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Wavinator

Exploring from 22,300 miles up

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What are some ways to make abstract planetary exploration interesting? Imagine for a moment that you're an adventurous space captain tasked with exploring strange and deadly planets, but that your butt is nano-welded to your command chair. No dune buggy rides, planting flags or contracting bizarre illnesses for you! You do have teams, vehicles and gear that you can send down. So how would you do it? I've got a fairly detailed idea, but I'd like to wait to post it so as not to bias responses. I just ask for these few constraints:
  • The map is a grided sphere that can zoom down to a level of abstraction somewhere between a grand strategy game (like Civ IV) and an RTS, but no further.
  • Game universe tech is slightly beyond present level, so think spy sat optics, lunar landers and balloon tires rather than anti-gravity antimatter whatzits
  • There needs to be a really good tradeoff between orbital survey, aerial survey and ground survey
  • You're likely to encounter ruins, buried cities, mineral motherloads and hostile natives
  • Real time or turn-based is A-OK
What ideas would work best?

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Well, I know, at least for me, that having to micro across 70 planets would really lose me pretty quickly :D Make sure the player does not have to switch across multiple planets. A nice attention to detail would be your best bet here. Make all the planets expansive, and do not overlook anything, and try and drop as many 'easter eggs', so to speak. This would be a nice idea, if implemented well!

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I'd want it to feel like a mix between commanding in Battlefield 2 and fooling around with Google Earth.

So imagine this: The captain sits in his chair and stares at a viewscreen. He has the following powers available to him:

Observe: You just look through a scope at the planet. This view is dependent on your ship's position in orbit, and you can adjust your orbit to change your position. You can zoom in to the Civ/RTS level, in a system that feels like Google Earth. By default, there are no markings on the globe, so your odds of stumbling upon something of interest are slim.

Scan: Broad scans of the planet's surface can detect general trends in atmospheric properties, life signs, and surface composition. It'll tell you whether that blue part is a water ocean or a frigid pool of liquid methane. It'll find jungles and cities and toxic clouds of volcanic gas. It'll identify nuclear rubble near impact craters, and it'll spot distress signals from downed vessels. Low-tech cloaking devices can shield an area from this scan.

Scope: A tighter beam on the scanner allows an area a few miles across to be analyzed in detail. This will reveal information about mineral deposits, underground tunnels, technology, life forms and structures. It can be disrupted by high-tech scattering arrays, allowing surface-dwellers to hide from you.

Bombard: Used a blend of bombs and lasers to crunch up a small area. Handy for pulverizing a mountain for speedy mineral harvesting, or for neutralizing ground defenses before your firebats go planetside.

Deploy: Send a drop ship full of personnel and/or robotic gizmos down there. You can tell them what to do and where to go, and they'll do their best to humor you. They, in return, with send back samples, reports, and other data that your sensors couldn't possibly gather from orbit. They can build structures and harvest resources. Also, they burn villages and storm fortresses if that's appropriate.

Doodle: At all times throughout this process, you've got a suite of tools for marking up the planet. Flag points of interest, name mountain ranges, draw circles around noteworthy mineral deposits, scribble notes about which native species you eradicated and whether or not they had tech worth looting once the radiation disapates, etc.

I'd like it to feel like the planet is about the size of a basketball, and you're holding it in your hands, sometimes using a magnifying glass to look at one little bit, sometimes holding it at arm's length and turning it slowly in your hands, and sometimes drawing on it with a magic marker.

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Quote:
Original post by Iron Chef Carnage
...

I'd like it to feel like the planet is about the size of a basketball, and you're holding it in your hands, sometimes using a magnifying glass to look at one little bit, sometimes holding it at arm's length and turning it slowly in your hands, and sometimes drawing on it with a magic marker.


I think there are some great ideas here - doodling especially.

@ OP: How much time would you expect a player to spend for a reasonably thorough examination of a planet? (I personally would think real-time would be more fun here)

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Quote:
Original post by brandonman
Well, I know, at least for me, that having to micro across 70 planets would really lose me pretty quickly


What about the possibility of separate visits? Is the number of planets the issue, or is the micro the issue (if the latter, I totally agree).

Quote:
Original post by WavyVirus
@ OP: How much time would you expect a player to spend for a reasonably thorough examination of a planet? (I personally would think real-time would be more fun here)


This is a good question. The time spent should depend on how advanced the player is. In early game, I'm imagining it takes about close to an hour for a large planet with lots of sites.

Later, that same planet should take under 10 minutes.

Let me explain below...

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Quote:
Original post by Iron Chef Carnage
I'd want it to feel like a mix between commanding in Battlefield 2 and fooling around with Google Earth.


As terrified as I might be of the implementation details, this is a cool idea!

The one thing I'm not sure about is the difference between Observe and Scan. If this is your 11th planet, aren't you going to want to default to Scan? Or would there be a good reason beside eye candy to go into Observe mode?

Quote:

Scope: A tighter beam on the scanner allows an area a few miles across to be analyzed in detail. This will reveal information about mineral deposits, underground tunnels, technology, life forms and structures. It can be disrupted by high-tech scattering arrays, allowing surface-dwellers to hide from you.


I was opposed to this when I first read it then I remembered the 11th planet question. I would not want you to have this in the very beginning because, to me, exploring a planet should be (at least in the beginning) gritty. Stumbling across bases hidden in the forest, or a crevasse leading to an alien city seem more gripping if there is more risk associated with it. The scope (like a sniper scope) would seem to remove that risk for anything other than surface to orbit threats.

This seems like a nice mid-game option, though.

Quote:

Bombard: Used a blend of bombs and lasers to crunch up a small area. Handy for pulverizing a mountain for speedy mineral harvesting, or for neutralizing ground defenses before your firebats go planetside.


