UNIVERSE IN A
Tips and Tricks to make a Three-Dee Space game!
As a respected member of the Atari scene community, we get some strange
requests for help from time to time. Take the following which recently
turned up in our email postbag...
"Dear Alive! agony Aunt, I've got a friend who is thinking of making a game.
Not just any old game, but a 3-D epic along the lines of the classic space
trader 'Elite'. Now I've tried to put him off the idea, but he is hooked and
looking for suggestions on how to improve the basic concept. do you have any
suggestions that might help?"
Now that set us thinking. The possibilities are limitless, you could go off
in any direction you want with this, and get hopelessly lost in the process.
Maybe we should start by thinking of the basics, and what kind of astro
physics, space travel and social infrastructure you want to base your game
A number of options are available...
1. As it is, with current physics.
This scenario takes a game universe based on the current levels and
limitations of current real-world physics. It would be set sometime within
the next 200-500 years in the future. We are assuming that efficient space
travel can be achieved up to light speed, solar system colonisation, and
interstellar colonisation are do-able. As a typical star system is 4-10
light years travel, colonisation would be a long-term process, with a probe
making two way trip over a decade, and with a (huge) one-way colony ship to
Trade between star systems under those constraints would be unlikely. Trade
within Solar Systems would be expected though. Colonies intersystem would
expect to evolve their own distinct self-identities. In other words, a
duplication of current politics with its associated national rivalries,
mutual interests and loathing etc. Over time, the basic human physiology
would evolve and mutate to take particular local conditions into account.
For example, light and heavy gravity locations, maybe even ultra-low gravity
and freefall, ie, a race of entirely space-based people. This would be one
way of making the 'Star Trek' scenario for intelligent life come true, as
they basically dress up humans with human-like characteristics in rubber
suits, and exaggerate particular attributes of humanity to get "alien"
As Interstellar instant communications are not available, star systems are
not in touch with each other in any meaningful 'realtime' sense. So no trade
is possible. Where contact could be feasible, would be with one stellar
system, the last of a doomed race, when their star went nova, turning up
armed to the teeth to take over yours! Anther possible enemy could be a
self-evolving nanobot style machine intelligence, that started off as human
origin, but went wild from there, consuming every resource possible to
duplicate themselves, and their machines of war. Sort of a mini-Borg!
Ship sizes would tend to be large to very large on the whole, unless you are
talking local travel, which would be something like current space shuttle
size. Manouvering physics could be ultra-realistic, unless you want to bring
in an easier arcade element which would feel something like normal
Interaction could include space stations, classic elite style, asteroids
(also hollowed out like Starglider 2!), planetary surfaces, spaceports, some
city models? The basic trading, piracy, interplanetary cold war scenario
could be livened up by an interstellar invasion as described above.
2. The 'Classic Elite' style universe.
The original Elite was based around a scenario of easy interstellar travel,
(hyperspace), an active interstellar trade cycle, with enough communication
between star systems to make it possible. Central authority, as in the
classic sci-fi cliche 'Galactic Empire' sense is very weak or non-existent.
Law-enforcement only operates at a very local level, and there is a high
level of piracy. This game engine came about due to the very limited
capacities of 8-bit machines, which could not contain a more complex game
model. The game creators also came up with an explanation that it was a
'Thatcherite universe', (Margaret Thatcher) a very 1980's viewpoint, where
the individual was out to get all they could for themselves, and f*ck the
Ship sizes tended to stay small, this made evolutionary sense too. They
would be fast, hard to catch and small targets for the bad guys lasers. The
trade cycle would consist of a lot of short-term hopefuls in their Cobra Mk
3's, the vast majority blown out of existence by various hazards, many of
them man-made! A select few would survive and prosper, to be referred to in
hushed tones, as "Elite"!
There were a couple of wildcard elements to spice up the gameplay which
could get repetitive in the end. These were 1. The occasionally appearing,
but very devastating Thargoid aliens, and 2. The chance to boost your Elite
rating with special missions.
3. The 'Elite Frontier' style universe.
With the increase in memory and CPU power in the next generation of
computers, Frontier grew in scale accordingly. The later game assumed a much
more in-depth and complex game model than its illustrious predecessor. This
was also a lot closer to conventional Sci-Fi scenario's, as elements like
larger ship sizes, and power politics from interstellar empires came back
in. Again, this universe assumes easy forms of interstellar travel, and good
instant, or near-instant communications between star systems.
The 'old' elite world was still very much there though. This universe would
divide into two basic parts, the settled and pacified inner worlds of the
various empires ('Federation' and 'Empire'), and the outer worlds or
'frontier', where central control was still weak. In the outer worlds, the
old style of Elite would still hold sway, with lots of piracy, small ship
combat, and survival skills were hard earned. The inner worlds would have
enough law enforcement to make dull but routine trade movements possible.
Trade would be less profitable, but the risks are a lot lower. Yes, I am
thinking Sol to Barnards Star and back again too!
I would assume that such travel would include elements such as tourism, at
least vast space-liners for the wealthy and priviledged, maybe some sort of
mass tourism? In such a game scenario, you can add politically inspired
terrorist attacks against softer targets, rescue missions, or intelligence
gathering and prevention of such attacks, if you are able to use a very
complex game model?
