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Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#1
As I moved up the ranks from fighters to bombers to corvettes and so on, I found myself getting confused. My piloting stayed the same, but my ships got bigger and slower. Something bothered me about that, and I think I may have a handle on it now.

I suspect that the puzzlement regarding the larger ships emerges from a collision between two sets of expectations:

1. You learn how to fly in a small ship. You then get progressively larger ships, but you never need to learn (and are never told) anything new about flying them -- the ship just gets slower. [I'm fully aware that we're only just seeing v1.1 of the prototype, and that there's a lot of hand-holding stuff that hasn't even been imagined yet much less implemented. I'm not criticizing; I'm pointing out how things appear at the moment.]

2. At some point in the progression from one-man fighter to corvette to destroyer, these names for size classes of ships imply that they eventually become big enough to require crews and officers... but we're still flying them as though they're one-man fighters.

A good case can be made for fighters and bombers to feel like nimble one-seaters. It makes sense that when you point one of these ships in a particular direction, that's where you can fire, and you're agile enough to be able to bring all your few weapons to bear by changing your ship's heading.

The "problem" is that (at least until turret control in the v1.1 prototype) as our ships get bigger and slower (which is not unreasonable), we're still expected to control them as though they were fighters... but they no longer behave like fighters. It's that clash of expectations that, I think, is making people go, "huh?"

I think there's a way to address this confusion and at the same time provide a blueprint for expanding Limit Theory to be more fun for more people. Put simply: anything bigger than a bomber requires crew, which implies that "the game" begins to change at that point to include crew management requirements/features. And the biggest ships would have significant impacts on the game world (with functional gameplay effects) just by their presence.

To begin with, you shouldn't be driving a capital ship by yourself as though it was a painfully sluggish fighter. You should be leveling up your crew and issuing orders from your CIC to manage information and direct operations.

And the bigger ship you get, the less tactical and more strategic gameplay should become. Choosing to move up to a battleship would mean choosing to give up seat-of-your-pants, adrenaline-pumping dogfighting in favor of more thoughtful strategic play that rewards careful planning and effective management of systems and people.

The flip side of this is that there need to be full advancement paths for all ship types. Because the tactical gameplay in a fighter is so different from the strategic play of a cruiser or carrier, these will (assuming "tactical" and "strategic" play are implemented differently and properly) attract different kinds of gamers.

Let people who like the visceral, kinesthetic experience of fighter combat get really good at flying fighters and bombers. They won't have as much cargo space so they can't do as much trading or exploring as someone with a corvette or larger ship, and they won't be as diplomatically imposing as a ship of the line, but these players probably won't be interested in that kind of gameplay, anyway.

Let corvettes and frigates and destroyers be about managing small crews with an emphasis on operations (rather than tactics or strategy): running mid-level missions, enjoying a balance between combat capability and trade/diplomacy, and generally being well-suited for exploration gameplay.

Finally, let cruisers and battleships and carriers be about strategic force projection. There shouldn't be many of these babies, but the presence of one (or the mere threat of the presence of one) in an area should modify local behaviors. A carrier battle group should dominate entire star sectors, affecting military activities, encouraging diplomacy, and defending peaceful commerce. Of course it should occasionally be necessary to bring the hammer down on miscreants, because, you know, what's the point of having that much firepower in a game if you never get to use it? ;) Mostly, though, being boss of one of these behemoths should be about getting to enjoy strategic decision-making, including planning for obtaining and maintaining control of multiple resources (which could be minerals, depots, production bases, trade centers, or high-population worlds).

In each of these three general groups, players should be able to become recognized masters. If you want to stay a fighter jock, you should be able to do so, with increasingly difficult but satisfying content for fighter craft. Eventually you should be recognizable as a legendary fighter ace.

The same principle would apply to players who prefer the operational or strategic levels of play and skippering the ships that go with those styles of play. No one should have to stop playing the kind of tactical or operational game they enjoy simply because "winning" requires moving to ever-bigger ships with less direct control.

