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Space RTS: Customizable Ships?

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of turn-based space 4x games is customizable ship-building. Ever since the original Master of Orion (1993), this feature has been a staple of the sub-genre. When done well, it adds flexibility and creativity to the game, thus enhancing its replay value. I'm curious as to how easily this feature can be implemented in a real-time space 4x game. RTS games in general traditionally eschew customizable units. There's a good reason for this - RTSes are typically much faster-paced than TBSes, so RTS players have correspondingly less time (if any!) to devote to designing new unit types. It seems that unit customization may have to take place outside the game itself. How much of an impact would this have on the "fun" of creating custom ship types? Another consideration deals with knowing the capabilities of enemy ships. In every RTS game I've seen, every unit type has a distinctive appearance. Even novice players can typically point out the different unit types and remember their capabilities. With turn-based space 4x games and customizable ships, there's always the possibility that two ships may look the same, but nonetheless have different capabilities. Furthermore, these games usually require some kind of sensors to determine the capabilities of enemy ships. How feasible is this functionality in an RTS, even if it's slower-paced than normal? It may be the case that these concerns make customizable ship types completely infeasible for a real-time space 4x game. That's perfectly fine with me. I think it might be able to work, but my opinion is only one among many. So let's hear what the rest of you think! :)

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I personally find customization part of the fun in games. So in this context I think it would depend on if it's a one or two player game. If it's only one I would say that doing the customization within a pause screen would work well. If not, perhaps you could make templates to use on the fly during battle.

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I think you should do make prebuild templates anyway as a pause screen with tons of customization options easily breaks the game flow.

Then for making the capabilities visible you have to rely on a good graphics design, but I think it should be possible nowadays to make modular models with enough detail to see the difference between a laser cannon and a torpedo launcher on the left side easily. In the end it depends on how many customization there are, but there are also tons of possible changes in the outer appereance like changing the size of the flames behind your turbines or like creating a colored shading for shielded ships with different thickness or color for different shield types/strength etc. So in the end it depends very much on your graphics system but in general it seems to be possible.

I feel the balancing part will be much harder - at least for a multiplayer game.

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Meh. If you've ever played homeworlds 2, they have a pretty good system of customizing ships. There is a steeper learning curve, however, so particularly in multiplayer battles, being able to identify how good a ship is based on seeing the weapon add-ons is extremely important in close games.

Ultimately, as Leartes said, it basically becomes a matter of graphics. If you can visually make a distinction between every gun (preferably with an easy to recognize code (nuke sign on gun = nuclear rockets, some light symbol means lasers, etc.)) then the learning curve will go down. That being said, if you're battles are huge, you won't have time to examine each ship for symbols. But if this is a squad on squad game, that system can work extraordinarily well.

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I really like the idea of customizing units. Perhaps make it into a turned base style RTS similar to total war? Or keep it RTS, with a minimizing capability. So if they need to draw their attention to a battle they wont lose the progress of the ship build. I think having the ability to create schematics of ships would help as well. Perhaps a world builder type program outside of the game to develop ship schematics, then once in the game they have these schematics to choose from as well as build a new one. While giving each weapon a unique look could be cool, another option could be to give it ratings based on its movement speed/firepower/armor whether its 1 rating or 1 rating for each category. That way just moving the cursor over a unit you have a quick glimpse of its capabilities.

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Thanks for the replies!

My inspiration for starting this thread was something of an intellectual exercise. I was thinking about how to make something like a real-time version of Ascendancy. It's one of my favorite space 4x games, despite its flaws.

Ascendancy has a rule where players can only have as many ships as the number of star systems under their control. I was never a big fan of this rule, but at least it gives you an idea of the kind of scale I have in mind. With a real-time format, I think this rule can be relaxed, but I still wouldn't want each side to deal with hundreds of ships. A few dozen at the most is what I'm thinking.

I honestly hadn't thought seriously about changing the ships' appearances based on what items they have, but it sounds like a pretty cool idea. Up to this point, I had been thinking about simply displaying more info about a ship than its current "health" - like how powerful are its weapons, engines, shields, etc. Do you guys think that would be workable at all, or would it be too cluttered?

