And while the game has a classic Civilization-style tech tree, it’s kept completely hidden, meaning you need to figure out what to research as you go along and won’t find out even the basics like how much it will cost and who needs to staff it until each tech is done.

Stefan: “I have played mobile games a lot and while some of them are really fun, I hate this inflexible concept of almost all base building type games. Especially the concept of speeding up the game by using real money and selling virtual goods for real money. I am aware that developing companies need to follow this pattern in order to earn the money they need to keep going. However having a well paid job, this situation didn’t apply to me.”

MTA is free to play, but monetized very carefully. By default, you get a popup every now and then, offering a marginal boost to a future shipment in exchange for watching an ad. You can also pay for “Gold Member” status, which gets you access to the leaderboard; a “logistics contract”, which lets you randomly reshuffle future shipments that are 3-6 days away, and a “sponsor contract”, which lets you skip the ads and still get the extra loot. None of these options speed up the game or let you buy your way out of trouble.

This is not to say the game is perfect. Fuel for rockets, a key consideration for any settlement, is inexplicably missing entirely. There are no notifications or options for queueing construction or research, meaning you have to keep track of what’s going to be ready when. Escaping the long and tedious Expansion Phase requires hitting arbitrary targets for population and built-up area, but you have no control over the arrival of settlers and are arbitrarily blocked from any research related to local manufacturing, meaning the last couple of weeks are basically spent twiddling your thumbs. Last but not least, since the game contains no random events at all, once you’ve reached an equilibrium it’s a little too easy to stay there — at least until the Industry Phase comes along and your colony starts growing at 30+ settlers per shipment, forcing you to build like crazy just to keep up.

Given that the game’s audience is likely to have heavy overlap with hacker types, have Heiwa considered open sourcing it? Stefan says yes: “I have started thinking about how to grow the team. Currently we are three individuals, a coder, a tester and an administrator. I would really like to join up with other people that also have a burning passion for settling Mars and are willing to join a non-standard economic business model. Plan is to move the code base to git and make it available to a limited group of people joining up. So if someone reading this interview would be interested, please reach out to me using the support function of the app. Maybe we can reach the terraforming phase in terms of app development much quicker that way.

One feature in the works is a birds-eye graphic view of the settlement, so if you’d like to see this happen, drop Heiwa a line. Me, I’ll still be plugging away at my supply chain, watching the little numbers tick up and down.