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 never..you 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 of..you 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 2)
on Jun 27, 2005
EIC:
Ah, another member of the Church of Escape Velocity! I thought I was alone in this world nowadays
I've played and payed for Ambrosia titles since I was begging loose change off of my mom for a candy bar at a store. They've always made some of the best Mac game titles out there. I had an old version of EV for my Mac LC3 and played it constantly. In the shareware version you can play forever, full game pretty much, you just get Captain Hector flying around telling you to register every now and then.

A few years ago I started using Macs again at work and purchased a copy to play on my spare Mac. Since then I've picked up the Windows version, and I couldn't be happier!

Another Space game I recently rediscovered from my ancient Mac days is Spaceward Ho! A great little game with even less realism than EV:N, but just a blast to play. It's made by Delta Tao software and the latest version is Mac-only right now, and since the company has been reduced to the founder and his wife taking orders over their home phone line, I doubt much Windows development is going to take place.

In terms of realism vs gameplay, I think there is a balance to be reached, but gameplay should always take the front seat. One thing I always tell myself is that the game grid/map is just a graphic representation of the universe, and not a scaled view. Think about it as a tactical map generals would place tank and troop figures on to represent batallions or divisions as they plotted out a battle. To the scale of the map, the figures were massive, but they were just representative of what was there, at a size so it was easy to quickly scan the board and get a feel for where everything was.
on Jun 27, 2005
Well, if I'd wanted realistic spacetravel, I wouldn't play a computer game, I would just travel into space.
on Jun 27, 2005
You want an open-ended and as realistic as you can get game? You should check "Frontier First Encounters", which is part of the Elite series. It is a 3D game set in space. It is as astronomically correct as you can make a game without making it unplayable. You can even land in the planets! If you spend a entire day in a planet, you will see sunrises/sunsets and everything. Prety cool.

http://www.frontier.co.uk/

You can download the game for free, but it was created in the DOS time so you may have some problems to run it under Windows.
on Jun 28, 2005
I think DS face-planeted on his keyboard
on Jun 28, 2005
hahaha sorry.. I was testing commenting and I thought it wasn't working.. I guess I was wrong.
on Jun 30, 2005
Actually its not even the scale of space that would make a realistic space empire game/TV Series unfun. Lets not forget the effects of Relativistic Time Dilation. A space ship travelling for a few years near the speed of light would only experience the passage of those years. However once they stopped (relative to a planet or something), they would realize that several thousand (or million/infinite depending on how close to the speed of light they travelled) had passed. How the hell do you model THAT in a game or TV Series??????????????????????????


Dano
on Jul 05, 2005
Dano13, it's easy as long as you invent some story... as long as there is something (who cares what) making it coherent. But most importantly, the case of the scale is especially evident for a player and might affect his gameplay while time questions might not affect many. Another kind of fun and market factors.
on Jul 05, 2005
Dano13, it's easy as long as you invent some story... as long as there is something (who cares what) making it coherent. But most importantly, the case of the scale is especially evident for a player and might affect his gameplay while time questions might not affect many. Another kind of fun and market factors. A player out of 10 000 might really be bothered by that.

In the case of scale, I'd just invent s short story like "it's the way the map shows with the kindda travel which is done with those engines". One sentence, and it's done. For time, another sentence if useful (like in tech descriptions)...
on Mar 04, 2006
bump
on Mar 05, 2006
Lets not forget the effects of Relativistic Time Dilation. A space ship travelling for a few years near the speed of light would only experience the passage of those years. However once they stopped (relative to a planet or something), they would realize that several thousand (or million/infinite depending on how close to the speed of light they travelled) had passed. How the hell do you model THAT in a game or TV Series??????????????????????????



I just finished re-reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War which has time-dilation as a critical part of the plot. Well worth picking up.
on Mar 05, 2006
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 of..you know, inferiority complex about being so empty and all.


lol, good one! Neat post!
on Mar 09, 2006
I just finished re-reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War which has time-dilation as a critical part of the plot. Well worth picking up.


I whole-heartedly agree... and the book was re-released a while ago... so chances are there are still some copies left in bookstores like Chapters and such... And if you're not a big reader, the book's only a short 200 pages...

I love the way the earth changes every time... and the little details / commentaries on society... (
"**** you, Sir!"
) not to spoil anything... VERY readable for older sci-fi...

Gotta find Forever Peace now... wondering if that's as good as The Forever War...
on Mar 09, 2006
Nice post and interesting. Thanks
on Mar 09, 2006
Too bad we can't apply this concept to wasted social spending.
on Mar 10, 2006


As far as Forever Peace is concerned don't bother -its not that good.

If your looking for a good read along the same lines as "The Forever War" read Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" or John Steakley's "Armor". If your looking for insystem space battles read Dickson's "Dorsai"

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


Another thing is its really boring. What I am finding is that in the early game I end up traversing lots of space to get from point A to point X, with the only thing thats interactive on the trip are the occasional anomolies (which can only be explored by certain ships). I've brought up some ideas in some other threads about things to add that'll spice up the Big Empty Spaces somewhat, such as Black Holes, Neutron Stars, and Rogue Planets. I think some of these wouldn't be too hard to code in, such as Black Holes (a stable wormhole that leads nowhere) and Rogue Planets (create a "Null Star" for the planet to "orbit").
Also, if anomolies were to give players more trepidation when being explored, I think that would also benefit the game's exploration phase. Say if the anomolies could "produce" ancient Precursor "Sentinel" spaceships that then go on a rampages (or even better they are able to release a computer virus which overtakes other ships, thus potentially creating a plague of robot ships!).

Just some thoughts on what to do with all that space.....


D