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As of May 2014, I am literally exploding with excitement to tell you that players can now actually Colonize the outer planets!
This feature at last brings true Sandbox play to Ascent's insane 270,000,000,000 star system galaxy, allowing players to construct and populate cities of any size. Colony claim "deeds" have a 100km radius each, and there is no hard coded limit to the number of buildings that can be constructed in a single city. Players are limited only by their imagination, wealth and resources within the game.
Designed as a complete city building and harsh environment colonization simulation within the already well-featured space MMO, colonies are the new Industrialist end-game for Ascent, the peak achievement for such a player. As such they have an entirely new level of depth, complexity and difficulty. Unlike player built cities in the inner systems, the new colonies have a hostile environment and no supporting infrastructure or readily available workforce, an effective balance to the lack of restriction and vast open space available.
In order for colonists to survive these desolate outer worlds where lethal variations in gravity, radiation, temperature and atmospheric toxicity are common, a new technology, known as Environmental Domes has been added. A geodesic hemisphere with a 554 meter radius, these domes are the largest structures available to players to date, and significantly larger than anything ever built on Earth. Comprised of a carbon composite frame with transparent graphene vacuum cored panels, these domes can withstand tremendous differences between internal and external pressure and temperature, allowing an entirely different environment within from without.
After construction, dome management is quite complex, although players at this level in the game are quite used to most of the concepts involved, having generally spent much of their time exploring, discovering and analyzing these new worlds through soil samples, core samples, atmospheric and oceanic temperature, pressure and composition analysis, as well as gravitational measurements.
When construction is complete, a dome is initially filled with an identical composition to that of its environment - domes placed on land will contain an atmosphere of the same composition, pressure and temperature as that outside (or a vacuum if no atmosphere is present), whereas domes placed on an ocean floor will start filled with water, or liquid methane on a colder world or whatever the ocean is made of.
Domes are equipped with a programmable computer interface and machinery capable of modifying all of these elements within their structure. Radiation and gravity can be modified with a single command each, whereas temperature may need more careful, conditional adjustment. Players must alter the atmospheric composition and pressure within the dome to a Habitable state before being able to bring in colonists and construct any buildings which require workers. Compounds can be split from one another into their component elements, or combined from component elements into a new compound, vented into the atmosphere (or ocean), drawn in from the outside atmosphere (or ocean) loaded from the player's ship's cargo holds.
Shipping in an atmosphere from scratch, while possible, requires more than forty trips (of varying length - not every system's gas giants have both nitrogen and oxygen in ready supply) with even the largest ships available to date - so most players will opt at least initially for worlds with an atmosphere of some kind, and preferably one with both Oxygen and Nitrogen in some form.
There is no hard coded limit to the number of domes which can be placed in a single colony. As many as the player can fit in a 100km radius from their colony's central point, and as many as the player can afford to construct, manage, and maintain - these are the only limits.
Only Domes, Transport Grids and Automated Fission Power Plants can be constructed without a habitable environment. All residential, storage, farming, mining and entertainment structures (as well as most power and all water production/storage structures) can only be placed inside a completed and habitable dome.
Each planet is completely unique. Fertility or even non-toxicity for any of the four agriculture types in game is relatively rare, and many planets have only one mineral in high enough concentrations to mine. This uniqueness of resource production and scarcity is what gives the Exploration game such high value to players. Really resource rich planets are rare, and already it's clear those that are close to the Apollo sector will be the initial high-population worlds with many colonies.
In the final stages of exploring a given planet, players can construct and release Core Sampling Probes, which will create a map (visible as an overlay over the terrain as in the picture above) of all the resources on a planet. In the above image, different concentrations of Iron (red) can be seen, and no other resources.
These sample maps, being of an entire planet, are nowhere near as accurate as individual core samples, which are performed with a mining beam computer hack. Players are strongly encouraged to thoroughly core sample an area before planning their colony, and especially before constructing a dome or production buildings.
At present, players can recruit colonists and transport them out to their colony through a simple contract system. As we further develop Populations and quality of life factors, this recruitment process will evolve further.
Production buildings only produce in proportion to the available workforce (50% jobs filled = at most 50% productivity), and the workforce requires food and entertainment to produce at an optimal level. Workers with no food will cease work and riot, whereas workers with access to all four agriculture product types will have higher morale and productivity as a result.
The result of all of this detail and depth is that once you the player have identified a planet you like, claimed your colony deed, planned a dome or two, constructed and managed your dome(s) to a Habitable state, brought in colonists and constructed a city based around the available resource concentrations, it feels very, very real. It's also a big achievement - strangely satisfying after exploring all of these empty, dead worlds, to bring life and civilization to one of them, and it's great to see other players flying around your city marvelling at it.
Note: Star System names displayed in the image above represent the discoverer, not any kind of ownership over the systems. Just 27 sectors are visible in this zoomed-out map view. At the time of writing, within one sector in any direction from these central sectors, there are still unexplored stars and current player technology allows for exploration out to over 20 sectors distant. The entire Milky Way is simulated within the game, estimated at over 270 billion star systems, and many players can colonize the same planet. We're not running out of planets to colonize any time soon.
Lastly, I would like to stress that this feature and everything described and shown above is now live (screenshots are from the current web and PC build) and available to play either through our web client on the website, or through the PC client which you can purchase from Desura.com (we are still not yet greenlit on Steam - you can vote for us from within steam or from the steamcommunity.com website
Colonies are just the beginning for the giant Ascent sandbox. My intent from here is to expand on the city building aspects - giving the population more complex needs and desires, making the recruitment aspect deeper and more meaningful, and adding new production types, new structures for interacting with other players like starport facilities and stock markets, and expand on the "out of ship" play. We can already land and jump out, but we're in an EVA suit when we do so - the next development in this line will be a "full disembark" feature where you have an avatar, exit your ship into a starport airlock, and can travel through the transport grid network into domes, to interact with the population directly. The possibilities thereafter are quite endless. Smuggling, bounty hunting, colony specialization - all planned for 2014.