Know Your Enemy
Time for another update and today we are going to go delve more into detail about space combat. First of all we thought it would be cool to start with a trip down memory lane. Our space combat has gone through several iterations where we have experimented with different control schemes and evaluated the relationship between the ship and your crew. In each successive iteration we have shifted focus and put more emphasis on the crew as well as your officers.
Prototype 1 above was a from a very early iteration from before the Kickstarter campaign. The focus was to get all the features and functionality into one screen. It is rather chaotic and the user interface itself is also noisy. Observe for example that the power management controls in the bottom left include a triangle to allocate power to shields, weapons and engines. This triangle itself was resting on top of a reactor cylinder which would raise or lower as you modify the total power output from the reactor. Sort of like a control rod in a nuclear reactor.
Prototype 2 switched to a more sleek and elegant look as we shifted away from the player directly aiming his/her weapons and put more emphasis on representing the crew. Finally the third iteration is very close to the current state of affairs. Most of the functionality from the first prototype is still there, but we have laid out the controls in a more structured manner. A big change from prototype 2 to prototype 3 is the introduction of the maneuver wheel bottom left.
Returning to the present day one challenge for us has been that the experience we want to deliver in space combat is similar to some TV shows and series but have yet to be replicated well in other games. We have studied a lot of games and discussed pros and cons of different approaches. This has necessitated a lot of trial and error on our part. While you will undoubtedly recognize certain elements from other games, we find it difficult to describe the space combat in The Mandate as “Game X meets Game Y”.
Before moving on it would make sense to discuss a bit more in detail what type of experience we are trying to deliver. Slow and majestic are two keywords for us. We wanted to achieve a certain sense of scale and grandeur as these hulking behemoths travel through space and at the same time contrast these with the agile light craft that zip past or marines that conduct boarding operations and kick in doors. Capital ship to ship space combat -especially between equally matched adversaries- should allow you time to think and plan your next moves without having to pause the game. This means the rate of fire and the lethality of each weapon type must support this. For example a rapid-fire CIWS (close-in-weapon-system) would be effective against light craft but ineffective against the armour plating of a capital ship. A heavy torpedo on the other hand could do serious damage to a capital ship but the downside is low speed, limited ammo, long reload time, the need to manually guide the torpedo etc.
Secondly, we wanted space combat to be intuitive and fun from the start without requiring a lengthy tutorial. Yet we want to offer depth of gameplay as well as provide ample challenges during early, mid and late game. Your initial frigate will have a small complement of crew and only a handful of rooms and systems that you need to worry about. We also provide various templates that limit repetitive tasks and allow you to delegate certain ship functions to your officers so you can focus your attention where it is most needed (for example to manage your marines in a boarding operation). As you expand your fleet, train your crew and research new technologies, you will gradually unlock new options which may change your strategy.
Thirdly, we want the experience to be tactile and for many operations you will click on and interact directly with your ship. Feedback on the status of your ship will be conveyed visually in what we hope is a less “gamey” approach. We are steering away from hitpoint bars as much as possible and going more in the direction of location-based damage modelling. This applies to both shields, armour and the internals of your ship. This has the added benefit of allowing us to “connect” the crew that reside inside your ship with the ship itself and have consequences for both ship and crew as a result of battle damage.
We have spent a lot of time to streamline both the GUI and the player feedback loop both for boarding combat and space combat to ensure that if you understand either game mode then the other game mode should follow naturally. As you can see above both the space combat and boarding combat have metaphors and key design elements that are reused across both game modes.
So what is the process for initiating space combat? Well, when not in combat you will travel between star systems in the Adventure Mode. Here you can zoom in or out, dock with friendly space stations, contact factions, obtain quests etc. The objects in the Adventure Mode are not just pretty window dressing but have some game function. There will be merchant convoys, derelict ships to explore, escape pods to scan, planetary bodies to visit etc. Basically if you played Sid Meier’s Pirates! or Mount&Blade then you should have a basic idea of what the Adventure Mode is all about.
Once a hostile fleet is in close proximity to your fleet it may decide to attack you or you may decide to attack it. The environment that you are in will impact the upcoming space battle. For example - if you were attacked by pirates in the vicinity of an asteroid field then this asteroid field will be present in the space battle and may be used to gain an advantage.
The space combat may start at either visual or beyond visual range depending on how close you were to the hostile fleet in Adventure Mode. In both cases you will start in the Battle Orchestrator with your own forces and you may or may not know the strength and disposition of the enemy forces. Your scanner tech level and the experience of your astrogation officers may also influence this. In case you are not familiar with the Battle Orchestrator you can view the video below which was made available earlier this year.
