Writing Starsector

The next update will add strong narrative RPG elements to Starsector, among other things.

I feel no small amount of trepidation because this is both a change and it is a particular story about particular characters in a way the pure sandbox certainly isn’t. This necessarily constrains your – the player’s – experience of the game-fantasy and the meta-game fantasy of an “unfinished game” which has the potential to become everyone’s dreams in a free-floating quantum state… until you see it for real and it turns out it isn’t quite what you dreamed.

I suppose this seems like an awfully negative way to start off; this is what I mean about trepidation. And I am legitimately excited about sharing more of the world of Starsector, letting players dive in a bit closer and get a feel for what it’s like for people that live in this world. Find out what they think, find out a bit more about why movers and shakers move like they do. If I may say so, I think we’ve done some pretty good work!

The written wordcount has already exceeded the minimum definition for a novel (50k) a few times over by now. I’ve attempted Nanowrimo a few times in the past and always choked almost instantly. My experience writing Starsector has been a stark contrast – the words just flow! It seems so obvious, most of the time, what comes next, what feels right to be said. I suspect part of it is the constraint of the medium focusing creativity, but it may also perhaps be the very clear connection to an audience (that’s y’all out there!). A novel feels a bit like a bunch of words floating out  in (ha) space. A game, however, has a player. They must actively engage and progress. I know a player is committed in a way a reader isn’t. (Which probably isn’t at all true; people read books, after all. I’ve even read one or two in my day.)

Whatever it is, maybe I can’t rationalize it. But something works here for me in a way that hasn’t elsewhere. I’ll take it.

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this.

We’ve had to deal with certain constraints and design problems while adding written content to Starsector. Some of these are faced by all games which use writing, some are particular to the context of Starsector. I am not going to talk about any specific narrative beats or plot details, but I will talk about how the narrative is structured, so from a certain point of view one could derive meta-spoilers from this blog post. I think the most pure and magical way to experience Starsector would be with no foreknowledge of any of this, so I’ll give you fair warning now: if you don’t want to know anything, stop reading.

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Salvaging Mechanics Update

This is going to be a shorter blog post – I’d just like to talk about refactoring one mechanic to work a little differently, since I think it’s an interesting one, and thinking it through gave me some trouble.

One of the things you do in the game is go to the fringes of the Sector and “salvage” various derelicts – abandoned stations, Domain-era probes, and so on. It’s a good source of valuable materials and lost technology. With the next release, salvaging will become even more important, since it’ll be the primary way for the player to get ship and weapon blueprints that in turn feed into the manufacturing capabilities of their colonies.

approaching_a_REDACTED

First, a quick look at how it works now:

  • Each derelict has a “salvage difficulty rating”, from 0 to 100%
  • And based on that, also a required amount of heavy machinery and crew to carry out the operation
  • A “Salvaging” skill lets the player salvage higher-difficulty derelicts
  • If the crew of rating requirements aren’t met, the player has the option of blowing up the derelict and scavenging through the resulting debris field
  • Bringing along Salvage Rigs (a type of ship) increases the amount of salvage by up to the difficulty rating of the derelict

This is definitely workable. The main issue is that the amount of salvage without investing points into the skill is too low, but that can be tuned because it’s just a numbers issue. Or… is it?
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Zen and the Art of Battlestation Construction

Tactical combat involving battlestations is a logical extension of the REDACTED BY HEGEMONY COMSEC most players are already well aware of despite dire warnings to avoid them from our benevolent protectors. Stations are also part of the colony-building features Alex has discussed recently, though I can’t make comment on how precisely they will play into the higher-level simulation.

However it’s going to work, we’re definitely going to need some enormous space-fortresses bristling with guns and danger. Someone is going to have to draw these things and figure out how all the pieces go together!

trikea

So let’s talk about how we developed a design for these things!

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Skill Overhaul

The current skill system in Starsector was added quite a while ago. That in itself isn’t a reason to redo it, but as with all first-pass systems, some downsides of the implementation became apparent along the way.

But why update it now, rather than sometime down the line? New features in this release need skills to complement them, and adding more skills to the old system would just be adding more stuff to redo later – it’s more efficient to overhaul the system now, and add the new skills in a hopefully-final form. In addition, it’ll be nice to address some long-standing balance issues, but more on that later.

First, let’s take a quick look at the old system. There are 4 aptitudes – Combat, Leadership, Technology, and Industry – and each aptitude has skills under it. The maximum level of a skill is determined by the level of the aptitude it’s under, and the player gets 2 skill points per level and 1 aptitude point every other level.

Skills have 10 levels, a base effect that increases with skill level (e.g. 2% more damage per level), and two perks – each providing significant and sometimes game-changing bonuses – at level 5 and 10 in the skill.

Now, instead of talking about the issues with this system, what I’d like to do is talk about the new system, and mention the issues in the context of how they’re being addressed.

skills_strike

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Phase Cloaking – a Deep Dive

As usual, after a major release there’s some time to polish up some things that there just hasn’t been time for up to that point. In fact, a lot of the upcoming 0.7.2a is turning out to be about “paying off” technical and design debt – things that are “good enough for now”, but do have to be addressed at some point.

doom_vs_enforcer

One such is phase cloaking. There’s a post from a while back on how the current mechanics came to be if you’re interested in the details, but let’s summarize:

Way, way back, the original idea for phase ships was something submarine-like, being able to hide on the battlefield and deliver surprise attacks. That sounds like fun but didn’t turn out to be practical, so phase cloaking changed to become a way to avoid damage instead – shift to another dimension, let enemy fire pass through/over your ship, uncloak, and fire back. That essential concept remains unchanged in this new iteration; the changes are looking to address some specific issues with the implementation.

What, then, are the issues? Read the rest of this entry »

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