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'Communication' in a 4X game

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Hi,

 

Here's a followup on my current project which has been discussed here and here.

 

This one will be a little different as I currently don't have much of an answer to provide, only the problem. Hopefully you'll be able to assist me as you have in the past.

 

My current problem is this:

I'm trying to implement communication as a key element of the gameplay in my game. Given that it ties well with the theme of logistics that I'm trying to establish, it 'feels right' and gives me another means to reinforce logistics while providing further strategic decisions and opportunities to the player.

The issue here though is that I don't have a gameplay implementation for what communications entails.

The closest element I've found in games was the influence, which would stretch from planets up to a certain distance and have an effect on things located within that distance.

My initial assumption was that, much like is the case with current limitations, and as can be seen in sci-fi tv series, if a ship would ever leave the maximum communication range of the empire it is connected with, it would be 'on its own'

Unfortunately, I'm struggling with this concept for various reasons:

- Similarly, I don't want to limit the range. I think its important for the player to be able to send a ship very far in exploration, and a communication range would just prevent this. Likewise, it would suck to be unable to retaliate on an enemy just because he's destroyed one of your bases and has come out of your range.

- In tv series such as, say, Star Trek, when a ship is beyond the range of their central command, they have sufficient leadership aboard to make clever decisions. The issue here is that, its very hard to grasp that from the standpoint of the player if he is playing the collective counsciousness of high management. On the one hand, I don't want the player to lose control of his ships just because they are out of range, but then, if I don't do something drastic, communication ranges won't mean anything.

 

Therefore, I'm looking for a tangible way to implement a logical system that would either buff units for being within range, or penalyze them for going outside, or any tangible reason for you to stay within these lines as much as possible and seek to expand them.

 

One concept I've ruled out is the implementation of influence in Galciv2 as it allowd you to takeover enemy planets through influence, and this really doesn't make sense for communications and for my game.

 

One thing I've noted though is that communication could have a detrimental effect on any enemy's sensor within range, somehow hacking them and sending fake data, but I'm not sure I want communication to play as the defensive counter to sensors.

 

Any ideas here?

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Personally I kind of like the idea of playing an empire game where there is a limit to the current knowledge I have. I could know exactly what is happening right around the current focus point of my empire, where ever my center of power is currently positioned, but elements further out become more and more delayed. Managing your choice of governors for your far flung regions, rather than managing the entire regions themselves, sounds like an interesting aspect of gameplay that is rarely used. (I'm personally not a fan of micro management in strategy games. I want to be stepping back, making high level choices that set in motion major changes and turning points, not deciding what colour of knob should be on Sally-1032814523 of my 300234th colony's toaster and whether or not it clashes with her eye shadow.)

 

Delay and forcing the user to either remain small or relying on sensible AI management can create some interesting options that we rarely get to see in games. Do you choose a great general/admiral to lead your exploration fleet at the far edge of your empire on a new mission of expansion while you ensure full control over your most valuable central planets, or do you place your capitol under control of a trusted governor and lead the expedition yourself?

 

You can even include a more in depth high level character advancement aspect to the game play, similar to your generals in the Total War series. Your agents gain and lose traits over time, they can have wants and ambitions, and if the player manages their followers poorly then they can find 'fun' things like an influential and highly charismatic general suddenly declaring half your empire independent. 

 

High level strategy and communications management/design could also mean that players could assert some form of influence over other players 'distant' parts of the empire. Encourage rebellion, subvert disloyal or generally butthurt governors, etc.

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I has an idea. You could make it so once it was out so far - any commands you sent would have a relative to its distance delayed signel - and as I'm not sure what your doing but if enemys or such where seen/ damaged the ship - you would not be informed of it until a little after it happened - giving your opponent time to do a little more effective damage - without the ai killing your fleet for you. More or less - each ship has a ping.

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I has an idea. You could make it so once it was out so far - any commands you sent would have a relative to its distance delayed signel - and as I'm not sure what your doing but if enemys or such where seen/ damaged the ship - you would not be informed of it until a little after it happened - giving your opponent time to do a little more effective damage - without the ai killing your fleet for you. More or less - each ship has a ping.

 

I wanted to jump on this one and say that there is some good potential here.  There are definitely pitfalls, but this could be a very interesting mechanic... I have my own suggestion as well, though its much more simplistic.

