So, what exactly is a ship system? The words themselves are overloaded, so for all you know from the title, I could be talking about the ship’s life support system. Or the system for refilling the bucket for the guy swabbing decks A1 though A4 on the ISS Unlikely to Survive. (Which seems like a waste of time – for obvious reasons – but I digress.)
In Starfarer a “ship system” is an active ability that a ship has. Each ship only has one of these (if at all), and it’s determined by the hull. It’s not something you can customize, but rather something to give each hull more flavor and uniqueness. Sure, the weapon slots available on each hull are important, but at the end of the day, those are just guns. A different active system goes much farther to make a ship play, well, differently – and feel more unique.
That’s not to say that every hull will have a unique system – some will, but lots of systems will be shared between hulls, often of a similar type. For example, you might expect the Enforcer, the Dominator, and the Onslaught – all ships in the same “bull right in and keep shooting until they drop” vein – to have a similar active system. Some examples of these systems are:
Flare Launcher: Fires off a number of flares to confuse the guidance systems of missiles.
Maneuvering Jets: Activates additional maneuvering thrusters on the ship and greatly improves its maneuverability for a time.
Burn Drive: Allows the temporary use of the travel drive unit in combat. The power required means the ship is unable to use shields, and the highly volatile state of the engines mean a risk of a flameout if the ship collides with anything sufficiently large to jar it.
Here’s a video of these three in action:
If you’ve done any modding – or played any mods - you might be wondering just how moddable ship systems are.
A critical part of each new system – and what’s taking most of the time as far as implementing them goes – is the AI. That’s not something mods have direct access to right now, so a radically new system is out of the question.
On the other hand, I’m building the current systems with a range of options and behaviors in mind. So, you could take a standard flare launcher, and change the number and type of flares, the cooldown, the chance for each flare to be effective, the range at which it’s effective, its behavior – to some extent – and so on. It’ll still be a flare launcher, but it can be one that looks, feels, and plays very differently than the stock one. The AI is built to be aware of at least some of these possibilities, so it should allow for a good range of new systems mods can add effectively.
David sent this to me a little while back, and I thought it was very cool to see all of the ships together like that. Most of these are in the game, but some aren’t just yet and a few may or may not make it.
A lot of the ones not currently in the game hint at features under consideration. Let the rampant speculation begin!
I just added two new ships to the game, and thought I’d talk about the process that’s involved in determining ship stats, the types of weapon slots that they have, and the role they fill in the game. First of all, there are already lots of ships – around thirty if you don’t count fighters, and about a dozen more if you do. If you’re like me, that might set off some alarms in your head – why are there so many? Is it just variety for the sake of variety, or is it in fact meaningful? That’s what I always wonder about when I see a game tout “500 this” and “200 something-or-other” in their feature list.
Not every ship needs to bring something unique or interesting to the table – if nothing is “average”, then it’s hard for anything to be special. On the other hand, if two ships fill the same role in the same way, that’s a bad sign – it’s a wasted art asset, and complexity added to the game that doesn’t pull its weight by giving meaningful choices to the player. Still, having more ships is good if they pull their weight – it gives the player more choices and avenues for advancement, never mind more varied opponents. Having enough ships to give factions a stronger identity is important, too.
So, what are the factors that differentiate ship designs?
First of all, there are 5 size classes – fighter, frigate, destroyer, cruiser, and capital ship. We’ve also established three tech levels for ship designs – low tech, midline, and high tech. Low tech ships have high armor and a mix of ballistic and missile weapons. Midline ships have a mix of all types of weaponry, and average armor and shields. High tech ships rely on energy weapons and missiles, and typically have lower armor and excellent shields, in addition to improved mobility. Ships can also have launch bays for fighters – with some ships being dedicated carriers.
Just those factors combine to create a lot of combinations – a low tech cruiser? A high tech carrier? You can also easily make a ship distinct by giving it something special – such as, say, a weapon slot that’s too large to be normally found on ships of that size, or exceptional movement speed. Where the weapon slots are located and what arcs they cover is key to how a ship plays out – for example, having an important weapon battery point slightly to starboard will affect the best way to pilot a ship and will be a constant tactical consideration.
To top it off, not all ships are dedicated combat vessels – they have stats such as cargo, fuel, and crew capacity. Down the line, I’d also like to add active ship systems (such as afterburners, a combat teleport, or an ECM device). Between all these, keeping ship designs varied is easy.
Up til now, we haven’t had any particularly large high-tech ships in the game that could also put out a lot of firepower. But that’s about to change – allow me to introduce the Paragon-class battleship and the Odyssey-class battlecruiser. These two are anything but average.
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The title of this post is deliberately misleading. It’s mostly about crew management and me, you see. Specifically, about how the current system came about – and what it is. But now that I’ve tricked you into reading, I hope you’ll stay with it – you won’t get those couple of seconds back anyway, so might as well keep going!
There are three main reasons to have crew in the game: to increase immersion, to add another avenue for advancement, and to introduce interesting resource management mechanics. In other words, having a tangible crew is neat, watching them go from raw recruits to seasoned veterans is rewarding, and having a say in how the crew is used to get the most out of them is engaging. The crew is far from being the main mode of advancement, though – the player also has their own skills, officers, ships, and weapons to upgrade – so it’d be a mistake to look at it solely from the player advancement angle.
However, figuring out just how to model the crew of your ships has been a difficult process. There are two components to the mechanics: advancement and assignment. Advancement is how the crew progresses through experience ranks. Is it linear, or can crewmen specialize in gunnery, piloting, and such? Assignment is just how the player matches up the crew to the ships they run – what amount of control they have over it, and exactly how it works.
Those components depend on each other a great deal. Suppose the player just has one ship – we don’t need to worry about assignment at all, then. Free from this concern, we could come up with an involved scheme for crew advancement – with individual crewmen progressing through the ranks all the way from raw recruit to master gunner or somesuch.
On the other hand, suppose the player has a large fleet. Do we really want them to worry about making sure the ISS Unlikely to Survive has the right number of gunners? If they’re losing a ship or two every battle – and with large fleets and battles, that’s quite likely – having to re-crew new ships afterward would quickly become a chore. What we need is to strike a balance – enough detail for immersion and sense of advancement, but not so much that the mechanics become a bother for large fleets. The mechanics should let the player make meaningful choices with a minimum of fuss – not make them perform rote actions over and over.
The crux of the problem for me was the need to assign crew to specific ships. I kept turning that over in my mind, and just couldn’t get around the awkwardness of having to manually do it. You’d have to handle it for new ships, for re-crewing ships after losses, and for switching crews around for key battles – to name just a few situations. It’d be a royal pain.
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