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Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#1
Ringu and Victor recently had a brief exchange in the Golden Days thread on the subject of Wing Commander, the phenomenally good space combat game from Chris Roberts that has inspired so many successors, from Privateer to Strike Commander and Freelancer, and to Star Citizen and, in its own way, Limit Theory.

Let me quote them, because I'd like to follow up on something that should get its own thread.
Ringu wrote:I started working as a developer in 1985, fresh out of the UK's A-level colleges. As a school boy, I'd played all of the first computer games, including Elite and my favourite, Starship Command, and even contributed some code to a few of them.

I built some of the first PC compatible machines in the UK, and because of that, was hooked on MS' Flight Simulator for months.

But when Wing Commander came out... I was knocked on the floor. It was like nothing I'd ever imagined, and the whole series captured my attention for years.

I'm an SC backer purely because seeing the Salthi always bank to the left gave me such a sense of immersion and secret knowledge, it directly fed into my somewhat OCD need to complete games :-)
Victor Tombs wrote:I doubt if I would have backed SC as fervently and extensively as I have if it hadn't been for the Wing Commander/ Privateer/ Strike Commander games. And although Freelancer was taken out of CR's hands at the end I still give him the credit for it as it was his idea. There are several pioneers who deserve my thanks for giving me a real taste for space. :)
I also had the pleasure of being a gamer when Wing Commander was originally released. I've told the story elsewhere here, I think, of how I cleverly managed to snag for myself an enormous (for the day) 20-inch NEC 5D monitor. It weighed a ton, but it was worth it because compared to the tiny screens of the day, playing Wing Commander on the NEC 5D was like looking through a window. It was like being there, to the point that one night while driving home after an extended WC session, I caught myself almost turning the wheel of my car into oncoming traffic to line up a better shot at them.

This game really was that compelling for its time.

But what I wanted to mention here -- and it has a connection to Limit Theory -- is that maybe the most satisfying aspect of Wing Commander for me was the implementation of enemy "ace" pilots.

Most pilots were nameless cannon fodder. Each type of ship in the game had its own characteristic flight dynamics, and each enemy pilot type had a preferred way of flying those ships. For the most part, fighters piloted by nameless enemies were a relatively easy challenge once you got to understand their ships and their flight styles. They could be dangerous in numbers, or if they had a new and more powerful enemy ship type with them. A lone ship, though, was no problem once you had grokked their pattern (after splashing enough of them).

But every now and then, and with perfect pacing for the game's story and gameplay, you would find yourself looking down the gunsights of an enemy ace. They often flew the same kinds of enemy ship types you'd already seen... but these pilots were much more dangerous.

In combat, they rolled and turned faster; they shot more accurately; they used missiles more effectively; and their evasive tactics made them harder to hit. In short, these enemy ace pilots felt not just faster, but smarter. They flew so much better than the usual variety that encountering one was always a shock. It made me sit up in my seat, flex my fingers, and grin as I prepared for the challenge I knew I was about to face.

The behavior of Wing Commander's ace pilots was programmed; there was never any misunderstanding about that. But their behaviors seemed so much more advanced than the cannon fodder pilots -- even though they weren't, really -- that anticipating those encounters became, for me, an important component of why Wing Commander was so much fun to play.

It wasn't just the pure gameplay challenge of figuring out their patterns and mechanically defeating them -- it's that they had names. And a fight with them started with them contacting you to taunt you. They personalized the gameplay to an extent not achieved by many other games since.

I find that surprising... and an opportunity.

Which brings me to Limit Theory. I think it has a similar opportunity to provide that kind of "wake-up call" fun, where on well-spaced occasions you encounter an ace opponent who seems to have it in for you. ( I know we've talked about enemy AI in LT before, but it's been a while and I thought it might be interesting to return to the Wing Commander perspective.)