...

I recognize that this is a very different game design than what's visible right now. But I think it's a design path that makes sense. It builds on Limit Theory as it is now, and opens it up to people who enjoy different kinds of play without leaving behind those who like the kind of fast-paced combat play suggested in the current LT prototype.

If this seems reasonable, how could it be improved? If this seems wrong, what different design path would you suggest that achieves the same (or better) goals of building on existing LT while supporting other playstyle preferences?
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#2
"Proper" AI and autopilots are still a ways off but I imagine that you will be able to give commands to your own ship while largely staying on the tactical interface. Something more complex than "attack this target", I mean. =)

There have been several threads on "crew" but the linchpin there is micromanagement.
If every ship has "only" 3 or 4 officers that you "manage" or give specific orders to, that's fine with a single ship - like in Battlecruiser 3000AD.
If you have 100 or 200 ships, that level of detail is not workable.

IMO, only a heavily abstracted model of "crew" is feasible if this is game is supposed to be playable by humans. Much like in MOO, where a ship can gain experience.
You can upgrade that ship to a different type within the same size class. That's the only way to "put the experienced crew on a new ship".

Finally, let cruisers and battleships and carriers be about strategic force projection. There shouldn't be many of these babies, but the presence of one (or the mere threat of the presence of one) in an area should modify local behaviors. A carrier battle group should dominate entire star sectors
Threads on sensors / stealth like this one go into that direction.
A carrier / battleship group is a major hotspot but it can't be everywhere.
Most of the "real" navy work like convoy escort falls to smaller (and faster!) ships like destroyers and frigates, maybe a few cruisers. A fleet's workhorses. (using WW2 ships for scale purposes)
Major capital ships would mostly be strategic assets to counter ships of similar size or to threaten "ports" and other infrastructure.

The problem with that: the player can all too easily become overpowered by using a scorched earth approach and picking up the pieces in the newly generated force vacuum.

It's very difficult to limit player power in a sandbox game. In X3, the devs never even tried.
Choke points like fixed gates between sectors intensify the problem. If it's easy for the player to wall off the 2 gates leading into "his" space then it's Thermopylae all over again... and the player can go a-conquering with overwhelming forces and minimal risk.

How you limit the player's power?
Limiting the total fleet size would be the sensible thing to do but alas, it's anathema to the sandbox concept. =)
You can demand ships to have "upkeep" and that upkeep must be generated by vulnerable assets in places that the AI "knows" about. Like fuel refineries on gas giants. Too big to hide and fragile. A corvette raiding force might not destroy the refinery but take out the tanks and "disable" it for days.
Each refinery also has a fixed supply range like in MOO or GalCiv. That way you can prevent the player from stacking all "supply units" in one humongous fortress system.
The more you expand, the more vulnerable spots you have to accept.

You could design "supply" to grant diminishing returns so that there's no hard cap on fleet size but you need an increasing number of supply-generating assets for a small increase in fleet size.
While that would inevitably spread the "vulnerability" over a large and indefensible volume of space, it would also spread it over a large volume of space - which is a defense all in itself. In a diminishing returns situation, losing one or two refineries would be unnoticeable.

Another approach would be that the "supply" from multiple refineries doesn't stack.
It's all the same "supply radius".
If you concentrate a "killer stack" to sidestep any game balance, your ships are "undersupplied" and weakened. That doesn't limit the total size of the player's fleet but it limits the "stack size" one can bring to a fight.
With a system like that, tactics could actually be meaningful. An X3-style missile frigate, that can take out an entire sector in one barrage, would have a very high supply cost so you'd have nothing left to hold the sector with.

No matter which way you spin it - if you don't limit player power at least locally, it will be damn near impossible to balance a sandbox space game.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#3
I think there are at least three different levels of ship/fleet size that call for different control schemes.

1) Small dogfighter. What you have in games like Wing commander or Freelancer. From what I read in the forum, the existing prototype does well for this scenario.

