Hi to everybody, I’m bertipa and after having spammed all the crevices of Space Sector I managed even to place an article here.
After years of lurking in game-specific sites and forums finding this site has been a huge call-to-arms for me. Here, instead of criticize other works, it is possible to dream, discuss and sometimes even plan the future of 4X Space Strategy Games, a much more positive approach that has moved me, finally, from lurking to posting.
While a sometimes avid 4X gamer my roots are more in SciFi literature and pen and paper role-playing games that I am collecting for a number of years bigger than I care to share. Project management, software and data analysis knowledge come from my more obscure side: my daily job as a Database Administrator.
While I really love 4X games I always felt that something was missing in the experience and here on Space Sector I’m actively searching what was that.
In this first article I will put under the lens the starships combat system, I hope you will enjoy the view.
About starships, combat and conundrums
In 4X turn-based or real-time grand strategy space games conflicts resolution can be done in various systems ranging from the economical to the diplomatic but, more often than not, it will be decided in the cold space with starships that will use every technological advantages they have in store to erase the competition from the skies.
While this can be a quite gloomy view of our future it is also exciting and very appropriate for a game genre that proposes eXtermination as one of his four salient points.
How much importance and depth this system should have in relation to the rest of the game? Well the rule of the thumb says that as eXtermination is just one on four goals of a 4X game and there are other way to accomplish that like the even more bloodier planetary invasion (or bombardment) system or the more civil economic buyout system linked to the diplomatic one then it should not take more than one eight of the time.
Well, that happens rarely. It seems that our players really like the sound of the exploding ships in the void (pun intended) or, at the least, the game designers think so.
It is the very same game designers that, when they will work on space combat, will be confronted with some difficult choices:
The 2D vs. 3D conundrum
The problem here lies in the sad fact that a two dimensional map is barely sufficient for the simulation of nautical engagement and space battle are a completely different beasts. Even most SciFi movies who tried to visualize a modern 3D combat had to revert to something at the most similar to in-atmosphere dogfights than what can really happen in space. At the core of the problem is that nobody really know what can really happen in space because for now we managed to keep this kind of activity here at home.
So let’s let fall any realism problem and let’s define the main characteristics that a space combat should have.
While not realistic it should feel credible: the player is staking the future of his civilization on it and a too cartoonish resolution will not cut it.
It should be comprehensible: even accepting a learning curve the player should not need to have a couple of degrees and a jet fighter patent to understand it.
It should be elastic enough to let strategies and technology developments play a visible part in the outcome.
If it is possible to cram all of this in a 2D environment probably this will be the best choice and has been in most of the previous designs. If it is possible to do that in a 3D one that will be a serious breakthrough in the 4X game scene.
The 1,255 Km/h vs 1,080,000,000 Km/h conundrum
This is also known as the 760 mph vs. 671,000,000 mph conundrum. This is an exaggeration: no combat will ever take place at the full speed of light but even 0.5 c is an enormous and more possible speed, especially for an incoming fleet from the deep space.
The problem here lies with the fact that for our day to day experience the Mach speed is already enormous and, unless you are one of the few people who lose time on 4X games and that at the same time had the luck to flight on the Concorde, practically impossible to really experiment.
Even jet fighter pilots are nowadays depending a lot on their computers. That kind of speed is really over the human reactions capability.
In space speeds are much higher, very much higher.
From Wikipedia: time (1.255 sec.) for a light signal to go from Earth to the Moon showed in correct proportion.
This can be safely ignored when you move, let’s say, from one planet to another in a planetary system: extremely high speed is tempered by enormous distances and well defined game time.
It can be much more a chore in space combat: at that kind of speed the fleets of the opposite factions will have fractions of second when they can exchange punishment one to the other.
As you can see I’m carefully avoiding the pesky problem of the relativistic effects that kicks in at a certain speed point. I’m sure that it would be considered overkill for a game.
It is difficult to extract the needed drama from battles that are resolved in fractions of a second.
What we are usually seeing are sluggish battles between practically immobile behemoths with a spat of, relatively, snoringly slow fighters or other light shipping that zips around them.
At this we have to add weapons who, to simulate the much bigger targeting difficulty of a 3D environment, have an atrocious low hit rate.
What all of this means is that the combat system is at best a metaphor of a real space combat and as any metaphor all that it say or in this case display, should have a meaning over the directly visual one.
Will it be possible move all this in a more sensible and speed appropriate direction? Possibly but in any case all the choices made to simplify and made it more playable should have solid explainable foundations and reasons.
The Videogame vs. Newton conundrum
We have already told that Einstein relativity is possibly overkill (at the least for the moment) for a starships combat system so what about poor old Newton?
The guy had spent a good portion of his life to fight against differential calculus to the point that we are all using Leibniz notation even if Newton invented it first. The result of that David vs. Goliath struggle is that all the gravitation and movement equations are simple and clear.
And then we have 4X space combat systems who completely ignore it. No gravity, no inertia, no giant planet slingshots, no catastrophic failure to move from harm way. Somehow I think that taking away Newton from space combat is a little like taking away Shakespeare from the theatre story: a lot of the drama is gone.
The usual question is: why? Mind well: a good answer with its roots in playability, storyline and advanced speculative technology is fine but at the same time an answer like “because that is what my development environment let me to do” it is just not cutting it.