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It seems to me that if you used a system sort of like what they did with Star Wars:Empire at War it would be feasible. Being able to research parts and draft schematics during the turn based rounds of unit creation and movement, then having the actual battles that occur working like an RTS. Just a thought. To be able to customize ships as you please would require time, and might be difficult to translate into MP, but for single player that seems it would work. Maybe you could port your created ships into your armada's for use online.

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The concept has been done before in such RTS's as Warzone 2100 and Earth 2160 respectively. You'll want to be careful when implementing it so that you don't end up with a dominant or weak combination of elements, having fewer elements is usually better.

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I just had a thought about balancing. It seems to me that a good way to balance the ships would be first that you have to declare the type of ship you are creating (Capital ship, fighter, heavy fighter, bomber) in order to give it some parameters. Then from there you create a frame, which could be improved to a point. From this frame it can only handle so much weight and assign different types of parts with different amounts of weight. I seem to recall something like this in Star Wars Galaxies: Jump to Lightspeed. Your parts are limited by the components and class of your ships, thus keeping a sort of balance going on. Customization is good but it's important to not let the players run too wildly with it.

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Ascendancy was a great game, at least early to mid game.

Just a thought about this: All the combinations of of weapons, engines, shields, etc. should lead to specific strategies (like slow/strong, fast/weak, etc.). So what would the turn around time be to design against a specific strategy once you realized that your enemy is fielding units that allow it? In an RTS with fixed units, if you see an enemy unit being constructed (or often the buildings that support it) this gives you an idea of what to pump out. The faster the game, the more you're relying on a known progression up a known tech tree (as in "okay, he's got Goliaths, Siege Tanks probably aren't far behind"). With designed units unless you fix to visually identifying what strategic stage your opponent is at (with weapons or modules as suggested above) this sort of clue will be harder to generate.

It could work, however, if the distances were long. If you see someone has nuclear missile launchers, then the game has to give you time to design and build nuclear shields. But this could lead to really slow and long games without many fights.

Another possibility would be to design the game strategies around the technologies such that it's not a race up the tech tree. For instance, as in reality, if you're facing a nuclear weapon weilding opponent, you spread out your fleet. This, in turn, might favor light fighter attacks, which (like in WWII Pacific battles) necessitates deploying light ships as fighter screens.

The key here is that none of these strategies are unavailable at game start. Rather, the player receives an attack and uses logic and experience to reconfigure their fleet tactics to respond. If you do this you could throw lots of customizable ships in the mix provided that battles grind on somewhat without any big one-two punch (at least until end game). The constant contact in theory should allow players to lose, learn, and come back with either a new technology or (more likely and probably slightly more desireable) different strategy.

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Wow, a lot of good replies here!

First off, my "intellectual exercise" concerns turning Ascendancy into a pure real-time game, so nothing like the Total War series would work for me.

Second, I'm really not concerned about balancing right now. My focus is on "game flow", for lack of a better term - the quasi-mystical ability to keep a player's active interest for the entire time he plays the game.

In Ascendancy, ships are built simply by putting items into slots. There are different hull sizes (small, medium, large, huge) and different types of items (power generators, engines, sensors, shields, weapons, specials). So my question is, how easily can the above be placed into a purely real-time game?

I definitely think there should be an external program (a "ship builder" or "ship editor") that will let players pre-design ship types to use in the game. What do you guys think of putting the functionality into the game itself? Would it be useful at all? Looking at gameplay videos of Sins of a Solar Empire, it seems like the pacing could be slow enough to let players produce new ship types in-game.

Finally, I'm wondering whether the stats of enemy ships should be displayed automatically, or whether they should be displayed only on mouse-over. Do you guys have any pros/cons here?

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An RTS with customizable units is Impossible Creatures. Check that one out. You could design your army ahead of time. IIRC, you could also design units on the play field, but there were some limits (cap to total number of designs you could have ready at any point, I believe). One thing Impossible Creatures did well was visually distinguishing the units - when you see a rhino/cheetah cross you know what it's going to be able to do!