2) Single capital ship, or a small fleet where you fly the capital ship.
In this scenario you might want to give commands like "big guns target that destroyer, small guns concentrate on the bombers". But manually aiming all guns is no longer possible. Something like in EVE Online might work well:
  • You can target multiple ships, which are then lined up as icons at the edge of the screen, and assign weapons to them.
  • Small symbols next to the ship icons show the weapons assignments. Your gunnery crews do the actual shooting
  • You see your ship in 3rd person view and adjust the view angle with the mouse
  • You select the flight direction by double-clicking in space, your helmsman steers the ship into the direction you indicated
3) Large fleet with multiple capital ships. Now micromanaging any single weapon is too much, and even ships need to be commanded as groups. You might want something like the Homeworld command interface.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#4
Exploring this "supply" system / limit a bit more...

Even energy-based ships use up supplies simply by operating. Supplies being a single, generic ware that covers everything from torpedoes to toilet paper.
Energy-based ships aren't hit nearly as hard by being out of supplies. At least they can still reload their weapons. Also, their stores are going to last much longer because their rate of use is much lower than on something like a missile frigate.

All ships automatically receive a trickle of supplies at all times. Outside the range of a proper supply base or when this base is overstretched, this is going slow.
A supply ship has the special perk of receiving a higher amount (but still counting against a supply base's "hull" limit) as well as probably having a decent cargo hold and automatically beaming supplies to every friendly in the vicinity.

If a ship runs out of supplies, it will continue to be "out of supplies" until it's supply level is back up to 10% or so.
That avoids silliness like only the smallest point defense guns of a battleship firing, preventing the main batteries from reloading at all. It also makes running out of supplies a tangible event that should be avoided instead of constantly flickering between the two states.


Battle Fleets vs. System Defense Forces

BF are supplied for extended operations while SDF naturally operate close to their supply base and don't need to lug around a month's supply of ammo.
A SDF ship's max supply amount is halved.
Switching a ship to BF status requires downtime. Ideally at a supply base or near supply ships.
A SDF ship that leaves supply range is instantly out of supplies. Sounds harsh but simple rules keep the system transparent.

Supply bases have separate caps for SDF and BF.
That allows giving a force bonus to the defender. The defender can have both SDF and BF units in play and can bring in SDF units from nearby systems while the attacker most likely is limited to BF units.
Well, unless he was sneaky enough to build a secret supply base...


The obvious thing I would do to exploit this system is to zerg a battlefield, bringing in "supplied" BF from multiple directions, again overwhelming the opposition. Back to the killer stack problem. =)
The only way I see to counter that are excessively gamey ways like keeping the "out of supply" state on any "excess" ships. They would be weakened (how?), resulting in disproportionate losses. The weakening factors have to be severe enough to make such a tactic undesirable.


Flatfingers wrote:Finally, let cruisers and battleships and carriers be about strategic force projection.
The main problem I foresee with that is that many players will expect a battleship's role to be blasting stuff out of the sky - not to float around and look menacing in order to influence the local system parliament's alignment when they vote on bill 29181.
It may be realistic to no ends but I predict complaints. =)
There is no "I" in Tea. That would be gross.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#5
You know Gazz, at risk of opening up another can of worms, and logistics aside;

One thing I had mentioned before in some other threads is the whole supply and demand and evolving economy surrounding it. If ships use supplies, (preferably something other than a generic named 'supplies'--but I admin that's a whole different can of worms) then we have a method for the economy to be drained, thus causing the inherit 'demand'.

However, the downside is that the economy would then be a war-based economy (while menial supplies are used for keeping the lights on and engines running, the only time a drastic demand would occur is when a battle happens). As such, there needs to be yet another way for items to leave the system (if we are to assume that planets are the way items enter the system).

