Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sharing More Art From The Last Federation

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, the description of your role as an independent agent in the solar system,  details on the alien races, and information about the "butterfly effect" in the game.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.

Hey folks!  I figured I would share some art with you today, although first I'll share some various news updates about the game:
  • We have now completely finished the design of v1 of the simulation of the game, which is really exciting.  Coding on that is about 95% complete, and will wrap up probably by the end of the first week of January, thereabouts.
  • As I mentioned on the forums in the discussion about the last post, I did find a way to make the Andors more interesting as a race.  They went from being generic good guys to being waaaay over the top goody-two-shoes.  They now provide a lot of unique and interesting strategic options for you, and also contribute to the butterfly effect in some really interesting ways.
  • Writing-wise, Erik has been hard at work on all the text that the alien races have for different things, such as how they feel about you or each other, and what they say on "chatter" when various stuff happens.  This really brings out the character of the races in yet another way, and makes everything feel more alive, which I'm very stoked about.  I wrote generic lines just as stand-ins, but having everything said in-character for the various races is super fun.  For instance, what the Thoraxians say about a race they hate due to war is really different from what the Burlusts or the Andors or Peltians say, even though they are all talking about the same thing.
  • On the design front, we've now moved into the GUI even more heavily than we were before.  Previously there were a lot of open questions internally about how to represent certain things, and now those are really getting narrowed down in a way that I find both exciting and relieving.  They really let you get a good sense of what is going on in the simulation, and they let you do it in a way that isn't just a bajillion overlays on one screen, but is instead using a variety of specialized screens to really show you information in the most concise and easy-to-understand format for whatever your question at the time is.  Still a lot of work to go here, but it's coming well.
  • On that same sort of note, Josh has been working on "Intelligence" screens that are text-based, and which are kind of like advisers in Civilization or SimCity.  These screens let you get at information on a specific topic in a text-based format, which is useful for both certain types of players and for certain circumstances.  We're doing this in-character as kind of a dry computer report, so that particularly makes me happy there, too, as that increases the ambience again.  As with the extended GUI screens that Blue and I are working on, the Intelligence screens are really aimed at letting players answer questions that they have in as quick a fashion as possible. 

    And I don't mean just new players: I mean when a player wants to know "what is going on militarily in the solar system lately," they can either look at a text report, or they can look at a graphical representation.  This is important because just looking at the current state of things doesn't always tell you the entire story. 

    It's like with SimCity: you can look at your current state of your city, and that tells you a lot.  But you need overlays for things like fire and water coverage, for instance.  And if you want to know what your utility usages have been over time, or budget over time, then there are graphs for that.  These things all help you answer very critical questions, and arguably you could not play the game very well without them, even though technically you spend most of your time in the main city view.  Same kind of deal with TLF.
  • On the art front, Blue and Cath have really been ripping it up in general and are doing their best work yet, and quite quickly as well.  The original scope is pretty close to being done, and so we're getting into a lot of the nice-to-have elements that I had hoped to be able to do but was not sure we could.  That's really pleasing to me, because that really helps us extend the sense of place and of variety further.  Versus just seeing tiny graphics for the various planet types and having to imagine what is there, actually seeing a couple of views of them that stoke your imagination even more.
  • With all that said, the outstanding GUI stuff and our need for internal testing pretty much mean that the alpha can't start until mid-January, as opposed to early January.  We really can't let it go any further than that, because we want to release the 1.0 of the game in mid-February (and really, there is no good reason at this point we should not be able to).  Anyway, so that's what is up with the schedule.  We're aiming to have things in a really advanced state by the time alpha starts at all, so that we can have a (comparably) relaxed month-long alpha like we did with Bionic Dues, versus something more rushed like Skyward Collapse was.
Okay, so here's some art!

First off, all of the alien political screen backgrounds are now fully complete -- colored and everything.  Way to go Cath!









Next up are some random GUI elements in a working document.  This isn't complete, but it does give you an example of the overall style that a lot of the game's GUI will be, and how much more detailed is is compared to our other games.  Also it shows the awesome alien icons in their completed format in the upper left.  Blue did a really tremendous job with this!

I wish I could show you some screenshots of combat, but that will need to wait until early January.  The actual artwork and design work on that is all complete, but we haven't had time to code it in yet, and the design palette windows don't have all the elements quite arranged as well as they will be in the actual game.  But suffice it to say, I really love how it looks.