This option scales well early or late game. Maybe it's a few puny rockets in the beginning, and then the Disintegrator 5000 toward the end. [:)]

Quote:

Deploy: Send a drop ship full of personnel and/or robotic gizmos down there. You can tell them what to do and where to go, and they'll do their best to humor you. They, in return, with send back samples, reports, and other data that your sensors couldn't possibly gather from orbit. They can build structures and harvest resources. Also, they burn villages and storm fortresses if that's appropriate.


Yes! I'd like to put a heavy emphasis on this part, which I'll explain below.

Quote:

Doodle:


I'm not sure I'm that ace as a coder, but this sounds VERY cool. Naming features especially sounds good because it should give a feel for ownership.

I recall that this existed in Alpha Centauri. You could name a grid square something relevant, but I think the problem was that this AI didn't bother with the name, limiting its value. (btw, do you think naming a feature or having it named by the game makes the world fiction or sense of being in a world stronger?)



Quote:

I'd like it to feel like the planet is about the size of a basketball, and you're holding it in your hands, sometimes using a magnifying glass to look at one little bit, sometimes holding it at arm's length and turning it slowly in your hands, and sometimes drawing on it with a magic marker.


I can imagine one side effect: If this were multiplayer, what do you think the vulgarity / inanity quotient would be? How many "Retard Mountains" and "Doofus Points" (or much, much worse) would there be?

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Quote:
Original post by Wavinator
The one thing I'm not sure about is the difference between Observe and Scan. If this is your 11th planet, aren't you going to want to default to Scan? Or would there be a good reason beside eye candy to go into Observe mode?
What I was thinking was that Observe wouldn't consume resources and would be entirely passive, whereas Scan would cost something, maybe have a limited duration or a long cooldown, and be an action that might be detected by surface-dwellers who have some tech, but not enough to find your ship while it's "quiet".

So maybe you'd show up, go around the night side to check for lights, then use the zoom-scope to eyeball high-probability sites, like river deltas and fertile valleys, looking for signs of habitation. If that turns up empty, you fire up the gluino projectors and scan for useful resources or tech indicators that you missed before. With the results to inform your peeping, you go back to the scope, make some notes about priority regions, load out your away teams and drop some landers to start work.

On a good day, the planet's chock-full of rhodium and the only life on the surface is harmless plants and earthworms that keep the dirt soft and diggable and the air full of oxygen, so your guys can take their shirts off and really get right to work. Sometimes there'll be natives, and you can trade some shiny space-beads for their minerals, or you might just have to glass their cities before you can send prospector-bots in. On a bad day, you'll fail to notice the signs of subterranean cultures, and your resonance scan will alert them to your presence, so you've got sixteen high-yield nukes on a collision course after your preliminary scans, and you've got to fight or flee, either one of which will put a dent in your profits.

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You could also add the effect of clouds and weather blocking your ability to observe the planet, especially for a planet with thick storm clouds like Venus, thus forcing you to scan the planet with your sensors.

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One thing is for sure, I shouldn't have to manually scan or observe. The computer should do this for me, and highlight 'points of interest'. Give them a rating and an icon key and allow filters.


If the game shows less than 1% chance of something of interest being there, then I damn well better not be likely to find something of interest there by manually scanning/observing it. If I'm a captain of the ship, I don't have time to sit behind a scope and look at every square meter of the planet, thats what Able Spacemen are for.

Highlight different points of interest on a wide scale, and let me look at those manually, but don't expect me to sit there 'playing' a game where I try to look over a planet through a straw.



Also, make sure the landing parties can be equipped with different types of personnel, and that the most likely to die wears red uniforms,...

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Quote:
Original post by Iron Chef Carnage
What I was thinking was that Observe wouldn't consume resources and would be entirely passive, whereas Scan would cost something, maybe have a limited duration or a long cooldown, and be an action that might be detected by surface-dwellers who have some tech, but not enough to find your ship while it's "quiet".


Ah, this could answer something I was wondering about, and that was "Pandora Planets" where your presence opens up a can of worms.

I like the "scan takes energy" concept especially if it does a number of things that are costly, such as require an expensive, limited resource, and maybe highlights your ship for the purposes of tracking / increased chance to hit-- after all, weird particles should stand out nice and bright against the cosmic background radiation.

Quote:

So maybe you'd show up, go around the night side to check for lights, then use the zoom-scope to eyeball high-probability sites, like river deltas and fertile valleys, looking for signs of habitation.


Planets turn into a kind of surprise puzzle with this dynamic, which I find appealing. However, how much looking would you make players do? Sans night lights, should the game point out the Tigris, Euphrates, Amazon, etc. clearly on the map and let you zoom in? And what to do for non-carbon based life-- oy!

This does have a strong explorer feel to it, though. Maybe likely regions for life, be they carbon, silicon or whatever, get highlighted automatically (thus taking care of whether or not you should be searching fumeroles or deltas).

I'm kind of torn on this one. Although I don't agree completely, Talroth makes a good point: What's the Science Officer doing that you're zooming in and out of landforms that eventually will start looking the same by the 35th planet, if not sooner. It's kind of like the many reactions you get to planetary exploration in the Mako in Mass Effect-- people b*tching mightily that there wasn't enough to just looking at ground.

On the other hand, I really like it not being handed to you on a silver platter-- after all, wouldn't it be more interesting if you had to do some thinking?

Maybe the best of both worlds is that your Terrain Analyzer 6000 or Science Officer doesn't bother you unless there's something interesting. Then you get a series of highlights, or even better maybe orbital shots, of what could be a ruins or a natural formation, and you have to decide. (Lazy and fearful programmer that I am, I can see matching choice cutaways to vertices as popups rather than trying to figure out how to build them into the textures and geometry of a zoomable world sphere).

Or do you think that kills it?

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