A Tale of Two Tech Levels

This blog post is a tricky one to write – all the pieces are interrelated, and figuring out where to start, and how much background info to provide – to make sure this is comprehensible without having a PhD in Starsectology… well, right, tricky. So, let’s start by taking a brief step back and looking at the kinds of ships there are in the game. There are lots of ways to slice that pie, too, but let’s look at tech levels – namely, “Low Tech” and “High Tech”. There are others, and it gets blurry in places, but for this post, these two are what’s important.

The key thing is that high tech is not intended to be better than low tech, just a different way of doing things. High tech has speed, good shields, and fairly inefficient (but varied!) lower-ranged weapons. Low tech is slower and more ponderous, has high armor and hull integrity, with efficient longer-ranged weapons. The dynamics you get when they face each other is that high tech ships dart in and out of engagement range, relying on shields to see them through, while low tech ships try to make them pay a price for closing in. This is simplifying things a great deal, of course, and there are exceptions, but this is a high-level overview.

Burn Drive
What these dynamics do in a vacuum, however, is leave all of the initiative to the high-tech ships – faster ships decide when and where to engage. To partially counter this, a lot of low tech ships get a “Burn Drive” ship system – it allows them to burn forward by a fixed distance to press an advantage. It does *not* allow them to disengage any more easily, so they have situational initiative, with a risk attached to using it. It’s an interesting descision to make for the player – you have to think ahead, judge the distance, evaluate the threats, and so on.

The problem, however, is that this system is very difficult for the AI to use safely. There are just too many factors to consider, but the main problem is that *if it gets it wrong* then this leaves the ship terribly exposed and likely to be destroyed. So, even an AI that got it mostly right – it just takes one mistake, and those are the things that stick in the player’s mind when they see it. The AI, therefore, is very conservative with its use – but this means that Burn Drive is largely not doing the job it was intended for, giving low tech the ability to keep the pressure on when facing technically-faster ships.

So, one key change that supports much of what’s in the rest of this post is making Burn Drive able to be toggled off at any point in the burn. (This can be done either by pressing the system-activation key again, or by venting.)

This lowers the stakes – it’s no longer a commitment to the entire duration of the burn – and makes the AI’s job much easier. Now it just has to decide if it likes the location it’ll be in a second or two worth of burn later, and if not, turn it off. This makes it a much more useful system for the player, too, since they can be much more aggressive with it and use it in a far wider variety of situations. I was concerned that it might make the system feel less impactful (despite actually *being* stronger), but having playtested it, being able to cancel a burn at will feels nicely powerful. It turns out that stopping a brick on a dime feels about as good as hurling it in the first place! So, all good on that front.

I think this is perhaps the main issue with the effectiveness of low tech ships – functionally missing that piece of puzzle that’s supposed to make them “work”. It’s also fair to say that it didn’t get its fair share of fun new stuff over the course of development, though. With that in mind, on to the new ships!

One of the things low tech is missing is a premium frigate option. The closest contender for that role is the Lasher, which is a fine-enough frigate, but its effectiveness drops off hard in larger battles. The reason for this, and for high tech frigates generally being superior, lies in the very properties that define these respective techs. Frigates often rely on speed for survival. To make matters more difficult, frigate-grade armor is not very useful when standing up to larger ships (mainly because unlike shields, it’s not a renewable resource, but also because heavier weapons have an easier time getting through it), while frigate grade shields can do a fine enough job. A fast, well-shielded frigate (i.e. high tech) can surive. A slower, even well-armored one (the hallmarks of a low tech hull!) has a harder time doing that.

So, how do we go about adding a quality low tech frigate? One with burn drive, to boot – something that can cut down on its survivability further, both by getting it into the thick of things, and by replacing a potential defensive system. Admittedly, burn drive *is* optional here – I mean, we could go for a sniper-type frigate that leans into long range instead, or for a tankier one with a defensive system – but these niches are already somewhat filled by frigates of other tech levels, and besides, a burn drive frigate just seems appropriate for low tech – if we can make it actually good.

