Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Space is big
Published on June 24, 2005 By Draginol In GalCiv Journals

I read on a forum a concern from a user about Galactic Civilizations II -- that because the planets are now part of the main game map, the game was now so unrealistic as to be distracting for him.  The problem is, any space-based game is going to have to make some concessions in order to be fun.

Here's the problem: Space is big.  No, I mean BIG.  It's ridiculously, mind boggling, incomprehensively big.  It's just plain enormous. 

Some years ago, we released a game called Stellar Frontier. During the beta, the team tried to keep it realistic. Your ship could travel up to the speed of light.  Light travels pretty fast right?  The game took place in our own solar system.  Which meant if you wanted to travel out to say Pluto, it took SEVEN hours at maximum speed.  That's how long it takes light to get from the sun to Pluto.  Your ship traveled very fast on the game-screen, it was just that the planets were spaced really far apart.  It was one of the first massively multiplayer games and we knew that if the points of interest were so isolated then people would know..get together to kill each other.  So we had to make some changes.

In Galactic Civilizations I, we didn't display planets on the main map.  So I suppose purists could imagine that the ships were symbolic (obviously not to scale) and hence since we were dealing with stars, it was okay since star to star relations could be rationalized.  But now we have planets on the map too and all sense of proportion goes out the window.

So what if we wanted to have it both ways -- what if we wanted to have planets on the map, to scale even, and distances between stars still relative.  Let's imagine that for moment.  A Jupiter-sized good planet would look something like this:

Okay, you're going to need to click on that thumbnail to see the planet because it's so tiny.  Good thing we're talking about our puny sun (Sol) and not some other star.  You see, a red giant, for example, is about 1000 times wider than the sun.  So if we were going to maintain any sense of scale, you would need to have the red giants be 1000 times bigger.  Now in this screenshot, our sun is only 296 pixels. Not too bad.  A red giant at the same magnification would be 296,000 pixels.  Scrolling across the screen at say 500 pixels per second (typical scroll speed in an RTS) it would take approximately 10 minutes to actually scroll the diameter of a red giant.

But that's okay, because compared to our other realism problems, a 10 minute scroll speed is nothing. There's a dirty little secret sci-fi has been hiding from you all this time.  Not just games like Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, Master of Orion, etc.  But sci-fi like Babylon 5, Star Trek, etc.  You see, it turns out that most star systems are binary.  That's right, there are two stars involved in the star system.  That's not the exception, that's the norm.  Alpha Centauri is just one of three stars that make up its star system.  That's right, THREE stars for a single star system.  That's more common than a single star with a series of planets around it.  What's worse, we're not even sure our star system is truly a unitary star system.  There are many astronomers that believe that beyond Pluto there is something huge that is essentially a star that didn't quite make it. Basically our own dead star that messes around with the orbits of the outer planets a bit.

Our own star system, Sol, contains (As far as we know) 9 planets.  With Pluto being the last one (and it's barely a planet).  But that's not the end of our star system. A big pile of debris known as the "Oort cloud" marks the exit of our home star system.  And it's really far away.  And I mean really far away.  Pluto, it turns out, is only 1/50,000th of the way there.   Consider that for a moment -- if we had any sort of scale, let's say it took our ship 5 moves to go from the first planet in a star system to the last planet in a star system.  It would take another 250,000 moves just to get to the edge of that star system.  Let's say you wailed on the keyboard as fast as you could -- 4 times per second, it would take you 17 hours to get to the Oort cloud and get into interstellar space.  That would definitely affect our reviews I suspect.

Of course, we've only discussed getting out of our own star system.  Now we want to colonize the Alpha Centuari system (which is made up of Alpha Centuari, Alpha Centuari B, and Proxima Centauri as you may recall).  It's "only" 4.7 light years.   I'll spare you how many months you'd be scrolling the screen to get over to that.

You also have other scaling issues:

From a purely size point of view, the planets vary greatly in size.   But in distances, it just gets more and more painful.  Take this picture for instance, if they were spaced to scale, Jupiter would be about a 1000 feet away.  Pluto would be nearly a half-mile away.  And the next star system? 10,000 miles away.  Like I said, space is big. It's really really big.  It's so big it's just ridiculous. It's like wiping your nose in its bigness, saying to you "Hey, loser, look how big I am!" and then for no apparent reason adding a gratuitous etra "Loser!" after --  leaving you wondering whether space has some sort know, inferiority complex about being so empty and all.

So from a game-play point of view, realism is just not very fun.  Besides, even if we did try to be more realistic on scaling, then we'd open the door to all the other areas we've taken creative liberties (like the fact that Earth seems to reside in random galaxies full of life and that we have a magical "Hyperdrive" to fold space and let us get around it so fast). We have to balance realism and fun. It's more fun to have the planets be on the map. It saves a click, it allows for intuitive multi-civilization ownership of a star system. It allows the visuals to be a lot more exciting. In short, it makes the game more fun which, at the end of the day, is our goal. 