All of the in-game ship hulls are now done as well.  There are 30 overall ship hulls, although each one of them gets used for a variety of procedurally-generated ship types that are unique to each particular playthrough.  Blue and Cath did all of these together.  Here are a few examples:

Your flagship:

A frigate (shown actual-size, while the flagship above is actually scaled down some):
A "normal size" pirate vessel (again shown actual size):
Bear in mind that all of these ships are shown with red running lights, whereas in the game itself that is not the case.  Normally the running lights have their color shifted based on what their race is, or if they belong to your mercenary fleet.  We're doing this with true hue shifting in this game, versus the diffuse coloring that we used in AI War.  It makes it so that we can do some really fancier effects, as you see above.  Basically the quality doesn't drop or get darker, the color just shifts on the spectrum. 

For example, this is the actual color that your flagship (and your ships in general) use:

It's the same graphic that I posted above, just using the in-game HSV shift.  Note the lack of quality loss.

Anyhow, that's it for today.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Butterfly Effect" Sources In The Last Federation

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, the description of your role as an independent agent in the solar system, and details on the alien races.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
Three posts in one day!  Okay, I wasn't planning on doing this, but madcow asked a really good question, and this also really is the answer to a question that Cyborg asked a week or two ago, anyway.

The different political factions and the like sound intriguing, I'm kind of curious if there are coded differences between them. For instance one faction/governor/whatever in insert race always tends to behave one way versus another. Or if the factions are essentially the same but with different random roles/circumstances .
(Paraphrasing, as I can't find the quote) In what ways is the game randomized each time.  In other words, how does the "butterfly effect" come into play from the simulation?
My response to madcow:

The factions are extremely different in code.  Specifically:

1. They each have various modifiers that make them react to circumstances differently.  Aka, Burlusts always do better on hot planets, and poorly on cold.

2. They each have a variety of specialized race actions that no other race can take (e.g. the Evucks unleashing a virus as a weapon, versus a virus just unfortunately happening).

3. The system of government is entirely different between each race, and has its own completely unique data structures.

4. The political deals between most governments are very much the same about 80-90% of the time, but the circumstances of when and how you can use them is different.  And there are key additions or omissions from certain races.  So you can use the Skylaxians to backdoor in another race into the federation, but for the most part you cannot do that otherwise.

5. There are certain inherent attitude-adjusters that various races have.  For instance, if too many of the "evil" races get into the federation with no other races there to balance them out, the "good" races start having negative sentiment toward the federation and toward you.  And vice-versa.

6. There are various alliance types that can spring up outside of the federation that are race-specific, like the Solar Axis Pact.

7. There are some other special things that can happen, like the federation actually betraying you and becoming a different hostile alliance if you leave it with just the Thoraxians, Burlusts, AND Acutians alone in it as a trifecta for too long.

8. There are various behavioral modifiers on each race, such that only the Andors and Skylaxians have the Honorable flag that makes them go to help other folks, whereas the Boarines and Burlusts are completely anti-trade.  And so on.

9. Bribes have different effectivenesses on various races depending on the type of bribe, and blackmail only works on burlusts.

10. Only some races can have leaders assassinated, and the consequences vary.  Also various other things politically vary in terms of how you navigate each race.

11. There are certain normal racial actions that some races will NEVER take, such as Andors will never capture a planet or turn to piracy, privateering, or raiding.

12. The attitudes of each race toward each other race is randomized at the start, but the range of randomizations and how many they are positive/negative/neutral towards varies by race type.

And... yeah.  On and on.  I know I'm forgetting a bunch of things.  There are also things that are randomized per planet, which have an effect on the circumstances of the race (but the ranges of randomization on the planets make sense for which of the 11 planet types it is).  And there are also various racial things that are randomized per game, such as the starting attitudes already mentioned, and so forth. 

Which race is first spacefaring you get to choose at game start, but how close each other race is to becoming spacefaring depends on how close in distance their planet is to the planet of the starting race you chose, and that's random.  Oh, and what sort of action the races will take when they hit equilibrium population is random per game, but weighted based on race type.  As is there percentage of ships that they try to keep on guard, picket, and raiding duties.

Gosh the list goes on and on.  Basically the model is incredibly detailed, we literally have around 200 pages of internal documentation on all this.  But there are also so many DIFFERENT models:
  • aliens model
  • planets model
  • trade model
  • randomized ship design model
  • fleet tech model
  • planetary tech model
  • construction model
  • economy/order/medical/environment model at planets (our "RCI" bars)
  • birth/death rate model (which is per race, but also affected by planet type)
  • the spread of racial minorities
  • the bouncing around of how attitude adjustments over time go
  • pirates
  • semi-randomized "events" that happen to planets and space installations (weighted based on the situation at each place)
  • semi-randomized racial actions that races take, again based on circumstances but with some randomization thrown in.
And lastly, of course, things change based on your influence as a player.  How you choose to influence the complex situation you are thrown into, and what ramifications that feeds back in to all of the many subsystems mentioned above (and some others I've forgotten about, I'm sure.

