More great progress this last couple of weeks working on pathfinding, the method in which your (and the AI's) fleets will find their way around the sectors. We’ve also made great strides in the fleet management aspect, allowing us to build out our fleets in the new client.
The most annoying thing about the two previous Shallow Space attempts is that they simply wouldn’t be tamed into a game. 3D ship movement and pseudo-physics movement made for great eye candy, but when it actually came down to it, controlling the action was a bit of a nightmare - so most of the time you just found yourself spinning the camera around oogling at the ships.
When a game relies on graphical effects for fun like that, it’s a fail.
“If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.” - Ken Robinson
So we had to go back to the drawing board and play a boatload of games, figure out what makes an RTS fun. Interestingly, the answer seems to lie in the restrictions placed within the games mechanics. So in real space if we encounter an obstacle we can just fly over it, but that doesn’t make for very interesting gameplay.
We even fired up Shallow Space 2.0 to compare, and it became quite clear pretty quickly that we had fallen on our own sword. Freedom of ship movement flew in the face of strategic gameplay which is a fatal game design flaw.
We want Players to get snagged by terrain features which have formed inconvenient (or perhaps convenient) chokepoints, we want unexpected obstacles to be in their way such as other Players slogging it out or station perimeters being too full of other ships to be able to get near.
So for this to happen, to make the game more interesting and fun, we have to restrict movement.
If there is something in the way, the Player doesn’t want to have to click about finding their way around it; that would be annoying. So they need to send the movement instruction to the server and the server should plot the best route for them.
There are lots of ways of doing this, we needed a method which integrates into the project and provides very quick feedback (250ms at the most or it just gets annoying). A-star pathfinding ticked all these boxes for us, you’ll find it powering most RTS games under the hood; it’s an unlicensed algorithm that was easily integrated. Result.
Yeah I get it. There’s nothing new about any of the concepts we’re introducing. But what we feel is innovative is the way in which we’re bringing them together. So most people that play multiplayer RTS games know about the matchmaking process: you configure a map and wait in a lobby for the game to start.
Shallow Space doesn’t have any of that, you dive straight in, fly about, choose your open-ended mission for the now (self-styled or indicated on the sector map) and go about it.
Maybe it takes 15 minutes, maybe it takes an hour, then you Alt+F4 get on with your life, start the game again some time later and pick up where you left off in a grand strategy area that has actually evolved while you were gone.
We want it to be frictionless.
You won’t even know it’s an MMORTS (there, I said it) other Players might be AI for all you know, they are just ships on a map. In the absence of actual Players they will be replaced by bots, whatever keeps our battle-torn universe rolling.
We also added in fleet experience (represented by the rank icons) and have some really interesting ideas about how to keep momentum going around that. The game will rely on a high degree of churn and Players shouldn’t be afraid to commit themselves to battle. In fact, they’ll often enter a sector and find it alive with action, fighters flying about, flak cannons barraging an area and fleets locked in conventional combat.
So we’ll need to incentivise that action and make failure part of the course, we'll do that by making fleet seniority detachable with the concept of 'Officers' (borrowed from Shallow Space 1.0).
You might lose a ship or a whole fleet, but you haven't lost the experience linked with that and you'll keep most, if not all, of the acquisition points.
“There is no failure except in no longer trying.” - Chris Bradford
Every fleet commander needs a way to put their fleets together. Now we have a very rough looking version of the fleet manager; it doesn’t really matter what it looks like for now, it just matters that we can buy ships and move them into different formations.
It works well enough and it’s exciting.
True to the original ideas of Shallow Space, we’ll extend the functionality to place weapons turrets and modules on the ships but that is outside the scope of this current piece of work. Right now we just want to get a really basic version of things up and we'll decorate later.
While making the fleet manager we started thinking in a bit more detail about Player owned structures. Structures in this version of Shallow Space are immutable, so they can’t be destroyed or altered.
They exist as the source and target of missions, so you might have a mission to travel to one station and fit marine pods to one of your Capital ships and travel to another station and board them; the action would reduce the owning factions standing in this sector.
Friendly stations will also provide us with ship hulls and parts.
But if the Player can own structures, would they be destroyable? Yeah, erm, maybe, so what… some stations are destroyable and some aren’t… hmmm… that doesn’t sound like it would work. Plus what if 100 players turn up and build stations everywhere?
It’s contentious and it needs more thought so we’re probably not going to go there right now. For now we’ll focus on making a kick-ass fleet combat experience. Area of effect weapons, carriers, missiles etc. all in an evolving sandpit to duel it out.
The beauty of this idea is that it is perfectly achievable; we have the parts, the vision, skills, and time.
Third time lucky?