"Height" advantage in FreeOrion Tactical Combat

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Sapphire Wyvern
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"Height" advantage in FreeOrion Tactical Combat

#1 Post by Sapphire Wyvern »

Height advantage is one of the chief tactical considerations in the Total War series of games, amongst others. It allows for a wide range of strategic values for different parts of a combat map, etc.

Now, you might think that we couldn't possibly implement such a thing for FreeOrion Tactical Combat. "Height? In space? That's totally meaningless!"

Well, let me present a technobabble justification for a height advantage. I call it "Subspace energy level".

The idea is that starships are largely powered by something called "subspace impellers". This is, on the surface, a piece of meaningless technobabble - but when you combine it with some fysics (fictional physics) it gives us the desired effect. The fundamental concept is that each point in space has a "subspace energy level".

The fysics of subspace impeller engines mean that ships can move faster when travelling from high subspace energy locations to locations with lower subspace energy levels (down-gradient), and more slowly when travelling up gradient. (This effect only applies for tactical combat, not strategic movement, as subspace energy levels are assumed to be more-or-less flat on average over long distances - just like the Earth's surface). This is the first component of a Total War-like height advantage.

If a ship is located a place with high subspace energy levels, the ship's energy collectors are more efficient and you get bonuses to beam weapon damage, ROF, shield efficiency, etc. This is the second component of a Total War-like height advantage.

The subspace energy level could easily be shown in tactical combat through use of colour coding. I'm sure there are even better ways.

At present, I'm not convinced that we can have a sufficiently wide range of interesting terrain for space combat if we rely entirely upon real-world physics. Basically, we have: asteroid fields, dust clouds/nebulae, and (possibly) gravity wells of planets, and minefields. It doesn't seem like this would give us the same sort of tactical diversity found on a Total War map, where the critical things are height (which is omnipresent and near-constantly varying), impassable areas, and forest.

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Re: "Height" advantage in FreeOrion Tactical Comba

#2 Post by Daveybaby »

Sapphire Wyvern wrote:At present, I'm not convinced that we can have a sufficiently wide range of interesting terrain for space combat if we rely entirely upon real-world physics. Basically, we have: asteroid fields, dust clouds/nebulae, and (possibly) gravity wells of planets, and minefields. It doesn't seem like this would give us the same sort of tactical diversity found on a Total War map, where the critical things are height (which is omnipresent and near-constantly varying), impassable areas, and forest.
I think we have might have sufficient possibilities available to us without having to add subspace fields. For a start, we already have analogues of all of the TW terrain features:

Dust Clouds / Nebulae == Forest
Gravity Wells == Height
Asteroid Fields / Minefields == Unpassable (or passable at risk of damage) terrain.

Okay, so we dont really have the same complexity of heightmaps that TW has, but the key issue is that you have some areas which are more easily defensible than others

Plus we also (if we so desire) have secondary tactical objectives (i.e. objectives other than to just defeat the enemy fleet) which, in general, the total war engine lacks. Possible examples:

:arrow: Bombarding planets during space combat, to weaken an enemy by obliterating their population/infrastructure. If a system has several well developed planets, then a defender might have to decide whether to keep their forces together to maintain a numerical advantage, or split their forces to defend multiple targets.

:arrow: Similarly to the previous point, land troops during space combat to take over a planet even though you dont have the capability to defeat their fleet in space.

:arrow: Access points to starlanes present on the tactical combat map, so an objective might be to get a force across the map to another starlane, bypassing or evading the defending forces and working your way into the soft underbelly of their empire.

The above objectives might involve the use of stealth ships, decoys and diversionary task forces, very fast ships to simply out-manouvre the enemy etc. Lots of fun stuff.
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#3 Post by Aquitaine »

I like the idea of fysics quite a lot (and, for the record, it's not any adherence to real-world principles that would be behind any decision not to do this).

The only problem that has to be solved is how to properly display it. I think it is counter-intuitive to show people a big black mass (particularly when it's called 'space') and then inform them that it is really a series of space-y tunnels with height -- that is to say, even if we establish the convention that a 'higher ship' is better off than a 'lower ship,' the difficulty is in controlling the z-plane of movement such that there is always such a thing.

I'm not sure that achieving the same tactical diversity of the TW map is going to be possible with terrain, although I'd like to see where this idea goes. I think forcing 'zones' of height on a battle map could be more frustrating than it could be useful, unless we were able to do it in such a way that it was terribly obvious where you could go and you didn't resent the fact that you couldn't go anywhere else.
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Geoff the Medio
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#4 Post by Geoff the Medio »

Perhaps during battles, ships could be either flying about in free space, or could be "in orbit" of a planet / star / moon / whatever.

Ships in orbit would be clearly shown as such on the map somehow... presumably by being shown in close proximity to the orbitted object which would not be allowed unless in orbit of that object. It would be clearly established what objects can and can't be orbitted, and some mouseover feedback might be used just incase.