How You Go About Dealing With All This
Basically, the above sounds like it could get prohibitively complex, right?  I mean, this is definitely our largest and most complex game ever at this point, design-wise.

Where you as the player come in is that you look at the situation, and you decide what you want to change, and then you see what happens when you do.  Here's how an early game might play out:

1. Okay, so the Evucks stink this game, and the Burlusts are awesome.  The Burlusts are close to being spacefaring, but are not yet.  You can smuggle them that tech and they will like you a lot, but the Evucks (which, let's say, was the first spacefaring race) will like you a lot less.  So you smuggle the Burlusts their tech early, and suddenly they like you a lot more.  The Evucks like you even less -- in fact, they hate you more than anyone else in the solar system does, but that's okay because it is still early going.

2. All right, now let's ignore the other races because they are not yet spacefaring.  Let's instead run some contracts for the Burlusts, killing some pirates and helping them improve infrastructure, etc.  We'll bribe and blackmail away until we get a warlord that really likes us, and we'll use that to get favorable political deals out of them.  Such as preventing them from going on a war of conquest with the Evucks, which would be really dangerous.  We don't want our Burlusts being sent Plumping Tubers or something.

3. Now the Burlusts are doing really swell, and our own little mercenary fleet is getting pretty sizeable and strong under their umbrella.  We are peas in a pod, and thanks to my influence they aren't murdering anyone yet.

4. Now the Peltians become spacefaring, purely by the chance that they were on a really good planet for them, and were third-closest to the Evucks from the start.  Okay, they really stink right now, but I want to get this federation up and going sooner than later, I've decided for this game.  I could play long ball and let things go, but I don't want the Burlusts to get any more hostile and I don't want to have to keep spending BP to pacify them, either.

5. All righty, so time to go visit the Peltians and run a bunch of contracts for them.  Voting proxies in hand, I'm able to really help their economy and get them constructing a ton of buildings and techs, and now they are doing pretty decent.  I can't set up trade with them and the Burlusts, because the Burlusts aren't willing to trade.  But I can set up trade between the Peltians and the Evucks, and that makes them like each other better, even though the Evucks hate me.  Having the a race that is friendly to me also be friendly with the Evucks might be useful, so let's do it.

6. Okay, so now it's time for me to start bargaining personally for hull tech and fleet tech off the Burlusts, and I then start gifting that to the Evucks.  Suddenly they are just as powerful as the Burlusts militarily (in space, anyway), although their fleet is smaller.  They are loving me for all these big goodies that I'm giving them.  Meanwhile the Skylaxians become spacefaring.  I'll deal with them later, right now they mistrust me but won't bother me.  Let's see what they can do on their own, and just make sure war doesn't break out.

7. All right, I finally have enough goodwill with both the Burlusts and the Peltians that I can convince them to form the federation.  They sign the papers, and then boom -- alliance!  The federation has formed.  I'm off to a roaring start; this is the zerg rush of federation formation, heh.

8. Now, however, I start having to deal with Anti-Federation Alliance sentiment.  That's building rapidly on the Evucks homeworld, and in a very minor way with the Skylaxians.  The Thoraxians just became spacefaring, and are looking hungrily at the rest of us.  But they have some teching up to do before they are a true threat.

Now what?  The game goes on from here, we're just getting started even though we did get the federation up and going quickly.  That may or may not turn out to be a good thing in the end.  It did get the Burlusts on our side (and, well, the Peltians for what that is worth), but it's putting us in a worse and worse state with the Evucks.

From here I might:

- Try to get the federation, or even non-federation races, to quickly kill the evucks and take their planet before they blow it up or infect us with some horrible disease or whatever.  That's going to piss off the Skylaxians and the Andors, though.

- Make nice with the Skylaxians, and broker good deals behind the scenes with them and the Evucks.  Then try to get the Skylaxians into the Federation, and then use them to backdoor in the Evucks.  Doesn't matter how much the Evucks hate me.  But if I take the time to do this, the Thoraxians are likely going to sweep a few other planets and suddenly be really a big threat.  Whether or not they'll have time to get up a Protectorate or Fear Empire remains to be seen, but we might wind up with a divided solar system that then has to be repaired.

