Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Challenging but not impossible..
Published on January 23, 2006 By Draginol In GalCiv Journals

The GalCiv II campaign has been a lot tougher to do than we had thought it would be.  A couple years ago, we whipped up a campaign for the GalCiv expansion pack called Altarian Prophecy and so this time around we thought it would be pretty much the same except we'd make it more dynamic where you could lose missions and go to alternative missions instead.

We were wrong.

It's all in the balancing.  First of all, the main feature of GalCiv II is the stand alone "sand box" games.  That is, the randomly generated games where the player is making up the story.  For me, as a player that's the whole point of the game -- to have a strategy game where I'm making my own mythology as I play along.  To "role play" if you will.  So one of the things we quickly changed was how long the campaign took to play.  Originally it was going to be an ungodly # of missions.  But then that puts most of the game play (and reviewer's time) put into the campaign because reviewers will feel they need to "finish" the campaign in order to review the game adequately.  But we don't want the campaign to be the main part of the game.

At the same time, we do want the campaign to be awesome.  And having done a lot of campaigns over the years, I know which types of missions I like and which ones I don't like.  Escort missions, protect the item, etc.:Yuck.  Blow up and kill things: Good.

Another thing I noticed is that whenever you have an impossible to defeat enemy that you've built up, sci-fi tends to end up with the good guys winning by some trick.  In Star Trek, best of both worlds, the unstoppable Borg were only stopped due to the Enterprise being able to put the Borg to sleep. No way. 

The Dread Lords gotta be tough. But they have to have a very obvious and reasonable weakness to exploit. One that makes sense to the player and can be represented in-game.  We came up with that weakness: They're so technologically advanced that it takes them a very long time to actually build things. 

Let's face it, if the US military conquered an ancient city, it's not like they could quickly convert ancient Rome into cranking out new MFVs overnight.  The Dread Lords suffer the same problem except they're millions of years more advanced.  So when they arrive, they have this issue -- they have a handful of ships which are deadlier than anything else out there.  But these planets -- so primitive.  Look at these humans and Arceans and what not, still use non-organic ships.  Still throwing trivial bits of energy about.  Still using their people to do labor.

I've zoomed out into strategic mode to show the area in question.  The blue ships are my fleet that I'm sending in. The red thing at the upper left is a single Dread Lord Dreadnought.  That single ship will wipe out my fleet but it'll hurt it good and there's no quick replacements for the Dread Lords.

The other issue to have them be super powerful but not unstoppable are raw numbers.  There just aren't very many of them.  So when they do finally invade a planet, there's only a a dozen of them versus 5 million troops. Obviously we had to put together a special invasion effect to convey 10 guys wiping out 5 million troops.  But each of these Dread Lords is as powerful as Sauron.  You can take them out, it's just hard.

So I spent the entire weekend tweaking the Dread Lord AI to make them tough but not unstoppable.  This is harder than one might think.

In the campaign mission, Apocalypse, it's basically everyone versus the Dread Lords.  So here's the design challenge: You want to make a mission in which IF the player doesn't do anything that the Dread Lords will win. BUT if the human plays decently the Dread Lords will lose. 

So you can picture playing this mission over..and..over...and over.. tuning it.  For some hours, the Dread Lords were too nerfed and eventually, just by hitting the turn button, the Dread Lords would be taken out by someone else.   So then I build them up and pretty soon they're conquering the universe and there's no stopping them. The human player, even me, gets wiped out.  So all kinds of tweaks were made until I finally started homing in on the Dread Lord weakness and making sure that was carried to its logical end -- they produce ships slowly and their ships are not as powerful as they might be (early on, that Dreadnought has a 200 attack -- if you get far enough in the tech tree, you can build incredibly powerful ships).    So I have to restrict how much they can put on their ships (that's where a lot of time went -- just how powerful are their ships).

Similarly, you have to decide how powerful their troops are.  You want to make it reasonably possible to invade their worlds if you get through their defenses but you still want their forces to be immensely tough when they do the invading. But not too tough mind you.  10 guys wiping out 5 million troops is fine. 10 guys wiping out 10 million becomes imbalancing.

I apologize for the blocky graphics, I have all the effects/smoothing turned-off for debug.

By 2231 in the campaign mission, which starts you out with a lot of techs (one other thing we've done a lot of work on is making is to that players get increasing amounts of tech each mission - no one wants to have to keep researching "space militarization over and over").  The idea is you "keep" some of the techs you get from the previous mission.  But even with a lot of effort, my top of the line ship is 16 missile attack and 2 armor.  Which is another thing I did to the Dread Lords.  They only get to "Adapt" ONE time.  That is, they don't get to change their ship designs like normal players.  Their infrastructure barely supports creating their advanced organic ships to begin with let alone switching from Doom Rays to Mass Drivers later on.  So they will adapt one time and that's it -- though they get to pick when.  Still my pitiful 16 missile attack is not going to stand up to a Dread Lord when they're doing 52 attack with beam. 

