Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Different Breed of 4X

eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate have long been the core tenets of this particular style of game.  Sadly, the is also a lot of unneeded baggage weighting the 4X genre down.  Features such as a vast unexplored galaxy, numerous alien species and exotic magical technology have become so ubiquitous that slight variations on the above mentioned don't bring anything new to the table.  So, in the interests of reviving this beloved, but mostly forgotten subcategory of strategy games, here's an idea I'd like to share.

For starters, lets take things back a bit.  Have you ever heard of a novelist by the name of H.G. Wells?  He wrote a number of fantastic science fiction stories toward the end of the 19th century.  One in particular, set in the early years of the 20th century, entitled The War of the Worlds, is generally considered the first great tale of alien invasion.

*spoilers for a 110+ year old piece of media ahead*

The invaders are from Mars! Using an interstellar cannon to fire huge cylinders across the depths of space, the martians are able to ferry themselves and tri-pedal bullet proof fighting-machines, armed with heat-rays (high powered infrared beams) and black smoke canisters (nerve gas?). Unsurprisingly, humanity takes a serious thrashing , but comes out victorious in the end because of simple bacteria native to Earth's ecosystem. The martians had no such microbes on Mars and as such failed to take adequate precautions against ordinary diseases.

*end of spoilers*

Of course, like most great sci-fi The War of the Worlds is the product of then current real world events - namely the decline of colonialism.  Partly because of the rather obvious parallels H.G. Wells never penned a sequel.  However, I can't help but wonder what direction the story would go if it were to continue.

There is some indication at the end of the novel that humanity, while battered, is able to make a comeback. Additionally, the secrets of the atom are unlocked by dismantling the "heavy elements engines" used in martin war machines. Not wanting to be the target of another invasion force, the people of Earth mobilize to catch up to their more technologically advanced foe. Meanwhile the martians, no longer concerned with concealment, begin assembling a second expeditionary force. The board is set for a game solar conquest!

Obviously, this conflict need not be limited solely to the planets Earth and Mars.  The Moon, Phobos or Demos would make good strategic stepping stones for either side.  Taking things one step further into retro-future territory, what if there were life beneath the clouds of Venus?  Perhaps other factions, whether they be enemy or ally, inhabit a Jovian moon or even a mysterious Planet X analogue such as Pluto, Eris or Makemake.  Borrowing concepts from the colonialism that inspired The War of the Worlds, direct conflicts might be mulled in lieu of fighting over resource rich, but poorly fortified locations.  It is implied in the final pages of the aforementioned novel that the martians attempt to establish a presence on Venus.

Limiting the action to just our solar system might sound to confining at first, but don't forget that there are eight planets in orbit around the Sun along with dozens of sizable moons (and many thousands of smaller noteworthy objects).  In addition, there are visits from comets, rogue asteroids, solar flares and other outer space phenomenon which could be thrown into the mix.

I've kept things pretty general thus far, but lets to go into more detail about what an alternate near to mid future space based conflict might be like.  Of course, it's impossible to know the exact direction future technologies will lead humanity.  However, it is possible to make an educated guess.  In reality that often is unacceptable, but for the purposes of creating a video game, it's more effort than most designers put in on the conceptual level.

For starters, there are three basic types of weapons that have high degree of feasibility in space:
  • Narrowly focused radiation, such as light, UV or IR (let's just call them "beams" for now)
  • High velocity inert projectiles which use their mass to inflict damage ("kinetics" is a good shorthand term)
  • Remote operated drones or guided objects which have some kind of built in propulsion and directed explosive device (basically "missiles" in space)

At first designers might be tempted to devise a rock-paper-scissors mechanic to balance out these three weapon systems, but the reality is a lot of mixing and matching can occur.  Also the effectiveness of any combination of the above would be extremely dependent on the situation, tactics employed and countermeasures available.

The specifics of propulsion is also an important point worth analyzing in more detail. Chemical rockets are what nearly all real life spacecraft use to maneuver. However, in a wartime situation the Orion Drive would be a far superior alternative...especially when it comes to combat. In game terms this creates an interesting dynamic. Do you go the quicker, cheaper route of ground based deployment and damage your planetary infrastructure via radioactive pollution? Or do you spare your populous and take the slower, more expensive route and build in orbit with prefabricated components being launched by conventional systems?

 Another factor worth consideration is the mantra, "there is no stealth in space." That is to say any civilization with a decent collection of ground based telescopes could easily spot the movements of practically any least within the confines of a single solar system. However, an important point many people fail to realize is that saying "there is no stealth in space," is roughly analogous to saying, "there is no stealth in Stratego."  In other words, you always know where your enemy is and in what numbers, but not the disposition or exact strength.

"Science fiction writers have no sense of scale," is sadly all too applicable to 4X games.  You might think that Mars and Earth are right next door to one another, but keep in mind that planets move at different speeds around the sun.  This gives rise to the concept of "launch windows," time frames in which the logistical feasibility of a departure plays an important role.  Also worth noting is the fact that a deep space encounter between rival forces would most likely be the futuristic equivalent of a single pass in jousting (since the time in which both sides are within effective weapons range is exceedingly brief).  So, baring extenuating circumstances, decisive engagements would be more likely than not occur in orbit around a moon or planet.

Naturally, this might encourage "turtling," the concept of digging in by means of static defenses.  While this idea has merit there is on big obstacle to fortifications in space - the environment is three dimensional   Because an attack can be concentrated from up to six different cardinal directions (or any portion of the three axis) the result is situations in which it becomes very easy to overwhelm ground based defenses provided the attacker is a credible threat to begin with.  Obviously an orbital defense network would work better because it could shift to meet the attack vectors in strength.  However, there is a big problem with this method too.

"Amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics," applies quite well here in that if you know much about the realities of spaceflight you'd quickly realize that getting a spacecraft into orbit the can maneuver autonomously is 80% of the work.  Hence, you're already a pretty big chunk of the way to deploying something capable of interplanetary travel.  Therefore, from an economic standpoint, "the best defense is a good offense!"  That should probably be mentioned somewhere in the tutorial...assuming this proposed game ever gets made.

While this entry is quite long, it isn't a design document, so I'll stop at this point.  Granted there are a number of things that I haven't touched on yet.  "The devil is in the details," I know, but to exorcise *wink-wink* everything here is beyond the scope of this humble little blog.  So, I will leave matter of this 4X concept here for now.  Hopefully, you have found reading this as interesting as it was for me to write it.

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