. /../quot;The Perfect Galaxy.../ 1
written by Bellum on Mar 07, 2008 01:56
Another forum I belong to is having a small 'design doc' contest, and I'm making an entry. I'd like to see what you guys think, partly because most of you have much more experience in this genre than I do, and also because I borrow rather heavily from Noctis.

A Case Against Convention

If I ever become a competent programmer, I'd like to make a galaxy sim, the genre that was really pioneered by a game called Elite. If I did, though, it'd have some major differences from convention. I've always loved the concept of exploring a huge galaxy, but I've always had trouble getting into these games, partly because the simplest tasks tend to be tedious, but also partly because those games are less about seeing interesting places and doing interesting things, and more about grinding for credits and ships.

If you look at really great science fictions, notably Star Wars and Dune, you'll see that what makes them really great has more to do with a solid and interesting setting than cool ships and endless pirate battles. The genre takes too much of an investment in time and effort to have such bland atmospheres and shallow rewards.

Exploring Design Problems

The main challenge is, and really has always been, creating an interesting setting throughout all of a procedurally generated world. It's a hard problem to solve, and most games that attempt to (and I'll cite Daggerfall on that one) fail miserably.

Along with bland settings and repetitive mechanics, many galaxy sims make the mistake of disassociating itself with nature. Some of the more recent addictions have removed huge generated galaxies entirely, planets having become useless backgrounds as gameplay revolves entirely around space stations and pirates. This has the effect of both streamlining gameplay and allowing greater, more precise control over content by getting the player into the action faster and lowering the explorable game space by many factors, but this separates the genre from what made it so interesting (to me) in the first place.

Possible Solution?

On the question of setting, I've been thinking of a way to procedurally generate a wide variety of societies over an entire galaxy with trillions of stars, and I think I may have come up with an answer.

Anyone who has played EU2 will know about the domestic policy sliders. Basically, you have a slider that moves between two values, say Free Trade and Mercantilism. In this case, the farther the slider was to the left, the more of a bonus you got from Free Trade. The farther to the right, the more of a bonus you got to Mercantilism.

To generate civilizations, then, we could randomly choose from a large selection of government types, which would influence a series of random slider positions. Then we could write rules as to how these values effected the society. And there are quite a few things we could manage to emulate with this system, I think.

There are, of course, a few limitations which should be noted. It really depends on your implementation. The more you want to emulate, the easier it will be to spot repetition. For instance, I'd like a 1:1 scale Milky Way with perhaps millions of civilizations. Say I'd also like all of the planets to be fully explorable, with explorable settlements for the inhabitable ones. How would you prevent one species model or architecture model from appearing on either side of the galaxy?

The answer might lie in making a few hundred of each and randomly changing them to create variations, but aside from the rout of Spore, which really doesn't suit this style of game, I can't really think of any perfect solution. It could be that there isn't one, but I suspect that, if the level of variety is high enough, coupled with other interesting features, it will be enough for many gamers.
written by Bellum on Mar 07, 2008 01:58
My Implementation

Starting out:
The game would start on Earth. I'm thinking a gentle introduction to game mechanics is best. Your a pilot fresh out of school, and you've accepted a five year contract to work for some corporation in exchange for a free ship. Termination of the contract would, naturally, be possible, but would result in the loss of the ship.

The first few missions would be presets, say simple trade missions between various ports on Earth and Mars, then a few exploration missions to untouched systems. After that, the missions become random, and you can do whatever you want, but you'll still be under contract.

Larger setting:
I'm shooting for a thousand or so years in the future. At this point, Mars is terraforming as well as it can be, and humans have expanded to many hundreds of stars. The galaxy, though, will have around 400 billion stars, and humans would encompass only a small portion of it.

All factions and relations between factions should be dynamic, and governed both by player interaction and the slider system mentioned above. A player should be completely free to get involved in the politics of any faction, if he can manage it, and even start his own, again, if he can manage it.

At this point in time, terraforming is prohibitively expensive. Mars is considered one of the wonders of the twenty-first century. Industrial colonies can also be found on other planets, but the people living there will be entirely dependent on their employers for supplies, and they only live there temporarily.

Because of the rarity of terrestrial planets, they will be considered very valuable. A generation-long war might be fought over just one. Billions of people might live on one of these planets, and the lives of those people can't be ignored, either. Each planet with a government will have it's own attributes, and might rebel or change sides if they are treated badly and a chance presents itself.

Dealing with time, I'd like the player to be able to explore the entire galaxy at will, if he so chooses. To deal with this, and yet to make the huge scope of the galaxy apparent to the player, time will pass differently depending on the situation. In a single star system, time will pass in real time. While jumping between star systems, though, time will pass at an accelerated rate.

It might be possible, then, to play for longer than it's possible to live, and if your going to be exploring large parts of the galaxy, it's likely. To deal with this, I'd borrow from EVE. Rich types who can afford it can transfer their conscience into a clone in the event of death. This has the effect of giving (rich) players free reign over the galaxy, but also comes with consequences. A player who has become the leader of a faction might leave and come back a few hundred years later to see it in ruins.

