Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Taking Direct Control

I’ve had a lot of people saying they love the hands-off battle idea, and a sizeable minority expressing concern that this will get old fast. In addition, when playing the game, I’m realising that no pre-battle orders are ever going to be fine enough to prevent you feeling occasionally frustrated at your AI captains, so I’ve decided to give-in and add some element of mid-battle control.

Now this would normally break the play-by-email style challenge system, but in challenge games (where you are playing against another player’s downloaded fleet) direct-control is simply disabled, and the battle reverts to view-only.

I’m not going overboard in terms of making an entire RTS out of the game, but currently you can single select or drag-select some ships, and then right click an enemy ship, or a position on the map and they attack/move as instructed. Green overlaid ships are selected, the red one is the current target. You can issue orders whilst the game is paused, for extra fine control.

Most of the battles have enough ships that you will not play it like an RTS, but just use the direct control stuff to fine tune your general battle plan. Sometimes ships come under more intense fire than expected, and you might want them to beat a hasty retreat to engage auto-repair modules. Sometimes you spot that a specific enemy ship is kicking interstellar ass and you may want to concentrate your fire there.

I’ve also been improving the AI. Weapons that fire >4 times in 7 seconds at a target and have no effect, will automatically select a different target for a few seconds. This prevents the dilemma where you have a set of ships just facing each other and blasting away ad-finitum achieving nothing. The chances of hitting a shop have also been skewed so that big ships are easier to hit, meaning fighters and frigates should last longer into the battle than they currently do.

25 thoughts on Taking Direct Control

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about this at all… Please don’t turn this into a micro-managing nightmare.

  2. It definitely will not be that. The game is designed to have zero interaction. After all, the AI-ships use the same AI as your own ships. The option is there for people to issue direct commands if they want to, but it’s invalid for challenges, which will be a big part of the game anyway.
    Don’t worry :D

  3. This is pretty dangerous territory. It’s a classic case of

    “some players might want this, while others whant that, so why not just throw in an option?”

    It’s hard to understand from the perspective players, you have to look at it from a game design point of view, to see this is a really bad idea. You are now stuck designing a Siamese twin of a game.

    Think of how it affects game balance for example, some stuff will suck without player control, but be overpowered with. Cloaking for example, or simpler stuff like long range weapons.

    The fact it’s incompatible with the “multiplayer/challenge” part, so people playing the game in “single player” will have a completely different experience. Their ship designs, deployments and so on will not translate well into the other part.

    And then there’s the specific arguments against direct control itself. It dilutes the whole idea of the “setup your army then let it go”, which is an interesting and mostly unexplored area in gaming. Think of ancient/historical battles for example, they have a lot in common with this game and this was how they were fought from the commanders point of view.

    Then consider that the player will be controlling the ships at the same time with the AI. This will likely frustrate a lot of players as they might feel like they are wrestling for control.

  4. Back in the old days I had this game called Ancient Art of War. You can no direct control during the battle. But you could give your units very high level orders like ‘attack’, ‘retreat’, etc. You couldn’t target specific units or control any single unit.

    Perhaps a system where you have very high level directions to give the fleet. Such as retreat, defend, attack, concentrate firepower, etc. Seems like this is what you would do as an admiral anyway. You aren’t going to give specific orders to a single ship. But general orders to the entire fleet.

    This gives you some control over the battle, but more from a very high level. And not all ships would obey (factoring in captains who think they know better than the admiral).

    Eventually you could turn these high level commands into maneuvers. So how about a rush of fast torpedo ships that fire and retreat quickly. Just create a maneuver for that but trigger in real-time when you want it.

    Anyway, I think the idea of high level commands is the way to go. Adds the element of control without assuming direct control of any ship.

  5. I think this is good. By leaving the option available to players, Cliff is catering to those who want to use it. Those wishing to let their AI-controlled fleet duke it out can do so, others who want to have additional say in what their ships do have the option. To top it off, Cliff says the option will only be available in single-player; multi-player challenges will be in the style that originally attracted us to GSB.

    I have a feeling Cliff, being the designer of the game, is looking at GSB with the most critical eye possible. Although I agree with dfhgg that some elements in single player risk becoming overpowered due to the ability to manage the action, I still think Cliff is doing the smart thing by catering to as many potential players as possible, which doesn’t hurt for an indie game production!

  6. Interesting.
    The thing is, I now have options. Options that can be easily changed during beta testing.
    If it seems obvious after 100 hours playtesting that the direct control dilutes the gameplay, I can ditch it, its trivial to remove this as an option now. But on the other hand, if it becomes obvious that it adds to the game in a big way, I can leave it in.
    Whatever happens, it will be based on how I feel the game actually plays, rather than how people imagine it will play.
    It’s never a bad idea to re-assess the flow of a game as you develop it. Sometimes what seemed really fun turns out not to be, and vice versa…

  7. Have you thought about expanding the AI to compensate for the short falls that player control might solve instead? Maybe a very simple scripting interface that allows players to say something like…

    IF .DamageTakenPerSecond > 10 Then
    END IF

    This example isn’t all that relevant to your particular example, but I think you get the idea. If you gave the player the ability to do this in a VERY high level sort of way, but still keep it pre-combat, you will accomplish you goal of giving more control. I could see you adding methods that allows the player even more control, stuff like…

    GetNearShipTypes(ShipClass, Distance) As ShipClassCollection
    ‘This could be used to see if only fighters are near and accordingly…

    I see this being a better approach to player control than direct control.

  8. Some stuff like that is already in, in that each ship can have a configured point of damage at which it switches into retreat mode.