Yeah, I know a ton of logistics surround it, but the idea could be plausible.
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Early Spring - 1055: Well, I made it to Boatmurdered, and my initial impressions can be set forth in three words: What. The. F*ck.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#6
As long as you don't plan to turn this into a detailed logistics simulation à la The Settlers (I'm keeping an eye on you!), I would support massive (own) fleet presence having a noticeable effect on the local economy.
As the fleet "eats up" more resources, prices for raw materials go up and your factories become less profitable / more expensive.
There is no "I" in Tea. That would be gross.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#8
Good (and satisfyingly detailed) comments, all. Thanks!

I'm on a wee tap-tappity device, so I'll keep this short. (Well, shorter, anyway.)

1. There's no way I'd propose something like this that didn't heavily signpost the fact that choosing to drive a bigger ship will change the kind of gameplay served to the player. In fact, that's part of what prompted this suggestion: choosing a bigger ship (in the current prototype) changes the (currently combat-specific) gameplay, but players don't find this out until they've sprung for the bigger ship.

2. Designing operational and strategic gameplay modes deserves threads of their own. ;) This one is mostly meant to knock around the core concept that the ship class should affect the kind of gameplay you get to enjoy, because operating a capital ship as though it's nothing more than a really big, slow fighter feels wrong to me. And by "wrong" I mean both the immediate, visceral play experience as well as being a missed opportunity for ship types and galaxy features (planets, civilizations) to have fun gameplay effects on each other.

I don't know the strategic plan for developing Limit Theory. And again, I'm very aware that how the prototype is implemented now doesn't necessarily imply anything about how the full game will play. What I'm suggesting here could already be part of the plan, or it could be completely different from the Official Notions of what capital ships in LT are meant to feel like.

This post is just to knock around some ideas for one possible way of tying together the "ship" and "world" pieces of LT. It's also to suggest one way to make the personal experience of playing with ever-bigger ships more interesting (and plausible) than simply increasing a number.

That said, I like the speculation about how capital ships might affect a region of space. I'm thinking more about how game content might be organized into tactical (dogfighting), operational (trade, exploration) and strategic (factional control of resources, diplomacy) modes... but the details definitely matter.

Looking forward to hearing more thoughts on this. Is there a better way to think about how to structure the gameworld and content and mechanics to let capital ships feel truly awe-inspiring?
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#10
I am in total agreement with your general concept, and it is most definitely in line with my "dream" vision of LT. If I could, I would love for the capital ships in LT to be the "Commander Adama" experience. Managing everything from the war strategies to the people, to the numerous nuances of the ship.

The question is not whether this is the "right" way to handle larger ships (I think it's obvious that we don't want large ships to play like big fighters), but, rather, how much extra work would it take to support this type of gameplay.

Full-blown crew management is yet another layer of complexity on top of LT and, as you probably know, I am wary of promising any extra significant complexities on top of what is already promised, for obvious reasons! :)

So for that reason, I will happily say "dream on," in the most optimistic way, and will continue to do so myself. But I do doubt that there will be enough time to make the cap ship experience the full-blown game of management that we all want it to be. Luckily, you'll have an empire to manage, so hopefully this will take your mind off of the fact that your ship isn't as complex as you might want!

I know I say it too often but....LT2? ;)
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.” ~ Henry Ford
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#11
Understood and appreciated!

FWIW, by "management" (of ship or crew) I wasn't imagining a complex non-combat gameplay mode. I was thinking mostly of managing ship systems (including officers/crew as a system) in combat -- power regulation, fire control, damage control, etc. That would be one of the elements distinguishing playing with a capital ship versus smaller vessels. (Notice that it implies that cap ship fights would last for minutes, not seconds.)

Instead, I'll wonder now about two things (related to high level play), and look for how I can help with them:

1. So how will capital ships be qualitatively different to play with than smaller ships?

2. Is there an outline for how empire management may work in LT 1.0? If I'm going to blather, I'd like to blather in a marginally useful way. ;)
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#12
Yah, so I may have digressed a bit but I can always split this into another thread when needed. =)
Flatfingers wrote:I was thinking mostly of managing ship systems (including officers/crew as a system) in combat -- power regulation, fire control, damage control, etc. That would be one of the elements distinguishing playing with a capital ship versus smaller vessels. (Notice that it implies that cap ship fights would last for minutes, not seconds.)
One thing I had been asking for was that the speed at which the power settings change would be much slower on capital ships.
You can't just snap out of cruise mode and be fully ready for battle within seconds.
Not the kind of difference I'd be aiming for but it might help making capital ships "feel bigger".