And so forth.  There are a lot of other options, too, from a grand-strategic perspective.  And how to achieve the grand strategic goals involves a lot of more subtle smaller choices, such as which political deals to take and which contracts to take.  And then inside that, there are tactical decisions in each battle, and the personal fleet composition choices, which play both into what kinds of contracts I can expect to survive, and so forth.

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of other factors banging around in the simulation, as noted above, and the situation very possibly is going to change drastically before I finish getting through with either of the two options above.  At that point, I have to kind of sit back and think of what to do to deal with whatever fresh situations have come up.

That's a portrait of how things would play out in one hypothetical starting scenario!

What I Love About Each Race In The Last Federation

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, and the description of your role as an independent agent in the solar system.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
Two posts in one day!  This is basically a much better version of the older guide to aliens in the game.  All of this post is speaking for me personally, but as noted in my prior post today, I have a soft spot for all of the races.  The boarines and the andors least of all I guess, but all the others in particular.  Here's what I think is so cool about each one:

The Acutians - These dirty industrial robots are very capitalistic and just generally kind of jerks.  Instead of a traditional political leadership, they just have a collection of 3 CEOs at each planet that you have to negotiate.  These CEOs will only do things that help the industries that they own companies in (out of 17 industries).  You can sabotage or help industries so that at the next industry quorum some of the unlikeable CEOs get voted out.  You can also bribe the CEOs to get somewhat better deals on things.

These guys are willing to do things to other races that many of the other races are not, depending on which industries the CEOs of the local planet represent.  They'll work to undermine rival economies, or dump toxic waste on other planets for the right price, etc.  I guess the reason I love these guys so much is that they are basically self-interested sociopaths that always act in their own best interest.  To me, this race makes #3 on the list of villain races in the solar system.

The Andors - Okay, yeah, these guys are the most boring race to me, but they do serve an important role.  These are basically the ultimate "goody two shoes."  They're a utoptian robotic society, so kind of the polar opposites of the acutians.  They're a race of non-derpy C3P0s.

Why do these guys matter?  Well, they can be counted on to come to the aid of the downtrodden, for one.  They are also a race you can safely piss off without worrying about them doing anything too bad to you; so they provide an opportunity for you to make friends with their enemies without consequences being too dire. 

In essence: these guys provide an important element of asymmetry, so often their role in the galaxy is important, but it's subtle.  And if they aren't dead, then they are a place you can run to for assistance; but as a last-resort sort of ally, they are only so helpful.

The Boarines - So this is my other least-favorite race, personally, but I have a feeling these will be the favorite of some other folks.  These guys are basically territorial, isolationist ice beasts. 

They aren't particularly inclined to start wars and go out fighting (unless they find themselves really overcrowded on their planet), but when they do go to war, watch out!  They aren't remotely as powerful as some of the other races in ground combat, but they have a special attribute that none of the other races do: Rage Momentum.  The longer these guys are at war, the more enraged they get, and the more powerful they get at both ground and space combat.  If a war with these fellas goes on too long, they'll eventually devastate the opponent. 

Also fun: the more enraged they are, the easier it is to convince them to go to war with yet other races; but the more enraged they are, the harder it is to convince them to stop being at war.  The risk, of course, is that if they piss off too many enemies, that the enemies will take them down and wipe them out despite their rage.

One of the more interesting things about this race is also how they can be chief brokers of solar unity under just the right circumstances.  Each planetary regent of the boarines has a current priority that is based on criteria of what is happening at his/her planet at the time.  If everything is just going super well (which is hard to have come about), then actually their defensive nature starts working in your favor: solar unity becomes their priority, since they view that as suddenly being in their best interests of defense. 

Most times you won't be able to use them for these purposes, because it's rare to get them in that great of a situation even with your help, but it's an interesting backdoor way to help further the federation if the circumstances are right.  I love stuff like that, where there's an unusual/infrequent tool that you can whip out and wield if your recognize that the circumstances can be tweaked to be just right.  This game is filled with that sort of thing.

The Burlusts - For me, these guys come in at #2 on the list of villainous races in the solar system.  They're incredibly warlike as a race, and fighting is all they know.  They're physically the second-strongest race in the solar system, only behind the terrifying thoraxians.

Interestingly, these guys are not susceptible to the normal Bargaining Power (BP) that is your usual political currency in the game.  That is one of (many) things that makes the burlusts particularly difficult to deal with politically.  Instead of using the BP system, these guys work entirely on bribes and blackmail.