  9. More slidy-scaley less clicky-pointy. More Preparation H, less menopause. More fart-thought, less hiney-site.

  10. (Previous comment is an example of my work as a professional beta tester, keep’em guessing till the end!)

  11. To alleviate the problem of “restarting and redesigning your fleet until you beat it getting old fast”, I thought of something. The problem is that with no prior knowledge of the battle, preplanning would just be random. On the other end restarting the encounter you could just refine your fleet ad nauseam, the opponent/designer not having the same option. We need something in between…

    How about a game mode similar to “challenge”, but with a 2 stage setup, where the 2 players first deploy their fleets, then check eachothers fleets out, and then decide on their battle orders.

    This would solve the problem that the gameplay would essentially degenerate into restarting the encounter and adjusting your fleet until you win. Instead you’d have to actually second guess your opponent based on his deployment and all that so you get some true strategic gameplay.

    This would be much easier to implement then allowing 2 players direct control (that would probably require a whole game rewrite).

  12. Forgot that might need the game to be deterministic so that both players would get the same result. Have you looked into this cliffski? It would also help alot with replays. Probably need to keep a strict eye on all random number generation and such.

  13. You have a few other options with no direct intervention:

    – Let users flag ships with different priorities, in terms of both “attacking” and “guarding”. That gives the user more control, generally speaking, without requiring direct control.

    – Allow users to provide AI scripts for advanced ship behavior, so they can fine-tune the AI reactions (or even replace it, perhaps).

    The advantage of those approaches is that they are compatible with play-by-email, but I don’t know if they fit your design. Just thought I should mention. ;-)

  14. Have you ever tried Spartan or Legion (from Slitherine)? Those games also had the “pre-battle planning, hands-off during battle” approach and it worked marvelous.

    This game is all about being the CIC. You set-up formation, give some general orders and then send your ships into battle. I don’t see an admiral order around one particular ship all the time, unless it were his own. :) As such, I’m more against any “direct-manage” options than in favour of it. The game scale (as I understood it) is much grander than the captain-level. So, please, don’t put so much energy in trying to please both crowds. It’s your game, not ours. :)

  15. Do you know the dominions series cliff?

    The battles are somehow equal like this game. You control commanders and units and can give them orders. Than the battle runs out without any play influence. Its perfectly playable via pbem – which makes them so great in MP.

    I dislike the option of direct control because i fear every increase in player influence makes it less challenging because the AI normally can’t be compared against a good strategy player. So i like the previous idea just to plan and setup the battle!

    Remember MoO1+2? The tactical battles were so easy just because the player has so much control.

  16. Put me down as cautiously hostile to direct player control and quite excited about the idea of some player programability.

    Looking forward to playing it too.

  17. I have to agree with David House – while I can’t say I like the idea of giving individual ships commands like a RTS, maybe the option of giving general orders such as retreat, attack, flank, etc, would add to the feeling of being an admiral without making it a clicking-fest. With the added option of grouping ships into specific attack groups & then only being able to give vague orders to those attack groups (with a chance that some of the ships will ignore the command,etc), the strategic thinking could be quite immense – sort of like a larger scale & less mircomanagement version of ‘Begin, A Tactical Starship Simulation’.

  18. I have to say, I was a bit worried that battles might turn into a bore-fest. Even just a little player interaction can go a long way toward alleviating this. Seeing as how such a feature has been implemented, I have little doubt this game will be anything other than awesome!

  19. Hi, I would love to see some rpg elements in this game, at least in the singleplayer campaign. This could go also hand in hand with the direct control idea. By only permitting the direct control to ships in a specific radius around the Playership/Flagship. The Flagship could also give passive bonuses to the ships around it or have the option for specific weapons/gadets.

    I know, the balancing in the singleplayer campaign might be more difficult…


    …..big space battles are great. Big space battles with your own Flagship are even better :)

    Looking forward to it.

  20. I’m also against mid-game interaction.

    Suggestion: Play Final Fantasy X. They have a great idea – a handful of preexisting AI scripts that you can choose to give (or not) to each character(/ship), and you can prioritize them. That gave you a good amount of control over your characters without being too overwhelming/requiring a lot of scripting skills.

  21. Hello i have a nice suggestion.
    You could make one ship selectable in the fleet as a flagship
    Flagships, basicly the ship in which the player is (or his main means of communication).
    Players could give out orders to ships in a fixed radius around the flagship. This would limit the micro and make players identify more with their fleet.

    This idea could be improved futher with the addition of sub commanding vessels which could give the player a limited ability to influence the decisions made by that ship and the ships under its command.

    This is the only “not fun” part of the game i see now. Great battles but with no real coherence or command structure. Still looks great even without this :)
    Keep up the great work :)

  22. p.s.
    The direction your going in is very good. Watching battles and having nothing to do would get boring really fast.

    as for subcommanding vessels to make it clear, it would be something really simple like
    “commence” – attack in the manner specified in the pre-battle planer
    “rush/charge” – full power to the engines, maybe sacrifice weapon output
    “hold position” – try to hold without advancing
    “defence” – slower advance with more “healing”
    “retreat” – obvious

    This could add depth to the game, giving a feel of control over your forces without forcing tons of micro to the player since there could be 4-5 max sub-command vessels in a big battle.
    Battles could be more interesting this way, when for exaple, you use those easy command to change the formation of your forces.
    The possibilities are infinite.

    and remember people those are just random ideas i`m writing

  23. I’m against direct control over ships myself. Giving orders to the fleet, sure, for example, setting a higher priority for your ships to hit the enemy’s missile ships that are pummeling your battle line would be an admirally thing to do.

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