One of the systems I’ve thus far avoided thinking too much about for Project Universe is combat. Combat is popular. Combat is endemic. Combat is the least common denominator of game mechanics because it’s a stand-in for so much: multiple people enter, one person leaves, loot drops, XP is gained, story is advanced, conflict is resolved. You can’t get that kind of satisfaction from, say, crafting swords.
I’m as much a fan of combat as anyone, but I’m also a fan of other systems, which is why blowing things up has taken a back seat to mechanics like economics and event systems. But I can’t put combat on the back burner forever. At some point I’m going to need to come up with a way to present the scenario that as a space trucker, you’re going to come under fire from those who want to take what you’re carrying.
I had been entertaining two methods. The first was the most obvious: real time reticle-based space sim firefights. Think Wing Commander, Elite: Dangerous, or more appropriately Starpoint Gemini 2. You point your ship at what you want to shoot at and pull the trigger. You’d also have at least one alternate fire weapon you could trigger with the other mouse button or hotkey. I think this would be the most expected method, but I have some concerns there, such as enemy AI that needs to be smarter than the AI that people smarter than me haven’t been able to model, as well as re-purposing the mouse to handle flight and fight as opposed to the free mouse cursor mode I’ve got now. The second possible combat method was what I thought of as the FTL model. In this style, the game would enter into a combat screen with the player on one side, and the enemy on the other, and there would be some kind of back and forth that could happen until one side surrenders or explodes. There’s really no exciting action going on here, but the player could still call shots by using hotkeys on cool-down to unleash better attacks and upscale defenses.
Yesterday while taking my afternoon walk around the neighborhood, I came up with a third potential option: passive combat. In a way, I actually prefer this method for reasons I’ll explain, although I also realize that I think a lot of people will absolutely hate it.
The conceit of the game is that you, the enterprising space trucker, are trying to make a name for yourself as a reliable courier of other people’s stuff. You will start out with the junker hauler — it’s all you can afford — that has limited cargo space and limited defenses. But you will have defenses, because no one expects pirates to grant new pilots a grace period while they find their space-legs. The ship you pilot isn’t is nimble fighter; it’s a ponderous cinder block that can best be described as an engine attached to a cargo hold with a seat at the front. It’s massive, and you’re just one person. You can’t be expected to mind all of the stations at once, especially in critical situations.
So you need a crew. Your crew will handle functions around the ship that need handling, allowing you to concentrate on getting your cargo to it’s intended destination. Crew duties would include engineering, navigation, and tactical stations (possible others). Eventually you’ll be able to hire real people to fill those spots, but initially you have a crappy AI CPUs to handle the responses in those jobs.
The passive combat, then, is intended to simulate the fact that you, the Captain, are in charge of getting the ship to it’s destination. That means that should you come under attack by unsavory characters, it’s the tactical officer’s job to do the fighting. Each station would have skills that contribute to the percent chance at success, so your tactical officer would have skills related to hitting things with weapons. Of course, the viability of the weapons you buy would also factor into it, resulting in an autonomous system that would start shooting at offensive targets as soon as you give the order to open fire. Meanwhile, you keep flying, because while you’re not totally defenseless, you’re not a Top Gun bad-ass: escape is always going to be your first priority.
What benefit does this system have over active combat, or the turn-based/timer-based combat? First and foremost, it keeps with the tone of the game in that this is about economic warfare, not pew pew warfare. There’s plenty of games that focus on blowing things up, and I want to try something different. Second, it provides a layer of management mechanics, improvement, and progression via the crew system. A crew system would allow you to upgrade your ship and it’s abilities, as well as provide a much needed money sink for your growing fortune. The best crew will cost more in salary, but you can’t stay with the default AI crew forever if you want to survive more hostile systems. Third, it could be seamless; one minute you’re heading for the jumpgate, the next minute you’re giving the order to open fire on pirates that have swooped in to take what you’ve got. You could easily escape by reaching the jumpgate, but with the proper weapons and a good crew, you can repel the invaders, repair any damage you take, and maybe collect some salvage in the process.
As I mentioned, I kind of like this system over the others because I think it’s different, but I understand that the “hands off” approach will really turn some people off. I don’t want to implement a system just because it’s expected, and I don’t want to design a system in a way that’ll become tedious or that frustrates or interferes whenever it triggers. A passive system allows the player to keep playing the game — a game of interstellar commerce — while not skirting the notion that being in the middle of nowhere with no help in sight is the perfect place to get jumped. When I think of this system playing out, I think of all of the battle scenes from Battlestar Galactica (the new version) where the Galactica fired off clouds of cannon-fire towards the Cylon base-stars. That much firepower was pretty awe-inspiring, but it’s primary purpose was to keep Raiders away so the fleet could escape. In the same vein, I want combat to be about defense, not about bounty hunting or picking fights when you’re supposed to be building a shipping empire.