Dealing with planets is even harder. I'd like manual flight on huge 1:1 scale planets, but fast generation of this much land on fly might be hard to do, though, unless you don't mind it being bland, which I obviously do. (I'm not implying that every inch of the planets surface detail would be in memory at any one time, either ) I'd like settlements and cities to populate them (the terrestrial ones) in an at least passingly authentic layouts, with cities and rural areas depending on the population and traffic below you on the roads and around you in the air. Not all of this has to be functional, the great majority of it would be simulated, think of GTA in this regard.

Anyway, every inhabited planet would have at least one star port, and every moderately sized city as well.

I'm not leaving out the other planets, though, and this is where I start to borrow from a game called Noctis. Noctis is really interesting, because it doesn't have any goals or actual gameplay, but it allows you to explore the galaxy, including planet surfaces, though the eyes of a cat-like species with a spacesuit that makes him invulnerable to even the most extreme climates (seriously, I saw nearly 1000000000 degrees Fahrenheit not long ago when I flew right up next to a really hot (obviously) star). Noctis, even though it's graphics and controls are woefully out of date, awes the use right from the start with the truths of space. The immense size of it, the complexity of it, and perhaps most importantly, the damnable quiet of it. Space is a big place, and large portions of the galaxy will be completely uninhabited. That doesn't mean there wouldn't' be interesting things to gain from it, though, places to start your own faction, or factory, or whatever.

One thing Noctis doesn't really have that this game would, though, is danger. Objects like black holes and gas giants, for instance, might swallow you whole if you get too close to them. All of these things, and other interesting objects in space, would be simulated. That's what I'd really like to do, to convey space, society, and humanity in believable ways. Social forces don't care about hero's or swashbuckling pirate-hunters, and a black hole certainly doesn't. These forces that rule our lives are perfectly flawed, and endlessly impersonal.

Game Mechanics

I won't delve into every intricacy involved in the gameplay. A game this complex will take more than a couple weeks to design at all, let alone elegantly. There are, however, a few things I've got a pretty clear vision about:

I'd like to remind the player constantly that his avatar is a human being, and not some hunk of metal. The game, then, should be in first person, with the pilot sitting in his chair. You should see the players arms coming out from the screen into the control area. A small area at the bottom of the screen will hold a keyboard, a trackball, and a joystick, all built into the paneling, so they aren't really separate devices that look exactly like ours today, but they function the same way. If the player is typing something in, the avatar should be, if he's using the mouse to select something, so to should the avatar, and if he's manually controlling the ship, he should be using the joystick.

Also borrowing from Noctis, the rest of the view, taking up the majority of the screen, should look like an operating system, with it's own file system and everything. There should be a GUI representation, but also a command prompt, which allows experience users access commands quickly and efficiently. I imagine pressing the ` key, like in most games, will open up the the console, and also simple scripts could be created to execute a series of commands quickly. This will have several effects. The GUI makes it so the game is accessible to everyone. It might not seem unintuitive, but trust me, borrowing from Noctis, navigation should be a breeze. Imagine being able to click on any object in the galaxy (for instance, a star) and telling your computer 'I want to go there', and your on your way. Instead of, for instance, having to press 't' to cycle through available targets, all you have to do is click on it.

There are other features of the OS as well, but one thing it wouldn't have is an auto map, and this is for several reasons. For one, the Noctis system is more elegant, two, billions of stars would be hard to sift through in a map, three, it gives the false impression that the galaxy is charted. You will be able to take notes through a journal program (all heavy games should have one of these, imo, I don't know why they aren't implemented more often), and it'd also be cool to have the scripting language powerful enough to make your own applications (might could even just use a slightly modified version of Python), but there would be no map-like representation of the galaxy. It just doesn't fit.

For navigation, most if it will be using the computers automatic controls, but in battle, you'd move onto manual control, which will allow joystick or 'gliding' mouse control. Auto control would be possible on planets, too, but manually flying around to check the sites might be cool.

Physics will be mainly Newtonian, perhaps simplified where needed for gameplay reasons, but all planets will have realistic gravity and will move in orbits and stuff. I'd like to see comets and asteroids running amok as well, which would damage or destroy the ship if your not on your toes. Generally, though, it should be safe to turn autopilot on and go make some coffee. If theres some extremely hazardous obstacle in your way, a warning would flash and your ship would come to a stop at a safe distance.

Also, I don't want traveling from one place or another to take a long time, so both the ships and time can move really really fast when they need to.

Other than that, it's an incomplete idea, but it has to remain like that. Many of the implementation details would probably require the basics to be in place, first, and a bit of trial and error. Lots of testing. A game like this is well within the possibility of todays technology, I think, but not without significant resources in time and skill, resources which I'm unlikely to ever stumble upon. Even, so, it's nice to dream, and so I enter my design doc, "The Perfect Galaxy Sim".
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