At each planet there is a prime warlord, and then two secondary ones that are vying for power.  You can blackmail any of them, depending on what sort of information you are able to buy either on the black market or from evuck spies.  The blackmail can lead to internal fighting and some of the warlords getting knocked off and replaced by whoever rises to the top.  Bribing them gives you an ability to request limited favors from them, but the bribes they are interested in can typically only be found by raiding pirate bases in the asteroid belt.  Not so simple.

I find these guys really interesting as a villain race, but also because if the circumstances are not right (their planet is too cold, for instance), they can be really weak and thus can be turned into strange sorts of allies.  Or if you get them into the federation early, you can wield them kind of like a crazy self-swinging axe... that you have to work hard to keep from chopping the wrong thing... repeatedly.  "With friends like these," right?

The Evucks - Paranoid and fairly amoral is I guess the best way to describe these fellas.  You can bribe individual council members, or assassinate them, or whatever (as with a lot of the races).  But dealing with them politically is always pretty difficult, because they get annoyed with you for interfering with their internal affairs even when you do them a good turn.

Every time you do a deal with them, they wind up resenting you for a while, and further deals cost more for a while.  "Oh you just helped us save our economy?  Well get out of here buddy, we don't need your kind around here!" ...right.

What I particularly love about these guys is that they fall into the "just insane enough to do that" category, partly due to their paranoia.  If they really hate another race, they're prone to formulating a really horrible disease to unleash on the other race.  If it looks like they might lose a war on a gas giant they live on, well, they'll try to ignite that gas giant and "glass" half the solar system.  Etc.

They're also a good place to get blackmail on the burlusts from, since they're constantly spying on everyone else.  They even use that spy power to steal tons of technology from other races, making them one of the most technologically advanced by virtue of this alone.  And yet, unlike some of the other races, they're completely unwilling to ever share their technologies.

This is one of those races that I personally am not typically going to be rushing to help immediately or whatever... but you can bet I'll always have my eye on these guys because they are freaking nuts! ;)

The Peltians - Communist agrarian... barn owls with snouts, I guess.  These guys are terrible at ground combat.  I mean, just abysmal.  If they get invaded by some other race, they're going to just get absolutely rolled.

Fortunately for them, in space combat they have ships just as good as anyone else.  Unfortunately for everyone else, the peltians are quite aware of just how stink they are at ground combat... and so the peltians compensate for that by bombing the heck out of their enemies when they are on offense.  Not only do their ships bomb enemy planets from orbit, but their "ground troops" load into suicide pods that explode on contact with enemy planets, dealing damage to not just enemy citizens but also infrastructure.

Politically, these guys are very different to deal with than the other races.  In some ways they are the simplest race to deal with politically, as they are very straightforward with their desires; but on the other hand, you have to kind of baby them, at some opportunity cost to dealing with the other races.  Like the burlusts, the peltians do not use the common Bargaining Power (BP) mechanic that all the other races do.  Instead, as you do contracts for them, you gain voting proxies in their collective.  It doesn't take many proxies at all to pass deals with them, but it means that if you want a lot of deals with them, you have to do contracts with them specifically.  Hence the opportunity cost.

What I love so much about these guys is how squishy and weak they are in some ways, but how they can be the terror of the solar system in other ways.  They are definitely compensating for something, and I just love that duality.

The Thoraxians - It is always hard to pick an absolute favorite race, but I think that mine would have to be these guys.  They are definitely the #1 villainous scourge of the solar system, no question.  If left unchecked, they are prone to taking over half the solar system and establishing a Fear Empire or a Thoraxian Protectorate.

They don't take prisoners, and their ground troops are super good at murdering everybody they meet.  Like the burlusts, all of their citizens count as both ground troops and civilians, which can be pretty deadly.  Since they are a hive mind, they don't have to worry about crime on their planets.  They are pretty standoff-ish about the political deals that they are willing to make, too.

Better yet?  The hive queens are moody.  Each planet has a single queen, and her mood shifts every so often.  Her mood is a bit random, but is heavily weighted by what is going on with her situation at the time.  These moods have a nontrivial impact on what deals she will do with you, and how much they cost in BP, etc.

As with a number of the other races, you can assassinate hive queens.  This reduces how much overall influence you can ever have with their race, and reduces your current influence with them even more.  However, killing a queen will throw her planet into absolute turmoil, and prevent the births of new workers until a new queen rises to take her place in a few months.  This can be an interesting way to temporarily suppress their race... but at substantial long-term risk.  Better have something good in the pipeline to make this worth it.