 

Maybe you are free to move and do things with fleets outside comm range, but you simply cannot give additional orders.  If you want to do something outside your range, you enforce a requirement on the player to fill in a queue of orders that always terminates with the fleet returning to your own space.  You can say, go explore this system, then this system, then return home.  Or attack this system, set up seige for X turns, then return home (with your plan being to send more ships to capture the system before X happens).

 

Whatever you decide to do, I think you should consider having an actively managed communications network.  Whether you manually place Comm relays in space (which seems counter to your overall theme) or merely make recomendations on how much redundancy there should be in your system (with added redundancy having an extra cost), an enemy should have the option to disrupt your internal communications, be that via direct assault, sabatage, or whatever else.  Thus you give the player the choice of spending extra resources to add in redundancy and thus protect himself, or forego that cost and risk being temporarily crippled.

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I have this exact idea for my 4x game I have been working on the game design for. In my game, the communications signal actually has to travel to wherever it is going to. The command units (fleets and people on planets) would be responsible for carrying out the details through their own AI. The player could tell them to do things by setting a goal. For example, a fleet could be told to patrol a given area. They would patrol that given area until they either A, were running low on supplies and were at the point of no return and decided to go resupply (this could be overridden by telling them that they would be resupplied in space, or by telling them they had no choice in which case the loyalty and obedience of your men would be tested to see if they would follow your orders).

 

In my game, each turn was a week of in game time. My plan was to calculate the distance from the signal origin, IE where the player is currently located in the world (the player has an actual avatar in the world and can move around from place to place if that place is 'right'). If a fleet were 3 days away for a communication signal, the fleet would take 3/7's of a turn to receive the order, and would spend the other 4/7's of the turn working to carry it out. They would send back a weekly update where they would say "this is where we are and this is our status". The player would get two sets of location info for the fleet; last reported location and projected location based on calculating how fast they were going in their last update and which direction they were heading.

 

Now, I also have it planned for communications to be able to be intercepted, in which case they could be decoded and someone else could learn valuable information (information gathering is also a key focus in my 4x game, the players access to intel on things is extremely limited and the player has to work to learn things, but that's another topic entirely). The communications can also deteriorate over distance since over a distance, the signal focus will dissipate. They would also suffer from interference by natural phenomena, such as a regular radio signal getting too close to a blackhole for example that is casting out it's own radio waves. The radio waves from the blackhole could distort the signal. It would then be up to the receiving unit to properly understand the order. The player would also have to build communication relays which would be able to receive and resend the signal to maintain signal integrity over distance and could go around known sources of interference.

 

It would also be possible to jam communications. An enemy fleet could jam the communications of one of the players fleets, take it out, and the player would not know about the fleet's predicament until they did not receive the fleet's status report. In which case, the player would need to investigate and figure out what happened to their fleet. They would have the last known location and the last projected location and path.

 

The player would also be able to upgrade their communications to faster methods of communication, such as using tachyons to transmit the signal, or subspace signals, hyperspace signals (many different ways to do the same thing each with their own properties and requirements) quantum entanglement communications, etc. They would also be able to upgrade their enrcyption algorithms to make their signals more secure against being read by unwanted parties.

 

There is no 'communications range' that is a hard set number. There is just the time it takes for a communication to reach your command unit and there is also dissipation from travel distance (which has ways of being mitigated through research and development). That's how it works in real life for the most part. You send a signal out and it goes until it stops. It will lose focus over time as the wave loses coherency and it will get mixed up with other waves along the way (which is what causes white noise, multiple radio waves getting jumbled together and creating just noise on the receiver).

 

- In tv series such as, say, Star Trek, when a ship is beyond the range of their central command, they have sufficient leadership aboard to make clever decisions. The issue here is that, its very hard to grasp that from the standpoint of the player if he is playing the collective counsciousness of high management. On the one hand, I don't want the player to lose control of his ships just because they are out of range, but then, if I don't do something drastic, communication ranges won't mean anything.

 

I had planned for the player to set mission goals for their fleets. They can set any number of goals and reactions and give them priority ranking. For example, if a ship is sent to patrol an area, they could tell the fleet to either just report on movement in that area, engage to drive off unwanted visitors, destroy unwatned visitors, destroy unwanted visitors at any and all costs and pursue them if necessary. They can also set the thresh hold for returning for repair and/or resupply. The fleet admiral AI would take that into account and the AI system would also take into account the psychology and a lot of other factors to make the decisions. If a ship were out of 'communication range' the ship AI would have the ability to return to nearest port if they needed to. I don't think it is really hard to grasp for a player playing the high management. It's just delegating tasks for your subordinates to fulfill, just like any other real management job.