Personally, I'm working (well, sort of working anyways) on a TBS game where units are designed ahead of battles (actually, there's no unit creation mid-battle anyway). My goal is to provide extreme flexibility, at the cost of pretty much everything else.

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The thing about unit customization is that the interesting customization aren't the slots for larger weapons or more shielding, that's just a simple scalar for attack and defense strength. It's the unique one off abilities which really give the game spice. For instance in MOO 1, there was the repulsor beam which pushed ships away 2 units. Since most ships have weapons which only fire 1 unit worth, it render them totally ineffective, allowing for a much smaller force to take out a much larger one given the right upgrades (your own ships have to be also equipped with 2 unit firing weapons to overcome the distance gap as well).

The AI would eventually adapt and build more 2 unit firing weapons or missiles which couldn't be blocked by this tactic. It's the uniqueness of one off upgrades coupled with the counter strategies which made the game fun and addictive.

Also coupled with the fact that you can only equip these on off upgrades on hull large enough to carry them, which inturn increase the time to build them, makes for some interesting tradeoffs in terms of time vs effort in your strategy.

-ddn

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Don't know how this would play out, but perhaps you could make it like this:


2 min (or similar) research, build etc time.
5 min real-time rts.

Everyone would move, attack etc at the same time.

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Instead of having players design ships within every game, I allow players to create "schematics" between games that they can save. Players can make "fleets" of 24 different schematics. Before each game, each player selects one of their "fleets" to use. The 24 ship types in the fleet become the units the player can build during the game.

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Quote:
Original post by Wavinator
All the combinations of of weapons, engines, shields, etc. should lead to specific strategies (like slow/strong, fast/weak, etc.). So what would the turn around time be to design against a specific strategy once you realized that your enemy is fielding units that allow it?


If you include advancing technology you can make it in a way that there are specific buildings for different parts of the tech tree. This buildings could change there appereance depending on what is researched. Like you build a laser tech center and research a specific laser technology. Grafically your laser tech center may have several wings or distinct labs and one of them changes its appereance to a unique appereance for the technology you just researched so scouting still enables you to see what you opponent is planning to do.
Another possibility would be to make technological advance really expensive and difficult so when you fight some light space ships with small laser guns early on you can expect to see bigger ones later (and base your shieldresearch on that) because a complete switch to some torpedo-like weapons may be really expensive.

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One way would be to change the pace of the game.

In games like homeworld or homeworld 2, capital ships may get blown up in a matter of seconds and an engagement over in a few short minutes. This not only make ship designing difficult as you need to be on your toes ready to make tactical changes in split seconds, but also cheapens the feel of capital ships. In my mind a battleship should be powerful enough to last through everything the enemy could throw at it and grudgingly give up when its finally overwhelmed.

Of course I'm not talking about a battle that takes hours to complete, instead change the pace of the game make things happen slower to allow you to identify what tactics the enemy are using and go to the drawing board to design and build a counter for it.

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Problem with simply upgrading weapons, shields, etc.. is that it presents the player with false choices. So people just pile on the best of everything until they can't afford it anymore. Since you know a level 4 laser will always be better than a level 3 laser, there isn't much guess work about design. It's not like your going to go with something less than what you can afford, and what you can afford is dependent upon on what your economy can build.

That's the same problem Alpha Centuari had, it had so many little upgrades to weapons and what not, there wasn't any point in customizing it, since you never would use old out of date tech as it would get crushed by the latest tech.

Look at great RTS, they don't have units with just bigger weapons more shielding, they have units with unique abilities and custom roles. Starcraft for example, the ghost is a infantry unit but it isn't just an upgraded marine, it's a stealth unit with a long range weapon.

To truly make customization mean anything you'll need to create truly unique abilities and balance those out. Perhaps for every perk you need a counter-perk, kinda like how fallout works.

-ddn

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Quote:
Original post by ddn3
Problem with simply upgrading weapons, shields, etc.. is that it presents the player with false choices. So people just pile on the best of everything until they can't afford it anymore. Since you know a level 4 laser will always be better than a level 3 laser, there isn't much guess work about design. It's not like your going to go with something less than what you can afford, and what you can afford is dependent upon on what your economy can build.