The TBS vs. RTS conundrum
The starship combat phase can have a completely different system than the one of the game: turn based games often revert to real time for the tactical military systems. So, what will be the right way to do it?
RTS, and I have to stress that the R for real is quite the misnomer here, have on its side the immediateness feeling, the sport watcher feeling: the stakes are made more real and close. I object the R for real just because it is rarely one to one with real time. I would have called it CTS: continuous time system.
TBS is more for the chess players, the strategy perfectionists. Adrenaline is substitute by dopamine and the pleasure here is to devise and execute the perfect plan. In reality there is always a lot of time to devise a plan, unfortunately the poor baby almost never survive the encounter with the enemy and then there no more time to spare.
Against intuition probably TBS system are in this case more realistic than RTS ones. In space the combat will be a series of manoeuvres to get the best possible passage in the combat envelope with long wait interval between each other and a final, violent and flashing quick moment of real combat.
As usual the choice will fall more on what system is conveying more the point that the designer want to make than realism. Sometimes (let’s say often) spectacularity is more important, its results are more poignant and that is all that count.
The ZFSM vs. DWCM conundrum
OK, I just created a couple of acronym on the flight, so sue me. ZFSM stand for ‘Zoomable From the Star Map’ and DWCM stand for ‘Dedicated Window Combat Map’. Both systems have been used in 4X space games with more or less success.
One of the most visible problems of the ZFSM system is the starships to astronomical objects proportion. Even a tiny planet like Earth is massively bigger than any starship will be put in operation during the game.
The reverse problem is the empty space feeling: in a DWCM often the starship are alone in a depressing dark environment with maybe a planet and a couple of satellite.
The consequence is that ZFSM can be more cartoonish, a little like the giant archer that is defending the Civilization city from a giant war chariot. After a while the metaphor become clear but it will always be worth a joke.
The consequence of a DWCM system is that combat seems to happen in a different place, a parallel universe dedicated to kill and destroy (now that I think about it quite a sad place) and a limited, claustrophobic one to boot.
How to compromise between the two? Is it just a problem to be able to invest a lot of time and money to become able to render an enormous space and number of planetary systems needed in a Grand Strategy game at such zoom level that ships become in scale? Or better and simpler answers are out there?
The ship to ship vs. fleet to fleet conundrum
Can the same system bring justice to engagement of such different order of magnitude? If the system is designed to bring justice to the details of single ship to ship engagements that will be prevalent at the start of the game will it scale correctly to the end-game fleets to fleets levels?
I have serious doubts about that.
What will be the choice the designer will make?
A usual one will see something that will sadly solve the one to one in a non-satisfactory way, will shine in the group vs. group to one big fleet vs. one big fleet and will fall again trying to manage more, possibly putting hard-coded limit to escape crashes.
Another solution can be to have more than one system but the development costs will become probably prohibitive.
Moving the not well managed type to engagements to the automatic resolution (see immediately later for more on this) can also be an expedient but…
When the player fleet is composed by just one colony ship armed with just a multifunction laser communicator and on the other side there is a pirate patchwork courier it is quite a pity to leave the quite important resolution (a new colony established or not?) to a couple of flashes and a result message.
When the player Joint Fleets Task Force will finally arrive in the Bad Guys planetary system for the Final Confrontation will he want to follow the momentous struggle in all his nuances?
The automatic resolution conundrum
While the resolution of the first engagements will be probably something that a player want to see and influence closely after a while it will become boring and time consuming. When the player is at the head of a sprawling interstellar empire it is doubtful that he will have the patience to follow and direct every little engagements that are going on. More probably he will follow the bigger and/or more strategic ones and leave the rest to automatic resolution.
Here comes the real problem: will the presence of the driving hand of the player change the outcome radically?
If the answer is yes then the automation system will be seen as broken and ineffectual, the player will try to follow as many combat as he can and a huge amount of time will be dedicated to this activity.
If the answer is no the interaction capability will be seen as weak and pointless. The space combat system will become just a button to press.
There are already experimented middle of the road choices like to strongly link the combat with the character system. The player will not manage directly the fleets but he will manage the admirals who will command them, their inherent bonuses and their combat philosophy.
Fleet postures are another way to let the player pre-interact with the engagements and also the starship design system can be a way to externally influence the final outcome of a battle.
One problem I did not see solved in any of the 4X games that I know is what happens when an automatic resolved engagement has a much unexpected result. Be it good or bad the player will need to know why and in the real world that, except extreme cases, should not be a problem.
I have introduced here a lot of non-answered questions.
I think that every game will have its solutions but my point was that all these questions are on the table when their designer will start his work and I am positive that a personal, being it original or not, answer is needed for each of them.
My personal preference is always toward realism but at a certain point, perhaps ironically, reality strikes and simplifications are needed to have a playable game that can be developed in this decade.
The race is open to find the most evocative, original ‘simplifications’ and to be part of the evolution of the 4X space gaming field.
bertipa is a frequent poster in the Game Design forum here on Space Sector. This is his first foray in real article writing but he is already looking ahead for a Nobel Prize in literature in few years. He is a voracious reader of Science Fiction and has a vast collection of pen and paper role playing games. Being allergic to ever finish any serious work not linked to databases he is now considering a carrier as biographic blurbs writer. Come to read and comment his posts here.Subscribe RSS
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