The first piece of the puzzle is accepting that if we have an attack frigate like that, it’ll be lost in battle at times. So, instead of trying to prevent this, the approach is to make it hurt a lot less. Enter the “Rugged Construction” built-in hullmod, with the following properties:

– The ship is always recoverable if lost
– It has a 50% chance to avoid d-mods (those are debuffs from being destroyed and recovered, i.e. “compromised armor”, “glitched sensors”, etc”)
– And the effect of any d-mods it has is reduced by 50%

By itself, this isn’t enough – if a ship is destroyed all the time, it still hurts – it takes supplies to fix it back up, and you lose crew. But this *is* enough to make an occasional loss and post-battle recovery acceptable. It gives us enough wiggle room to make the rest of it work.

Armed with this idea, I was feeling pretty optimistic, but that didn’t last long. The ship had major trouble – it had solid stats (with the standard low tech lean into at best moderate speed, and heavier armor), but if it had a shield – even a pretty decent one, though not high tech grade – then it would fall short of being useful. It’d start to get close to an enemy, take a bunch of shield damage, back off, and this would repeat itself with no real progress being made. To make hit and run work as a frigate vs larger enemies, you need good shields and high speed. With middling shields and speed, it turns more into “get hit and run”.

Removing the shields entirely makes it marginally better – at least the ship can be aggressive, since it doesn’t have to worry about shields raising its flux levels! But it doesn’t last long enough in a major firefight, per the earlier point about comparatively-heavy armor on a frigate.

So, what to do? One easily-available option is to keep it shieldless and add on an extreme amount of armor – to the point where it has heavier armor than, say, a low tech destroyer. The other easy option is to give it a better, high tech grade shield, and possibly make it faster, too. And, of course, taking a step back and changing the ship’s core identity into something that *can* work with middling shields and top speed is an option. But none of these are good.

There is a ship system that could make a frigate like this work – it’s called “Damper Field”, and it cuts the damage taken down by armor/hull by quite a lot. It’s enough to give a frigate with reasonable-looking stats enough survivability for large fights. Trouble is, we’ve already got burn drive in the system slot. But, not to worry! Fortunately, it’s easy enough to add this in as a secondary system, in place of a shield, so that it can toggled by right-clicking, the same way shields or phase cloak normally are. It also requires expanding the UI a bit – to show the number of charges and status of this secondary system, but that’s easily done as well.

With this final piece of the puzzle, the new ship – named the “Vanguard” – works! It’s tough and persistent, and if it does fall in a larger battle, then it’s just not a very big deal. And another nice thing here is that this combination of two systems is special, so low tech gets something with a bit of a shine to it that way. Here’s its in-game description:

An ancient and tough heavy frigate featuring robust construction, a combat burn drive, and no modern shields. Instead, the Vanguard is equipped with an integrated Damper Field of archaic design but tuned to modern standards. This allows the Vanguard to allocate 100% of flux buildup to weapon systems, leaving defense to its heavy armor enhanced by the obscure physics of resonant field-dampening.

And here’s a shot of it in action, featuring burn drive and damper field active at the same time:

It’s worth noting that the Vanguard isn’t especially great againstĀ other frigates – it works better as high-pressure support (and target/threat magnet) against larger ships. It can certainly keep frigates occupied for a long time, but will have trouble landing finishing blows against faster ones that can get out of the way of its burns.

(While I was at it, I also added “Rugged Construction” to the Hound and the Cerberus, both unshielded ships that could benefit from it not hurting much to lose them. Another point worth noting: I’ve increased the range of the Light Autocannons and the Light Assault Gun – small ballistic weapons that the Vanguard can mount. This also helps the Lasher a bit, since these can often be its armament.)

The second ship I wanted to add was far more straightforward in comparison. It’d be nice to have another low tech cruiser option. Currently, there’s only the Dominator – a forward-firepower focused ship with burn drive that’s very susceptible to flanking. It’s useful, but also fairly specialized and has some weaknesses, so it’d be good to have a companion ship that covers different ground. Thus: the Eradicator-class Fast Cruiser. Well, according to the low tech understanding of what “fast” means – though for example the Hound is a low tech ship that’s very fast indeed, and the Eradicator draws on some visual inspiration from that with its oversized engine nacelles.

