Kerbal Space Program: First Contract hands-on: career mode gets missions

Ian Birnbaum at

My ship is...well, “unwieldy” is putting it charitably. “Butt-ugly” would be more accurate. My little space plane has a set of double wings, a pair of rocket boosters bolted on, and a mismatched set of double engines—one pointing forward, one pointing back, a puny cockpit sandwiched in the middle. It keeps falling over, because this Frankenstein’s monster was never meant to see the light of day.

As I attempt to launch for the fifth time, something dawns on me: I’ve never done this before. I’ve played Kerbal Space Program for hundreds of hours. More than any other game in my library. But I've never found myself parachuting a malformed, experimental craft into the Sea of Kerbin so I can run tests, fulfill my contract, and make bank. After all this time, KSP is forcing me to play it in a new way.

Update 0.24, or “First Contract,” is the next stage of the space agency simulator. KSP has been a solar-system-sized sandbox for three years now, but First Contract’s budgets, contracts, and reputation system add a loose veneer of guidance to the game for the first time. Not into rules? These changes only apply to the game's career mode; sandbox mode is still a free-for-all.

The legendary Gene Kerman hands out assignments in the Mission Control building

New toys

Every rocket or plane part in KSP has a price. The sum of all these parts add up to a $10,000 plane or a $500,000 interplanetary lander (Note: KSP does not use dollars, it uses Funds, represented by something like a square-root symbol. I’m using dollars for simplicity). Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, you can build any ship you can imagine from the parts you’ve researched, but you can’t send it to the launchpad unless you can afford it. To afford bigger and bigger missions, you’ve got to fulfill some contracts.

Visiting the new Mission Control building gives you access to contracts. These start small and help guide you through the early phases of the game—especially vital for new players trying to literally learn rocket science for the first time. The first contracts, basics like “Launch a new vessel” and “Set altitude record of 5,000 meters” are easy to meet. Accepting a contract gives you an advance of cash, and completing it adds a shot of funding and a boost to your reputation. Failing to complete a contract entirely or, more likely, missing the deadline, will incur a penalty to your bank account or your reputation or both.

Also note that, win or lose, safely landing a ship will recover the full cost of its parts, minus any fuel you've used. If you build a giant ship full of stages, shooting fuel tanks and electronics into the atmosphere at random, you're going to end up getting only the cost of your command pod back. Taking a plane up and landing safely on the runway, on the other hand, will be essentially free after you factor out the fuel. I love that KSP is making single-stage-to-takeoff vehicles (planes that fly to orbit and back without dropping parts) not only super cool, but cost-effective as well.

In addition to adding an overall structure to the game, some randomly generated contracts provide extra stuff to do. If the game was Grand Theft Auto: Kerbistan, these are the things we’d refer to as side missions. These contracts include testing new parts under very specific conditions, and they can be a real pain to pull off. I spent over an hour trying to fire the RT-10 solid fuel booster while 1) flying 2) over Kerbin 3) from 6,000 to 9,400 meters in altitude and 4) between 320 meters per second and 420 meters per second. I soon gave up my conventional plans and, instead, built a plane, strapped the booster to the top, and flew to the correct altitude and speed. For all that effort, I was rewarded a tiny cash payment that was less than the cost of a basic cockpit. These details need some tweaking as time goes on, but as I said, they’re optional and very much in-progress.

It wasn’t long before I used this method to test all of the experimental parts, which is how I ended up flying a double-ended reject space plane into the ocean on a raft of twenty parachutes. It had to be done; not for science, but for engineering!

Don't look at me! I'm hideous!

New worlds

Reputation is the least well-defined of the three new systems. Your reputation grows as you experience success and fulfill contracts. In order for anyone to put up money funding a trip to the Mun, for example, you’ll need to prove you’re not a complete screw-up by hitting milestones like the first orbit. This makes sense. But what’s left unknown is the exact reputation amounts required for certain new contracts. Reputation operates in the background, theoretically, but I don’t have a way to fully understand its nuances. I’d like to see the reputation stats presented more transparently and have a bigger impact on what I can do and why. Perhaps future updates will see missions to Duna (the Mars equivalent in the Kerbalverse) only funded if your rockstar kerbal, the hero of previous missions with the high reputation rating, is at the helm.

I also don’t know how KSP will handle failure. If I’m being honest, dozens of kerbals and millions of dollars worth of equipment have exploded during my hours playing for this preview. Between loading quicksaves and reverting flights back to launch, though, I have a spotless safety record in the game. But, and I’m just spitballing here, what would happen if I spent my entire budget on a manned trip to the moon, failed, and everyone died? There’s an easily predictable death spiral in place where you don’t have the reputation to earn good contracts, so you don’t have the money to launch more ships, so you don’t have a way to fulfill even basic contracts. What happens then? Is that game over?

I’ve got some quibbles, sure. The specific payouts, variables, and penalties for contracts will undergo a long tweaking process before the difficulty and the rewards line up. But the master-stroke of this new system is its depth and malleability. When KSP’s boisterous modding community gets ahold of this system (which is running in 64-bit for the first time, by the way), we’ll see entire storylines written to play out through contracts, each one supporting a custom-made set of variables and goals. For the first time there will be a real reason to build space stations and colonies on other worlds, and the exciting endgame will evolve beyond simply reaching the outer planets.

Before this update, I took a few months away from KSP to play other things. Now that I’ve seen the contracts system, I’ve been sucked right back in. If you’ve never played KSP before, you now have a better guide through the early game than ever before. With First Contract, I can see the final shape of what KSP will eventually look like, and it continues to surprise me.