In Project Universe, you are a fat, bloated, slow moving, rundown, ugly-ass space barge. You have no individualized personality because you have no personified avatar (well, you’ll get a portrait, but that’s about it). I figure that since the game will not be featuring “walking in stations” then there’ll be no real need to put in the work to have some character that the player can identify with.
That may come back to shoot me in the foot, because I suspect that people like to identify with an alter ego, and some people need to feel invested in a character. Well, I can actually do better than most games, because while I’m not giving you a character, I’m actually giving you multiple characters.
Meet Your Crew
I never actually debated whether or not a crew system was a good idea; it has so much potential for mechanical mix-and-match that it would really be stupid not to have it, really.
As a captain of a cargo ship, you need people to keep the ship running. That includes engineers, tactical, and piloting crew. You’ll also get security, medical, and an arbitrator crew member. These NPCs can be hired at certain stations and paid a working wage to take stations on your ship. Each member will have stats that can be scrutinized so as a player you can know if you’re getting a well trained employee or a brand new recruit.
Finding the best crew will be like any stats-based CCG: a crew member might have one excellent stat, but you might be tempted to replace them with someone who has two mediocre stats, just to get that second stat on the board. Your needs will dictate who is hired and who is fired, and always with an eye for better employees and lower wages.
Focus On UI
For the most part, crew members aren’t going to be interactive. There’s no cutaway view of your ship where you can poke and pinch your crew or watch them go about their duties. They’ll contribute stats, and will be represented as portraits and placards that will show up when they need to do something out of the ordinary.
I’ve been sketching out some concepts for the trading UI (again), and this time came across some white space at the bottom of a proposed panel. I thought it might be cool to see your arbitrator at work — this is the crew member that does the wheeling and dealing with merchants on your behalf to get you discounts. I threw in a kind of paper doll concept which has your arbitrator on the left and the merchant on the right, with dueling word balloons in between the two of them. You’ll be able to instruct your arbitrator to not haggle (no discount), take a friendly approach (moderate discount/positive rep), or be a hard-bargain-driving bastard (significant discount/negative rep). You’d then get some conversation text between the arbitrator and the merchant, and a discount could be applied if successful…or a surcharge applied if unsuccessful.
At first I thought this would be a cool mechanic that allows for more than just “dock-buy-undock” gameplay. I had planned to allow players to parlay reputation with a merchant, but using the crew in a more interactive manner would add a layer of button-pressing (kids love to press buttons!) as well as showing that the crew isn’t just dead-weight.
Plus, having the crew paper doll on screen gives the game some personality in a game where you’re otherwise represented by the ass-end of a space barge. Check out these examples:
This is the market window for Elite: Dangerous. It’s functional, but as often as I’ve used it, I only concentrate on two locations: the entire left panel, and the middle-to-bottom section of the right column, which is where the BUY/SELL buttons show up (not sure why they’re not in this screenshot). I never bother with the upper-portion of the right panel, so to me, that’s wasted space. The UI is also pretty clinical. It knows you just want to get in, Do Business, and be on your way. It doesn’t try to be interactive, personal, or cute. It’s functional, and that’s the best we can say about it.
Now check out this screen from Recettear:
That’s you on the left, and your customer on the right. Compared to Elite: Dangerous, I think that this screen shows more personality by invoking the feeling that the transaction is an event between two parties. Elite: Dangerous, on the other hand, is merely a process.
The point isn’t to form a bond with your merchants, but the point is also not to just ram your commerce through the local marketplace, scooping up bargains and boosting away in a flash of chipped paint and dented armor plating.
Sometimes I like the clinical detachment of Elite if I have many jumps ahead of me and just want to get in and out with my goods as quickly as possible, but after a time the detachment seems just a bit too detached. It’s a game of menus, or as people say about EVE Online, spreadsheets.
Considering that Project Universe isn’t going to reveal you the character as anything but a cargo ship, I feel that I need to inject as much personality into the game as I can in other ways in order for the universe to have that “lived in feeling”. Not only will your crew give you the skills and stats needed to perform better, but hopefully also the sense that they’re people who are working on your behalf, a crew you can rely on, and to some degree real people who are accompanying you on your journey.