They already did their adaption and made useless my entire line of beam-based ships.  My "EarthForce" heavy fighters were all based on beam weapons and the Dread Lords now equip their ships with a standard 20unit shield defense making my plasma beams pointless.  So I had to start my way up the tech tree for missiles and it's been a real race.  One of the recent (i.e. last week) changes is that we made it so that each new tech you get makes the next tech a bit more expensive. Not massively mind you but later on in the game when you've built up a massive technology industry it's not right that a player could just whiz through the missile techs (like I'm trying to).  So instead of it taking 1 week to get Stinger II missile tech it's taking me 3 weeks. Not  a huge deal but it definitely puts some meat into the "You pick your weapons and defenses and you live with it." 

So you can (like I'm doing) switch to another weapon technology but you're not going to whiz through in 5 turns. It's going to take a bit of time.  We did give something in return though -- no research wastage.  When you research a tech, the excess technology production is automatically put into the next tech in the line.  So when I first started up on the really early weapons stuff, I was getting 2 or 3 techs in a single turn which was nice.

The other penalty I put on the Dread Lords is that they have a relatively low logistics ability. They can't coordinate their ships.  That way, the player isn't faced with a fleet of Dreadnoughts. It's usually a single ship or a couple ships at most.    But if you research enough logistics, you can put together a death fleet which is what I've done.

My 6 ships include 3 Battleship-level ships. Enough to kill off any Dread Lord.

Which it was. But in rare incident, the Dread Lords had two ships together and one of those Dread Lords was destroyed but the rest of my fleet was wiped out.  It was quite a battle though.  I have to say, there's something humbling about seeing not just one but three of your state of the art, large hulled, armed to the teeth designs being destroyed.

This brings me to map design. At the end of this, the player will win if they know what they're doing (and each mission has its own difficulty slider).  But part of the key was making sure the player wasn't in the action.  We have, literally "human shields".  Other civilizations who are in the way.  Namely, these guys:

By the time I'm done, they're gone.  I wish I could show you the Dread Lords battle but the PR people want me to wait and as a way of thanking IGN for their really cool coverage we're going to have the first shots be in there when we talk about the Dread Lords.  They have ridiculously cool ships that make the most of 1000 polygon models, bump mapping, and normal mapping and high definition textures plus they have the high end weapons (the weapon effects get better as you go up the tech tree).

The other "timer" is that the Drengin and Yor are on this map. They are at war with the Dread Lords too but the Dread Lords aren't as interested in them as they are you and your allies.  So while you and your friends are dealing with the Dread Lords, the Drengin/Yor alliance is slowly encroaching in.

In my mind, this one is the "toughest" mission in the campaign.  But on the other hand, it should be the toughest. This is the pay off, to match yourself to the Dread Lords.  There's no "trick" to it, it's just good old fashioned strategy gaming.

on Jan 24, 2006
Escort missions, protect the item, etc.:Yuck. Blow up and kill things: Good.

I know what you're talking about... It already made me quit playing a game because some to-be-protected item always managed to be blown up, regardless of what I did. It's a bit similar with scenarios where you have a hard time constraint: I'm always glad when I'm done with them, but often it's not much fun.

Keep them coming, the Dread Lords! *sharpens knife* Is IGN going to talk about Humans, Altarians and Dread Lords as well?
on Jan 24, 2006
I enjoy the escort and protect the item scenerios because it gives me a chance to slow down the game a bit... But that is on a RTS not a TBS. So that may be what makes the difference.
on Jan 24, 2006
If the following are true:
(1) it is you and your allies against the Dread Lords
(2) you won't later be battling your allies (after defeating the Dread Lords)
(3) the Dread Lords already have all the techs and thus won't gain tech when they capture a planet
would you not share all your technology with your allies. By coordinating your research you would be able to advance much quicker!
on Jan 24, 2006
i'm glad you can keep techs as you level up - one of my pet hates is level games where you have to start from scratch each level. are you balancing the campaign so that the player gets through the whole tech tree? that'd be nice
on Jan 25, 2006
We did give something in return though -- no research wastage. When you research a tech, the excess technology production is automatically put into the next tech in the line.

Is that walid also for a "sandbox" games? Please say yes, pretty pretty please!!!
One of my main most repetitive tasks in GC1 is balancing tech spending at the end of a turn: I open econ screen, adjust tech spending slider, click OK, open tech screen, check the time when new tech will be avalable, open econ screen, adjust tech slider, close, open tech screen... All that to avoid wasting money for the last few tech points needed to get that tech in the next turn. If that money carries on into the next tech level, there's nothing lost, and I don't need to do that balancing just about every turn And getting that next tech level in the same turn as the previous one is

Great work! I really appreciate those insights in your work you're giving us. They make me even more confident the game I'll buy will be really great.
BR, Iztok
on Jan 26, 2006
Yes, no research wastage regardless of the mode.
on Jan 28, 2006
Idea: Before each scenario of the campaign you can pick something to help you through it.. 1) Extra colonizer at start or 2) extra 5000 bc or 3) flagship sensors are upgraded. Im sure we can all come up with some more. Also you can tie in the bonus to the scenario.

Just a thought.