How much visible variation will there be in the perceived competence of opponent fighter pilots in Limit Theory? Can there even be anything like perceptibly "ace" pilots? Will anything like that visible spike in fighter pilot competence also exist for larger, multi-crew ships? If this idea of "ace" opponents seems like fun, is it enough fun that we should hope that Josh has implemented it already? Or should it be left to modders?

I don't normally suggest that a new game should copy some feature from a previous game. I think new games ought to strive to be their own games, with their own features. But there are the occasional cases where something from a great game of the past hasn't been fully exploited in a long time, and would make sense in a modern game.

I think named, chatty, and unusually competent (but still pattern-based) opponents might be a feature from Wing Commander that would be a good fit for Limit Theory, and make it even more fun to play than we already think it will be.

Comments are welcome.
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#3
Star Citizen/Arena Commander Vanduul Swarm has ace pilots too. 8-)

I think that this is an idea that perfectly fits with the Limit Theory philosophy, and that we will find not just ace pilots but other kinds of distinctive characters as well. I think that's the main attractive possibility behind the AI Josh had hinted us so far. I like that thing about the enemy pilot calling you before attacking you too, particularly if you find an enemy pilot who would never strike you without a warning. Very gentlemanlike.
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"Playing" is not simply a pastime, it is the primordial basis of imagination and creation. - Hideo Kojima
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#4
If the question is: should this be in LT in some form? I think the answer is a gimme: yes. It's a good idea, and a proven one to boot. No-one is going to say: "nah, sounds terrible".

In my view the question really is: do we expect ace pilots to appear organically in the game, or do we want to manufacture them?

By "appear organically" I mean: do we think that NPCs will develop as the game progresses, developing their own skills? Eventually one of these NPCs will develop into an "Ace"... or perhaps simply be at a much higher "level" than the surrounding NPC population? (Levels! :o )

Or should the game simply invent new characters with the requisite skills and insert them into the path of the player (i.e. "manufactured")? If so, what happens to them once the player has completed that mission (or moved away from the area)?

This raises other issues, like: does the game track all "manager" NPCs at all times, and keep their skills up to date... or does it only do so when they come back into range of the player - like systems are postulated to work by some? (looks at Cornflakes). If so, doesn't that limit the NPCs to certain systems? :think:
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#7
Oh God, Flat, somehow I'd missed your story about the driving but it resonates *so much* -- I'm gonna go and dig out my GOG copy of WC now :-D

Have you played Shadows of Mordor? That uses a really interesting system of enemy generation where your hit list consists entirely of named and described Orcs/Trolls/etc., and as you kill each one to acquire information, one of their subordinates - who you may possibly have also faced - can rise up to take over the vacant position. When one of them beats you in a fight, any future battles will see them taunt you over your previous failure, as well as the more usual battle calls. The result is one of the most intimate games I've ever known, where you get to *know* the enemy on a level where you can actually plan how you're going to defeat them.

As mcsven said, I think clearly Aces should exist in the LT universe, but unless Josh is going to start every NPC off at the start of their life and then simulate their entire career before we encounter them in order to figure out if they're an Ace, I think we have no choice but to be manufactured; at least, on the same level as the Faction Boss, that sort of thing.

This is one case where having a potentially different Universe per game install is both good and bad, I think - Good in that you have some unique, amazing battles with particular Aces, but Bad because not everyone will ever get to meet this Ace, even if you give them the Universe Seed.
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#8
Ringu wrote:Have you played Shadows of Mordor? That uses a really interesting system of enemy generation where your hit list consists entirely of named and described Orcs/Trolls/etc., and as you kill each one to acquire information, one of their subordinates - who you may possibly have also faced - can rise up to take over the vacant position. When one of them beats you in a fight, any future battles will see them taunt you over your previous failure, as well as the more usual battle calls. The result is one of the most intimate games I've ever known, where you get to *know* the enemy on a level where you can actually plan how you're going to defeat them.
I have not played it, but I've heard a lot about its use of the "Nemesis" design concept, which a lot of people have praised.

