The atypical story of Kerbal Space Program's indie flight to success

Making video games is what Felipe Falanghe always wanted to do. Unfortunately, that's not what his job was at Squad, an interactive marketing company in Mexico City, Mexico. Squad was responsible for creating multi-media installations to sell products from Samsung and Nissan to the Mexican market.

So one day, in early 2011, Felipe approached his bosses and told them he wanted to make a game. "And it completely blew me away when they just said, 'Okay,'" Felipe told me during a meeting at PAX Prime. "I didn't believe them at first," he added, but his bosses were serious: If he brought them a good idea and a solid business plan, he would be free to go for it.

This is when he wrote the design document for Kerbal Space Program, a sandbox space flight simulation game that has been quite successful since its launch through the Steam Early Access program in 2011. Felipe has been lead developer ever since.

"I was in disbelief for the first six months or so, because really I've never heard of this kind of thing before. Seven months later we did the first public release on Steam and it just rolled from there." Felipe added that he expected the project to be canceled at any time; that his bosses would eventually realize what they had done and put him and his team back on the types of projects they had completed in the past.

Kerbal Space Program's road to existence is atypical of most indie developers, who often strike out on their own and leave their day jobs to create games. Felipe instead had the security of his company's financial backing to aid him in creating Kerbal Space Program, and it's a method that proves indie games don't necessarily have to come from individuals locked in a basement somewhere. By taking a risk, Squad invented a whole new business for itself and Felipe was freed up to do what he does best: develop video games.

"It's a really good thing because I'm terrible with management," Felipe joked. "Without Squad, it never would've turned out as well as it did. As it turns out, It's a nice symbiotic relationship, because doing the game as part of Squad means I don't have to do the stuff I don't like to do and I can just focus on programming, developing and the science of the game." Unlike other indie developers, Felipe doesn't have to maintain the Kerbal Space Program website or market the game on his own. "That's the sort of stuff a lone indie developer would have to do. I don't know how these guys manage."

As for Kerbal Space Program's genesis, it started as an idea ten years ago – an idea that started when he was young, when he and his friends would dismantle fireworks just to see how they worked. Felipe and his pals would construct little toy men, who they called "kerbals" at the time, and would send them on space missions aboard custom rockets built from dismantled fireworks. For many of these faux-men, the mission was suicide. And none of them ever reached space. "We lost a lot of kerbals in those days," Felipe joked.

This video provides an overview of Kerbal Space Program's major updates

Right now, Kerbal Space Program is still in the alpha stages. Felipe couldn't say when the game would officially launch, though a new update, version 0.22, will arrive as soon as the team's finished it, adding space research missions and a career mode designed to slowly introduce more high-level mechanics to players in a less sandbox, more regimented experience. Version 0.22 also adds a pre-staging area where players can construct and save custom spacecraft for more streamlined assembly.

Kerbal Space Program, playable on Windows PC, Mac and Linux, is currently available through Steam Early Access and the game's official website for $23.