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One giant leap: Developing and marketing Kerbal Space Program

An unusual game developed by a marketing firm has gathered a dedicated fan base

Squad is aptly named. The Mexico-based company was founded in 2008 as a marketing firm that wanted to be an employee-centric workplace, according to co-founder Adrian Goya. It encourages staff to take advantage of a program the company labels 'make your dream come true with Squad'. The program is what gave birth to Kerbal Space Program, or KSP, a rocket science simulation game that's long on originality and gaining a dedicated player following.

The brainchild of Squad's Felipe Falanghe, KSP is one big adventure in courageous risk taking and learning on the go. There's also much more to it than initially meets the eye. It's a serious and solidly designed science-based simulator with physics rooted right here on earth. Yet it's wrapped in the veneer of a quirky, otherworldly IP where the characters that populate it, called Kerbals, are something right out of a Nickelodeon cartoon. That hasn't hindered the game from attracting a following among serious PC gamers, including loyalists in the game press like PC Gamer's Ian Birnbaum , who has a running journal dedicated to his KSP exploits.

Players tinker with designing rockets, launch pads, space vehicles and everything else needed to build a space program from the ground up. When it comes to figuring out what works and doesn't, the emphasis is on learning from failure, and lots of it. "It's not a casual experience and takes effort," says Bob Holtzman, who runs PR and marketing for KSP, adding, "One of the team's major focuses is making sure failure is fun in Kerbal Space Program. The Kerbals make that happen. They're like a running joke version of 'did you see the look on his face?' while you're blowing your latest rocket or spacecraft to smithereens."

Squad is using the freemium version of the free-to-play model, but it's doing it in a much more calculated way than is common. Goya explains, "After several months in development we made a free public release of the game on our website, just to test and see how people reacted and see if the idea was a good one worth keeping up developing. There was a very positive reaction so we decided to carry on with free updates. After a while, almost a year in development, we decided to start accepting pre-orders for the game, while still giving it for free. If you gave us seven dollars at the time, you would have the full version of the game forever. The pre-order price has increased over time and we eventually released a free demo version and a paid version you'd only have access if you made a pre-order."

Read more details of this fascinating game and its unusual business model on our sister site, the [a]list daily.

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