Ships & Stories

When I was first drawing up spaceships for Starsector we determined what to make based mostly on what felt right according to the conceit of idealized WW2-era naval combat in space. Obviously we needed a big battleship (the Onslaught), cheap swarming fighters (the Talon), a nimble frigate (the Wolf), and a giant carrier (the Astral), etc. The roles and variations of ships pretty much suggest themselves, and the form follows their function. If it’s a battleship, it should look like its tough and packs a heck of a punch. I’ve certainly drawn a few ships without a hard plan upfront but even then I’m always thinking about what kind of role the ship in question is going to play in the game.

It’s just the way I work: Form necessarily reflects function, to my mind. The visual logic of a game should have internal consistency whether it has much relation to real-life realism or not, but it can at least point to real-life aesthetic references for the feeling or idea, if not actual function. So if you sit back and consider what a battleship would really look like in space, it’d probably look like nothing because the display scale would make it a dot that says “Space Battleship” next to it, or as soon as combat began it’d be immediately destroyed by lasers or relativistic kill vehicles or something because it’s a big dumb target — but all hope is not lost! Our game sprite can make visual reference to a 20th century naval warship because my goal is to convey the feeling of battleship to people who have been trained to believe that a battleship looks a certain way, not to create a hyper-realistic near-future space combat simulation. (More on this in the “Ship Design & The Onslaught” post from back in 2010.)

Right, so this is how development of Starsector’s ships has progressed and the big gaps in fleet lineup have been largely filled in. Again, this process largely took place without need for any kind of overarching plan, though occasionally Alex would say “hey, we need a frigate that does this“, or we might talk it over and try something experimental in terms of gameplay. Some experiments worked, some were modified a bit from what was first imagined– phase ships for example — and others never really took off at all, eg. munition ships. But that said, the large part of fleet combat roles is fleshed out; Now is a matter more of filling in small gaps that exist, diversifying existing roles to support the game’s setting and ‘landscape of player progression’. Still, the experiments are lots of fun! (More on this with the Monitor.)

Now I’m taking on more of a role in writing setting & backstory for Starsector. When drawing a ship I’ll think not only of the gameplay function but of the narrative role it fulfills; The possibilities are absolutely fascinating! A simple sprite can, given appropriate text, suggest an awful lot about the universe it exists within and it can draw connections to other ships, factions, places, history, and all of that to emotional responses from the player as they decide how they feel about the ships, factions, and places in the universe of Starsector. Each piece becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts when this all operates together (and I love this part of game development).

Okay, that’s enough rambling: I’ll show off some new ships, discuss their envisioned role in gameplay (which we recognize, dear players, is not necessarily how you’re going to use them), then a bit about how their backstory fits together with the rest of Starsector.

 

Cerberus

superhoundThis one is easy: Everyone loves the Hound so why not build a bigger Hound? And that about explains everything you need to know. (The working title for sprite was, naturally, “superhound.psd”. )

As for drawing, I’ve been tending toward more curved plating and slightly subtler shading. I’m trying to get away from having too much “greeble noise” covering ships so that the overall form doesn’t devolve into so much pixel noise, and so it gets more of a chance to make itself seen. This should result in a ship that’s more visibly identifiable at a glance and it ought to look better when scaled down or zoomed out rather than drawn at pixel-perfect resolution, as is often the case for ships in Starsector. You can still see the Hound parts used as a base for the image, however ( … and man is it ever just a brick of a ship!)

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Lore Spotlight: Factions and Worlds

Hi everyone! It’s me again, your favorite friendly, neighborhood, behind-the-scenes bulgarian. Man, that’s a mouthful.

I was talking to Alex a while back and he viciously commanded kindly asked me to shed some light on the writing process, specifically regarding the Factions and World Development.

I forgot about that request immediately. But now, he has activated my pain implant graciously reminded me, and here I am with a new blog post for your reading pleasure.

The Factions

I think most of you will agree that one of the keys to having a memorable game experience is the believeability of the game world. Those that do not agree, please go back to playing Tabula Rasa. Oh wait, you can’t! <gloat> Ahum.

