Terrain

In the spirit of continuing to liven up the campaign layer of the game (and also knocking out a swath of high-level features in the most-straightforward-possible way), I’ve been working on terrain in the past couple of weeks.

But first, in the name of putting something shiny before the break: fleet contrails!

terrain_trails

In addition to being eye candy, these also serve as visual indicators of ability use. For example, using the “Emergency Burn” ability brightens up and extends the trail, while activating “Go Dark” reduces its length and duration.

With that, onwards to terrain. What does it do? It affects fleets that are in it – their speed, detection range, that sort of thing. Why is it there? As usual, part of the answer is “to give the player an opportunity to make interesting decisions”. Without terrain, if you’re being pursued, running one way or another is pretty much the same.

If you might lose your pursuers in an asteroid belt, or hide inside a nebula, then you’ve got reasons for going one way or another. Beyond that, adding terrain to star systems gives them more personality and makes them more interesting.

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Transponder

I’d mentioned transponders in the last couple of posts, mostly in the “here’s roughly what they do, details TBD”. Well, I’ve spent the last week or so working on it, and now it’s time for those details!

A transponder, much like in real life, is a shipboard device that sends out identifying information on a public channel. Smugglers, pirates, and other shady types find some advantages from turning it off, offset by increased attention from patrols.  Conceptually, each ship has one, but in terms of game mechanics, it’s controlled on a fleet level. All ships in a fleet either have their transponders on or off.

Because I’m pretty sure someone will bring it up: you could probably squeeze some nuance out of allowing per-ship transponder control. However, I think it’s better to keep individual mechanics as simple as possible and get complexity out of the interactions of different mechanics instead. It’s the same idea as having a few simple rules that work together vs one really complicated rule. In the first case, you have a game. In the second, you have a mess.

Overview
Before diving into the complexities, let’s summarize what the transponder does, mechanically:

Turning the transponder off attracts the attention of patrols, makes you harder to see, reduces the reputation impact of your actions, and allows trade that might not be possible otherwise due to your reputation.

I think it’s interesting to see how something that can be summarized relatively succinctly nonetheless gets very involved in the details. With that in mind, let’s dive into those.

patrol_hail

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Abilities

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.

abilities
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Sensors

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.

sensor_contact

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Combat Officers

This update is shaping up to be adding a breadth of new features instead of focusing on any one thing in depth. This is a change of pace from previous updates, but it’s nice in that it’ll be easier to flesh out these features when it’s more clear how they should be interrelated. That’s something that would be more difficult to figure out without seeing more basic versions of these features first.

As you’ve no doubt divined from the post title, the new feature is “combat officers” – people you can hire to command other ships in your fleet, improving their performance and letting them keep up with your flagship as your character’s skills improve.

officers_fleet

Keep in mind that this is very much a “20% of the effort to get 80% of the way there” implementation. After laying down some related groundwork while implementing campaign missions,  this took a bit less than a week. Which, if I’m being honest, is shockingly fast, although it’s not particularly fast for the “pure” amount of work it was. It’s that game dev usually takes a long time because a lot of it is spent figuring out exactly where you’re going, trying this way and that, finding your way through the design space. That holds true on many levels, from grander things like designing core mechanics to more mundane things like making a button feel satisfying to click. This time, there was a clear path to an initial implementation, and everything came together very naturally.

What I’d like to do is talk about how officers work now, and then talk about possible ways of fleshing them out later, depending on how other parts of the game shape up.
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