Frontier had ultra-realistic star maps, and good solar system and planetary
models added to the realism as well. Also there was the chance to upgrade
and even change existing ships to a far greater degree than before, although
the few very large ships were there only for cosmetic reasons, you couldn't
fly them yourself unfortunately;-)
The Thargoids were removed, but the special missions were enhanced, with the
chance to work for one cold-war faction or another, and build up military
ranking if you desired. Criminality was more risky, as the policing style in
Frontier was definitely more proactive than before!
3. The 'Star-Trek' universe.
Out of our game worlds, this would be the oddest one out. This goes against
the Elite-style models discussed above in various ways.
The Star-Trek universe, most visibly in the original series and the Next
Generation seemed to downplay trade and commerce related interactions. The
idealism in the Next Generation in particular, bordered on hippy crap levels
in the early days. The idea of 'Empire' seems to be most dominant here,
although some frontier world style activity leaked back in with the later
The acquisitive gene seems to have been ruthlessly scrubbed out as well,
apart from the comic-relief Ferengi. Future Earth and the Federation enjoy
so much material prosperity, they don't have to really fight or bargain to
get it anymore. All interstellar activity, in huge and heavily-armed
starships is done for high-minded moral and peaceful motives!
The ship sizes almost always seem to be 'large', but strangely, the rival
factions are broadly equal in size and capability. The question of how
intelligent life evolved is mostly risible too, as the majority of regular
protagonists seem to be humanoid based, with their distinguishing
characteristics used to amplify an extreme part of the human condition.
Vulcans cold and logical, Klingons fierce and proud, Betazoids are very
'new-age', Ferengi are ultra-capitalists. The humans are good 'all-
rounders' with an edge on the rest. You do occasionally run into 'things'
which form the basis of an episode, but an intelligent particle field is
never seen to contribute to a long-running show, on a regular basis!
And don't get me started on the Teleporter. It is the most unfeasible bit of
kit in the show. The energy requirements would rip the USS Enterprise in
half, and the technology involved in converting matter to energy and back
again, could have tons of useful applications long before they decided to
squirt people through it. You have a 'matter photocopier' there, which would
allow for unlimited material resources, providing you had access to a decent
energy source, Current Starship
Enterprise broken beyond repair? Well just take the blueprints, and hook up
your matter transpor-erm duplicator to the nearest star, et voila, a perfect
copy! The only time we seem to see this happen is with the drinks
dispensers, and later on, the Holodeck. Why opt for "Earl Grey, hot" when
you could be living gods with that sort of tech level!
Second thing, I'm waiting for the episode where a whole bunch of small and
manouverable ships, launched from a 'carrier' rapidly trash the lumbering
battlewagons. It happened on earth, and it is only a matter of time before
someone realises that small can be beautiful! It is fun to watch, but I
wonder why the makers of Star Trek, in all its various forms, insist of re-
fighting the battle of Trafalgar or Jutland every time?
There is no point doing a game based on the Star-Trek universe, mainly
because people have swallowed its assumptions whole and that annoys me! Plus
it has been done several times already.
4. The 'Star Wars' universe.
This isn't feasible at all, except as a pure arcade game. Lots of eye-candy,
blow it all up. Ideal if you have a bleeding edge PeeCee and graphics card,
but it would probably overwhelm anything else.
They have the most extreme variations in ship size, from Death Star, to
things which are about as big as a four wheel drive offroader, but are
somehow able to cross vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye.
Also the dimensions seem to bend to where the plot wants it, as their
universe is vast, but it seems to take no time at all to get somewhere?
Also Star Wars has a strangely stilted and almost medieval viewpoint, no
sense of slick 'modernity' in politics and culture. Very little of that on
view, apart from the many gorgeous backdrops that George Lucas excels in.
Where they do get it right, is the extreme diversity and forms of
intelligent life. Hence the need for a protocol droid. On the downside, this
makes things like Jar-Jar Binks possible too! But I would have thought that
there would be two or three dominant 'international' forms of language used
in the better established trading zones.
They do also have an active and busy trading network with a strong illegal
or semi-legal element, Han Solo was probably the (subconscious?) model for
the original Elite. Many of the tenser situations in that game are an
action-replay from his finer moments! The small fast ship and fast living
model as been faithfully handed down over the years to countless would-be
imitators. And of course, Phantom Menace is based on a trade dispute, which
is how a lot of wars have started on Earth historically.
There are elements I would take from it to incorporate in a game universe,
but I wouldn't buy the Star Wars way of doing things wholesale!
5. Other useful sources of inspiration. (Computer Games section.)
'Captain Blood' - Addressed the problem of interstellar communication
between totally alien species, create a universal 'symbolic' language,
communicate through that!
'Legends of Valour' - Did the interactive universe thing for first person
perspective. Going beyond the scope of this project, but if someone had
enough time to add wandering around space stations or planetary surfaces on
a first person perspective basis, this game could be useful for ideas?
'Federation of Free Traders' (F.O.F.T.) - Great idea, what a disappointment
in the implementation! Felt well cheated out of thirty-odd quid, I did, and
that is speaking as a hardened 'Elite' player. (Look at that to see where
things can go wrong!)
'Great Space Race' - Early 8-bit hype, the actual game was very ropey
quality. The idea of a "Great Space Race" to be the first home with a
valuable cargo is cool, and could be added to any ingame missions.
6. To Conclude..
Auntie Maggie would personally suggest that the Frontier model is probably
the best one to use for a current game project, with customisation or
enhancements from the other parts as you wish.
NEXT TIME - Ships, weapons and tactics!
CiH, for Alive! Mag,Feb '04.