2. Is there an outline for how empire management may work in LT 1.0?
Nothing specific. A few threads have scratched the surface of various aspects but I don't think there's any sort of solid concept that has the proper hooks to allow for expansion into more detailed categories.


1. So how will capital ships be qualitatively different to play with than smaller ships?
Damage control would be a contender. On a fighter you're not going to climb out to the wing to weld a seam. Who'd be flying in the meantime?
Fire control obviously. Automated turrets are planned and may be limited to larger ships. There isn't much point to auto-turrets on a fighter.
Detailed crew modeling I'm not very happy with because that looks like a micromanagement monster. I'd rather concentrate on the interplay of different ship types, making battles interesting rather than an exercise in clicking through crew menus.

Reloading weapons from the cargo bay could require a certain hull size so that a "big" launcher mounted on a fighter becomes a one-shot weapon.
6 or missiles and you're out. Like in the old times.

One way would be to give space stations heavy armor that deflects the first 500 points of damage. A corvette weapon doing 510 damage per shot would hardly scratch the paint.
Lighter ships could damage parts of the station - disabling it until these are repaired - but couldn't destroy it.
Same with planetary bombardment.
Capital ships would then be needed to do anything beyond fighting the enemy's mobile forces.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#13
Gazz wrote: One way would be to give space stations heavy armor that deflects the first 500 points of damage. A corvette weapon doing 510 damage per shot would hardly scratch the paint.
Lighter ships could damage parts of the station - disabling it until these are repaired - but couldn't destroy it.
Same with planetary bombardment.
Capital ships would then be needed to do anything beyond fighting the enemy's mobile forces.
I'd like to see this in some form. A shield of a station should recharge fast enough to be invulnerable to a small attack force. Though it might need to transfer energy from its production queues to the shield generators for it.
Say the shield at full power capacity can mitigate 1000 damage points per second gives you the option of taking it down slowly with 1001 fighters that do 1 damage point per second. :D

Perhaps something can be said for armor and the ability to dissipate a certain amount of damage. Though heating would eventually damage this kind of armor.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#14
If the station's shields are down you can hit it. If you bring 3x as many fighters, your fast-recharging station shield will go down. Taking your concept with them. =P

I mentioned armour for a reason.
Small ships could damage a station's "external equipment" like turrets, sensors, or Helium-3 storage tanks. The station's body would be invulnerable to them.
That makes small ships useful even against big targets.

Armour would be a property of the hull itself... and of each hardpoint.
If you put heavy armour on all hardpoints, you won't have a lot of firepower.

So while smaller vessels can raid installations or seriously hurt capital ships, it would take other capital ships or specialist ships like torpedo bombers to actually destroy a station or capital ship.
That makes capital ships useful. (or carrier-based bomber wings...)
They are terribly hard to kill and deal with "strategic" targets like fortifications or infrastructure.


Yes, armour mitigation is a drastic measure but look at X3 to see what happens without it.
A 4 km long destroyer (battleship more like) is stung to death by a swarm of fighter drones who use the smallest laser that exists in the game. Like 200 kids with slingshots destroying an M1 Abrams tank.
No. Just no. *draws line in the sand*
There is no "I" in Tea. That would be gross.
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Re: Bigger Ships, Different Gameplay: A Design Concept

#15
I think Gazz is right in regards to complete damage mitigation.

If we go with the idea of modules, then the module needed for larger ships would automatically have that incorporated.

If you can take the weakest thing in the game, and take out the strongest thing in the game with just sheer numbers... I'll be a bit disappointed to say the least.
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