Writing Starsector 2: Westernesse Boondoggle

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I was happy to answer random questions about my game dev practice (offer still stands!), and in the following discussion I said something about having cut a bunch of text from “the anarchist art collective” portion of the Starsector missions. There was at least one person interested in hearing more, so who am I to deny this request?

It turns out that getting to that anarchist art collective involves – for the purposes of context, of course – a meandering path through the entire process of writing narrative for Starsector. Therefore, my friends, that’s what we’re going to do today.

There will be spoilers in this post for content that was released in Starsector 0.95, the March of 2021 vintage. I won’t talk about any upcoming content ( … unless?). So if you haven’t done the so-called “main quest” of the game starting at the Galatia Academy, both myself and Hegemony COMSEC recommend you hold off on reading further.

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Of Slipstreams and Sensor Ghosts

Technically, the next release was meant to be a “bugfixing and polish” release. It’s true that the skill system update already pushes the boundaries of that, but still, we’ve somehow ended up with some major new features, too, which will be discussed in this post. The short answer to “how did we get here” is “weeeeell, one thing led to another, and before you know it…”

I’d actually like to give a longer answer, too. The first thing I want to say, though, is that this is ok! Ultimately, it’s all stuff that was going to be in the game one way or another (though the specific form would depend on exactly how it happened), so as long as it’s added in a way that lets it fit into the existing mechanics nicely, it’s all good.

I could have held off on adding these until a later release – there’s something to be said for sticking with a plan. But also, I think it’s important to take advantage of inspiration when it strikes – and to occasionally, have some fun!
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Skill Changes, Part 2

Part one of this two-part blog post is here.

In this part, let’s dive into a few details about specific skills, and some other points note. I don’t want to go through every single change – just highlight some interesting tidbits, and a couple of the bigger changes.

Elite skills
One of the goals was to do a pass over the “elite” effects of the combat skills and make them more interesting/powerful/appealing. For example, Helmsmanship’s elite effect now – in addition to its original “0-flux boost at any level” effect – grants a flat +5 to top speed, making it a consideration for slower ships. Combat Endurance and Damage Control got some brand-new, fun elite effects.

Combat Endurance brings back the “repair ship hull during combat” effect from several versions ago – repairs up to 25% of the hull level, with total repairs not exceeding the higher of 50% of the hull, or, as of right now, 2000 points. With Combat Endurance being a skill that’s great for small ships, the elite effect is, too, because of the potential to repair far more than 50% of the hull over the course of a battle.

Damage Control’s elite effect grants a reduction to large hull hits – any hull hit above a certain threshold of damage has the portion above the threshold reduced by (again, as of right now) 60%. No-one plans on being hit by a Reaper torpedo, but still, neutralizing that much damage when things go wrong is going to have a lot of appeal. To make the skill not completely neutralize the strike potential of certain weapons, this effect only triggers at most once every two seconds.

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Skill Changes, Part 1

The skill system – the one in the currently released version, 0.95a – has some things about it that I like, and some things that I don’t think worked out particularly well. One feature is in both categories – “pick one of two skills at every tier”. In some cases, it works well and you have an interesting choice to make. In other cases, the skills don’t lend themselves as well to it, and it ends up feeling unnecessarily restrictive.

The other high-level feature of the system that I really like is the ability to have some top-tier skills that you need to invest into an aptitude to get, and that can be powerful and game-changing. You can’t have that in a system where you can cherry-pick any skill you want at any time.

So, the goal of these adjustments is to keep the progression and high-impact choices, and add more freedom where “pick one of two” doesn’t have a compelling reason behind it.

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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.

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