Anyway, one of the types of action that the player can perform in the game will be interacting with the Factions. These are large collections of human beings that share the same philosophy, goals and are big enough to be a factor on the political stage in the Sector. So how to come up with these? The truth is, some of the factions were born out of a need for a particular role to be filled within the game. For example, we knew we wanted a big, monolithic, largely obtuse but powerful organization that claimed to be the spiritual successor of the Domain of Man. Thus – the Hegemony. Next, we wanted a counterbalance to this feel, and we came up with the small, intelligent, vicious and astute corporation – Tri-Tachyon. And so we created most of the factions in this manner, as actors fulfilling roles, and their allies/enemies based on the type of feel we wanted to create within the game. Some of the names and portfolios of these factions have a rich history, based on years of wasted time by yours truly, as a young lad writing GURPS Space campaigns and short stories designed to flesh out those campaigns.

While having a number of factions to pick from and knowing what it is they roughly represent, want to achieve etc. is great, I really felt like I had to nail the psychology of each faction more accurately. After all, the situation in the Sector is pretty unique. The pivotal, crucial thought that occupies the minds of most humans within it is the role of technology in their lives. Unlike the present day, while technology plays a critical role in survival, it’s also poorly understood and is retrogressing with each breakdown that can’t be fixed. In addition, I wanted to present each of the factions as realistically as possible, which included having both negative and positive qualities. So, I decided to do some research on personality types and see if I could associate each faction with a particular psychology.

In order to grapple with the large amount of information, I used an excruciatingly boring, colossal spreadsheet to write out each factions’ outlook, motivators, virtues and vice, fears and fixations. Thus, I proved once again that all game design is just mucking around in some spreadsheet. Ah, well.

To give an example, I profiled the Tri-Tachyon Corporation  as arrogant scientist/corporate types. They see themselves as keepers of knowledge, heirs to the technological marvels created by the Domain. Obsessed with efficiency and the acquisition of technology that remains in the Sector, they condemn those that shun them. They are prone to over-thinking problems as a group, and care little for the plight of those outside their inner circle. At their best, they are competent, effective and cooperative with one another. At their worst, they are detached, elitist and cruel. Their belief is that the non-functioning star gates are merely dormant, and they they are actively looking for the key that will awaken them – thus restoring to them the lost technological wealth of the Domain. Secret tech-mining operations run by the Corporation can be found in the farthest reaches of the Sector.

But wait, there’s more! Hey seriously, if you’ve read this far, please get up, stretch your arms and legs, and get yourself a nice treat as a reward for persevering though these, the inner secrets of Fractal Softworks’ design process. Done stretching? Don’t open that other browser tab!

The Worlds

Designing worlds is always a challenging task for a variety of reasons. The main one is, we humans have only ever set foot on one (the Moon landing was faked!) so it is real hard to get a different frame of reference. Also, the sizes we are talking about when we describe planets dwarf the imagination. Our minds are literally incapable of visualizing such vastness. The process roughly follows the following flow. First, pick a defining planetary characteristic. Is the planet surface a scorched volcanic wasteland? A dry, parched desert? A frozen, uninviting chunk of ice? Or is it a verdant, terran-like gem?

Once the biome has been chosen, you have to think about the other layers of a world that make it a point of interest. Which Faction is in political control of the planet? What kind of government is there? How many people live there and under what conditions? Answer to questions like these also tie into gameplay systems, because they dictate the beginnings of the supply and demand based mechanics that underpin the in-game economy.

Conclusion

Well, I hope you guys had fun reading that post. Now I gotta go, and build my fifth outpost on that jungle world. Maybe this one won’t sink into the swamp.

Ship Lore, Variants

In a previous post, we took a look at some brewing weapon descriptions. Now, it’s time to do the same for ships!

Counting them now, we’ve got just a bit over 40 ships (including fighters, of which there are ~10) – it’s hard to believe it’s that many already, and there are still quite a few more to come. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Onslaught-class Battleship
Mass: 200 Mega tonnes
Propulsion: 245.5 Mega Newtons
FTL Drive: In-Hull
Crew Complement: 1800

A venerable design, the Onslaught-class battleships were first created to serve the Domain of Man eons ago, before the development of advanced modern strike weapons, fighter craft, energy weapons and shield systems. When first launched from orbital dock, they must have surely dwarfed any other ship in existence and intimidated entire systems. Some even say that they were built to combat non-humans in a long forgotten war, in which the Domain was triumphant. Much later, Domain engineers made modifications to the blueprints to include a shield system, upgrade the FTL drives and reduce the neccesary crew complement.

Even with other battleship blueprints available to the Sector, the Onslaught remains the easiest to manufacture due to the brutal simplicity of its systems. A ship designed without shields in mind, built to be able to withstand a heavy barrage of enemy fire and strike back while protecting its crew is much loved by its officers and men. And strike back it can. The Onslaught’s unmatched ballistic potential can devastate entire fleets in minutes, its only drawback a logistical dependency on ammunition.