 

- Similarly, I don't want to limit the range. I think its important for the player to be able to send a ship very far in exploration, and a communication range would just prevent this. Likewise, it would suck to be unable to retaliate on an enemy just because he's destroyed one of your bases and has come out of your range.

 

You can have a ship/fleet act as a communication relay. You can have your ships deploy communication relays, You could build a permanent communication relay station.

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I always thought comm ranges could be an interesting mechanic in 4x.   Especially when I used to watch Bablyon 5. Depending on your comm tech and distance from the capital would determine if that colony or ship was in instant or delayed comm range.  In delayed comm range it takes X number of turns to send orders and send updates. 

 

In bablyon 5  sneak attacks and lack of information where important aspects of the show. The idea is that that you can attack colonies in delayed comm range and if you use speed and stealth its possible to destroy the colony undetected.  The opponent just knows that the colony went dark.  With the right abilities you can leave no traces of who attacked or plant evidence against another empire.  

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Personally I kind of like the idea of playing an empire game where there is a limit to the current knowledge I have. I could know exactly what is happening right around the current focus point of my empire, where ever my center of power is currently positioned, but elements further out become more and more delayed. Managing your choice of governors for your far flung regions, rather than managing the entire regions themselves, sounds like an interesting aspect of gameplay that is rarely used. (I'm personally not a fan of micro management in strategy games. I want to be stepping back, making high level choices that set in motion major changes and turning points, not deciding what colour of knob should be on Sally-1032814523 of my 300234th colony's toaster and whether or not it clashes with her eye shadow.)

 

While I fully agree, I need to pass on this solution as it would pretty much go against the feel of the game thus far.

That said, a number of challenges would occur, such as gauging this information flow and still allowing the player to issue commands, knowing that they will be carried much later (assuming the information is delayed by 10 days to come in, and 10 days to send out, that's a sizeable 20 days delay).

 

Delay and forcing the user to either remain small or relying on sensible AI management can create some interesting options that we rarely get to see in games. Do you choose a great general/admiral to lead your exploration fleet at the far edge of your empire on a new mission of expansion while you ensure full control over your most valuable central planets, or do you place your capitol under control of a trusted governor and lead the expedition yourself?

One of my initial concepts included the ability to manage generals/admirals each with their own skillsets, including yourself. You'd only have a limited direct control of your empire at any given time. It was interesting, but since I'm trying to make this more like an elaborate variant of 'chess', AI management wouldn't make much sense here.

 

You can even include a more in depth high level character advancement aspect to the game play, similar to your generals in the Total War series. Your agents gain and lose traits over time, they can have wants and ambitions, and if the player manages their followers poorly then they can find 'fun' things like an influential and highly charismatic general suddenly declaring half your empire independent.

While I won't implement it, I encourage anyone else to. I'd love to play such a game indeed.

 

High level strategy and communications management/design could also mean that players could assert some form of influence over other players 'distant' parts of the empire. Encourage rebellion, subvert disloyal or generally butthurt governors, etc.

You're hitting on an interesting point here. In VGA Planets (my reference game for this project), the Lizards had a specific ability where ships orbiting certain planets could issue Hiss commands which affected the morale of the inhabitants. By extension, this could be used to favor propaganda, which could have positive influence on your own planets and negative influence on opponents' colonies. I'm not 100% sure how this would feel like communication, but it could be an interesting start to investigate. Thanks for this idea.

 

I has an idea. You could make it so once it was out so far - any commands you sent would have a relative to its distance delayed signel - and as I'm not sure what your doing but if enemys or such where seen/ damaged the ship - you would not be informed of it until a little after it happened - giving your opponent time to do a little more effective damage - without the ai killing your fleet for you. More or less - each ship has a ping.

 

I can see that as some implementation of the Doppler effect. Technically, lack of communication in this case would delay your orders (which could be frustrating). While I believe the irritation related to preventing orders from being carried out immediately would cause backlash, I'm still interested in a simpler implementation of the idea. Perhaps units still respond immediately, but units outside of your comm web would be unable to report on the nature of the phenomenons they encounter (can't tell you the composition of a planet's surface, can't tell you what attacked them, etc). Basically, they'd still be able to operate, but with limited abilities to report back. I'd personally find interest in hearing a report such as 'Your ship (ship name) was destroyed at 123123x,2352y,121z by an unknown source".

That simpler implementation however is definitely not as critical and I'm affraid it could just become a hassle rather than a core gameplay element.