Comments (Page 1)
on Jun 24, 2005
And another fine example of Stardockian humor emerges. I certainly understand your point in this post. Personally, I don't mind the lack of "realism" in the GalCiv games. While they may not be worthy of classroom use, they remain fun games. And fun games are worth playing.
on Jun 24, 2005
Yes! As someone who prefers "fun" space scifi to "realistic" space scifi [as far as things spanning star systems go, anyway], I'll say that this is a primary reason I prefer the fun. That picture of Jupiter and the Earth though is scary -- it looks like Jupiter opened a mouth at its pole and is preparing to eat the Earth!
on Jun 25, 2005
I definetly see your point. Who would want to spend 7 hours and not even get to colonize a new star system. But I would like to see the planets a little smaller. They're ok right now but I don't think making them a little smaller would hurt and it might add to the realism a little. But if it takes away any fun then its not worth it.
on Jun 25, 2005
Here's the problem: Space is big. No, I mean BIG. It's ridiculously, mind boggling, incomprehensively big. It's just plain enormous.

Is that hitchhikers guide to the galaxy inspired?

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space.
on Jun 25, 2005
If anyone is interested in a nice astronomy program that does a very good job of providing a sense of "ridiculously, mind boggling, incomprehensively big", check out the freeware "Celestia", here: Link

Can you imagine trying to manage fleets and colonies in an environment like Celestia?
on Jun 25, 2005
Why not scale things logarithmically?
on Jun 25, 2005
Haha, the good old days of Stellar Frontier! We set up a mod of a realistic verson of SOL... had the planets going in orbit and everything... of course, like you said we couldn't go fast enough... so we had to find a new way of travel...

We figured out a way to get slingshotted from a stars gravity and go speeds well over 1000c, it was pretty intense(I think I still have the speed record ).

The game wasn't actualy playable... it was still nearly impossible to get colonies onto the other planets becasue they always blew up if you brought them too close to the sun.

I don't mind a reasonable amount of unrealisim in computer games... the entire idea that I'm a divine leader of a galaxy micromanaging every part of my civilization that I deem fit, not to mention how long my lifespan is, is already unrealistic if you want to be picky(but I don't!)...
on Jun 25, 2005
An interesting article. Just one suggestion. It might make your point a little more clear if you mentioned that space is, like, really big.
on Jun 25, 2005
IMO scaling is not important because i take the game as being a "tactical display"

However have a realistic amount of Binary Star systems would be not only realistic but would not harm the development much at all. IMO that should definately be added.
on Jun 25, 2005
The world's best travel-around-the-galaxy-trade-n-shoot-n-shit game is utterly unrealistic. But it never (I played it for years, literally years) never plays the same way twice, is completely open-ended so that players can create their own additions using the simplest software, and even now is a game I miss sorely.

It's name is 'Escape Velocity', published by Ambrosia Software, and is only available for the Mac.

Screw realism. Give me gameplay.
on Jun 25, 2005
Emperor: A quick google search turns up Escape Velocity Nova Link which has a set of Windows system requirements in the sidebar. I think it might work with Windows.

I'm downloading it now. Thanks for pointing it out!
on Jun 26, 2005
To EnsRegis:

Thanks for pointing out the windows version. I never googled EV since, in the distant days of my Mac ownership, it was the policy of Ambrosia Software not to produce a version for the PC. EV Nova is a very much more developed EV - and I've already had two shuttles blown away...

Thanks again.
on Jun 26, 2005
One of my personal favorite space games is Star Control 2, I still play my 3do version of the game sometimes. The only thing I can think of to make it perfect is if it had random universe generator.

And now I'm downloading EV nova as well, thks for the info.
on Jun 27, 2005
To EnsRegis:

I really can't thank you enough (tho my wife hates you lol as I've spent the entire evening playing EV Nova). I've always liked Ambrosia's games - they're innovative, imaginative, compulsively playable, and CHEAP. 30 bucks for a game I know I'm going to play endlessly? Hell yeah.

For those who don't know... Ambrosia Software is a small company producing games and other software (mostly) for the Mac. They pay no attention whatsover to questions of realism, they utterly disregard questions of relative scale, they abhor even the remotest connection to physical reality and, to be perfectly frank, they don't give a damn for cutting edge graphics (tho EV Nova is a lightyears-leap forward in comparison to the old EV I knew - and extremely pretty). What they do is make games that are compulsively, obsessively, playable. They've kept the basic structure of the game intact (to such a degree that tho its been five or more years since I last played it took me all of two minutes to refamiliarise myself), given a major upgrade to the graphics for ships and planets, rewritten the storyline, kept the ease with which players can add their own storylines, and generally changed only those things that needed to be changed in order to make the game more playable.

And as I say its not, in terms of the game physics approximating to actual physics, in terms of onscreen scaling, even remotely realistic. And I'll grant that the very first time I saw it I wasn't impressed by how it looked. But I was instantly captivated by how it played, and have remained so to this day, some ten years later.

What makes a great game, for me, is the degree to which it captivates my imagination. I'll also grant that the graphical improvements are much appreciated. But what's even more appreciated is that the degree to which the game can capture the imagination (if, of course, shootin-n-tradin appeals to you) has not been compromised.

Thanks for bringing back a bit of my past:)
on Jun 27, 2005
Space is big? We have different propulsion possibilities. Where's the problem?...
One engine for deep space travelling, another for short distance. No GC2 incoherence... AS LONG AS IT IS MENTIONED.

For me, in such games, a good part of the fun comes from the fact that I can imagine myself in a "real" future (or political environment, or jet, or teletubbies world...).