Building an Onslaught-class hull and preparing it for combat is thought to be economically impossible for all but the Hegemony. The Onslaught proudly serves as the backbone of the Hegemony Defense Fleet.
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Weapon Lore & Roles

The next major release is going to let you create custom ship loadouts. These include picking from a large variety of weapons – 47 and counting, as of this writing. But if you’re going to pick weapons intelligently, you need to know what they do.

Weapon Lore

Cold, hard numbers are great when you’re comparing the finer points, but for an initial “just what is this” moment, you need a description. Therefore our resident lore master, Ivaylo, has been working night and day (or so he tells me) writing them. I thought I’d share a couple.

Heavy Machine Gun
Primary role: point defense
Mount size: medium

A workhorse of patrol craft across the sector, this weapons system features a reliable, centuries-old blowback firing mechanism. Safety features include a positive cook-off safety for open bolt clearing and double ram prevention. The weapon is typically mounted on a relatively heavy base to help absorb recoil during prolonged bursts of fire.  Calibers vary, but are usually in the 17-20mm range. The heavier projectiles do not shatter upon impact like lighter ammunition and present a credible threat to frigate-class vessels. Extremely accurate, though slower-firing than a vulcan cannon.

Sabot SRM (Short Range Missile)
Primary role: close support
Mount size: small

Sabot-class class missiles are short-range, two-stage KE weapons. A guided missile first stage projects a secondary assembly to within striking distance of a shielded target. A targeting computer then ignites the propellant for the KE penetrator. This “sabot,” as it is commonly called, is typically a narrow, laterally stabilized projectile manufactured from an ultra dense material such as depleted infernium.  Excellent at bringing down enemy shields and causing an overload. Standard ship armor is spaced and thus the damage the sabot causes is largely contained if it gets through the shields.

“Mjolnir” Micro-singularity Cannon
Primary role: assault
Mount size: large
A very advanced design, the Mjolnir is technically a magneto-gravitic shell projector, not a standard cannon. The micro capacitors within each shell are able to deliver enough energy to create a localized singularity with a Schwarzschild radius of 1.8 millimeters. The built-in gravitic lens devastates all nearby matter, especially dense objects.

Weapon Roles

A key bit of information when checking out a new weapon is its primary role. Most weapons are useful in a variety of situations, but the primary role reflects the weapon’s intended design and ideal circumstances for its use.

Assault
The weapon has a high damage output, but limited range. Assault weapons are usually good on well-armored ships that can afford to take a beating to dish one out – or on faster ships that are hard to hit.

Close Support
The weapon has a good range (generally, up to 2x that of assault weapons), but is limited in some way – overall damage output, ammunition, rate of fire, etc. Depending on the specific limitations, close support weapons excel in many situations ranging from harassment to delivering a killing blow against an exposed enemy.

Point Defense
The weapon has a sophisticated targeting system that allows it to automatically target enemy missiles. Other common characteristics (such as a high turret slew rate) make point defense weapons good against fighters as well.

There are several other roles – strike and fire support, to name two – but I’ll let you guess what they are. The first person to guess correctly wins a prize, which is the satisfaction of being the first to guess correctly and winning a prize.

The State Of Affairs

The Now is what the ancients would call “year 3126.” We do not call it that anymore. It is pointless to cite large numbers that remind us how far we had come, and how far we have fallen. Since we do not even know where Old Earth is anymore, and cannot reach it – we use a new way of telling time, the sector cycle. In our sector of space, it is cycle 206.

Not much is known about the ancient past. What we know is what survivors recorded or told us. They described a vast galactic nation – the Domain of Man. Spanning hundreds of thousands of worlds in the Milky Way, ruled by the Ecumenical Benevolent Council, with its seat at Old Earth… It is told that one could travel the stars in the blink of an eye through gates constructed by the men of the Domain. Resources were nearly limitless, growth was not bound. Our sector was relatively new on the scene. Some worlds in it had only been settled for 20 or so cycles before the great calamity. The populations of the planets in our sector were still giddy with the initial excitement that every new venture brings. The sector was truly a heaven that we can now only dream of, hoping we go to a place like it when we die.

No one knows for sure what caused the end of this paradise. The records and stories only tell us bits and pieces. Exactly 206 cycles ago, all gates in our sector went dead at once. All communication links to the Domain were severed. Initially, there was no great disturbance in the daily lives of the colonists, it was assumed the gates would be reopened by the Domain, and communications reestablished. So they waited. But the gates were silent.

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