I particularly love the "villain" races in the game because they actually can be "good" under certain circumstances, and you can get them to be productive members of the federation.  But it's harder, and oftentimes you'll instead wind up on the other side of bloody conflicts with them.  Getting all eight races into the federation with none of them being wiped out is a fun challenge, made particularly hard by the thoraxians.

The Skylaxians - This is a very honorable, very scientific race.  They are a bit above-average at combat, and in general are a very well-rounded race.  They'll like you less if you do underhanded things, and the same is true of other alien races as well.  They'll often step in when one race is bullying another too hard.

They are really interesting in part because they can be used to backdoor their friends into the federation even if that friend really hates you.  So let's say that the skylaxians and the acutians really become absolutely best friends.  You can piss off the acutians to no end, then, and use that to further some ends with other races (say, dealing with the thoraxians).  And then, just when the acutians are about to murder you, you use your influence with the skylaxians to get them to use their influence with the acutians to bring the acutians into the federation.

That's really interesting to me, because the skylaxians can really be used as a key part of some very long-term advanced strategies.  Particularly strategies of brinkmanship.  When directly interacting with them, they are kind of vanilla; but as a strategic pawn (ahem, I mean political partner), they open up some of my favorite kinds of strategies in the game.

B&W Portraits Of The Remaining Four Races

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, the guide to aliens in the game, the description of your role as an independent agent in the solar system, and portraits of the first four alien races.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
Hey folks, so the last of the alien portrait black-and-whites are now complete, and I wanted to share those with you.  Last time I shared the first four (Acutian, Andor, Boarine, Burlust), and this time we have the rest.  Honestly I love every single race in this game for various reasons, but this current batch of four are some of my favorites.

As a reminder, these are the screens that you see when you are dealing with the races politically:

The Evuck council of elders.  These 7 preside over any and all evuck planets in the solar system.

The Peltian collective at a planet.  These guys are basically communist farmer ewoks.

The Thoraxian hive queen of a planet, and some of her workers.  These guys are monsters.

The Skylaxian senate.  A central body of 40 members all individually vote their conscience.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thoughts On "Alone Together" Collaborative/Competitive Networked Play ("Multiplayer" Is A Stretch)

This is an idea that I originally had for The Last Federation, our upcoming title, but which I think could be applicable to all sorts of games, including our last title, Bionic Dues.  Right now it is just a for-future-exploration sort of idea, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there and see what sort of response players have to it.

So here we go:

Some Games Just Can't Do Traditional Multiplayer
Bionic Dues just isn't good for multiplayer for a lot of reasons, despite the fact that I absolutely want co-op in every game I make.  As I've said in the past, I believe that every game should have co-op (for social, not "check mark on the box" purposes).

The Last Federation also is a case where traditional multiplayer just would not work in a satisfactory way.  Both combat and the solar system map are pauseable realtime, with also a fast-forward function.  The combat flow is vaguely like Faster Than Light in the sense that you may want to pause and get your bearings rather than just plowing through.  And the solar map is vaguely like SimCity in the sense that sometimes you want to be paused for a long while, do a bunch of stuff, and then run on fast forward until you hit some sort of key event you are waiting for.

Neither of those things are conducive to traditional multiplayer, because the flow of time is so fragmented and so player-dependent.  Depending on what the player is doing, they may want time paused, running normally, or running fast.

A traditional RTS does not have this sort of problem (generally time just runs, period), but there are other examples of games that have this problem: Civilization IV and V, for instance.  I absolutely adore both games, but I do find that a lot of the enjoyment is sucked out of multiplayer thanks to the fact that I spend so much time waiting for other players to do things, even when we are playing simultaneously.  I read quickly, and know the game well, and don't do a lot of combat, so typically my turns are short and sweet.  If someone else takes several minutes on their turn, I'm literally sitting there reading a book until the "next turn" beep hits.

So I mean, multiplayer in Civilization does work, but it feels somewhat frustrating (to me) compared to the incredibly-addictive solo play.  With TLF or Bionic, it doesn't even work at all, just from a design/usability/fun standpoint.  Or SimCity, for that matter, if you were trying to have two people in one city.

Thoughts On Co-Op In RTS Games
I play almost all RTS games in skirmish mode with co-op on, and Arcen's own AI War: Fleet Command is designed solely around this mode of multiplayer.  In a literal sense, what is happening is that there is a constant flow of time, and all the players are mixed together, and in some respects it's no different from, say, playing an FPS game.

