Day: <span>February 20, 2006</span>

To Mine The Heavens (Star Revolution, Design Pass 3)

How does the player make money?

In both Starflight and Star Control II, the player makes the majority of their money by mining planets. There is no trading, and you don’t gain much in the way of money from fighting enemies. Mining and finding special planets (colonizable planets in Starflight and rainbow planets in Star Control II) is your main source of income.

And mining is pretty boring. It’s very boring in Starflight, and while it’s dressed up in more of an arcadey format in Star Control II, it’s still not very fun. To the point that when I start a new game of Star Control II, I use the landing craft trick to give myself a ton of money so I can jump right into the plot and skip the boring early part. More of Tycho’s masochism.

How can I avoid this?

I can avoid it by giving the player multiple ways to make money, and making sure all of them are nominally fun. I want the player to be able to make money with trade routes, by killing pirates for bounties, and by mining. Gambling and a stock market might also be interesting things to include.

I’m not sure how I can make mining fun when you’re basically just running around and picking stuff up…perhaps instead of just telling the player where every ore spot is on the map, the player must discern them using a hot/cold meter?

Killing pirates for bounties will be fun if the combat system is fun.

Trade routes…well, I’ve never found trade routes fun, but I know other people do. I need to avoid “spicing up” trade routes by putting lots of pirates on the routes, because that could just get frustrating for people who just want to fly around finding profitable routes. Perhaps I could help players out in this regard by putting icons next to planets representing what resources have the highest and lowest price…

But the real thing I need to do is start dishing out plot points early on and not require the player to get uber before he can find the plot.

Update: And I just realized why Starflight and Star Control II had no trading. Fuel in both games is incredibly expensive, and running out of fuel in deep space basically means “game over”. Games like Elite and Privateer that did have trading typically did not have a “run out of fuel in deep space” mechanic. I must think about this.

Star Revolution, Design Pass 2

This will be interesting, because Inaria really didn’t require much in the way of design. I pretty much just picked out the graphics I wanted and associated very standard abilities to them and that was it.

Star Revolution is going to require more design. The games I am taking as my inspiration, Starflight and Star Control II, were both excellent games and were both originally made for the PC, but neither game had mouse support. Adding mouse support would have greatly changed the design of both games, making them easier and better to play in all aspects except one – combat.

So one thing I need to decide double-quick is: what is ship-to-ship combat really like in Star Revolution? I’ve got a couple of options.

1. Arcade-style real-time. This is the style deliberately used by Star Control II and sort of unwittingly taken by Starflight. It’s worth noting the differences in the control schemes.

In Starflight, pressing a directional key on the keyboard caused your ship to move one “step” in that direction. Your ship would instantly turn to face that direction (if it wasn’t already). There were two weapon types: lasers and missiles. Lasers were pretty short-range and pretty weak, but were auto-locking – just press the enter key and you’ll get a hit. Missiles packed a much heavier punch, but moved slow and did not track – basically the missile shot straight in whatever direction you were currently facing. Getting a missile hit at anything longer than point-blank range was difficult but very satisfying. Thus, Starflight space combat was functional but not pretty, and the “insta-turn” feature of ships made it kind of unrealistic-looking. It was still fun, though.

In Star Control II, you fly your ship Asteroids-style with the arrow keys – the right and left keys pitch your ship clockwise and counterclockwise, the up key thrusts and the down key reverses thrust. Each ship type has at least two abilities, some of which are offensive and some of which are defensive. You use one ability by pressing the shift key and the other ability by pressing the enter key. It was deliberately designed to be a light, fun, arcadey experience. To the point that it was broken off and turned into its own game, called Super Melee.

2. Turn-based or semi-turn-based. The best example of something like this would be the Starfleet Command series of games. These games were based off the completely turn-based Star Fleet Battles boardgame, which actually was an excellent boardgame until it got too complicated to play. Unfortunately, the Starfleet Command games were based off the later, more complex version of SFB and thus are very difficult and tedious to play.

And once again I find myself wishing for a happy medium.

I’m going slightly off-topic for a second.

For years I’ve said that the first person to make a Civilization-style game that can be played single-player or multiplayer and finished in one and a half to two hours is going to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice. I used to enjoy games like Civ and Master of Orion and Age of Wonders, but they take so long to play, and saving and coming back isn’t really an option because you forget where you were and what you were doing and why that stack of units was out there in the boondocks by themselves. So I’ve been longing for games of this type that can be played in a shorter time – one evening, instead of a whole day.

And what do I get? Oasis and Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, games that feel like Civ and MOO (respectively) but can be finished in five minutes! Uh…five minutes? Can I get some kind of happy medium here?

It’s almost as if the only two markets that exist in computer games are “young and twitchy with lots of free time” and “old and bored with lots of free time”.

And now I’m going to get even farther off topic for a second. Tycho said something in a recent Penny Arcade update that really stuck with me. He’s talking about Grandia III:

With this much fun so close to the surface, the flagellation I endure finding the chewy center of other games stops looking like due diligence and becomes something like masochism.

And…well, that’s the way it is. Grandia III apparently starts dishing out its fun allotment right away, while a game like Galactic Civilizations II would take a couple playthroughs just to get used to the interface and how a game will progress, at which point you might begin to have a shot at beating the AI on Beginner difficulty. If you don’t feel like you fully understand and control the gameplay mechanism, then you can’t feel like you have a chance of winning, and if you don’t feel like you have a chance of winning then you can’t really feel like you’re having fun (in my opinion).

Now, someone will probably rejoin with, “Ah, so you hate losing so much that you’re not willing to play a game you might lose?” Please note that I didn’t say that at all.

One of my favorite ways to take a break from whatever I’m doing is to fire up Unreal Tournament 2004 and play an Onslaught game with 32 on each side. I use bots because I honestly can’t be bothered to go online and find a real game.

Now, about half the time I win, and about half the time I lose. And when I win, I dominate and when I lose it’s pretty much over as soon as the fight starts. That’s the nature of both the game type and using bots. But I still play knowing that I might lose and when it’s apparent that I’m going to lose I don’t just give up. The difference is that I know how to play UT2K4 and Onslaught and I feel that I’m in control of what is going to happen…mostly.

You do not feel that way initially when playing something like Starfleet Command, Civ, MOO or GalCiv. There’s this period you go through where stuff is happening and you’re not sure why and you’re not sure how to respond and then it’s over and all you can do is start another game and try to do better. The same thing can happen early on with RPGs as well. This is that masochism that Tycho mentions, and if it goes on too long then it can just not be worth it. Tutorials can really, really take that edge off and I have to hand it to the designers of Civ IV – it has an excellent tutorial, even if it is delivered by the disembodied head of Sid Meier.

I want ship-to-ship combat to be fun from the start in Star Revolution, but I want it to be a bit more complex than Star Control II combat. I want to get some of the more traditional Star Trek-style subsytems into the game – individual facing shields, beam weapons, missile weapons, and possibly even fighters – but I don’t want to get anywhere near Star Fleet Battles’ level of complexity. I want all of the controls and readouts on one easy-to-use screen. I want tutorials and a combat simulator so that players can get good at combat before they actually encounter a live enemy in the game.