FWIW, a couple of things about SoM bother me. From the Wikipedia entry: "...being killed by a leader will cause the current mission to be cancelled and the player returned to a safe point to continue exploring, and the leader will gain additional power, making him more difficult to defeat in the next encounter."

The cynic in me says that this is their cheap way to avoid having to implement a proper save/reload system in the PC version. ;)

Worse, though: "Further, such deaths are tracked through online servers, and the player's friends on the various network services (such as via Steam friends for Windows players) will be notified of this death and be offered the chance to exact revenge on the Uruk, which if successful will give rewards to both the original player and the victorious friend."

Ack. No. No, no, no. I play single-player games; I do not need or want any of my gameplay events to be publicized for any reason.

If this is optional, good, but eewwwwww.

All that said, I do sort of like the idea for Limit Theory that an enemy who manages to escape a fight with ships of my faction would sometimes develop a burning hatred of my faction, and might become more effective at damaging my faction in some future encounter.
Ringu wrote:As mcsven said, I think clearly Aces should exist in the LT universe, but unless Josh is going to start every NPC off at the start of their life and then simulate their entire career before we encounter them in order to figure out if they're an Ace, I think we have no choice but to be manufactured; at least, on the same level as the Faction Boss, that sort of thing.
It's an interesting question, sort of related to the "Great Man" theory of history: are heroes born, and rise inevitably to greatness, as Carlyle thought? Or as Spencer argued, are there many persons with the potential for greatness, and the tides of world events insure that some of them are carried to prominence?

My feeling is that magically generating heroic NPCs feels too game-y for Limit Theory. But there might be a way for heroes in Limit Theory to emerge.

Some NPCs might be generated with outstanding potential, along with personality traits that enable them to express those gifts. And a few of them could go through challenging situations that allow their potential to be realized as greatness in one of many areas, including as a legendary fleet commander, a skilled commodities trader, a gifted researcher... or as a canny fighter pilot, whom we call an "ace."

Tweaking the random number generator for NPC potentialities should, I'm guessing, be sufficient to determine a nice distribution across space and time of heroic NPCs. And if some of them decide to use their gifts for evil, well. :)
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#9
Flatfingers wrote:FWIW, a couple of things about SoM bother me. From the Wikipedia entry: "...being killed by a leader will cause the current mission to be cancelled and the player returned to a safe point to continue exploring, and the leader will gain additional power, making him more difficult to defeat in the next encounter."

The cynic in me says that this is their cheap way to avoid having to implement a proper save/reload system in the PC version. ;)
You should not read Wiki stuff. ;)

The game has a proper save system in which you don't need to worry about. What happen is that your character doesn't really die (due to story reasons) similar to what happens in the excellent and legendary Soul Reaver. You lose the mission, but you can come back for revenge. (Because you are playing in a persistent world things are going to be different next time, like that random archer who "killed" you last time now will have a new, more privileged position, and he may even have minions of his own.)

About the multiplayer stuff I can not speak because I never found anything related on my side. 8-)
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"Playing" is not simply a pastime, it is the primordial basis of imagination and creation. - Hideo Kojima
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#10
Flatfingers wrote:Worse, though: "Further, such deaths are tracked through online servers, and the player's friends on the various network services (such as via Steam friends for Windows players) will be notified of this death and be offered the chance to exact revenge on the Uruk, which if successful will give rewards to both the original player and the victorious friend."

Ack. No. No, no, no. I play single-player games; I do not need or want any of my gameplay events to be publicized for any reason.