I mean, in an FPS game, all the players are in one arena and running around shooting one another in realtime.  In an RTS game, the difference is that you have lots of little guys running around shooting or stabbing each other, and you control them indirectly.  Right?

Here's the thing, though -- and maybe this is just me and how I play, so this is part of why I'm writing this long post to feel other people out on the idea -- in an RTS game, unlike an FPS game, for practical purposes the players are mostly "alone together" even though the space is shared and realtime.

What I mean is that I have my town/base/whatever, and you have yours.  You mostly focus on yours, and your resources and whatnot are all separate from mine.  Throughout the bulk of the game, we don't directly interact in a sense where we really need to be in the same realtime locale as one another.  If you really think about it.

There are exceptions: during battles we likely mass our forces.  In one battle I might position my guys to block guys from hitting your forces, so that you can regroup.  In another battle we might flank the enemy and come at them from two different sides.  If my town gets wiped out, I might retreat my last villagers to your town and set up a pathetic little camp that eventually becomes something useful, under the umbrella of your protection.

Those exceptions are admittedly really cool, and some of my favorite moments.  But the fact remains that the bulk of the time is players independently managing their own affairs, and coordinating verbally/textually with one another to have complementary strategies that ultimately result in victory.

What I posit is that for THAT aspect of multiplayer, the players do not need to be in a contiguous arena, nor in a timescale that flows the same for all players.  (Aka I can pause my part of the game while you are fast-forwarding, and we don't get in one another's way).

The Negative Gut Reaction
Obviously the gut reaction to this sort of thing is "that's not really multiplayer!"  And I'd have to agree, in a lot of respects.

Though it is considerably more multiplayer than, for instance, Super Mario Bros. 3, where players play until they die, and then the other player has their turn.  The only thing shared between the players is their joint progress on which levels they have completed (one player completes level 1-3, and the other player then can't/does-not-have-to).  But that's old school.  The way more fun, modern, way of doing Mario multiplayer is with everyone playing at once.  That was what made Chip And Dale: Rescue Rangers on the original NES so fun, too.

Networked Single Player Games
Because of the negative gut reaction, my inclination is not to call this multiplayer, or to advertise "this game has co-op!" since people would get really angry if they thought it worked one way and then found out it really worked another.  Instead, I'd call this "linking up single-player worlds."

And I'd be really literal about that, too.  You have your world, and you play it alone as much as you want.  While I am also around, I can take a single player world I am playing, and network it with yours.  During this period, we can collaborate in some way.  We don't directly enter one another's worlds, but we can take complementary strategies and pass each other goods and goodies, for instance.

It's the same as in a lot of RTS games: I take up production of resources X Y and Z (because I'm in a good position to do so, let's say) and pass a bunch to you, so that you can focus on some military objective that otherwise would be extra difficult.  Then you focus on production of some sort of awesome military craft that I need, and hand me these big guns that I otherwise could not use, which I then use to wipe up part of my sector.  And so on.

It's "alone together," and we each have totally disconnected worlds with independent savegames (I save my game and it does not affect yours, and vice-versa).  But it has the co-op advantages of being something where you and I can each play the game in a fluid and just-as-good-as-solo fashion (because it IS solo), while at the same time talking strategy and working toward mutually beneficial goals so that we each win our respective games thanks partly to the help we provide one another.

Pros And Cons
On the negative side, there is no escaping the fact that this is "alone together," and some people will not like that.  It may be a marketing fiasco if not handled properly (aka, I'd never say "yes this game has multiplayer).  But I think that if it was expressed properly ("ability to link single player worlds together") then the subset of people who find it interesting -- myself included -- could really enjoy it.

Also negative, it's something that people could use to cheat/farm, since their savegames are independent, and one person could just save prior to gifting a resource to their ally, then reload and repeat.  But let's be honest, there are lots of ways to cheat in games, and some games (AI War included!) even explicitly include cheat codes for people who just want to mess around.  So while this does bug me to a minor degree, I think it's unavoidable and the flexibility it grants is worth it.

On the positive side, if my wife and I want to sit down and do some gaming together, we can crack open Bionic Dues or TLF.  Or, heck, we could play Civ V without me needing to bring a book to read.

Also positive, this is really straightforward to code under the hood -- it's something that requires a network connection, and then there are just occasional data exchanges.  This is trivial to doing something more complex like synchronized RTS-style multiplayer, or constantly-resyncing action-game-style multiplayer.  There is no need for syncing at all, just occasional gift transactions.  This makes it a feature that can be added with a much lesser cost to the developer, thus meaning that even if it appeals to a smaller subset of the target audience, it still might be a net win in terms of value versus cost to create.

