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Or What's A Heaven For?

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"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?"

I love that quote by Robert Browning because its so empowering, especially when you're working on a project with an insane scope. [grin] Since I've been thinking about galaxy generation stuff all day, I'll just jump right into it...



Straylight Update

Ysaneya and evolutional made some great points in responding to the last entry about galaxy generation here: Essentially, focus on creating a certain number of content rich places, then design the gameplay so that the content rich places are easy to get to.

But if a galaxy has differientiated regions, some boring, some exciting, I fear that players may blame the game for allowing them to do something that they won't have a positive experience doing-- namely, traveling to the boring places. Just like games that allow you to trap stupid AI, or reward creep and save, or provide lucrative rewards for uninteresting risks, players often feel compelled to do what a game allows. I don't know why, but I think it can't be ignored.


So if you offer them a galaxy, how do you make it interesting to go everywhere?

To answer this question, I'm going to break the problem into two domains. How do you create interesting interstellar space, and (a more granular problem) how do you create interesting planets?

Quick Detour: Why Is "Interesting" Interesting?
In games, interesting seems to come in two flavors: One which emotionally impacts the player strongly but often fades quickly, and another which reinforces the meaning (or the whole point) found in playing the game.

Beauty and immersive environments, I think, offer the most striking but short-lived embodiment of "interesting." Seeing places you've never seen before and witnessing breathtaking vistas and colors is very satisfying initially. But over time it's like being given an expensive gift every day. After awhile, the value fades as the experience becomes routine. (This isn't to say that beauty shouldn't be used-- it certainly should! But it shouldn't be relied upon exclusively to maintain player interest.)

OTOH, I think a more enduring form of "interesting" arises solely from the utility of the objects and environments found in a game. "That's nice, but what can I do with it," is something I've heard many a game reviewer and player say.

If this concept has any merit, then is it possible to look at the utility of the immense space of a galaxy and design the game from that standpoint? I think so.

Interstellar / Interplanetary Utility
So in a huge, open-ended space game, what is a heaven for? The answer depends heavily on the palette of gameplay options the player has.

In most space games, the interestellar / interplanetary medium exists as nothing more than a void you fly through and fight in. Because the gameplay palette is often limited to flying and fighting (and occassionally trading), space has no real point. The last thing you need is more of something which, while pretty, does nothing for you.

As a constrast, consider the map of a 4X empire game. Civilization on a HUGE world has a massive number of individual locations (game squares). Any one of them can do something useful for you, and there are layers of complex considerations for when to travel to, change or claim any one square.

Even though Civ is primarily a combat game, the ability to do more than just fight in any particular square means that the utility of game squares in general can be more varied. A square in Civ, for instance, can be excellent for providing shelter to a wounded unit. It can be a great resting place before a big strike. It can be used by a slow unit to lose a fast pursuer. It can provide water to nurture a city, be a source of disease, or play a pivotable role in winning or losing the entire game.

So why can't interstellar / interplanetary space be composed of a kind of terrain? The first step, I think, must be in expanding the gameplay palette. We need to be able to do more with a "patch of space" than just fly and shoot through it, and so our ships need more than just flying and shooting capability. If we handle suspension of disbelief, space can be wildly varied.

In Straylight, I'm going to use the idea of "average anomalies" and pair it with wormholes in order to give space terrain. Rather than conceptualizing interstellar space as an empty void, the plan is to mix and mangle science and sci-fi ideas to claim that variances in everything from the gravitational constant to rifts and dimensional misalignments create anomalies that range from the mundane to the spectacular. Within these regions gameplay will be jinked in different ways depending on your ship's loadout and the dynamic you've established among your crew.

The regions themselves, like a cell in Civ, will be areas that can be claimed, damaged and terraformed. Wormholes (of several different flavors) will provide the economic and military context for moving near or through these regions. As you grow in strength and the tech level of the empire you're a part of evolves, I plan to allow you to link regions in order to create larger regions.

What this ultimately does is make the game universe a strategic map. Mixed with a heuristic that mimicks expanding and contracting factions and empires, I think that plain old boring space will become much more lively. You'll find yourself entering a region with a host of strategic concerns which (if I do my job right designing this) will be simple to start with but grow more textured and nuanced as you expand.

Combined with a wider gameplay palette, I think there may be enough variability possible to fill up even a seemingly massive galaxy.




Ugh... that was much longer than planned... I'll touch on planet surfaces in the next entry. I think a similar approach can be used, but in order to really justify the expense of creating planets, I'm going to describe an idea I have involving "gameplay that follows you."
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Quote:
Original post by Wavinator
In most space games, the interestellar / interplanetary medium exists as nothing more than a void you fly through and fight in. Because the gameplay palette is often limited to flying and fighting (and occassionally trading), space has no real point. The last thing you need is more of something which, while pretty, does nothing for you.


Quote:

So why can't interstellar / interplanetary space be composed of a kind of terrain? The first step, I think, must be in expanding the gameplay palette. We need to be able to do more with a "patch of space" than just fly and shoot through it, and so our ships need more than just flying and shooting capability. If we handle suspension of disbelief, space can be wildly varied.


That's quite interesting; I've never really seen "terrain" done before in a 4X space game. I'll be interested in seeing on how you fill up space with something useful.