This is a good point, but I don't think it's always true when the upgrades are linear but the choice of what to upgrade constrained. What if you have to choose between level 4 lasers and level 4 shields because they're balanced against each other in terms of power requirements? Now the player must decide whether or not they want a fast attack strategy which reduces enemy contact or whether they want to try to slug it out with weaker weapons while relying on stronger defenses.

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Quote:
Original post by ddn3
Problem with simply upgrading weapons, shields, etc.. is that it presents the player with false choices. So people just pile on the best of everything until they can't afford it anymore. Since you know a level 4 laser will always be better than a level 3 laser, there isn't much guess work about design. It's not like your going to go with something less than what you can afford, and what you can afford is dependent upon on what your economy can build.


Well, if you provide different laser technology and encourage specializing in a field you could build a laser tech center. Specialize in some ultra fast recharging short range laser or bigger and slower laser or other stuff and then you always have to choose, go deeper in one area or research old and weak technology to patch up some weak spots you have left behind.

I think if designed right there is potential for very challenging tech-mindgames. The only thing I'd prefer to never see is a "ultra-short range rapid fire laser level 2". Be creative, in a system were technologic advance is slow (so that your oponent can react on you and you have time to adopt the new tech in your force) every step should provide new stuff to play around with and deserves a unique name.

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Quote:
Original post by ddn3
Problem with simply upgrading weapons, shields, etc.. is that it presents the player with false choices. So people just pile on the best of everything until they can't afford it anymore. Since you know a level 4 laser will always be better than a level 3 laser, there isn't much guess work about design. It's not like your going to go with something less than what you can afford, and what you can afford is dependent upon on what your economy can build.

That's the same problem Alpha Centuari had, it had so many little upgrades to weapons and what not, there wasn't any point in customizing it, since you never would use old out of date tech as it would get crushed by the latest tech.


For MOO2, whenever you move up in a tech area, everything you discovered earlier will become cheaper, smaller and easier to build. Before the discovery of Laser 4, you can only place five Laser 3 in a Cruiser, but after the discovery of Laser 4 now you can place ten Laser 3 in the same Cruiser.

This provides choice and option for the player. Do I build the biggest ship with the latest weaponry and systems even though it will take me 10 minutes more to produce? Or do I build a ship with a lower tech that is cheaper and takes less time to build?

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Quote:
Original post by Ezbez
An RTS with customizable units is Impossible Creatures. Check that one out. You could design your army ahead of time. IIRC, you could also design units on the play field, but there were some limits (cap to total number of designs you could have ready at any point, I believe). One thing Impossible Creatures did well was visually distinguishing the units - when you see a rhino/cheetah cross you know what it's going to be able to do!

Personally, I'm working (well, sort of working anyways) on a TBS game where units are designed ahead of battles (actually, there's no unit creation mid-battle anyway). My goal is to provide extreme flexibility, at the cost of pretty much everything else.


The great thing about impossible creatures is that it let you refine the combination/customization offline, on your own time. You would build up different combinations of animations that had costs associated with them. You could play-test them locally against the AI.Once confident, you loaded them into your design folio and went online. During gameplay you had to secure enough resources to build your designs as well as enough tech-advancement to make 2 animal hybrids, 3, 4, etc. It made it so there was a tactical reason for controlling outposts - it let you make manufacture the more interesting combinations.

I like the touch of doing it offline - if I want to spend days perfecting the right mix of components, and doing custom skinning art in photoshop, and getting the colour scheme just right, I can. But as a player, I don't have to wait while someone designs up the same ship every time.

I'd love a space RTS like that.

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The MOO series did customization right, i agree. They added enough one off abilities, flexible size based scheme and took into account tech deprecation. Normally a RTS is too fast paced for much indepth thinking during the game, usually people plan out their strategies outside of the game and just implement it as fast as they can during the gameplay (look at all the high level competitive RTS matches, user speed is a critical component of victory).

The gameplay has to allow for "breaks" so u can design and test your units either outside of the RTS component or allows you to import designs from previous games or maybe even steal designs from your opponents. Maybe the game itself can download all the spec from the web and the meta game would be rating and battling units created by the community.

Good Luck!

-ddn

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