 

Maybe you are free to move and do things with fleets outside comm range, but you simply cannot give additional orders. If you want to do something outside your range, you enforce a requirement on the player to fill in a queue of orders that always terminates with the fleet returning to your own space. You can say, go explore this system, then this system, then return home. Or attack this system, set up seige for X turns, then return home (with your plan being to send more ships to capture the system before X happens).

Very interesting. I like it. One of the dangers I see is this though: if your final order is to return to PlanetX, which is yours (and therefore part of your comm web) what happens if this planet is overrun while your ship is away? Would it be lost in space, or would it return to another home?

I had not initially planned to give ships actual command queues, but this is the kind of gameplay elements that'd make it worthwhile.

I'd like to discuss this idea further if you have anymore thoughts on this.

 

Whatever you decide to do, I think you should consider having an actively managed communications network. Whether you manually place Comm relays in space (which seems counter to your overall theme) or merely make recomendations on how much redundancy there should be in your system (with added redundancy having an extra cost), an enemy should have the option to disrupt your internal communications, be that via direct assault, sabatage, or whatever else. Thus you give the player the choice of spending extra resources to add in redundancy and thus protect himself, or forego that cost and risk being temporarily crippled.

I think you have a very good understanding of what I'm trying to achieve here.

Initially, I was toying with the idea of launching satellites to orbit uninhabited planets and serve as comm relays. Certain flagships (expensive and less cost-efficient) could even generate mobile comm so to speak.

The idea was that an enemy was indeed able to affect your comm web by using precise attacks from light raiders. I want to make guerilla tactics an efficient means to counter undefended logistics webs and this is one of the means I believe could help achieving this.

 

I have this exact idea for my 4x game I have been working on the game design for. In my game, the communications signal actually has to travel to wherever it is going to. The command units (fleets and people on planets) would be responsible for carrying out the details through their own AI. The player could tell them to do things by setting a goal. For example, a fleet could be told to patrol a given area. They would patrol that given area until they either A, were running low on supplies and were at the point of no return and decided to go resupply (this could be overridden by telling them that they would be resupplied in space, or by telling them they had no choice in which case the loyalty and obedience of your men would be tested to see if they would follow your orders).

That's actually a very different system as I'm not currently using any form of AI.

 

Now, I also have it planned for communications to be able to be intercepted, in which case they could be decoded and someone else could learn valuable information (information gathering is also a key focus in my 4x game, the players access to intel on things is extremely limited and the player has to work to learn things, but that's another topic entirely). The communications can also deteriorate over distance since over a distance, the signal focus will dissipate. They would also suffer from interference by natural phenomena, such as a regular radio signal getting too close to a blackhole for example that is casting out it's own radio waves. The radio waves from the blackhole could distort the signal. It would then be up to the receiving unit to properly understand the order. The player would also have to build communication relays which would be able to receive and resend the signal to maintain signal integrity over distance and could go around known sources of interference.

This was an idea that I had previously, where the opponent would be able to intercept comm if they were within its range. They could begin to extrapolate your destinations and missions based off that. It sort of gave a lot of power to the cloaking ships which could just move in your comm ranges and determine the location of most of your ships and their heading.

 

There is no 'communications range' that is a hard set number. There is just the time it takes for a communication to reach your command unit and there is also dissipation from travel distance (which has ways of being mitigated through research and development). That's how it works in real life for the most part. You send a signal out and it goes until it stops. It will lose focus over time as the wave loses coherency and it will get mixed up with other waves along the way (which is what causes white noise, multiple radio waves getting jumbled together and creating just noise on the receiver).

The 'range' is mostly an abstraction of the maximal range at which communications are fast enough that things remain manageable.

For example, communications with a starbase are just fine for near-real-time, but speaking with the land rover curiosity takes a lot of iteration. Unlike a space crew however, a land rover doesn't have much ability to define their own tasks and assess a situation. It merely awaits commands, and I don't want my game to feel like this, and yet, I don't want to implement AI to take over your own ships, so I need to do it differently, at another abstract level perhaps.

 




Posted Today, 09:39 AM


I always thought comm ranges could be an interesting mechanic in 4x. Especially when I used to watch Bablyon 5. Depending on your comm tech and distance from the capital would determine if that colony or ship was in instant or delayed comm range. In delayed comm range it takes X number of turns to send orders and send updates.



In bablyon 5 sneak attacks and lack of information where important aspects of the show. The idea is that that you can attack colonies in delayed comm range and if you use speed and stealth its possible to destroy the colony undetected. The opponent just knows that the colony went dark. With the right abilities you can leave no traces of who attacked or plant evidence against another empire.