If this is optional, good, but eewwwwww.
Eek, I hadn't heard about that! Yeah, that's pretty nasty :-p but like you, I'm a single-player 99.9% of the time and I solve problems like that one by the simple expedient of just not having any friends :-D

BST, the only reason I mention SoM was because the personalised nemeses elevated the game to something special, for me.
All that said, I do sort of like the idea for Limit Theory that an enemy who manages to escape a fight with ships of my faction would sometimes develop a burning hatred of my faction, and might become more effective at damaging my faction in some future encounter.
I think this is a perfect example of something I've not seen in any game other than SoM - consequences of your actions. Sure, you have Reputation-type systems in which massive repeated involvement in a faction's interests will gain you perks with that faction, but again that's not personal enough, I feel. I want the head bad guy's children to come after me specifically, or I want a price on my head whenever I enter that faction's territory. Maybe even the future activity of the faction is altered as they try to find ways to take me down. A big test for an AI, that's for sure!
My feeling is that magically generating heroic NPCs feels too game-y for Limit Theory. But there might be a way for heroes in Limit Theory to emerge.
My only concern with not generating them is that there would never be large factions in the game unless their creation and evolution took place at an accelerated rate behind the scenes, and that seems like an awful lot more work than procedurally generating a faction at a certain pre-existing level when you first encounter them.
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Mind The Gap
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#11
Ringu wrote:[…]just not having any friends :-D
I beg to differ :P
I at least like you :P
Ringu wrote: I think this is a perfect example of something I've not seen in any game other than SoM - consequences of your actions. Sure, you have Reputation-type systems in which massive repeated involvement in a faction's interests will gain you perks with that faction, but again that's not personal enough, I feel. I want the head bad guy's children to come after me specifically, or I want a price on my head whenever I enter that faction's territory. Maybe even the future activity of the faction is altered as they try to find ways to take me down. A big test for an AI, that's for sure!
Depends on the exact effects, the underlying system could be the same (accumulate "like" points). only the AI's expression of that score would have to change.

May separate the scores along multiple scales?
One for economical, one for research, one for combat, etc
"I dont like you for reason [metadata]"


Hmm... the whole topic gave me an idea.
Maybe "Aces" could just be a kind of executive NPC.
They could get generated in "significant" (for the individual) events. (father/comrade/liked superior killed, company brought down, home planet destroyed, lost a certain step in the tech race, etc).
This would create an NPC with an extraordinary motivation.
So if the player wipes out a squadron of ships, and one of them escapes that one has a chance of becoming an "ace" / "nemesis".

At first they may not even appear like executives, they still obey orders, dont demand wages etc, but could do their own thing on the side.
(This would necesdiate very fine-grained information propagation mechanisms, though. To enable the npc in question to hide things from his superior.
A system for malfunctioning equipment would also help, that not any anomaly at all has to be a rouge npc but that it could be an error as well)


An alternative only for creating aces could be to track effectivity per ship (assuming static crew) and from the statistic variances could then be selected aces.
So if a squad of fighters performs better than others (for whatever reason, luck, being micromanaged by the player, etc) could be declared "ace" with whatever that entails.

:think:

Ringu wrote: My only concern with not generating them is that there would never be large factions in the game unless their creation and evolution took place at an accelerated rate behind the scenes, and that seems like an awful lot more work than procedurally generating a faction at a certain pre-existing level when you first encounter them.
And where is accelerating time not a procedure to execute the generation? :P

Also, its probably less work depending on how LoD is implemented.
The time accelerated new region would just be a strongly abstracted region which would run with the same code as the rest of the world.
(And from what i remember/understood from josh large scale LoD is already in place to do that)

