For a while now, the core campaign gameplay has been pretty … let’s say straightforward. You click somewhere, your fleet goes there, you may chase or be chased along the way, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. It does the job as the “thing you do between the fun stuff” – battles, interacting with markets, and so on – but it doesn’t stand up as anything you’d want to do for its own sake. To be fair, not a lot of time has been dedicated to making it into that – until now.
It’s going to take multiple mechanics working together to bring campaign-level gameplay up to par with combat, and I’d like to talk about the first one of these that we’ve been working on: sensors, that is to say, a set of rules that determine when one fleet is able to see another.
It’s important to note that how sensors work will both influence and depend on other related mechanics (to be added in the near future), and so the current incarnation of sensors – the one I’m going to discuss now – is very likely to change. In general, the more specific a detail, the less likely it is to remain exactly as-is.
That aside, why sensors? Why can’t all fleets always see each other, the way they do now? There’s a realism argument for it, as spotting fleets across light-years doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense, but I’m not a fan of the “realism” argument in general. It takes days to travel light-years of distance, so who’s to say where sensor tech is relative to that? Internal consistency of the rules and good gameplay are more important; given those, an in-fiction explanation for how things work shouldn’t be too difficult, if it even proves necessary.
What else, then?
First of all, suspense and a sense of discovery. If you see everything, there aren’t going to be any surprises. Say you’re traveling from Corvus to Asharu, and you’ve opened up the map to see the route – and you see that it’s clear of any enemies. From that point on, you know for a certainty that there’s no risk to the trip, and it stops being engaging and becomes a wait until it’s over.
If you don’t have perfect vision, on the other hand, space gets big and mysterious again. You start the trip – and see a sensor blip.
Looks harmless enough!
Hmm, that fleet looks like it’s got an awful lot of firepower. Maybe they’re a customs inspector. Better stand to, don’t want to make them mad.
They’re getting awfully close … oh dear.
Beyond adding suspense and generating some unexpected encounters, fleet visibility is another mechanic that can be played with to inject some skill into campaign-level fleet maneuvers, but let’s set that aside for now and take a look at the specifics of how sensors work.
Each fleet has a “sensor profile”, or how easy it is to spot, and a “sensor strength”, or how good it is at spotting other fleets. Both the sensor profile and the sensor strength are based on the fleet compositions. Larger ships contribute more of each, civilian ships have weaker sensors and a larger profile, phase ships have a smaller profile, and certain specialized ships have a higher sensor strength.
The formula for the range at which one fleet can see each other is based on a combination of that fleet’s sensor strength and the other fleet’s sensor profile. It’s set up so that unless the two fleets have bonuses or penalties to strength or profile, they’ll see each other at the same time. For example, a lone capital ship will see a frigate at the same range as that frigate will see the capital ship, but that range is higher than the range at which two frigates would spot each other. On the other hand, a phase frigate will see a capital ship before it’s seen, since it has a reduced profile.
At maximum range, all you can see is a “sensor contact” – a blip that gives some indication of the size of the other fleet, and nothing else. At closer range (currently half the maximum detection range), you can see the basic fleet composition, but not ship status or fleet faction. At very short range, you can see everything – faction, fleet composition, and individual ship status.
As you might imagine, the above mechanics, taken alone, make for a confusing environment where it’s difficult to tell who’s who until they’re practically on top of you. Enter the transponder, a device that every fleet has. Rather, all ships in the fleet have one – but in game terms, it’s a fleet-level option. When the transponder is on, the fleet broadcasts its status to everyone, with the result that everyone gets full information on the fleet at maximum sensor range. It also increases (currently, doubles) the range at which the fleet can be detected.
Most legitimate traffic will be using transponders – it’s not something you turn off without a reason, somewhat like driving at night with your headlights off, or, perhaps more aptly, driving without a license plate. Still, if you see an unidentified sensor contact, it could be one of many things. Is it a patrol or a bounty hunter trying to sneak up on a known pirate location? Is it a pirate? Or is it a trader, running with the transponder off to avoid unwanted attention in a dangerous area?
Mechanics-wise, there are still some questions to answer here. What are the consequences to the player for running with the transponder off? They’ll likely want to do that, if all it does when on is increase your sensor profile. Does turning the transponder off have other bonuses, such as perhaps a reduced reputation hit for attacking a faction? (They think you might be responsible, and your crew is going to talk, but it’s all on the level of rumors, and not the kind of brazen attack that takes your reputation from “favorable” to “hostile” in one shot.) Does running with it on have some kind of bonus – perhaps fleets with the transponder on can detect each other at a longer range, so turning it off leads to a loss of some information.
All things to consider, especially in light of other mechanics that affect or are affected by sensors in some way.
Speaking of those, doing away with perfect visibility has many consequences. The chief of those is how the player finds encounters, if they can no longer see other fleets from across the star system. I think the way to address that is going to be by making improvements ( really, completely revamping) the fleet AI so that it behaves in a predictable manner. For example, traders already do this – they go from market to market along known routes. If pirates lie in wait at good points along the way, that’s something the player can learn and use. If faction patrols are focused on protecting the space around markets and trade lanes, then finding them will also be possible.
Again, this seems like something where not having perfect information enhances the experience, provided things are tuned so that the player can be reasonably successful when looking for things.
My gut feeling is that it’ll actually take less fleets to make the Sector feel well-populated, if the fleets concentrate their activity in sensible locations. This isn’t at all done, though, and involves a major fleet AI revamp, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Speaking of the AI, it now has to be aware of visibility, sensor ranges, transponders, and the like. Ideally, it would behave in a way that provides an interesting challenge, in a similar way to how the ship AI in combat provides a challenge. Sensors alone probably aren’t up to the task of making campaign gameplay as interesting as it needs to be, but other things are in the works on that front as well.
Turning the transponder on and off
(It does seem like the player is going to need some kind of control to turn the transponder on and off, doesn’t it? Perhaps some kind of button for that is in order. Perhaps something like this:
But that’s a topic for another day.)
All in all, there are a number of things in progress, including sensors, which are not exactly “done” now. I’d thought about holding off on talking about them until the other pieces were in place and sensor mechanics were more settled as a result, but in the end decided against it. Some of those other features should be interesting to talk about in their own right, and hopefully the “things will change” disclaimer is sufficient to keep this post from feeling too definitive. Truth be told, even things that seemed more definitive at the time have changed, sometimes drastically.
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