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.

Star Revolution, Design Pass

Please forgive me, this post is probably going to have a “thinking out loud” feel. I’m just trying to get a handle on what Star Revolution is going to be about and what resources it needs.

The most basic thing Star Revolution needs is a starmap. This will probably be a 256×256 map of cells, each one containing either empty space or a star system of some kind. The color of the star system will be displayed on the starmap. Different star systems will produce different planets – for instance, yellow stars are the most likely to have habitable planets, but hotter stars could have planets with more abundant minerals (for instance).

Upon piloting your ship into a square with a star system on it, a map link will activate and a new smaller (probably 64×64) map will load representing that individual star system. You may then pilot your ship onto individual planets, which will be map links linking to a 64×64 map representing the planet’s surface.

All of this is easily done with tech I’ve already written. The mining of planets with your landing craft (a la Starflight) could be easily done with my “get” code.

Now, if I just created a ship upgrade system, threw in some occasional enemy ships (SPAAAAAACE PIRATES!) and cooked up an interesting combat system, I’d have a viable game…basically a 2D version of Elite. It would be completely plotless, but could still be quite diverting.

So:

  • A 2D starmap (with 3D rendered stars, but traversed in a 2D manner)
  • 2D system maps (again, with 3D rendered planets)
  • 2D maps of planet surfaces
  • The ability to get things from the surface of planets (minerals, artifacts, etc)
  • The ability to upgrade your ship
  • Ship-to-ship combat
  • Random enemies to fight

The resources we’d need to create this:

  • The starmap
  • System maps for every star on the starmap (could be a lot, they’ll probably have to be randomly generated)
  • Planet surface maps for every planet on the starmap that can be landed on, which won’t be all of them, but will be a lot. Again, random generation is the way to go here.
  • 3D models for the stars (we’ll probably use one model and scale it up or down and put different skins on it for the different stars
  • 3D models for the planets (Starflight used an irregular sphere with the points raised or lowered based on the heights on the actual planet surface map, I’d like to do something similar)
  • A 3D model of the player’s ship.
  • A 3D model for the space pirate’s ship (they’ll all look the same)

We’ll call this Stage 1 of the game. If I published this, I would be somewhat satisfied. It’s a game, and it would probably be a more diverting game than Inaria.

But I doubt if I would be satisfied with that. What I want are for parts of the galaxy to already be inhabited by sentient spacefaring alien races that the player comes into contact with. Some will be naturally friendly, some will be naturally hostile, and some will be neutral and will react to you based on how you treat them. This means a conversation system. While Inaria didn’t really have a conversation system, I’ve written one before for Hit & Myth and therefore I’m not too concerned with writing another one. But I do want Star Revolution’s system to be more robust, with “topics” – things you can ask about that do not necessarily show up until you know to ask about them. This will allow me to make the game much more plotted than Inaria was.

So:

  • 2D or 3D portraits for several alien races (I’d want to have at least six)
  • Conversation system that remembers previous topics, has hidden topics and allows the user to reread previous conversations
  • 3D models and textures for the ship for each alien race (I’ll probably keep it simple and have each race be represented in space by one type of ship)
  • The ability to tag parts of the starmap as “belonging” to different alien races. I don’t want these to be hardcoded, because it could help the plot a lot of boundaries change through the course of the game. If the player is in a tagged area, they will run into ships belonging to that race frequently.
  • Some representation (probably a 3D model) of cities of a particular alien race on planets they control.
  • Variables that track how friendly a race is to you, and therefore what they say to you.

This would give me a framework capable of creating a game at least as big and full-featured as Starflight and Starflight II. The changing boundaries could even give me the ability to replicate Star Control II’s “evil species wipes out all others” plot development.

So that would be Stage 2 – far more ambitious. Doable? I have no idea, I’d have to see how long it takes me to implement Stage 1 first.

As for Stage 3? The only other ideas I can think of are having a fleet of ships instead of one ship, like Star Control II, and perhaps borrowing a few tricks from Master of Orion. Perhaps when the game begins, only the most basic spaceflight and offensive and defensive technologies have been developed, and new ones will come along at a regular pace. But if the player finds habitable planets and recommends them for colonization, the player will not only get a bounty, but will get a small percentage of the wealth the colony generates every game month. The colony will also contribute to research, making more advanced technologies available for purchase sooner. Finding suitable planets for colonization would then be an investment that would really pay off as the game progressed. Ooh, I like that idea. But we’ll implement that only if we do both stages 1 and 2 and have a lot of time left.

Oblivion

I’ve been obsessing over The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion pretty much since it was announced. The now-famous twenty-minute demonstration movie was as fine an example of geek porn as has ever been created. I figured the game would get pushed back; RPGs always do. Debugging a game that has a bunch of interacting subsystems takes a long time. So I wasn’t that disappointed.

