Fishing out of the discount bin a game box with a holographic depth effect showing some wacky 3D characters, my first impression was that of an improvement on the low-poly Sims. So they are; not just more detailed, but highly individual, with their own voices, animations, "fish-eye view" (the head shot at the top of their character menu), likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Only, unlike the Sims, they're not customizable. The game's directory structure is transparent, and I suppose a player with the right technical knowledge could hack into the player files and create a new character, but for most of us, what you see is all you get. Character creation isn't important, anyway; there are jobs to do, and the difference in characters is there to help the player determine which character is best suited to which job. The player's real creative input comes in the form of base building.
Installed on K. It's clear where everything goes.
This game came out at around the same time as The Sims, which I'd also bought at a discount, and likewise was immensely popular. Inversely parallel to Bethesda, the company behind some bleakly futuristic games that made its name with the pseudo-historical Elder Scrolls games, its maker, Firefly Studios, had a big hit with the futuristic Space Colony but, as can be seen from the website, specializes in medieval warfare and castle-building sims; to give an idea, one of them is called Crusader Extreme.
The menu screen, showing a character in space suit walking out of a dome, then falling backwards, and a cross between an ostrich and a cyclops hopping through the desolate surrounding waste, implies that this game has an abundant amount of humour, while the "Editors" superscript (click the image below for a larger, more legible view) suggests at least some possibility of customization. This superscript appears when hovering over the rightmost button: the campaign editor, which allows the user to create both new planet maps and new campaigns (the files needed to get to those planets and do stuff there).
For those who find the standard screechy techno BGM unappealing, there is a possibility of pointing the game to your own MP3s. The option "change identity" allows more people to play on the same computer without getting in the way of each other's saved games.
The big button to the left is the "play game" button, opening up the further choices to follow Venus and her crew, play in galaxy mode, play in sandbox mode, load user-made campaigns, or load a saved game. The first option starts with a tutorial, but could be seen as one big tutorial from start to finish by the ambitious campaign-maker: the main character, Venus Jones, is dropped off on a planet with a colleague, they have to work the bridge, another colleague arrives and introduces the concept of training, a base has to be built and outfitted to house them, they have to fulfil goals (these generally come in two kinds: "mine this resource" or "kill that enemy", but there are quirkier goals like "make X and Y fall in love with each other"), this ends their stay, they move to another planet in different conditions, threats and ways to deal with them are introduced one after the other, and at the end of the series of adventures, the player knows (almost) all aspects of the game universe. Having played this main game out to its end, the player has the choice between galaxy mode (choose a planet to play on, the campaign sets strict goals and determines which building resources are available) or sandbox mode (choose a planet to play on from a different set of planet maps, with a starting budget and all building resources plus the maximum of 50 training programs available, with no goals and no determined end) or a user-created campaign, which can be galaxy or sandbox or anything inbetween.
Of course, the more is left to the player, the less little extras the game has. The premise is that a greedy corporation named Blackwater Industries wants to mine dry every planet in the universe, employing people who want to make a quick buck and then retire. Were the makers prescient? Although the real Blackwater has now changed its name due to negative publicity, I still get nasty satisfaction from the soundbytes booming out undisguisedly exploitative company slogans. In the main game, this company's boss likes to turn up on screen and make cutting remarks while briefing his staff on the next part of the campaign. In galaxy and sandbox mode, there is just a picture of planets to choose from, and the planet/campaign descriptions are read out by a typical female answering machine voice. In user-made campaigns, there is no voice at all, unless technically gifted users find a way to insert their own soundbytes. But Blackwater Industries isn't the only villain out there; when the colonists (above-mentioned people who want to make a quick buck) aren't fighting hostile native life-forms, they may have to deal with the alien answer to Blackwater Industries: the Fribulans. Or the planet might be so desolate and poor in resources that the colonists must find a way to grow their own food and earn income as a tourist resort. Automatically appearing at the placing of a tourist port and at least one hotel, the tourists, their faces like the zombies in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, invade the base, breaking the facilities with heavy usage and getting on some colonists' nerves.