Telling a ship / fleet / control group to move to an orbittable object would be like ordering a marine to move to a bunker in starcraft: the ship / fleet / group would move to and then go into orbit of the object. It would remain on the map as normal though (unlike an SC marine in a bunker), and easily selectable and orderable-to-move-elsewhere as if in normal free space.

Being in orbit of something would have some as yet undetermined tactical consequences, perhaps similar to being in a city in Civilization or on a hill in Total War. It might also be required to do things like drop ground troops or bombard the planet.

There would be no other "gravity" related combat statuses to confuse the issue, though being in orbit would be just one of several types sources of bonuses/penalties. Others would include being in nebulae, asteroid belts or spatial whatnots.

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#5 Post by utilae »

I like the idea, it's sounds realistic (in a science fiction way) and could work, but there are two problems.
1) You can't see the height levels (subspace obviously isn't visible)
-We could make it so that what the player sees isn't through human eyes, but through scanners as well. So if you have proximity scanners, x ray scanners and subspace scanners, then ships and objects that are normally invisible appear on the map.
2)Controlling the z axis.
-Probably not a problem, because we'll just treat the map as an isometric one.

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#6 Post by Sapphire Wyvern »

It occurs to me that the critical thing is not the number of terrain types available in the game, but how their traits are combined.

For instance, most ground-based games feature terrain that has two main descriptive features: elevation and terrain type (eg marshland, forest, etc).

By rating terrain for both traits, you greatly multiply the sophistication of the tactical importance of various terrain configurations without greatly increasing the number of distinct terrain types. That's why SMAC does so well with basically four terrain factors (height, mineral richness, moisture, presence of forest or fungus) and a few modifiers (river, bunker, etc) vs the dozens of different terrains present in the earlier Civilization games. I haven't played Civ III or IV so I can't comment on them.

In a related topic, another possible terrain type for FO is a Hyper/Warp Doldrum. This is the space combat equivalent of a marshland or swamp: greatly slowed movement with no benefits to stealth or cover from incoming fire.

This is all rather based on a "ground combat" inspired tactical game. Historically, it's perfectly possible to create intriguing tactical combat without much obvious terrain at all - witness the various great blue-water naval battles of history. For the record, I'm very much in favour of the use of terrain in FO tactical combat; I think it will add a lot.
Last edited by Sapphire Wyvern on Thu Dec 22, 2005 7:34 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: "Height" advantage in FreeOrion Tactical Comba

#7 Post by Sapphire Wyvern »

Daveybaby wrote:Plus we also (if we so desire) have secondary tactical objectives (i.e. objectives other than to just defeat the enemy fleet) which, in general, the total war engine lacks. Possible examples:

:arrow: Bombarding planets during space combat, to weaken an enemy by obliterating their population/infrastructure. If a system has several well developed planets, then a defender might have to decide whether to keep their forces together to maintain a numerical advantage, or split their forces to defend multiple targets.

:arrow: Similarly to the previous point, land troops during space combat to take over a planet even though you dont have the capability to defeat their fleet in space.

:arrow: Access points to starlanes present on the tactical combat map, so an objective might be to get a force across the map to another starlane, bypassing or evading the defending forces and working your way into the soft underbelly of their empire.

The above objectives might involve the use of stealth ships, decoys and diversionary task forces, very fast ships to simply out-manouvre the enemy etc. Lots of fun stuff.
This is a very good point. I'd also like to say here (just because you've handed me an opportunity to flog my hobby horse a little more) how much I'd like to see decoy tactics supported by FO.

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#8 Post by Sapphire Wyvern »

Aquitaine wrote:The only problem that has to be solved is how to properly display it.
Well, I was thinking that if we had a 2d based combat system, we could have a semi-transparent "ground plane" on the battlefield with colour coding to show the subspace energy level (eg blue for high energy, red for low energy). It strikes me as possibly a bit clumsy and intrusive in terms of the battlefield "look", but it would certainly be effective.

By the way, when I think about the FreeOrion combat engine graphics, I always think of it as being a "holo-tank" with various Head Up Displays and other tactical information displayed thereon, rather than a "direct" rendering of a "naked eye" view of space. This allows us to introduce a lot of game information to the player in an in-setting immersive fashion, as opposed to simply having "magic tooltips" in the Total War style.

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#9 Post by Daveybaby »

Geoff the Medio wrote:Perhaps during battles, ships could be either flying about in free space, or could be "in orbit" of a planet / star / moon / whatever.

...etc
This is pretty much exactly what i had envisioned. There's no real need for an 'analogue' height map as in TW, just have being in orbit confer a fixed defensive advantage (with the associated potential disadvantage that you lose the initiative). This makes the UI element much more manageable also.