One of the things I’ve done in the meantime is fire up The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind again. Morrowind is a fine game hampered by a few flaws (and a lot of bugs, though the patches do help). Morrowind is also huge. While I don’t think it’s quite up to Baldur’s Gate II‘s two hundred hours of play, it’s quite big, and just working through the main quest can take dozens of hours. And of course there’s all that optional stuff to do.

So imagine my surprise when I saw on Speed Demos Archive a speedrun for Morrowind. The time was listed as 7:30. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “somebody beat Morrowind in seven and a half hours.”

No. Somebody beat Morrowind in seven and a half minutes – beat, in this case, meaning “getting the ending movie to the main plotline”. It’s an astounding movie, and I recommend watching it. Yes, it’s a bit spoilery, but it’s not too bad because you don’t get any context about why he’s doing what he does.

Even more interesting is the fact that the same page also lists the previous champion’s run, a 14:26 run. The runner who made this run took a completely different tack – basically, he went magic user while the first runner went warrior. The fact that the runs look completely different is a testament to the depth of the game. And deep is certainly what I’m looking for. I’m hoping Oblivion is excellent enough to balm the wound World of Warcraft inflicted on me when I hit level 60.

I’m also hoping my computer is good enough to run it!

Interview

Ugh, eight days since an update! Why didn’t somebody tell me?

Anyhoo, I’ve finally gotten a job interview! I don’t know if I want to say who with right now…I’ll tell you when it’s over. Still, it’s nice to finally see some progress on the job hunt.

All of my efforts for the last week have been on writing and improving my resume, portfolio and code samples, so I don’t really have anything to report on Star Revolution. Hopefully something screenshot-worthy will happen this week.

The First Cut is the Deepest

I can now tell the Gizmondo story (which is also the Hit & Myth story). I can tell it now because it’s over.

I already told the story of how I came to Gizmondo, so let’s pick up where that one left off. When I arrived at Gizmondo in late March of 2005 I jumped straight into Hit & Myth, our fast action/RPG hybrid based on lead programmer Ryan Clark’s Zarria engine. The game had a basic editor and engine going but had few of the features of a finished game, and a lot of those features had to get in quick because we wanted to demo the game at E3 in May.

The E3 demo went well, despite a bug in my code where if you started fiddling with the controls while the game was loading it could become non-responsive after the load finished. Doh.

But once that was over it was time to push to the finish line. The quick-and-dirty subsystems I created for the E3 demo had to be polished or replaced with more functional ones. The game had to be internationalized. We worked our butts off for several more months.

It was around October that things started getting weird. Now, granted, the then-CEO of Gizmondo had always seemed kind of fishy, but then a newspaper article came out in Europe that accused him and some of the other Gizmondo investors of having ties to the mafia of all things. The CEO eventually resigned and left a huge mess in his wake.

Hit & Myth went gold in late October, but Gizmondo didn’t have the necessary cash to publish it. They didn’t even have the cash to pay for the XForge library we had used to create the game, requiring us to spend another month rewriting the game to work without that library. (By the way, I really liked XForge. It made developing the game a lot easier and I recommend it.) Then we started working on other projects, like the Gizmondo version of Johnny Whatever (which could still be the most awesome game ever if done right – imagine a cross of Guitar Hero with Grand Theft Auto III). But the mood was kind of tense…it was becoming obvious that the future of the company was in doubt.

And then in December we didn’t get paid. It made for a lackluster Christmas, but I personally had some savings to draw upon and our family helped out so it wasn’t that bad. A little more investor money came in, Gizmondo caught up on our payroll and it looked like the crisis was over. We were assured that over $50 million was coming into the company.

Then in January we didn’t get paid again. Turns out the investors had a lot of strings on that money and one of their requirements was a massive reduction in headcount. It also became obvious that they were waiting to get the stock price as low as possible so they could buy more of the stock (and gain more control) with their money.

The head of our studio made an impassioned plea on our behalf to our corporate masters in Europe – all the other studios had already been cut and without us there would be no one to create unique content for the Gizmondo device.

But in the end it was for nought. The studio closed and we are all scattered to the winds (which is a nice poetic way of saying we’re unemployed).


Gizmondo Studios Texas was the best place I ever worked. The people were awesome, the project I was working on was perfect for me, and the office building itself was very cool (it was a renovated theater). And leaving hurt. But it’s true – the first cut is the deepest. Leaving Gizmondo didn’t hurt nearly as much as leaving Origin did, even though by the time I left Origin I practically hated my job there (though of course I wouldn’t admit it to myself).

So now I’m unemployed. What does this mean for Star Revolution? Well, in theory I should have more time to work on it…but in practice I’m spending that time polishing my resume and improving this website. Hopefully I’ll get something soon so Star Revolution doesn’t get too far off track. And in the meantime, there’s another idea bouncing around in my brain…