Paul Geromini

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Monday 16 March 2015

Unnamed Space Strategy Game

Ideas are cheap, so here is mine.

Lately I have been enjoying Homeworld Remastered which got me thinking about what would make a great new space strategy game.

There is a shamefully limited offering in this genre, see Homeworld, Sins of a Solar Empire, Conquest Frontier Wars, Nexus the Jupiter Incident for some examples. Limited they may be, but on a whole most of these games treat space battles like naval battles with extra dimensions. This is serviceable, but can be visually confusing. In the example of Homeworld, it is hard to see what is happening once a battle begins. Generally the capital ships will be separate, forming a rough battle line, but they can be split on various levels from the z-axis. The fighter craft will be intermixed between the lines. Given enough ships this can make for a very confusing battle. With ships all over the place it can be hard to see if your forces are winning or not. A strategy game should not do that. Good strategy games offer clear feedback if you are winning, losing, or drawing. If you cannot tell what state the battle is in, you cannot make interesting choices to try and alter the state. At that point you are not playing a game, you are just watching. The spectacle of watching a battle unfold however should not be neglected. Space battles have their own majestic quality. so there must be a vibrant color palette in both ship and space.

What are the conclusions I have drawn: 1. Current space strategy games draw heavy influence from naval simulations. 2. Strategy games need to always convey the state of the battle. 3. Battles in space must be visually engaging.

With this in mind I want to suggest a different influence for games set in space. Instead of a naval influence we should instead look to the battles of Napoleon. With a naval influence the number of ships involved in a battle tend to skew toward the low end. Maybe reaching a 100 capital ships in a lively game in Homeworld. These numbers are far too insufficient. I want battles to number in the tens of thousands. There was near to 200,000 soldiers involved in the Battle of Waterloo. We should aim for similar numbers of space craft. This of course brings up issues of controlling so many units at once. If we take inspiration from games modeling this period such as Empire Total War or Ultimate General: Gettysburg you can see we do not handle individual soldiers, but collections of them, maybe 100-300 at a time. In this same way we should organize our ships in squadrons of a similar number. The games I mentioned tend to only deal with about 30-60 thousand units in a battle, so we may want to increase our unit size to around a 1000 ships per collection. Now that we have split our army into neat collections of ships we can have both a large number of ships in an engagement and we can far more easily move them. In Homeworld you may have to move and organize around 50 capital ships at any one time. In my model of collections of a 1000 or more, we can easily have players controlling 25,000 ships and still moving around less pieces than in the Homeworld example. More ships, easier control.

To the second point, we need to make sure the game always conveys the state of the battle. To solve this problem look towards Scourge of War: Gettysburg or Sid Meier's Gettysburg. Both games track how effective a particular unit is doing, both in dealing damage and sustaining damage. If a unit is taking more damage than it is dealing it is losing, the inverse, it is winning. So to should our game always have available this information. Either as a number prominently displayed, or as some visual element. Secondly, the nature of a Napoleonic style battle is many units in neat lines maneuvering against the enemy. With such rigid formations we can avoid the issue of ships intermingling like they do in Homeworld. This also has the added benefit of always showing a clear view of the battle which is important for both determining who is winning (the state) and what moves to make next (the heart of a strategy game).

Finally, we need to ensure our battles are interesting to watch. This is a bit hit or miss in the examples I have given. Homeworld has a lot of ship customization, but SIns of Solar Empire and Nexus have little. If we look to the armies of Napoleon's time we can see a great variety in uniforms. Lots of bold vibrant colors. So to should our ships sport such dashing design. We should have a great deal of customization of fleet colors and fleets should lean towards bright colors, instead of dull navy gray.

To summarize: 1. Draw inspiration from Napoleonic wars, not naval ones. 2. Enforce collections of many ships and rigid formations. 3. Emphasize bright colors.