Doesn't that mean you'll be using some sort of 2D tile-based map equivalent to that of Civilization, or are you using a 3D version of a grid?

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One thing I think you need to achieve is the portrayal of shifting galactic powers in the universe. Many games have a storyline somewhere which causes planets, sectors, systems and space phenomena (blackholes) to be contested by two powers but doesn't actually show the conflict or let the player become a part of it. How about your favourite jumpgate being out of bounds because a large military convoy is moving to attack in sector 3E? Or how about being told to leave the area immediately because of some secret operation? Or how about joining the militaty and being involved in such operations? I know I'm going back to Frontier, but I enjoyed working for the various militaries and going on ad-hoc missions. I would have loved to have been drafted up for some huge space war over a disputed sector or system. You need to feel a part of something bigger...

If a system or planet is rich in minerals then does the player really think they'll be the first to have discovered it? Unless it's in some really far-flung region of space then I say no. I say to have other NPCs in the area, constantly jumping in and mining the area for all its worth. Perhaps even have large corporate mining operations going on. One day you may come to your favourite spot and find it dry of minerals because a huge surface mining operation is present from "The Deep Space Mining Co" or whatever. What about having people with nefarious interests hooking up with the miners? So maybe one day you jump in and find your ship attacked or under seige because someone's bought along an escort to get all the minerals...

What about hearing about some pirate or outlaw insurgency on the news broadcast and then travelling to the relevant sector and see your favourite space port being blown to pieces? It'll be rebuilt over time, but as a player you'd have to find another stomping ground - it'd make you think on your feet and reevaluate your position in the game often.

To me, this is what would make the vastness of space interesting. The game shouldn't remain static, you should be able to feel the various shifts of power, diplomacy and feel that these 'boring' places are really alive...

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Quote:
Original post by Trapper Zoid
Doesn't that mean you'll be using some sort of 2D tile-based map equivalent to that of Civilization, or are you using a 3D version of a grid?


It's sort of both. I'm assuming a galaxy of 100,000 light years wide by 10,000 light years thick (ignore the center), with four types of area definitions: Quadrants that are 50k x 50k x 10k LY each; Areas called Regions within Quadrants that are 10k x 10k x 10k; Sectors which are 1,000 LY³ each; and Subsectors that are 100 LY³. So at the top most two levels, yes, it's technically a 2D map; but within each Region is where I see the illusion of 3D kicking in.

Quote:
Original post by evolutional
One thing I think you need to achieve is the portrayal of shifting galactic powers in the universe.


You don't know how much I agree with you on this, evolutional. And it has to go right down to the level of you the character and whatever enterprise you're engaged in operating (be it the people management for ships gameplay or some sort of economic venture). That is, the world has to feel alive and reactive and pivot around you to a degree which is appropriate for your stature in the game world. So you're not the center of the universe unless you earn it.

Quote:

Many games have a storyline somewhere which causes planets, sectors, systems and space phenomena (blackholes) to be contested by two powers but doesn't actually show the conflict or let the player become a part of it.


Although it's earned me the evil eye from some of the more loyalist RPG players in Game Design, I still think that if the world is alive enough with interconnected cause and effect events, you don't need a story. I'm still trying to understand why a strategy game like Civ doesn't need a story, but an RPG with Civ-like world manipulation would.


Quote:

I would have loved to have been drafted up for some huge space war over a disputed sector or system. You need to feel a part of something bigger...

If a system or planet is rich in minerals then does the player really think they'll be the first to have discovered it? Unless it's in some really far-flung region of space then I say no. I say to have other NPCs in the area, constantly jumping in and mining the area for all its worth. Perhaps even have large corporate mining operations going on. One day you may come to your favourite spot and find it dry of minerals because a huge surface mining operation is present from "The Deep Space Mining Co" or whatever. What about having people with nefarious interests hooking up with the miners? So maybe one day you jump in and find your ship attacked or under seige because someone's bought along an escort to get all the minerals...

What about hearing about some pirate or outlaw insurgency on the news broadcast and then travelling to the relevant sector and see your favourite space port being blown to pieces? It'll be rebuilt over time, but as a player you'd have to find another stomping ground - it'd make you think on your feet and reevaluate your position in the game often.



I believe there are only two ways to do this: Either you script everything, which leads to lots of problems with flexibility, or you strive to create a natural system founded on rules and stats, such as combat is. I think the latter approach leads to more robust and interesting gameplay, but it's a PITA to try to figure out the nuances. Not many people seem to like to conceptualize in that direction, and so it's really hard to make breakthroughs because there aren't many peers to brainstorm with.

For instance, how does the draft happen? What happens if the player resists? What if they're in the middle of something, like a lucrative trading run?

And what about mining? If you risk life and limb to go to the end of nowhere, does it automatically mean people will be there? Can you hide the site? Can you be followed? Can you get careless talking to the wrong people?

And the spaceport that was blown to pieces? What if that was the only place to upgrade or trade for lightyears? Players are notoriously whiny when it comes to being inconvenienced! [rolleyes]

I think all of these need a kind of organic system that not only puts the universe back in order, but (even harder to do) ensures that the gameplay doesn't suffer as well. For instance, it might be impressive to live in a universe where a space station could be blown to bits... but what if you were on that station at the time?

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