Building Better Worlds

No, not terraforming; world-building! You know, like writing and content implementation.

In the upcoming Starsector 0.8x patch we’ve added at least one* new faction and expanded the number of hand-scripted star systems in the Sector by a significant though not quite finalized number. Alex has of course obliquely described how he has expanded the number of procedurally generated star systems from zero in the currently available build to potentially a whole bunch in the upcoming patch. This does much to embiggen the world of Starsector! My part in this has focused mostly on the hand-scripted Core Worlds, the centers of human civilization, industry, and conflict within the volume of the Persean Sector.

I’ll talk a bit about the creative process as well as design considerations that go into creating this content. We’ll cover some old star systems, some new star systems, the Persean League just a tiny bit, and whatever tangents that come up.

(*Hedging how I word this because the truth of the matter is a touch complex.)

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Faction Relationships

Sometimes during development, you end up doing things you hadn’t initially planned on doing. Fleshing out player-faction relationships is one of those things. It was something I knew I’d have to look at eventually – the current system having two attitudes towards the player – “meh” and “shoot first and don’t ask questions”, with nothing in between, was definitely not going to hold up. Initially, though, it didn’t seem connected to the economy and events systems, which are the focus of the upcoming release. So, how did faction relationships get dragged into this?

With the introduction of trade and events, player actions carry more meaning than they did before. A successful trade run contributes to the stability of the markets involved; more so if the markets are small. Smuggling can be a hugely destabilizing force. A food shortage has long-term consequences, which depend on how severe it is, which in turn depends on whether the player got involved, and if so, how. Markets declare bounties when hostile fleets are doing damage to the economy, and so collecting on those bounties – by removing said fleets – has a real impact as well.

Not all of these are earth-shaking, and there’s still some work to do on making the consequences more pronounced and more clear. One way to do that that is to make other inhabitants of the world notice, and react to, your actions. It’s a clear way for the game to say “what you just did matters”. Provided that your standing with a faction has a tangible effect, it also increases how much it matters. We get improved clarity and increased impact – a win/win! Factions having more nuanced attitudes and responses to your actions also increases their believability.

This is all a long way of saying that if the player can do things that matter, it’s tough to separate that from NPCs having appropriate reactions, and if those reactions are limited to “attack” and “don’t attack”, that doesn’t provide enough expressiveness.  (Put like that, this seems rather obvious… ahem, moving on.)

faction_screenIf you’re going to have more detailed faction relationships, there has to be some way to see what they are. Darn it, more UI work.

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Designing Faction Icons

It’s been a while, but I’ll have you know that I’ve slowly but steadily been drawing random bits of art for Starfarer. Some of said bits are about the same as before (ship sprites, revised weapon graphics, UI icons) while some are top-secret prototypes and experiments which I couldn’t very well reveal because that’d ruin all the fun of the surprise when you get new presents. Sorry.

For this written interlude I shall discuss some of my thoughts around drawing Starfarer faction icons. I shall give you my lore disclaimer right now: the story & background of Starfarer is not something I make up, though I have certainly contributed thoughts to Alex and Ivaylo on occasion. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, anything I say here about the setting of Starfarer is going to be what goes on in my head while I’m drawing rather than what is any sort of canon which will appear into the game and which you should read closely for overarching literary themes.

So: the factions in Starfarer need identifying symbols, colour themes, and a sort of general ambiance – and these all must support one another. One faction may be warlike and value strength; this must be shown in how they represent themselves. Another may be peaceful and value stability; likewise, it probably wouldn’t do if their icon was a burning red skull menacing with spikes. Pirates could be into that though, because they’d like nothing more than to appear scary and ruthless. I’ll say again, each faction has a few core themes that need to be shown with both symbols and colours which support said themes as well as the setting of Starfarer in general. It’s futuristic heraldry, if you like.

Now let’s have a look at some sketches and the process of taking a faction icon to a presentable state.

(Click on any image to enlarge it.)

My faction icon sketch sheet

Here’s where I threw down some ideas and pushed them around a bit. Some more than others. We’ve got a small set of factions to start with which I think Alex gave me a list for at some point as well as some background material floating around in a shared document somewhere. And of course you’ve met a few of these factions in the game already, so those were my starting points.

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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.

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