Possibly different planet types could give different advantages than others, e.g. gas giants have an additional cloaking effect due to electrical storms, or with certain tech levels things like hiding in the surface layers of the sun could become possible (yes, i've read 'consider phlebas' :P )
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#10 Post by utilae »

I think space has some descent terrain already, even some man made terrain:

Nebula
Radiation (can be shown as a result of sensors even though human eyes can't see it)
Heat/Cold areas
Asteroids
Space Junk (dead ships, metal, debris)
Mines
Missiles
Planets/Moons (system wide space combat)
Ships

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#11 Post by tzlaine »

I don't like the subspace hieghtfield idea at all. I like what DaveyBaby and Geoff have to say about the alternative ways of producing interesting tactical elements. Further, I don't want to have a tactical system that requires too much thinking. I think that the emphasis should be on things strategic, like supply, attrition, production, and technology, rather than things tactical. Interesting tactical play should be on the level of attacking, defending a location, or cutting someone off (from escape, a starlane, supply, etc.). Moreover, the tactical play should allow you to influence the outcomes of the strategic play, but does not need to be a rich minigame unto istelf, like Close Combat or something. Notice that Close Combat has no strategic elements, and instead focuses on being a great tactical game. Also notice that Moo2 provided a very detailed tactical system that quickly became a laborious bore as the number of ships involved increased. We should avoid that mistake, and focus where our interest and strengths lie: strategy.

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#12 Post by skdiw »

tzlaine wrote:I don't like the subspace hieghtfield idea at all. I like what DaveyBaby and Geoff have to say about the alternative ways of producing interesting tactical elements. Further, I don't want to have a tactical system that requires too much thinking. I think that the emphasis should be on things strategic, like supply, attrition, production, and technology, rather than things tactical. Interesting tactical play should be on the level of attacking, defending a location, or cutting someone off (from escape, a starlane, supply, etc.). Moreover, the tactical play should allow you to influence the outcomes of the strategic play, but does not need to be a rich minigame unto istelf, like Close Combat or something. Notice that Close Combat has no strategic elements, and instead focuses on being a great tactical game. Also notice that Moo2 provided a very detailed tactical system that quickly became a laborious bore as the number of ships involved increased. We should avoid that mistake, and focus where our interest and strengths lie: strategy.
I back that up. I think while military is an very important aspect of FO, that doesn't mean we can't or should overdesign it. I like some tactical terrain options, but only a few. The important thing is design what terrain options are available to the player and how much it influence. For example, RoN has 200% bonus for flanking, which makes it a very important to outmanevour your opponent with your calvary. Or flanking can have no effect like in Moo3, where the bonus is a mere 5%. I think what Daveybaby suggested is a good starting place.

I don't think we should worry about UI for now. We can always make up some fysics to explain why this "green patch of ions particles boost all energy in the area so shields and weaponry inside the patch is stronger." Maybe for FO, that means you put your "large artilleries there."
:mrgreen:

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#13 Post by Geoff the Medio »

tzlaine wrote:I think that the emphasis should be on things strategic, like supply, attrition, production, and technology, rather than things tactical.
The apparent emphasis on tactical combat considerations at the expense of larger strategic issues that I've seen in discussions is something I've been a bit concerned about... This recurs whether the discussion is related to what "roles" of ships should be available for use in ship design (the suggestions usually ignore out-of-combat role distinctions), or how different ship sizes should be balanced in combat (the suggestions usually assume all sizes have to be equally useful in combat, as opposed to being unbalanced in combat, but counterbalanced by differences on the map). Or at least so is my general impression...

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#14 Post by Sapphire Wyvern »

Okay, so a 'subspace height' map is considered unnecessary. That's fine by me; I think having to represent it in the UI would probably compromise the graphical look of tacticala combat too much. The real purpose of my bringing up the idea was to encourage thinking outside the usual astronomical box when looking for methods to make tactical combat interestingly playable, including "terrain". I also brought it up because many people make comparisons to Total War when describing their desired combat dynamics, but neglect the fact that FO's battlefield environment will not even closely resemble that of Total War, and this was one potential method of reducing the disparity. It seems we agree that it is neither the best method or even necessary, depending on other tactical combat design decisions.

I do wonder about these ideas that tactical combat doesn't have to be rich. If we're going to have an extremely simple tactical model, why bother at all? The macro-game will certainly run much faster if we don't have to wait for hunams to resolve battles each turn, so a boring tactical combat engine is worse than none at all. If the battles are more or less fought the same way each time (as is the case in MoO II) due to lack of any external decision factors, such as terrain, it would indeed be a very boring combat system IMO. YMMV.

It seems we need to make a more fundamental decision: Just How Important Is Tactical Combat?

Is it a "nice feature", or a critical element of the game?

As for Geoff's comments re lack of strategic consideration in tactical combat design, it's a worthy concern. Nevertheless, the chief work to be done for 0.4 is design of the Tactical combat engine. If we don't get the tactical part of it right, we needn't have bothered.

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#15 Post by Daveybaby »

Sapphire Wyvern wrote:I do wonder about these ideas that tactical combat doesn't have to be rich.
Same here, if all we are going to manage is something as simplistic and tactically empty as moo2's or moo3's combat, then i'd rather not bother at all. I dont think we necessarily need anything as complex and drawn out as total war or close combat, but it would be nice if there was some degree of thought required over and above the usual 'player with the most/biggest ships always wins'.
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