Instead of having to create a completely independent piece of code that tries to copy the results of that abstraction.
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#12
Cornflakes_91 wrote:I at least like you :P
Damnit, a near perfect record broken! :-p
Depends on the exact effects, the underlying system could be the same (accumulate "like" points). only the AI's expression of that score would have to change.
Absolutely, it is exactly that expression, and especially on the micro-scale, that I think is missing.
Hmm... the whole topic gave me an idea.
Maybe "Aces" could just be a kind of executive NPC.
They could get generated in "significant" (for the individual) events. (father/comrade/liked superior killed, company brought down, home planet destroyed, lost a certain step in the tech race, etc).
This would create an NPC with an extraordinary motivation.
So if the player wipes out a squadron of ships, and one of them escapes that one has a chance of becoming an "ace" / "nemesis".
That would totally work. These aces would also provide a good deal more colour to the local faction as well if they were using everyone's actions to determine generation - I like the idea that both sides of a war have veterans who have become famous with a backstory that actually impacted their career.
At first they may not even appear like executives, they still obey orders, dont demand wages etc, but could do their own thing on the side. (This would necesdiate very fine-grained information propagation mechanisms, though. To enable the npc in question to hide things from his superior. A system for malfunctioning equipment would also help, that not any anomaly at all has to be a rouge npc but that it could be an error as well)
This is where I think it gets hard, and why it hasn't happened in other games. There's a lot of work in coding these systems that 99% of players wouldn't ever be aware of, let alone interact with, but I think the impact can be massive.
We're edging towards the Industrial Spy stuff here as well, having an aggrieved NPC come join your crew so she can sabotage you, and so on.
An alternative only for creating aces could be to track effectivity per ship (assuming static crew) and from the statistic variances could then be selected aces. So if a squad of fighters performs better than others (for whatever reason, luck, being micromanaged by the player, etc) could be declared "ace" with whatever that entails.
That's definitely the non-simulation variant, and I would genuinely hope that LT has the ability to investigate factions in this level of detail already, given that the data is probably already being generated and used.
And where is accelerating time not a procedure to execute the generation? :P Also, its probably less work depending on how LoD is implemented.
An excellent point! I was purely thinking of the time to generate the region, but it does makes sense to have the generator be several iterations of the normal heartbeat loop. In which case, most of where I think the difficulty lies also goes away because those are just systems that are in everyday use, too. I like this idea, a lot.
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#13
Ringu wrote:
Cornflakes_91 wrote:At first they may not even appear like executives, they still obey orders, dont demand wages etc, but could do their own thing on the side. (This would necesdiate very fine-grained information propagation mechanisms, though. To enable the npc in question to hide things from his superior.)
... We're edging towards the Industrial Spy stuff here as well, having an aggrieved NPC come join your crew so she can sabotage you, and so on.
I thought so, too. So maybe this is a good time to mention the Unethical Behavior and Information Warfare thread I started for discussing this kind of thing. ;) I'd be interesting in seeing if there are any new ideas to add to the possibilities discussed there.

In the meantime, this idea of allowing newly generated systems to run at a faster clock rate is pretty nice. We believe the basic capability will already exist, as Josh has talked about a kind of accelerated evolution of the universe when starting up a new game... but why couldn't that also be used when creating new star systems to extend a game universe already in progress?

(Actually, now I want "faster/slower clock rate" as one of the aspects of physical reality that can vary between star systems when the "Different Physics" option is selected in the new game Options screen. ;) ) (No, I don't know that any such game option will exist -- it's just one I'd enjoy seeing!)

Regarding aces (of whatever kind): is it enough for LT to generate (by whatever means) a few extraordinary NPCs, whose effects are limited to gameplay? Or do they need histories and reasons that we (through our characters) can dig up that tell us how those NPCs became great and why?

In other words, how much "story" should LT have to generate for special NPCs?
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Re: Wing Commander, "Ace" Pilots, and Limit Theory

#15
Victor Tombs wrote:
Ringu wrote:
Cornflakes_91 wrote:I at least like you :P
Damnit, a near perfect record broken! :-p
I like you too, Ringu. ;)

Don't get the impression from my politeness that I like everybody, that is not the case. :angel:
Aww thanks guys; I like you too!
I didn't intend that line to be anything other than throwaway, but it is totally true that the only occasions I play games with other people are when we're in the same room, or the glorious days of the City of Heroes MMO :-)
I even play E:D in Solo Play...
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