Then again, on the negative side, it does require a game design that actually allows for meaningful passing of... something.  So that's a potentially-nontrivial design task, and potentially nontrivial interface design as well.  So that does drive the complexity back up somewhat, though not nearly as much as doing full multiplayer code under the hood.

Examples Of This

Sim City 4 -- You can set up multiple cities in a region, and those cities then trade things back and forth.  This is optional, critically, compared to Sim City 5.  Unfortunately two players can't be playing in the same region at once, so this is only a partial example.  But if you altered things so that I could play in my city while you played in yours, then Sim City 4 would suddenly become a great example of this concept in action.

Pokemon -- This is only a semi-okay example, but the ability to trade Pokemon that you have found is definitely collaborative networking and something that is not "true multiplayer."  If the link was persistent and you could do more interesting things than just trade pokemon themselves, then this would be a better example.

(Hypothetical) Bionic Dues -- Each of us could be playing in our own city, but when linked up there could be missions in my city that could affect your city.  I could do an assassination mission or a lion's den mission that affects your city instead of mine, for instance.  The Bahamut Missions could grant us both epics, rather than just one of us, so that we could divide and conquer that sort of thing.  We could pass each other parts, pokemon-style.  And that's just with the game design as it currently stands.  Other kinds of missions or events could be thought up that would allow for even better collaboration, while still being useful in completely-solo play.

This would also work for TLF in a similar sort of vein, although since people are less familiar with that I won't bother going into a hypothetical example.

I'm curious as to what the reaction/interest in this sort of thing would be.  To be clear, there's nothing in the short term that I plan to do with this either way, but it is something that -- if there is interest -- I would personally have great interest in integrating into both Bionic Dues and TLF at some point.

Here's the forum thread where the majority of the discussion is likely to take place.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Black And White Portraits Of Four Alien Races

The Last Federation is a really unique game in that it is a strategy/tactics game set inside a simulation game.  Check out our first sneak preview about it, or our preview discussing simulations in the game.  Also our recent podcast with Space Game Junkie with lots of other details, the guide to aliens in the game, and the description of your role as an independent agent in the solar system.  Oh, and the forums for the game are filled with lots of other detailed tidbits, too.
Hey all, I've been wanting to write a blog post explaining some of the ways in which the "butterfly effect" shows up in the game, but I just haven't had the time yet.  I'll try to do that before too long, but I've just been too wrapped up in working on the game right now.

Work is also still proceeding really well on the visuals of the combat screen, but we're not quite to the point of being able to show you a final version of the full GUI.  Getting there, and I'm super excited about how excited about how it is turning out, so that will be something to show soon.

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy seeing some more of the alien portraits that are now finished-aside-from-color.  As previously noted, there are 8 alien races, and each one is really unique both in feel and in how you deal with them politically (and how they deal with each other, etc).

When you go to visit a planet controlled by an alien race, you see a politics screen that lets you interact with them in a variety of ways.  Rather than just being a boring menu, we have this set up to show with a background showing a scene of the aliens you are negotiating with at the time.  It really helps to extend the sense of mood and place as you are interacting with them, which I'm really excited about.

Here's the four that are done so far:

Talking with one of the Acutian (industrial robotic race) business executives from a planet.

Talking with the parliament of the Andors (utopian robotic race) of a planet.

Talking with the Boarine (menacing loner ice-beast race) regent of a planet.

Talking with one of the Burlust warlords on a planet.  These guys are super warlike and scary.

About The Private Alpha
Folks on our forums have been really anxious for the private alpha, and I do have some news on that.  We won't be starting that in December as originally planned, but instead will start that right at the start of January, with a mid-February 1.0 release date.

Why the delay?  Well, we're still trying to get as much as possible both implemented and polished so that the first alpha experience isn't a wasted one in terms of telling us things we already know.  But also, with the holidays coming up, we don't want to start an alpha and then immediately go on a weeklong break and lose momentum with the alpha players.  Or worse, feel the pressure to be constantly trying to talk and work on the alpha over the break, ick.  Our wives/husbands/SOs would kill us!

This is unquestionably our biggest game ever in terms of depth and design of the game world.  Holy guacamole is it detailed in a way that really excites me.  It's still way easier to get into than AI War, though I'm not sure it's going to be any easier to actually win.  That's hard for us to gauge well since we are so familiar with the game, so it will be interesting to find out during the alpha.

Anyway, things are proceeding really well, and we're still super excited to share more info with you.  More will be coming soon, I promise!