While I like this, I don't want the complexity to take its toll on design space for this game. I feel like a game could be built around this mechanic solely and still be complex, and this is something I'm trying to avoid here.

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If you want something simple implemented, you could have stealth-ships, the moment you would give them an order and they re in a certain range of enemies, they would be spotted. (So you could pretty much only send an "abort" when they re on a mission into enemy territory)

Same could go for reports going back, though range to enemies should probably be smaller for them to be spotted.

 

Delayed orders, although interesting, would be tedious to play i think.

 

Something else, although probably not fitting with your game, could be the breaking of an enemy communications-protocol, enabling you to issue orders to them.

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On the issue of sending expeditions beyond com range with a command queue:

 

How about instead of exact detailed command queue they instead get a list of mission parameters. 

 

Where as the queue would be: 

Move to System A

Scan Planet 1

Scan Planet 2

Scan Planet 3

Move to System B

Scan Planet 1

Scan Planet 2

Scan Asteroid Belt 1

...

...

Move to Owned System X

 

You set parameters:

Exploration Mission: Systems A, B, C

Estimated Minimum time required: X

Estimated Max time required: Y

Max allotted time: Z

Contingency list:

--- If Planet above [Parameters]: Establish Survey outpost (Cheap throw away function that claims a planet and gathers more detailed information)

--- If hostile force [Parameters]: Retreat

--- if hostile force [Parameters]: Hold position awaiting order update

Mission End: Make best time to nearest known Com relay for mission debriefing

 

The further out a mission is, the longer their updates would take to arrive, and the longer mission parameters updates (ie, "SHTF-we're being over run, abort mission and get back to our space!", or "Wait, that last planet you surveyed looks really nice. Halt everything you're doing now, go back, and setup a colony, unless you've found some horrible alien race that is trying to kill you that I haven't learned about yet.")

 

Ideally the system would allow you to basically program all the decisions you would make ahead of time without you actually seeing the details yourself. Allow complex plans like "If a planet surveyed is of quality X, scout out to Y distance from it for hostiles/better planets, if safe return and establish full colony. Send courier requesting advanced resupply for every planet above X quality found."

 

 

I was trying to come up with a logical turn action point system, where a turn is divided into say 100pts, and orders carry over to the next turn if the unit is too far away. Sadly I can't make it work well on paper, as it always ends up favouring gaming the command system so you spend as many points as possible before attacking, and then cancel it the next turn if the results are going poorly.

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If you want something simple implemented, you could have stealth-ships, the moment you would give them an order and they re in a certain range of enemies, they would be spotted. (So you could pretty much only send an "abort" when they re on a mission into enemy territory)

 

Interesting. It does feel a bit like U-boat fighting :)

Quite ironically, I have a "noise" system currently in my original design that would tie in well with this type of gameplay (perhaps modified).

Food for thought, thanks!

 

That said, this can all be achieved without a "comm" range of any kind and doesn't really add to the logistic aspect of the game.

 

Something else, although probably not fitting with your game, could be the breaking of an enemy communications-protocol, enabling you to issue orders to them.

It's interesting, but I'd have concerns here. I'd want to avoid a system where you can just use the enemy's ships against it. There might be limitations (one extremely costly ship) to do this though. The way I'd see this is some sort of psychic ship that can temporarily hijack command of ONE enemy ship within its comm range, at the cost of an upkeep of some type.

That said, its still not a core gameplay element I can apply to logistics.

 

Ideally the system would allow you to basically program all the decisions you would make ahead of time without you actually seeing the details yourself. Allow complex plans like "If a planet surveyed is of quality X, scout out to Y distance from it for hostiles/better planets, if safe return and establish full colony. Send courier requesting advanced resupply for every planet above X quality found."

I'm not sure. On paper, it feels a lot like running Starfleet in Star Trek, but to be honest, given this approach, I'd rather play the starship than define all potential outcomes and learn of them later down the road. I fear that, while interesting, this system would actually not be all that much fun.

 

I was trying to come up with a logical turn action point system, where a turn is divided into say 100pts, and orders carry over to the next turn if the unit is too far away. Sadly I can't make it work well on paper, as it always ends up favouring gaming the command system so you spend as many points as possible before attacking, and then cancel it the next turn if the results are going poorly.

Perhaps we need to look at comm in a different angle, in a more abstracted manner: how would delayed comm with a ship would affect its day-to-day business (logistically)?

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