Notably, it’s not a *light* cruiser, so it still punches at a level you’d expect from a proper cruiser. Actually, it punches a bit harder than that, due to the Accelerated Ammo Feeder ship system it has; the idea is that while it’s a ship that can’t press an advantage with burn drive, what it *can* do is make other ships pay for coming close to it much more quickly. And of course it can pair well with other ships that do have burn drive and can help finish what it started! As is fairly common for low tech ships, it also has an above-average complement of missiles, to help offset its middling flux stats.

What it doesn’t have is any large ballistic weapon slots. On the one hand, it’d be nice to add another ship where you can mount large ballistic weapons, since the opportunities to do so are currently pretty limited. On the other hand, it feels like adding a single large ballistic slot on this ship would make it the focus of outfitting the ship – and I’d much rather give an array of smaller weapons, and their various combinations, a chance to shine. Just having a ton of smaller guns unload on the enemy – especially with the ammo feeder turned on – is satisfying, and the range buff for some of the small ballistics opens up more options. And, well, another new ship can feature a large ballistic slot at some point, one designed around it.

Here’s the Eradicator’s in-game description:

A resilient design often overlooked by history, the Eradicator-class fast cruiser features powerful dual engine nacelles that allow it to deliver uncompromising firepower and a powerful missile barrage to the weakest point of the enemy battleline – or come to the rescue of valuable assets that have found themselves tactically exposed.

Eradicator (P)
This ship also offers an opportunity to add more variety to pirate fleets. They’re a bit lacking in the cruiser department right now – all of their cruisers are specialists of some sort – and having a more general purpose ship take on a primary role will be very welcome. It’s particularly good to add more variety here since the pirates are such a common enemy for the player to face.

Now, having an accelerated ammo feeder on that might be a bit mean. And the pirate version of the ship has some red it in, so it stands to reason that it would go faster. With that in mind, the (P) version of the ship has burn drive! Since for this particular ship this is a bit of a nerf, it’s also got reduced deployment points. Though, to be fair, “this isn’t as powerful as the baseline version of the ship” is unlikely to be much consolation when it’s coming at you full-burn.

Bonus: Termination Sequence
While we’re looking at low tech frigate performance, it also makes sense to look at some high tech ships that are over-performing. The Tempest isn’t the only one (nor the only one I’ve looked at and made some adjustments to), but for this post, I’d like to talk about it since the changes turned out more interesting than your run-of-the-mill buff or nerf.

It’s another tricky design situation. The Tempest is fast, has point-defense (and general damage-dealing) drones, and a system that boosts energy weapon damage – “High Energy Focus”. The main problem is the system; the ship would be fine power-wise, and have a role, without it. With the system, it can get damage spikes that are just too much. What to replace it with, though? A mobility systems would be pretty underwhelming since the Tempest is already extremely mobile. A flare launcher? Not the most exciting system, but might have been worth considering if the drones didn’t already have point-defense on lockdown. Could of course remove the drones and tone it down that way, but they’re fun and I’d like to keep them.

What we need is a system that offers new options without just ramping up the ship’s power.

Introducing: Termination Sequence. When activated, it supercharges one of the drones and sends it off after the selected target, like a missile. It deals massive energy and EMP damage – and since the drone itself is the missile, it’s quite tough compared to most other missiles. Uniquely among missiles, it can also shoot at the target (or anything else it pleases) while on approach.

On the flip side, it generates a fair bit of flux when used, and, well, this does cost you a drone, which’ll take time to replace. So it can be great situationally, but it does have a real cost. I think this is the sweet spot for the Tempest’s system – something fun and unique that interacts with the drones, but isn’t just a flat out power boost.

Some notes on the visuals:

– The EMP arc from the ship to the drone when the system is fired off helps “sell” what’s happening, and explain the flux buildup on the ship
– The drone itself gets a jittery/unstable type animation, which gets more extreme as it approaches its maximum range

Both of these are super important – the EMP arc to show what’s happening, especially if you’re not controlling the ship. The jittery animation – I found myself wondering why the drone-missile would just blow up at some point, and then realizing that it was just (correctly!) doing that on reaching its maximum range. Without some visual indicator that this was about to happen, it was extremely unclear – but just a small animation like this turns that around completely. All in all, I’m happy with how it turned out! I didn’t intend to do something quite as involved when I started looking at it, but the more I looked at it, it just seemed like the right option.

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 28th, 2021 at 3:00 pm and is filed under Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.