As the game loads, a bar displays its biggest draw: the cast. The largest, to the left, is the star of the show, Venus Jones. She is the ideal colonist, reliable, hard-working, with ideally balanced stats. The only character more balanced than she is - his need bars all drop at the same rate - is Vasilios, fourth from the left, who can't live without an observatory to see his beloved stars. The expression "need bars" should be familiar to anyone who has played a Sims-like game: the virtual people have bars for each need (food, entertainment, etc.) that slowly recede, and fulfilling the need refills the bar. The most important part of any game campaign is to keep these need bars as filled as possible to ensure the character remains at its most productive, as sad individuals will not work and may even fight. To guess how best to keep the character satisfied, each has a psychiatrist's report supplemented with Venus' personal appraisal. Because of how individual each character is - assigning one a bed even changes the bed to match that character, like the Glaswegian Nailer's cover turning tartan - it's easy to hate or like them. My pet hate is Tami, the fortysomething cowgirl fourth from the right who can't keep her clapper closed ("Doesn't anybody want to tawk to Tami?") and I'm not too fond of Billy-Bawb, as I spell it, the dumb country boy who will walk off in the middle of a crucial job because his tummy's rumblin'. On the other hand, I love Nailer, the criminal character in the middle giving the good-for-nothing Greg a well-deserved shove, the science cracks Nikolai and Zhang to the right of them, and Hoshi and Kita, the Japanese "pink punk duo" (in Venus' words) to their left. All characters are cultural stereotypes, from the aristocratically British former officer Charles to the brilliant scientist Nikolai with his cheerful, thickly accented "Greetings and salutations!"
Just about every fansite contains this picture in some form.
Because I'm more a "take care of the ant farm" player than a campaigner, I tend to leave the military campaigns alone so I can watch my babies interact with each other and with what toys I put down for them. As with the Sims, these simpeople have relation bars showing how much they like each other, and these bars, like the need bars, keep dropping, so the player has to make them work on their relations to prevent them becoming enemies. They can even, through a process of courtship consisting of having them communally use a number of facilities, fall in love. This serves only to make them work hard for the few days that their love lasts, although if they meet near the beds while off-duty, wobblings under the blanket will result, and having successfully had an affair once, their love can be renewed over and over by having them re-propose as long as they like each other well enough. Not all combinations work out - Venus hates certain men, Charles doesn't like anything male hitting on him although he's very polite about it, and most combinations I haven't even tried - but two rules for success are that the two need to enjoy the same activities (or courtship is doomed) and that the one being proposed to is desperate, or at least unfussy. Slim will say yes to anything female, Tami will say yes to anything male, and Vasilios would, in his flat and unemotional voice, say yes to a Fribulan, if the game allowed it.
And I like building. Putting the right facilities in the right place can be crucial for characters who don't walk very fast - even walking speeds vary per individual - and would otherwise spend most of the day hobbling around to get where they want to be. In the example below (click on it to see the larger picture), the beds and especially the social area have been placed close to the bridge, because when one character decides to talk things out and the other character takes too long to get to the seats, they change their minds and both find something else to do. Space bikes and the tall booth of the engineering repair facility have been placed close to the entrance. This example is a screenshot of new colonists arriving on day 6 of the campaign, showing the personal menu of Ashia, a character missing from the character bar above (which does however feature an android, useful enough to replace most colonists, if only it didn't burn out so quickly). The wrench at the top right corner opens the load/save menu.
Building being the only outlet for player creativity, it is typical, after having played through all the available campaigns (even the dreaded Nirk campaign, that I can't win without the Shift-Alt-O money cheat), that players should want to build their own campaigns. The campaign editor is a bit too complex to explain here, but a PDF with instructions is found on a fan page that also links to downloads of user-made campaigns. Click here to download my own effort, the Three Steps Campaign: easy to win, guaranteed to frustrate.
Update 2013: as of November 2012 (ie. almost a year ago) Firefly Studios released Space Colony HD, a modern version compatible with the newer Windowses, as a free download for those who already had the game installed. Discovering this at the beginning of the year, I eagerly downloaded it and tried it out. It has a wider game screen and actually works under Windows 7 (the original works too, but not very smoothly) and the default save and user-created campaign directories are now in the Windows user directory, but it's otherwise the same.
(It does have the same problem as Morrowind, when running a 32-bit Windows on a 64-bit processor: I have to click it twice to start it, and when it does start, it's very slow. The reason is that there are two copies in memory: first, RUNDLL32.EXE tries to load the game, but gets stuck somehow. Then, on clicking the icon again, another RUNDLL32.EXE loads another instance of the game, which does start, presumably because the first RUNDLL32.EXE is still in memory, and exits. So, each time I start the game, after the main screen has loaded, I have to press Alt-Tab to go to the desktop, and Ctrl-Alt-Del to open the Task manager to kill the first RUNDLL32.EXE which will take the first, aborted game with it; then I reopen the game screen by clicking on its icon and the game plays as smoothly as it should. This problem doesn't always occur, sometimes the game starts smoothly on the first try.)
To celebrate this happy discovery, I created another campaign, the Three Times None campaign, played on three different planets and with lots of little missions. As before, it's easy to win, but guaranteed to frustrate; in fact, not doing the right thing at the right time might make it unwinnable, so a spoiler file is included. (Updated 11-08-2014 to correct a spelling error.)
While making this campaign, I wrote up a list of quirks and a new walkthrough for the Three Steps Campaign, which is much more effective than the one in the zipfile.
A third campaign has been made, which is unwinnable by design, and a fourth, celebrating the bane of colonists and tourists alike: pyrocyns.