After you have laid your plans in the Battle Orchestrator and unpaused the game, you will be able to use the environment around you to mask your EMS (electromagnetic signature). This will make it more difficult for enemy ships to detect, identify and scan your ship. Alternatively the environment (asteroid field in our example) could make your scanning process take longer and be less precise. You may also tweak the power allocation and turn off certain power-hungry systems to minimize your EMS output.
At beyond visual range you will have to rely on long range scanners and perhaps you will launch light craft to perform a recon mission. If your ships have long range weapons you can use these to deliver a powerful blow before entering visual range.
Information warfare is crucial in space combat and whichever side gains the upper hand here will have an advantage which could tip the scales and change the outcome of the space combat. On the one hand you want to minimize the intelligence that the enemy has about your exact armament and capabilities. You may wish to wait with deploying or delay firing your weapons to limit the enemy’s chance to respond with a suitable counter (until it is too late). We are taking a bit of inspiration here from the Age of Sail where the gunports on the tall ships were closed until they readied for action. What exactly is behind the gunports or in our case the turret slots of an enemy ship?
For answers we can turn to the Astrogation service branch. They have specialists and consoles that can help us identify contacts (to decide if they are friend or foe) as well as scan hostile contacts in more detail. This may reveal additional information about the room types and weapons carried by the hostile contact. In addition we may also discover additional places where our marines could later breach the hull if we decide to launch a boarding operation. While we are scanning the hostile contact they may respond in kind by either scanning us or trying to jam and interfere with our scanning.
With this new information we can tell our crew in the Weapons service branch to perform sub-system targeting against specific targets. Provided you have precision weapons installed and skilled Weapons specialists then you may damage or destroy key rooms and weapons on the enemy ship to cripple it. In our example we could either target each individual weapon and gradually destroy them or we could target Gunnery Bay 4. By destroying Gunnery Bay 4 we would effectively disable all weapons controlled from that room, allowing us to later board the ship and capture these weapons intact.
It is important to note that Sub-system targeting is an advanced concept and not something we expect players to do early in the game. Rather it comes into play a bit later and adds interesting opportunities during the mid and late game stages. Speaking of opportunities we do want to offer a lot of customization options, not just vertical progression (getting bigger ships) but also horizontal progression (change focus). We have iterated on the ship section types which we presented during the Kickstarter. A major change is that each section now allows either a crew upgrade or a system upgrade from the standard hull. This should allow you to experiment and create some interesting ship designs. The ship section types are as follows:
The Crew Bow upgrade allows more crew on board your ship. The Hangar upgrade converts crew berths to pilot berths and installs hangar bays as well as other rooms necessary for your pilots to perform at their best. The Marine upgrade converts crew berths to marine berths and installs additional armouries onboard your ship to allow you to equip additional marines in full battle gear. The Guided Weapons upgrade will let you install specific long range weapons like torpedoes, missiles etc. The Heavy Weapons upgrade adds extra turret slots so you can fire a more powerful broadside. Finally, the Systems/Aux allows you to upgrade your power output, scanning range etc.
The Hangar ship section in particular is interesting since without it your ship will not be able to launch or retrieve fighters or bombers. These can be either 1-seaters or 2-seaters. Fighters are good for dealing with other fighters and also for taking out enemy bombers. Bombers are good for dealing with enemy capital ship since they can carry anti-ship weapons. The light craft are organized in a similar fashion to the marines.
Flights and squadrons can only contain either fighters or bombers. A wing can contain up to three squadrons and each wing can either be a pure fighter / bomber wing or perhaps a composite wing where each squadron can be either a fighter or bomber squadron. This is useful when you want to launch attacks with bombers and you need to screen them from enemy fighters. Similarly a group can contain up to three wings, and each wing can contain a mix of fighter or bomber squadrons.
From the previous Kickstarter update you may remember that we also outlined how pilots could specialize to become a Recon Operator or a Weapons Operator. To really take advantage of their skills, you need to put these pilots in the co-pilot seat in a 2-seater. That means they have a regular pilot (or Ace Pilot) to fly the light craft while they can focus on either scanning or executing an anti-ship strike. Now, we could talk at length about air drills and how they are both similar and different from the battle drills in boarding combat, but this update is already very long so we will save that for another time.
We are going to round off this update with a video from Garret (art director), Greg (env artist) and Vegard (tech art director). They will tell us a bit more about ship art direction, the ship construction process and also demonstrate the sub-system targeting in practice.
Your friends at Perihelion Interactive