The focus of the last couple of weeks has been on improving campaign gameplay. In practical terms, this means giving the player some choices as they move from point A to point B, and making sure there can be a positive or a negative outcome depending on how well the player does. A simple case, useful for thought experiments, is one fleet trying to chase down another – what options does each of them have, and how do their choices interact?
Before answering that, it’s a good idea to take a step back and consider what kind of feel we’d like the campaign to have. Should it be more visceral, or more detached? The answer is going to drive the design of the gameplay mechanics. For example, if we want visceral-feeling gameplay, then giving the player more direct control of the fleet might be a good idea (e.g. WASD vs click-to-move), and we might also want to give the player less time to react.
Now, I happen to think that this isn’t the right way to go, and something more detached, slower, and tactical would work better. The player is going to be doing all sorts of things in the campaign that don’t involve dodging or chasing enemy fleets, and a visceral-type design could easily bleed over into those activities. We don’t want “interact with market” to be a nail-biting experience, or even something that’s a challenge to do – at least, I definitely don’t. Some of this comes down to personal preference; much of any design does – but now that it’s settled on, let’s take a look at how we’re going to go about it.
Fleets, both AI and player-controlled, are going to have active abilities they can use. For a quick reference point, think just about any MMO – customizable ability bars, with hotkeys to activate individual abilities. The initial set of abilities will focus on the cat-and-mouse game of trying to chase down or evade another fleet, but it’s easy to imagine the number of abilities expanding, perhaps with new abilities being unlocked by leveling up or through other means. (Which may or may not happen, depending on things. Wouldn’t want superfluous abilities all over the place, but on the other hand, it might be a good fit for any number of things, so we’ll see.)
Before diving into the specifics, let’s talk about the overarching design ideas that determine the specifics – in addition to the “slower and tactical” we’ve already established, that is.
There are several fleet stats that are critical to being able to engage or avoid another fleet. They are the fleet’s speed, sensor strength, and sensor profile (i.e. how easy the fleet is to see). These vary based on fleet composition – for example, a fleet with lots of civilian ships will naturally be a bit slower, have worse overall sensors, and be easier to detect.
The core idea is that the bonuses and penalties from ability use are high enough to overcome the “natural” stats of the fleet. That way, we minimize the cases where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Ideally, the fleet stats should make the job easier or harder, not possible or impossible.
A particularly important factor here is the fleet speed, determined by the lowest “burn level” (i.e. travel speed) of all the ships in your fleet. In the release that’s currently out, there’s a very wide spread between capital ships and frigates, with capital ships being much slower. In the current dev version, that spread is much lower – capital ships are still a bit slower, but can be faster than frigates when abilities come into play. In terms of actual travel speed, it’s considerably faster on the low end, and slower on the high end.
With that, on to the actual abilities.
I’ve already talked about it in some detail in the last blog post, but let’s go for aquick recap: the transponder lets everyone in range know who you are, and it also doubles the range at which you’re detected. From a tactical perspective, it’s all downside – but there’ll be downsides to turning it off as well (angry patrols? being mistaken for a pirate? details still TBD).
The choice involved in using it is more long-term in nature – do you risk being seen by a pirate, without being able to see them to boot, or do you risk the as-yet-not-entirely-decided-on consequences of running with it off? Once push comes to shove, you’ll want to turn it off if you’re trying to run away, but won’t care so much about it if you’re the aggressor.
Turns off all non-essential systems and reducesthe power to engines. This gives your fleet a much-reduced sensor profile, but also slows it down. Useful for lying in ambush, and can be used to make a pursuer lose track of you – though they’ll have the speed advantage then, and may be able to track you down anyway by flying in a search pattern.
This ability lasts for about a day and a half (specific numbers very much subject to change), costs fuel, and reduces the combat readiness of all ships in your fleet as if they’ve been deployed into combat. In addition, it reduces the sensor range by half (engine interference!) and increases the sensor profile.
Hefty downsides, but it’s quite the burst of speed, whether you need it to close the gap or to get away. If used by a pursuer, the loss of sensor range might give the target a window of time where it’s invisible and can do something unexpected.
Active Sensor Burst
When all else failsand your target is not even an echo on your sensor scopes, you can use a sensor burst to find them again. Unfortunately, using it requires shutting down the engines of all ships in the fleet, rendering it immobile for a fixed time period. Even more unfortunately, emissions from the active sensors make your fleet dramatically easier to see, possibly attracting unwelcome attention from further afield.
Using it to track down a pirate in a Hegemony system? Should be safe. Using it in a pirate-infested system? Might not be so wise. Conversely, a pirate would be hesitant about using this in Hegemony space.
There are many possibilities for other abilities, but these four should give a solid base to work with by manipulating the fleet stats that are core to pursuit and evasion. There are still lots of loose ends to tie up – tuning the AI, balancing the abilities, adding in the non-tactical effects of the transponder, adding dedicated sound effects, etc, and it’s also going to take much playtesting and fine-tuning, but so far it’s shaping up nicely. (The AI was able to chase me down a couple of times, and that’s a good sign!)
There are also other mechanics that I’d like to tie into this (and fill in a design gap or two), but it’s much too early to talk about those.
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