Now that we have solved some of the problems of the genre, at least on paper, let us look to differentiate the title a bit. As mentioned, Napoleonic battles should be our inspiration. To that end we should emphasis a rock, paper, scissors balance. In a battle of that time there were generally three types of units: line infantry, cavalry, and artillery. In this relationship, infantry is good against all other types as long as they can be kept at optimal range, artillery beats all other types at long range, and cavalry beats all types at close range. We should model our fleet on those types. Average speed ships with average ranged weapons that fight in massed formation (infantry), fast agile ships with melee or close range weapons (cavalry), and weak long ranged ships (artillery). This simple balance make it easy to understand how to place you units to optimize their potential. Most space strategy games do not have a concept of cavalry or artillery. They tend to focus on ships that all engage at or near to the same range, but with different weapons. The idea of melee in space is pretty unexplored. Homeworld: Cataclysm has a ship that pushes other ships away from a battle, but I know of no other game that models very close range fighting. It would be a cool idea to explore some in-universe explanation for this. Artillery in space is also little explored. Sins of a Solar Empire features long range missile platforms, so we would probably have ships equipped for long range missile launch in our game.

Secondly we should consider adding a layer of logistics to our game. Homeworld tracked fuel for fighter craft, but had no other supply mechanics. Conquest Frontier Wars did have supply on a ship to ship basis and it was very important to the game. Lack of supply ships could doom assaults. We should consider adding similar mechanics to our game. Units should have two needs, fuel and ammunition. As the battle progresses it would be necessary to ensure ships do not run out of either or they would be unable to move or fire. This adds some complexity, but opens up interesting strategic options, like cutting off enemy resupply in battle.

The toughest point to consider is how to handle z-dimensional movement. Some space games, like Sins only support moving on the x,y plane. Homeworld and Nexus have full 3d movement. I think we should do the same. Players expect that freedom of movement in space and it allows us some interesting strategy, such as attacking an enemy from above or below. Our new emphasis on Napoleonic battle helps us here as attacks from the flanks (or above/below) should inflict additional damage. We should be careful of constraints here though. If we allow too much z-axis freedom ships will start going everywhere for little gain. Perhaps we could limit the area of battle somewhat so the units do not get too separated. This will be tough to justify in-universe. We could set the area engagement to be so large that we could enforce a communication delay between ships. May be interesting to increase unit response times the further they get from the flagship, the unit sending the orders. This would keep units close to the flagship and make that unit very important. Do you move your flagship with an assault so that you can relay orders quickly or do you create a complicated battle plan and hope it is carried out as expected.

Overall It is not so much that we are making a new design, but repurposing an existing design for a different setting. I want to shift our focus away from individual ship management to that of a large scale battle of maneuver. To those of you familiar with anime this setting is not so new, it is basically how battles are fought in the classic anime series Legends of the Galactic Heroes. Now if only the games they made were localized.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Things I Am Not Supposed to Like:Katawa Shoujo

Starting a new series if you will about things I am not supposed to like because people tell me otherwise. The series starts with a photo.


This a picture of Lilly from Katawa Shoujo a free visual novel novel. She is appropriately enough waiting in line for a tea sampling. Neither she nor I got into the room, but that is not the point. What motivates someone to cosplay as such an obscure character? I have seen two Lilly cosplays in my life and barely anyone recognizes them. This is from a game that has no retail release, had no marketing. A game whose popularity is purely through the words of others. And yet here she is. If that is not all the indication you need that is game is special, I doubt my poor skills at wordsmithing will convince you otherwise.

This game is unique in its ability to capture moments. You have a game like Call of Duty that can very skillfully capture a feeling. COD makes you feel tense, or excited, or angry, but has it ever captured a quiet moment? Some of Bioware's offering get close, but all these big budget triple A games fail again and again to capture the moment. What do I mean when I say this? A moment, as defined here, is a single interaction between people. A moment is not bombastic, its not life changing, its just people talking, just conversation. Here is a perfect example. It is not special, nor unique, but its eight minutes and 54 seconds of a dozen or so people's lives. Its raw, its unscripted, its life. This is a moment and Katawa Shoujo is a game that captures these interactions between its characters better than any other game. There is a clarity to dialogue that makes the interactions seem so natural, so unforced. That is why I love this game so much. Who cares that it is anime inspired, or a dating game, or a made by a bunch of people from 4chan. This game offers the greatest thing any form of media can give: a brief look into the lives of others. Is that not what anyone wants? Some games are empowering, they make you feel things. To be fair this game makes you feel a lot of things, but that is not the point here. The point here is to see a person's life over a few months. That is unique amongst video games, it is awesome, and it is why I love this game despite what others thing.